Editor’s Note: I’m compiling a list of the usual explanations for Haiti’s failure along with an explanation why each doesn’t make sense.
The blows of fate which the independent empire of Haiti has suffered haven’t been much different from the experiences of other nations which have proven much more resilient.
Haiti was the victim of a cruel war of independence – Haiti wasn’t the only country that fought a costly war of independence from France.
Approximately 350,000 Algerians died in the Algerian War of Independence. Anywhere from 175,000 to 500,000 Vietnamese died in the First Indochina War – where Vietnam fought to expel the French – and 950,000 more Viet Cong died in the Vietnam War before the French and Americans gave up on trying to rule Vietnam.
While it is true that King George III officially recognized the independence of the “United States” in 1783, it is also true that Great Britain and the United States fought again in the War of 1812 and remained enemies through most of the 19th century while Haiti and France never again exchanged blows.
Haiti was the victim of slavery, white supremacy, and colonialism – Maybe so.
There’s no denying that the French brought in around 1 million slaves to Haiti, or that there was a racial caste system in colonial Saint-Domingue, or that this system thrived in Haiti for almost a century from 1697 to 1791.
At the same time, a clear majority of the slaves who revolted in the Haitian Revolution – somewhere around 333,000 – were recent arrivals who had been born in Africa. Unlike American blacks, Haitians were unaccustomed to slavery and were the first country in the Western hemisphere to succeed in shaking it off in 1791.
Slavery lasted much longer everywhere else in the Caribbean: it wasn’t abolished in the rest of the French Caribbean (Martinique, Guadeloupe, French Guiana until 1848), the British Caribbean (1834 to 1838), the Spanish Caribbean (Cuba and Puerto Rico in 1886 and 1873), or the Dutch Caribbean (1863) for several more generations.
European colonialism and white supremacy were much more enduring everywhere else in the Caribbean: the Dominican Republic, for example, solicited several nations including Spain and the United States to be recolonized; Cuba didn’t even become a quasi-independent country until 1902; Guadeloupe and Martinique remained a part of the French Empire and were later incorporated into France itself.
If anything is true, the imprint of slavery, white supremacy, and colonialism is weaker in Haiti than anywhere else in the Caribbean, while the legacy of freedom and independence is much stronger.
Haiti’s independence wasn’t recognized by foreign countries – Haiti’s independence was officially recognized by France in 1825 and other European powers around the 1820s and 1830s. The United States was the last major power to diplomatically recognize Haiti in 1862. The Vatican didn’t officially recognize the Haitian government until 1860.
In contrast, the government of Taiwan (Republic of China) still isn’t diplomatically recognized by most countries in the world even today. This is especially amusing because Haiti’s boosters like Bill Clinton have long said that Haiti has the potential to become “the Taiwan of the Caribbean.”
Lack of official diplomatic recognition hasn’t prevented Taiwan from creating the 20th largest economy in the world.
Foreign countries refused to trade with Haiti – Even though the United States refused to recognize the Haitian government until 1862, Americans were trading with Haiti before it even officially gained its independence. The same was true of the British after their negotiated withdrawal from Saint-Domingue in 1798.
The US sold Toussaint L’ouverture the guns which were used to win the Haitian Revolution. In the Early Republic, Haiti was one of America’s largest trading partners, and by the 1820s a third of the coffee consumed in the United States was imported from Haiti. While the US government prohibited trade with Haiti in 1806, the law was repealed in less than three years and was never effective.
While the sugar industry had collapsed in Haiti by the early 1820s, Haiti continued to export other commodities – coffee, cacao, cotton, and especially mahogany and logwood – and in some cases exceeded the historic peak level of production of these commodities set in colonial Saint-Domingue.
If Haiti could export so much coffee and logwood to foreign countries, why couldn’t Haitians export raw and refined sugar? The answer is that sugarcane cultivation is much more labor and capital intensive and Haitian peasants simply preferred to harvest wild coffee beans and cut timber for export.
In cotton and sugar, Haitian free labor couldn’t compete with slave labor produced commodities in the US and Cuba. In coffee, Haiti enjoyed a lot of success until overproduction in Brazil in the 1890s caused the world price of coffee to plummet. In logwood, Haiti was also successful in harvesting timber until it ran up against the natural limits imposed by deforestation.
Haiti was born at an inopportune time – The chaos in Western Europe caused by the Napoleonic Wars – such as Napoleon’s Continental Blockade – equally affected the commerce of the United States. In 1807, President Thomas Jefferson took the extraordinary step of banning all trade with Europe, which had the long term effect of stimulating domestic manufacturing in New England.
Haiti was saddled with a “double debt” by France – As we have already seen, Haiti paid off the infamous “double debt” in 1883. The cycle of debt in Haiti continued long after that, but that was due to new loans which were taken out by the Haitian government which had nothing to do with the “indemnity.”
The “double debt” was originally set at 150 million francs. It was later renegotiated down to 60 million francs in 1838 – with interest, the French government acknowledges that Haiti paid off a debt of 90 million francs.
In 1789, colonial Saint-Domingue’s exports were worth 205 million francs. By 1824, Haiti’s sugar industry was on the verge of collapse (having declined from 93 million pounds to 2.5 million pounds), and the value of independent Haiti’s exports had fallen to 22 million francs.
If independent Haiti had succeeded in rebuilding its plantation economy, it could have easily paid off the so-called “double debt,” which is why Haiti’s rulers (cognizant of colonial Saint-Domingue’s economic success) agreed to assume the debt in exchange for diplomatic recognition in the first place.
In the aftermath of the First World War, the Central Powers were saddled with a war debt by the Allies. Germany was forced to assume an enormous war debt and has spent billions of dollars alone on compensating Jews for the Holocaust. Even Bulgaria paid out 2.25 billion gold francs to the Entente.
Haiti has suffered from political instability – Haiti’s more intelligent defenders have made the fair point that, politically speaking, Haiti wasn’t much more turbulent than France in the 19th century in the number of its constitutions, rulers, and changes in its form of government.
Taking this analogy further, one can only speculate as to why Haiti in the 19th century didn’t produce nearly as many significant figures as France in the arts, science, and technology, such as those listed in Charles Murray’s book, Human Accomplishment. Where is the Haitian version of Louis Pasteur?
Haiti’s genius hasn’t been stifled by civil strife.
Haiti has been the victim of natural disasters – In 2004, 230,000 people in Southeast Asia were killed by the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami, which was a 9.1 earthquake on the Richter Scale. As in Haiti in 2010, the rest of the world – including the usual NGOs – scrambled to the rescue.
In 2011, Japan was struck by a 9.0 earthquake, a tsunami, and the Fukushima nuclear disaster. In the Caribbean region, Costa Rica was struck by a 7.6 magnitude earthquake in 2012. Haiti’s experience with devastating earthquakes is dwarfed by Chile which is hit by much more powerful earthquakes every few years.
The 2010 earthquake that killed over 220,000 people in Haiti was only a 7.0 – a mere tremor compared to the 9.5 earthquake which struck Chile in 1960, the largest earthquake in recorded history, which only killed 1,655 people.
Haiti was the victim of American imperialism – From 1915 to 1934, the United States occupied Haiti.
It’s a mistake though to look at the American occupation of Haiti in isolation from the spread of US influence elsewhere across the region. The United States occupied Cuba and Puerto Rico after the Spanish-American War (1898) and bought the US Virgin Islands from Denmark in 1917.
Cuba was essentially an American protectorate until 1934 and an economic colony until the Cuban Revolution (1953-1959). Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands are still US territories to this day. The US engineered the creation of Panama in 1903 and occupied the Dominican Republic from 1916 to 1924.
In the early twentieth century, the US repeatedly intervened in its “banana republic,” Honduras, and Nicaragua was occupied from 1912 to 1933. The Wilson administration sent the US Army into Mexico during the Mexican Revolution. In the Pacific, the US occupied the Philippines from 1898 to 1946.
US influence has been several orders of magnitude greater in Puerto Rico than it ever was in Haiti. Over half of Puerto Ricans now live on the US mainland. In spite of this, Puerto Rico is nowhere near as bad off today as Haiti.