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As I noted here yesterday, much of the media coverage (including the blogosphere) of the tragedy in Haiti lacks any sort of historical perspective and makes it impossible to understand events in the country. Why is Haiti so poor? Marginal Revolution asked in a post yesterday. Among the answers were that “Haiti cut its colonial ties too early, rebelling against the French in the early 19th century and achieving complete independence”; and that “Haiti has higher than average levels of polygamy.”
It’s pretty stunning that this almost entirely ignores the role of outside powers. Is Haiti poor simply because foreigners exploited it? Of course not, but one can’t understand why the country is in such terrible shape if you ignore the French and American roles in beggaring the country.
So here are a couple of suggested reading items: First, this post by Barbara Miller, a specialist in the anthropology of international development, who asks the exact same question posed by Marginal Revolution, and comes up with quite a different set of answers:
Colonial plantation owners grew fabulously rich from this island. It produced more wealth for France than all of France’s other colonies combined and more than the 13 colonies in North America produced for Britain. Why is Haiti so poor now?
Colonialism launched environmental degradation by clearing forests. After the revolution, the new citizens carried with them the traumatic history of slavery. Now, neocolonialism and globalization are leaving new scars. For decades, the United States has played, and still plays, a powerful role in supporting conservative political regimes.
Gee, I wonder if those small matters had anything to do with Haiti’s poverty?
For a lengthier account, also check out “The Historical Context of American Intervention”, by Robert F. Baumann, written for the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. Baumann offers a fairly American-friendly view of U.S. involvement, but he provides some interesting background on the Duvalier years:
The election of President Francois (“Papa Doc”) Duvalier in 1957 ushered in the modem phase of Haitian political life…Gradually, paranoia and a willingness to rule by terror became the trademarks of his presidency. In 1966, he declared himself “president for life.”
Duvalier further strengthened his grip on power with the founding of the Tonton Macoute (Haitian militia). This ill-trained body, which soon substantially outnumbered the army, operated as hired political thugs around the country at the behest of the Duvalier regime…In addition, Duvalier skillfully manipulated American anticommunism to enlist outside financial and material support, much of the latter in the form of weapons. Later, in 1971, the United States financed the training of a special counterinsurgency force in Haiti known as the Leopards.
Perhaps the most emblematic gesture of Papa Doc’s tenure was a referendum ensuring the direct succession of his son, Jean-Claude, which carried by the absurd total of 2,391,916 to 0!
Incidentally, Ron Brown, Bill Clinton’s former Commerce Secretary, once lobbied for Baby Doc. (As I first reported back in 1993).
Ok, so read up and continue sending support to help Haiti now. The easiest way to do that is to send a text message to 90999 with the word “Haiti” in the message.
More from Ken Silverstein:
Perspective — October 23, 2013, 8:00 am
How pro-oil Louisiana politicians have shaped American environmental policy
Postcard — October 16, 2013, 8:00 am
A trip to one of the properties at issue in Louisiana’s oil-pollution lawsuits
On a Friday evening in January, a thousand people at the annual California Native Plant Society conference in San Jose settled down to a banquet and a keynote speech delivered by an environmental historian named Jared Farmer. His chosen topic was the eucalyptus tree and its role in California’s ecology and history. The address did not go well. Eucalyptus is not a native plant but a Victorian import from Australia. In the eyes of those gathered at the San Jose DoubleTree, it qualified as “invasive,” “exotic,” “alien” — all dirty words to this crowd, who were therefore convinced that the tree was dangerously combustible, unfriendly to birds, and excessively greedy in competing for water with honest native species.
In his speech, Farmer dutifully highlighted these ugly attributes, but also quoted a few more positive remarks made by others over the years. This was a reckless move. A reference to the tree as “indigenously Californian” elicited an abusive roar, as did an observation that without the aromatic import, the state would be like a “home without its mother.” Thereafter, the mild-mannered speaker was continually interrupted by boos, groans, and exasperated gasps. Only when he mentioned the longhorn beetle, a species imported (illegally) from Australia during the 1990s with the specific aim of killing the eucalyptus, did he earn a resounding cheer.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A tourism company in Australia announced a service that will allow users to take the “world’s biggest selfies,” and a Texas man accidentally killed himself while trying to pose for a selfie with a handgun.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”