Colonialism and Haiti's Earthquake: The Role of Economics, Politics, and History
I was in Los Angeles when the Northridge Earthquake jolted us out of bed at 4:31 a.m. It was an unforgettable experience. I was up late after one of my parties, held on a Sunday night because the next day was the holiday in celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I also remember it because the earthquake and its aftermath was one of the scariest times of my life! Each aftershock—real or my personally created and experienced—re-traumatized me. I could not sleep in my apartment for several days because my fear and the aftershocks made sleep there impossible. The Northridge earthquake measured 6.7 on the Richter scale, but because so many were sleeping when it struck many lives were spared. The time of the earthquake and the relative safety of California’s building codes made people safer than they would have been, but nevertheless 57 people died and more than 5,000 were injured.
Left: My kitchen after the earthquake. Above: One bookcase down!
Recent media attention to Haiti’s earthquake has focused on the tremendous destruction, but seldom has coverage addressed Haiti’s history and how it might have contributed to the suffering taking place there today.
On the first day of 1804, Haiti became the first independent black republic in the West. Enslaved Africans fought their French captors; in fact they were victorious over Napoleon Bonaparte’s famous army. At that time Africans were still enslaved in many areas of the world. Think about the similarities of the two countries emerging from European colonizers: In Haiti, former enslaved Africans proclaimed their independence from France, not long after the U.S. declared its independence from Britain. In the long arch of history, we might think of the two countries as being born at about the same time. What was happening in the U.S. at this time regarding slavery? It would take another 60 years before slavery was ended in the U.S., so this may explain why the two young independent countries—also geographically close—were not automatic friends; the U.S. greeted the news of Haiti’s independence with a cold shoulder, and like France, refused to recognize the nation until about the time of the Emancipation Proclamation.
The French demanded to be compensated for the financial loss that Haiti’s independence cost them; the county had been one of their most lucrative colonies, producing rum, sugar, and tobacco. In 1825, the French stipulated 150 million gold francs as reparations to recognize Haiti. (This is quite different from the direction of payment we think of regarding reparations in the U.S. and a terrible deal when compared to what the U.S. got from France for the Louisiana Territory [60 million francs], an area more than 70 times larger than Haiti!) With loans from the U.S., France, and Germany, it took Haiti 122 years to pay the reduced sum of about 90 million francs to France; these reparations sucked up most of the country’s budget.
You may have heard one other fact repeated in the coverage of the Haiti earthquake: It is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Two related facts? I could not help but think of them in tandem as much as I heard them repeated. Was the second punishment for the first, or at least because of it? What made Haiti so poor? Do you think that the cost of its freedom has had a lasting impact? What has been France’s response to the idea that Haiti receive $22 billion in restitution from its ”mother” country?
Haiti’s history is complex. Reading about it will acquaint you with terms like “gunboat diplomacy”, isolation, military coups, dictatorships, and military occupations. (Read more about its history here.) Hamstrung by international financial arrangements that strangled it, the Haitian government has not been able to right itself.Click here to see images of Haiti
Decades of poverty meant that small farmers have been forced to move to the cities, creating large slums in the capital. Brutal deforestation has left the hillsides bare. All along Haiti’s forests have been used for charcoal and fuel; the French started this in the 17th and 18th centuries for sugar mill fuel. The next two centuries saw more heavy deforestation as mahogany was turned into tourist gifts. How much of the billions of dollars in foreign aid to Haiti has been lent to attempt to rectify the deforestation and soil erosion? Why is it important? Because it impacts where most Haitians live; deforestation has left many particularly vulnerable in times of natural disasters.
Thankfully, I have to look at my pictures to recall the physical damage in my apartment due to the Northridge earthquake. An earthquake measuring 7.0, such as the one in Haiti, would cause lots of damage and injury in any city – especially at 4:30 on a weekday afternoon. But to understand the impact of the January 2010 earthquake and even the 2004 and 2008 hurricanes in Haiti—not to mention earlier natural disasters—it is instructive to think about the role of the country’s history and politics in their impact.