As grim accounts of the earthquake in Haiti came in, the accounts in U.S.-controlled state media all carried the same descriptive sentence: “Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere…”
Gee, I wonder how that happened?
You’d think Haiti would be loaded. After all, it made a lot of people rich.
How did Haiti get so poor? Despite a century of American colonialism, occupation, and propping up corrupt dictators? Even though the CIA staged coups d’état against every democratically elected president they ever had?
It’s an important question. An earthquake isn’t just an earthquake. The same 7.0 tremor hitting San Francisco wouldn’t kill nearly as many people as in Port-au-Prince.
“Looking at the pictures, essentially it looks as if (the buildings are of) breezeblock or cinderblock construction, and what you need in an earthquake zone is metal bars that connect the blocks so that they stay together when they get shaken,” notes Sandy Steacey, director of the Environmental Science Research Institute at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland. “In a wealthy country with good seismic building codes that are enforced, you would have some damage, but not very much.”
When a pile of cinderblocks falls on you, your odds of survival are long. Even if you miraculously survive, a poor country like Haiti doesn’t have the equipment, communications infrastructure or emergency service personnel to pull you out of the rubble in time. And if your neighbors get you out, there’s no ambulance to take you to the hospital—or doctor to treat you once you get there.
Earthquakes are random events. How many people they kill is predetermined. In Haiti this week, don’t blame tectonic plates. Ninety-nine percent of the death toll is attributable to poverty.
So the question is relevant. How’d Haiti become so poor?
The story begins in 1910, when a U.S. State Department-National City Bank of New York (now called Citibank) consortium bought the Banque National d’Haïti—Haiti’s only commercial bank and its national treasury—in effect transferring Haiti’s debts to the Americans. Five years later, President Woodrow Wilson ordered troops to occupy the country in order to keep tabs on “our” investment.
From 1915 to 1934, the U.S. Marines imposed harsh military occupation, murdered Haitians patriots and diverted 40 percent of Haiti’s gross domestic product to U.S. bankers. Haitians were banned from government jobs. Ambitious Haitians were shunted into the puppet military, setting the stage for a half-century of U.S.-backed military dictatorship.
The U.S. kept control of Haiti’s finances until 1947.
Still—why should Haitians complain? Sure, we stole 40 percent of Haiti’s national wealth for 32 years. But we let them keep 60 percent.
Despite having been bled dry by American bankers and generals, civil disorder prevailed until 1957, when the CIA installed President-for-Life François “Papa Doc” Duvalier. Duvalier’s brutal Tonton Macoutes paramilitary goon squads murdered at least 30,000 Haitians and drove educated people to flee into exile. But think of the cup as half-full: fewer people in the population means fewer people competing for the same jobs!
Upon Papa Doc’s death in 1971, the torch passed to his even more dissolute 19-year-old son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. The U.S., cool to Papa Doc in his later years, quickly warmed back up to his kleptomaniacal playboy heir. As the U.S. poured in arms and trained his army as a supposed anti-communist bulwark against Castro’s Cuba, Baby Doc stole an estimated $300 to $800 million from the national treasury, according to Transparency International. The money was placed in personal accounts in Switzerland and elsewhere.
Under U.S. influence, Baby Doc virtually eliminated import tariffs for U.S. goods. Soon Haiti was awash predatory agricultural imports dumped by American firms. Domestic rice farmers went bankrupt. A nation that had been agriculturally self-sustaining collapsed. Farms were abandoned. Hundreds of thousands of farmers migrated to the teeming slums of Port-au-Prince.
The Duvalier era, 29 years in all, came to an end in 1986 when President Ronald Reagan ordered U.S. forces to whisk Baby Doc to exile in France, saving him from a popular uprising.
Once again, Haitians should thank Americans. Duvalierism was “tough love.” Forcing Haitians to make do without their national treasury was our nice way or encouraging them to work harder, to lift themselves up by their bootstraps. Or, in this case, flipflops.
The U.S. has been all about tough love ever since. We twice deposed the populist and popular democratically-elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The second time, in 2004, we even gave him a free flight to the Central African Republic! (He says the CIA kidnapped him, but whatever.) Hey, he needed a rest. And it was kind of us to support a new government formed by former Tonton Macoutes.
Yet, despite everything we’ve done for Haiti, they’re still a fourth-world failed state on a fault line.
And still, we haven’t given up. American companies like Disney generously pay wages to their sweatshop workers of 28 cents an hour.
What more do these ingrates want?
(Ted Rall is the author, with Pablo G. Callejo, of the new graphic memoir “The Year of Loving Dangerously.” He is also the author of the Gen X manifesto “Revenge of the Latchkey Kids.” His website is tedrall.com.)
COPYRIGHT 2010 TED RALL