New Internationalist

Haiti

Issue 316

new internationalist
issue 316 - September 1999

Country profile - Haiti

Where is Haiti? From the heights of Pétionville, the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince looks beautiful, especially in the early evening light. Haiti’s wealthy few – mostly light-skinned and US-educated – live up in the cool mountain suburb, with French bistros and designer shops at hand. The view over the horseshoe bay is spectacular. But what is conveniently hidden from view below is the sheer squalor of one of the world’s biggest shantytowns, Cité Soleil, home to some 400,000 people and built on swampland near the sea. This jumble of rickety shacks and foul-smelling open drains contains its own neighbourhoods with ironic names like Brooklyn and Tokyo.

Haiti’s social extremes are glaringly visible and statistically shocking. It has more millionaires per head than any Latin American or Caribbean nation – an estimated 10,000 Haitians out of a population of 6.8 million live in unabashed luxury. Yet this is also the poorest country in the Americas, with an annual income per person of around $250. According to every conceivable social indicator it sits at the bottom of the league. Compared with its middle-income Caribbean neighbours, the levels of deprivation are extraordinary.

The separate worlds of the rich élite and the poor majority are nothing new. Formerly Saint Domingue, one of the most profitable colonies in the world, Haiti was ‘born in ruins’ after a 13-year civil war against the French colonial masters. Half a million slaves, led by Toussaint Louverture and later Jean-Jacques Dessalines, overthrew Napoleon’s military might in the only successful slave revolution in history. Independence in 1804 was a triumph for black self-emancipation and a fatal blow to slavery around the world. But it also ushered in a succession of military despots, who ruled and robbed the impoverished country.

Descendants of the mixed-race minority freed by the colonialists, a small sector of lighter-skinned Haitians, dominated commerce and political power from the outset. Gradually a gulf developed between the urban French-speaking élite and the great mass of Creole-speaking rural poor, working their peasant smallholdings. That gulf still exists today, although many small farmers have abandoned their eroded mountainside plots to swell the ranks of Cité Soleil’s inhabitants.

Politics has always reflected Haiti’s social apartheid. Most governments have defended the interests of the few, taxing the peasantry but sparing the rich. For three decades the dictators François ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier and his son ‘Baby Doc’ claimed to represent the black majority, but merely enriched themselves and their cronies. Under their rule, Haiti became a byword for repression, but a convenient source of cheap labour for US offshore manufacturers. When Baby Doc was whisked away by the Americans in 1986 to avert a full-scale revolution, the Haitian military swiftly filled the void and business continued as usual.

In hurricane-prone Haiti, lavalas is the name given to the devastating flash floods which run down the eroded hillsides, washing away everything in their path. It was also the name chosen by a small and short-sighted Roman Catholic priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, for his electoral coalition in 1990. After years of military coups and puppet regimes, Aristide swept to power in Haiti’s first-ever free elections. Promising radical reforms, ‘Titid’ was greeted as a Messiah by the poor, as a dangerous subversive by the rich. After only eight months, the military stepped in once more and put an end to the short-lived democracy.

Nearly a decade later, Aristide is tipped to win the next elections in 2000. It took a US intervention to return him to power in 1994, but too late to bring about real change. Nobody knows whether Aristide can do any more next time around. In the meantime, the rich still look down on the poor and the view from the hills is still beautiful – if you don’t look too closely.

James Ferguson

AT A GLANCE

LEADER:: President René Préval.

ECONOMY: GNP per capita $310 (Dominican Republic $1,600, Canada $19,020). When last profiled in 1989 the GNP per capita stood at $360.
Monetary unit: gourde.
Main exports: coffee, garments, sports equipment (to US market).
External debt: $800 million.
Debt service: 11% of exports.

PEOPLE: 7.4 million.

HEALTH: Infant mortality 92 per 1,000 live births (Jamaica 10, France 5). Calorie intake 75% of UN requirement. Public health provision is virtually non-existent, while malnutrition, malaria and AIDS are widespread.

ENVIRONMENT: Haiti faces ecological disaster, as irreversible erosion follows deforestation caused by the need for firewood and charcoal.

CULTURE: Haiti is 95% black, with a small mixed-race population. African traditions are most noticeable in farming and rural house-building techniques, while a French colonial legacy is still evident among the élite.
Religion: About 70% of Haitians are Catholics, although Protestant sects are growing. Even more widespread is vodun (voodoo), practised by most rural communities, often alongside Christianity.
Languages: Kweyol (Creole) is spoken and understood by all Haitians; about 20% speak French. Both are official languages.

Sources: Latin America and the Caribbean 2000, Caribbean Insight, Haiti Online, State of the World’s Children 1999.

Last profiled December 1989.

 

STAR RATINGS

[image, unknown] INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown]
A tiny élite dominates, with only a small middle class of civil servants and professionals. Over 75% of people live in poverty.
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[image, unknown] LITERACY [image, unknown]
Poor educational provision means that only 45% are literate.
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[image, unknown] SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown]
Dependent on food aid and flooded by contraband, Haiti is losing its food supply to environmental degradation.
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[image, unknown] FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Much improved since 1994 US/UN intervention, but political killings and police brutality are widely reported.
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[image, unknown] POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Individual women have recently made progress in politics and the professions.
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[image, unknown] LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown]
54 years. Compares with 71 in neighbouring Dominican Republic and an average 75 throughout the Caribbean.
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POLITICS

[image, unknown] NI ASSESSMENT [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
The political climate is far better than under military rule but, weakened by factional infighting, the Préval Government has not implemented much-needed reforms. Aristide's return is seen as inevitable but it remains to be seen whether he will address the grotesque inequalities or preside over an IMF-approved 'modernization' agenda in return for aid.

 

NI star rating

EXCELLENT
GOOD
FAIR
POOR
APPALLING
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