February 04, 2010

Colonialism and Haiti's Earthquake: The Role of Economics, Politics, and History

new janis By Janis Prince Inniss

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.

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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.


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That is very interesting. I would like to read about France's side in all of this.

Total destruction indeed.. I hope Haiti will be back to normal as soon as possible..

Very good topic to touch apon since it has become a national object of discussion. I actually did not know that Haiti gained its independence from france at almost the same time as the American Colonies. Also stunned was I about the debt that france demanded as compensation. My knowledge about this time is very vague for haiti other then general facts but its uncalled for. If a country gained independence,(formerly a slave state) I would not understand the thinking process of "shoving down" 150 million gold francs. Its almost rejecting a person of a job after they worked as an intern for 6 months.(best I could think of).

If you look back even on past world devistations, Katrina, Northridge earthquake etc you can look at financial aid as signs of unstability in relief funds. I regularly watch the McLaughlin Group sunday mornings and while reading this blog I remember an episode where they discussed fanancial aid from the world compared to other events. At that time(Jan 15) it was estimated that the death toll would reach 100,000 and the people need of relief would be at 3 million.
At the show of (1/22) the death toll rised to 200,000(expected) and showed a very interesting relation.

The US pledged $100 million dollars for relief and the international community announced aid of a total of $1 billion dollars. YET(not to show that haiti was an inferior disaster) in 1998, Hurricane Mitch, a catagory 5 hurricane, hit central america. A total of 9,000 people were killed, thats less then 1/20th the punitive death toll in haiti. This is where the shock is... the total relief for Mitch was a total of $6.3 billion dollars.

Lets understand this, "Haiti as a country, recieved about $700 million dollars annually in relief from the internation community based on a per capital basis."(McLaughlin Group) Their handling of relief money is and has always been under fire.

There are many factors to determain all what I have stated above.(Global economic stability, debts/surplus, inflation,past goverments etc) I did not know that haiti had a enviromental problem, whether relief goes to that first is a question which can only be answered by the haitian government.

Devistation of any sorts is depressing and our natural instinct is to help the affected group. It will take A COMPLETE overhaul of the haitian govt and counrty as a whole. The Few suggestions is something similar of the Marshall Plan of 1948-1952 for the reconstruction of western europe after WWII. An temporary emmisary would be key(suggested Bill Clinton should be, what else was he doing before the haiti earthquake then turning tricks?)

Andres Oppenheimer, of the Miami Herald is one advocate of this idea.

"Haiti will need a global version of the 1948-1952 U.S. Marshall Plan for reconstruction of Western Europe after WWII. And it will have to be launched right away. You and I know pretty soon the Haiti story will fade from the headlines, replaced by the next celebrity tragedy or international political crisis. If not done now, it won't happen."

There is much to be discusses on this by itself.

But im tired of typing, its 10:30pm and im not a late worker.

Hurricane,Tsunamies, earthquake and other natural disasters is the worst problem after war obviously. Now unfortunate was to Haiti with an earthquake the last january, many poorly made buildings in Haiti largest city collapsed or were serriously devastation during tha long and powerful quake. I know that pain because I am peruvian and in my country 2 years ago in Pisco had an earthquake and then a tsunami thousands of people died and the whole city disappeared. Returning with Haiti I didn't know how haiti was a colony of France and now one colony of America , or how haiti's people were first slaves .......in the future I would like to learn more about that because my knowledge is so poor and I want to know how Haiti obtained their independence. Also I hope Haiti have a plan to reconstruction with the help of other countries to all people that lost all in the earthquake.

It's really amazing that the headlines put Haiti down as so poor and primitive when there is actually so much amazing history behind it to clearly prove otherwise. It really shocks me that Haiti was the first slave state that bought it's own freedom from slavery, an idea that took the "modern world" another 60 years to accept.

60 years since haiti got independence and the country is still poorest.something wrong here,who is responsible for all this.I wonder if things are going to change in another 60 years to come if they continue paying debt to their old masters(the French).I just hope they have enough resources to support themself too other than getting donations.

I would have to say this article is very interesting. I never knew the history background of this country. I think maybe them having to pay back so many other countries is what made them poor. However they have had 60 years to build it back up. I would hope with the millions of dollars that we are sending them and might i remind you that we are still sending will help them out and they wont " Need" our help if it were to accure again. Im not saying that helping other countries is a bad thing but we go so far into worldy disasters when we as a nation are struggling too. Yes we are not as poor as this country but this country was never wealthy to begin with. Of course they are not going to really share all the background with this country because they want to show you all the " bad things" that way you will step up and feel the guilt rush in with not helping them out.

Thanks so much for posting this.It's great that you're focusing on how Haiti got to be so poor and thus more susceptible to major damage during such a disaster. Haiti, like many other colonies in the world, received their hard earned independence, but were purposefully prevented from having economic autonomy. Many people don't recognize the dominoes effect this creates ;lack of economic control leads to a hampered ability to construct good academic and business infrastructures etc. This in turn will allow a destructive cycle (corruption, high poverty rates etc)
Furthermore, the nature of their independence, (France abruptly pulling out resources and demanding payment..ironically for slave labor) didn't allow them to have the strongest foot forward. This is not to blame France for every bad economic decision Haiti government officials have made or to blame France for the results of the earthquake. But the historical interactions France had with the people of Haiti cannot be ignored because they play a direct role! Likewise, the benefits the US had from the Louisiana Purchase and the role we played in financially exploiting Haiti (ie double standards with imports/exports) have to be considered when looking at the state Haiti has been in throughout history.
Haiti is a poor country and I do agree that we should help them in their time of need. But we also need to recognize that Haiti was in a slump BEFORE the quake and decisions made by our and other countries (ie, France) directly influenced this.

Thank you for showing how the earthquake caused more destruction in Haiti than likely would have happened in a more developed country.

I think it is important to realize that the people of Haiti would have been, or would be, more prepared when hit with natural disasters if certain actions were not taken in the past. You see, France has charged Haiti "150 million gold francs" for its recognition which, in turn, as left Haiti poor and in debt. Now, consider this, if the people of Haiti never had to pay off "150 million gold francs," don't you think they would be able to afford the appropriate technology and equipment to be ready for natural disasters such as earthquakes? The fact that France has put this debt upon Haiti after they have used these people as slaves for centuries is just wrong and unethical.

I thought this blog was informative and interesting. Good history lesson on Haiti.

Haiti just doesn't get a break! Even after it's revolution to gain it's independence many years ago, things are still bad, being the poorest country in the western hemisphere and now with an earthquake.

I have to agree with most of the postings; this is a very good article, even from my perspective as a Latin American ans Caribbean studies professor.Form being the most prosperous colony in the planet, before its independence from France, Haiti became its poorest nation, and it has remained so until today. The proceeds from the sugar cane and coffee produced by Haiti, supported France's the Louis's Monarchies to Bonaparte's Empire. After gaining its independence, Haiti's economy never recover , twice, from France first and from their own "Noir" brothers later. It is really sad that it took this terrible earthquake, tore-focus the world's attention back to Haiti's already obliterate economy.
Six month and million's of dollars in relief donations later, nothing has improve, everything thing remains the same. Haiti's biggest problem is our that our short spam memory is shorter than we want to admit. Six moth later, where has our concerns go? What Haiti needs is the rehabilitation of its education and health infrastructure. Globalization and neo-liberalism has online taken advantage of this poor nation, but has not help Haiti's much needed development. Today, the pleads from our Haitians brothers and sisters are as loud as before the earthquake. A lesson we can take from this tragedy is, that money by itself will not fix anything. to Will it take another tragedy for the us, for the world to realize what Haiti really needs? I hope not.

Thanks for this interesting article.

Thanks for the history lesson on colonization and independence of Haiti. If you think that the country still remains poor you could conclude that French did not strike a bad deal after all. It seems that Haitians have done everything to insure their independence.

This article illustrates the extreme social inequality that our world currently faces, and how rising up in the social ladder can be next to impossible for millions of individuals. I chose this article as I found it very interesting how certain countries came into power, but mainly because I believe that no country should have power such as the French practiced, and social equality is something that all citizens should be guaranteed as a global citizen. Looking at the similarities and differences between the Northridge earthquake of 1994 and the earthquake that hit Haiti last January definitely helped to put things into perspective of how greatly our world economic and class systems vary due to the previous history of each individual nation.

Inniss also pointed out how the time of day when an earthquake strikes is critical in saving lives. The Northridge earthquake struck California at 4:30a.m., when most people affected were sleeping, safely removed from areas containing large buildings or other possible risks, while the earthquake in Haiti hit the country at 4:30p.m., which can help explain the tremendous amount of death and destruction.

This piece has further proven my belief that money and power are the driving forces behind any political leadership. Inniss mentioned that in recent years, Haiti has demanded retribution for their previous payment to France, which has created a culture war between two countries who believe their values or beliefs to be better or more deserving than the other. Who knows what could happen in years to come involving the retribution, but I can only hope that our world can one day realize that these are real people facing serious social implications, not just another impoverished area who deserves no respect or recognition from those with great wealth and income. I hope to see some degree of cultural leveling in my lifetime, and I hope to see countries such as Haiti rise above the social inequality that our world has created, and receive adequate aid and respect from all.

In my opinion, France was just looking after their own interests; they were not maliciously targeting Haiti or its people. They did not intend to cripple them to the point of devastation. However, I feel that France should hold some responsibility for the disasters that happened in January, 2010. If Haiti had not been in so much debt from the roots of their existence, they could have invested money in their government, buildings, education, etc. The architecture could have been designed to withstand some of the punishment the nation went through which would could have saved hundreds of lives. Due to France’s capitalist greed, Haiti received the unintended consequences (manifest function) of poor architecture.

Yes I agree! The economy has affected our generation

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