Philippe Girard’s Haiti: The Tumultuous History – From Pearl of the Caribbean to Broken Nation is easily the best of the most recent popular histories of Haiti in the English language.
Although it is a shorter book, Girard’s concise treatment of Haiti’s history was much more informative than Laurent Dubois’ whitewashing in Haiti: The Aftershocks of History. Every country in the world is the product of the “aftershocks of history,” but that doesn’t explain the differences that exist between nations.
To his credit, Philippe Girard understands why an English-speaking audience would search for a book about the history of Haiti in the first place. It has a lot to do with the old joke that Haiti is the only nation in the Americas that has a last name, “the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.”
Girard, who was born in Guadeloupe in the eastern Caribbean, doesn’t have much patience for the usual explanations. In the 21st century, the Caribbean is the richest region in the developing world. Every other country in the region shares with Haiti the same history of slavery, white supremacy, and colonialism. No other country in the Caribbean, particularly its neighbor, the Dominican Republic, is nearly as poor as Haiti.
In light of all this, Girard has a straightforward answer for his audience: the three main causes of Haiti’s poverty and relative decline are corruption, instability, and xenophobia. Throughout the book, Girard makes a very compelling case for this argument, which shines most brightly in his coverage of the Jean-Bertrand Aristide era (1988-2004). In fact, over half of the book is devoted to Haiti since the rise of Aristide.
In my view, the most valuable part of this book is Girard’s treatment of the demise of the plantation complex after independence:
“Pétion’s 1809 land distribution decrees, extended to the northern part with the reunification of 1820, changed Haiti more than all the revolutions and civil wars of the nineteenth century. From the Spanish colonial days until 1809, agriculture had been dominated by large estates; from that point until today, small-scale farming became the norm (a feeble attempt by Boyer in 1826 to reinstate fermage fell victim to universal opposition). Considering that the vast majority of Haitians, then and today, were peasants, the change was nothing short of revolutionary. Sugar exports ceased altogether for one century, a startling development in a country that was the world’s largest exporter of tropical foodstuffs in the 1780s. Coffee, more suited to small-scale agriculture, lingered on.
Subsistence crops now dominated, but even these eventually proved insufficient. In 1804, Haiti’s population was probably inferior to three hundred thousand, and there was more than enough land to feed anyone. As the years went by, however, the substantial plots of the Pétion era were subdivided between heirs, who then had to feed their family on ever dwindling parcels. In the U.S. environment, individual ownership of farmland led to a sense of personal responsibility and increased production; but the system was only sustainable during the rapid population growth of the nineteenth century because the supply of arable land was virtually inexhaustible. In Haiti’s mountainous terrain, clearing new land only brought under cultivation steep fields who soil was quickly depleted by water erosion. Today, the population stands at eight million, leaving less than half an acre of arable land per person in rural areas. Forests are a distant memory. By dint of such agricultural choices, Haitians had chosen to be happy and poor. The latter proved more enduring than the former.” (Philippe Girard, Haiti: The Tumultuous History – From Pearl of the Caribbean to Broken Nation, pp.67-68)
What is Haiti today?
It is an extremely poor and overpopulated country, the only country in the Caribbean with an economy based on subsistence agriculture, where the land has been redistributed, fragmented, and exhausted beyond recognition since colonial times.
Why didn’t this happen elsewhere in the Caribbean? In places like Barbados or the Leeward Islands, slavery was abolished, but white supremacy and colonialism endured until the mid-twentieth century. In Barbados, the blacks were still working on sugar plantations like their ancestors in the 1960s. Similarly, the blacks were still picking cotton in the American South until the 1950s.
In these smaller islands, the land generally remained consolidated and in the hands of the Whites in large estates, who could command labor by importing Asian indentured servants or through hiring freedmen with wage labor because there was no land redistribution to the ex-slaves along the lines of what had happened in Haiti. In Jamaica, a larger island with lots of uncultivated land like Haiti, there was a very similar plunge into an overpopulated peasantry engaged in subsistence agriculture.
Unlike the Dominican Republic, Haiti never broke away from that model:
“Haitians continued to trade crops for manufactured products, as if the mercantilist exclusif had never been abolished and Colbert still served as finance minister of the French colonial empire. This focus on low-margin foodstuffs, even more than misguided agricultural policies, explains why Haiti today is a nation of peasants eking out meager living off a few acres of bare hillsides.” (Girard, p.68)
The US occupation of Haiti (1915-1934) was another missed opportunity to make a clean break with the past:
“U.S. educational policies were another case in point. U.S. authorities complained that Haitian schools, inspired by the nineteenth century French lycées, were elitist institutions that offered a small minority of Haitians a curriculum heavily biased toward the liberal arts and the classics. Haiti thus produced hundreds of lawyers who spoke Latin and could quote Racine and Corneille but did not know how to repair a steam engine. A broader-based, more technical educational system, Americans rightly concluded, would have been more likely to spark an industrial revolution in Haiti.” (Girard, p.91.)
The Americans had the right answer to most of the problems that were plaguing Haiti: sort out Haiti’s chaotic finances and pay off the national debt (accomplished by 1947), eliminate corruption by removing the parasitic native political class from power, pacify the country to foster commerce, rebuild and invest in Haiti’s infrastructure, diversify agriculture, create a broader based educational system, encourage foreign investment, revive the export based plantation economy, etc.
Some of these policies are reminiscent of what happened to Florida after the War Between the States. The Yankees came to Florida and built their roads and railroads, helped to diversify the agricultural economy (citrus and winter vegetables), established land grant agricultural colleges, and developed new industries like tourism and phosphate mining that greatly invigorated Florida’s “New South” economy. Although Floridians emphatically rejected Yankee racial ideas during Reconstruction, the “New South” mindset eagerly courted Northern capital and economic development.
In Haiti, these policies were an affront to the sensitive feelings of Haitians and provoked a fierce xenophobic nationalist backlash. Led by Charlemagne Péralte, Haitians waged a guerrilla war against the US occupation over the use of slave-like corvée labor to build roads and bridges. Chanting “down with the railroad,” they attacked the building of a US company that was building a railroad in between Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haïtien. The scions of the mulatto elite also resented the US imposed educational system that emphasized agricultural and technical training.
Toward the end of the book, Philippe Girard tours Jacmel on the beautiful southern coast of Haiti, which aside from Haitians has all the natural qualities which should make it a prime destination in the Caribbean for foreign tourists:
“Rather, it seemed clear to me that Jacmel’s inability to tap into the tourist bonanza was the result of profound political and structural problems – not just bad luck, the colonial legacy, or racist bias on the part of some foreign tourists. Jacmel’s gingerbread houses were lovely, but its roads were potholed messes lined with uncollected garbage. The main river bordering the town doubled as a public latrine and laundry-washing spot. The brackish, waste-filled water reached the beach unfiltered. But this was not all: the lovely fine sand was buried under a thick layer of trash, complete with a rusty cargo ship that had somehow ended its life on the town’s waterfront. Broken glass, begging children, and the survivors of the great 1982 swine massacre that lived off the beach’s refuse added a final touch sure to scare away any tourist who had ventured so far.” (Girard, p.219)
The only negative thing that I can say about this book is that Girard chose to include a few of the usual disingenuous fig leaves to ward off accusations of “racism.”
It’s true that some Haitians and sub-Saharan Africans are often successful in the Europe, Canada, and United States: anyone with any brains or talent who has the chance to do so tries his hardest to get out of there and never go back. This often takes the form of foreign students who choose to stay in college to earn multiple degrees precisely in order to avoid having to return to their own countries.
Undoubtedly, there are thousands of Haitians who are held down and and who are unable to realize their full potential solely because of the circumstances of their environment. If Haiti wasn’t so mismanaged by its inept rulers, there’s no reason to believe it couldn’t be at least as prosperous as Barbados. In sub-Saharan Africa, the divergence between diamond rich Sierra Leone and Botswana comes to mind.
In the final analysis, corruption, instability, and xenophobia are the hallmarks of African countries everywhere: to name just a few, Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe, the Democratic Republic of Congo under Mobutu Sese Seko, Uganda under Idi Amin, or Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising.
We shouldn’t exaggerate the importance of “instability” to Haiti’s underdevelopment. Detroit, Michigan has always had a stable black-run government, but xenophobia, corruption, and violence have produced similar results there.