In racialist circles, Jared Diamond is known for his bestselling 1999 book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies which attempts to explain the rise of Europe and the stagnation of black Africa through environmental determinism.
Until recently, I had never bothered to crack open Diamond’s 2005 book, Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail or Succeed. I checked out this book from the library because I wanted to read the chapter about Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Needless to say, it was not what I was expecting in light of my experience with Guns, Germs, and Steel. Instead of making a fresh disingenuous argument that Haiti had failed for environmental reasons, Diamond makes an intelligent argument that Haitians chose to destroy their environment while the Dominican Republic chose a more sustainable course.
Everyone here should be familiar by now with this infamous image of the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic:
This key passage in Collapse shows that Diamond has read deep into the economic history of Haiti and has arrived at the right conclusion:
“Not surprisingly, French Hispanolia’s former slaves who renamed their country Haiti (the original Taino Indian name for the island), killed many of Haiti’s whites, destroyed the plantations and their infrastructure to make it impossible to rebuild the plantation slave system, and divided the plantations into small family farms. While that was what the former slaves wanted for themselves as individuals, it proved in the long run disastrous for Haiti’s agricultural productivity, exports, and economy when the farmers received little help from subsequent Haitian governments in their efforts to develop cash crops. Haiti also lost human resources with the killing of much of its white population and the emigration of the remainder.” (Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail or Succeed, p.335)
The only quibble that I have here is that the plantation complex, or at least a significant part of it, survived the wars of the Haitian Revolution. Haiti’s earliest rulers – Toussaint L’ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Henri Christophe, Alexandre Pétion, and Jean-Pierre Boyer – all tried and failed to revive it.
The death blow didn’t come until Alexandre Pétion’s 1809 land redistribution in the southern Republic of Haiti. In 1809, Haiti was an underpopulated country with an abundance of land. By allowing the former slaves to escape from the plantations and squat or purchase their own small plots, Pétion set in motion the fragmentation of the plantations and the irreversible avalanche that eventually transformed Haiti into a society of peasants engaged in primitive subsistence agriculture.
Ever hear the lament that US blacks never got their 40 acres and a mule after the abolition of slavery? In the early nineteenth century, Haitians could buy so much cheap prime agricultural land that they didn’t know what to do with it.
More than any other event in Haitian history, it was the 1809 land redistribution that set in motion the Malthusian catastrophe. Because of the “legacy of freedom,” the land became more fragmented into small plots and more exhausted by primitive agricultural techniques than anywhere else in the Caribbean or Latin America. It is no exaggeration to say that Haitians were living out the “Haitian Dream.”
Until the last quarter of the nineteenth century (1875 to 1900), Haitians were able to get along tolerably well in their peasant society. Unlike the Dominicans, they abjured export based capital intensive agriculture, and chose to be poor, idle, and happy. As the population grew while the quality and availability of land declined though, this way of life ran into trouble and became unsustainable.
See, Haiti is not like the United States. There was no equivalent of the Mississippi Valley or the American West to serve as a nearly inexhaustible outlet for yeoman farmers. The only place left for Haitian peasants to go to preserve their lifestyle was to expand up the mountains (which cover 3/4ths of the country) where they chopped down their coffee trees to grow food crops on ever more marginal plots of land.
In order to produce energy for cooking and heat, Haitian peasants have traditionally chopped down trees to produce charcoal. Like the United States, the Dominicans solved this problem by joining the 20th century through importing natural gas and building hydroelectric dams to produce electricity:
“Because the Dominican Republic retained much forest cover and began to industrialize, the Trujillo regime initially planned, and the regimes of Balaguer and subsequent presidents constructed, dams to generate electricity. Balaguer launched a crash program to spare forest use for fuel by instead importing propane and liquefied natural gas. But Haiti’s poverty forced its people to remain dependent on forest-derived charcoal from fuel, thereby accelerating the destruction of its last remaining forests.” (Diamond, p.341)
Jared Diamond is careful to denounce Rafael “El Jefe” Trujillo and Joaquín Balaguer as “evil dictators,” but he can’t help but observe that it was their policies, unlike the Duvaliers, especially the aggressive environmentalism of Balaguer, which was responsible for the economic divergence of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. In fact, he considers the possibility that Balaguer’s anti-Haitian racism might have inspired his efforts to conserve the environment on the Dominican side of Hispanolia.
In his bestselling book “The Upside Down Island,” President Joaquín Balaguer makes a revealing comment:
“… the negro, abandoned to his instincts, and without the restraint on reproduction that a relatively high level of living imposes on all countries, multiplies himself with a speed similar to that of vegetable species.” (Balaguer. The Upside Down Island, p. 36)
Surely, the mystery of why there are so many Dominican environmentalists has a lot to do with living side by side with the example set by Haitians.
Throughout its history, the Dominican Republic has been reflexively anti-Haitian: Haiti rejected plantation agriculture, the Dominican Republic embraced it; Haiti rejected European capital and immigrants, the Dominican Republic embraced both; Haitians identify with Africa, the Dominicans identify with Europe; the Haitians destroyed their environment, the Dominicans conserved their own.
In Collapse, Jared Diamond unconsciously echoes the observations of nineteenth and early twentieth century racialists like Hesketh Prichard by invoking the “lack of capacity” of Haitians to administer foreign aid effectively:
“If one looks instead to the outside world to help through governmental foreign aid, NGO initiatives, or private efforts, Haiti even lacks the capacity to utilize outside assistance effectively. For instance, the USAID program has put money into Haiti at seven times the rate at which it has put money into the Dominican Republic, but the results in Haiti have still been much more meager, because of the country’s deficiency in people and organizations of its own that could utilize the aid.” (Diamond, p.354)
The phrase “lack of capacity” is the common thread that runs through Haitian history.
In 2014, Haiti “lacks the capacity” to administer foreign aid, respond to natural disasters, repel foreign invaders, govern itself, feed itself, develop its own resources, educate its own citizens, and maintain even a rudimentary public infrastructure – the history of the ‘Black Republic’ since independence is one long retrograde motion from the pinnacle of wealth and civilization into a savage ‘Lord of the Flies’ existence.
Far from the legend of a desire to exploit the fabulous riches of Haiti, US foreign policy toward the ‘Black Republic’ since the time of Theodore Roosevelt has been based on the threat to US interests posed by its chronic poverty, weakness, and instability combined with its geographic proximity to the United States.
Haiti is a failed state. Unlike the Dominican Republic, it collapsed because of the actions of Haitians. Even Jared Diamond agrees.