‘Ayiti’, as this country is affectionately known by nationalists, is much more than the post-apocalyptic photos of its capital, Port-au-Prince, might imply. In spite of the devastation wrought by the January 2010 earthquake, which killed nearly 300,000 people, Haiti remains a land of hummingbirds, coral reefs, charming architecture, strong coffee and the vibrant colours of markets chock-full of unexpected treats. Mornings serve up rooster crows and sleepy afternoons find men gathered over dominoes on impromptu tables that rest on their knees; long nights bring the distinctive rhythms of konpa music and the drums of traditional Vodou ceremonies.
The first country ever to launch a successful slave rebellion, Haiti overthrew French colonialists and declared independence in 1804. For several decades, the new government launched its own offensive, occupying the Dominican Republic in a manner that continues to generate resentment and ongoing grudges between the island neighbours. The violent dictatorships of Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier from 1957 to 1986, and the subsequent years of disrupted and degenerating rule by populist leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide have also taken a toll.
Long labelled as isolated and unco-operative, Haiti has rarely been free from the economic and political webs woven by its more powerful neighbours. It is little known that US marines actually occupied Haiti for nearly 20 years, starting in 1915. Since then, virtually no political decision has been taken in the country that has not borne the mark of international intervention or, at the very least, strong suggestion, especially from the closest superpower, the US. Massive deforestation, political instability and the removal of tariffs from imported goods have also thoroughly corrupted Haiti’s once booming rice and other export industries. In collaboration with bilateral donors, foreign and Haitian investors have started to relaunch the garment and mango industries, but a country that was once the poster child of prosperity for its colonial rulers is now a leading example of how not to manage a national economy.
Yet it is important to remember that Haiti’s image as ‘the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere’, and as a bastion of misery, is often upheld by those with an ulterior motive. Misery and violence make for great news; poverty and suffering make for great funding proposals. A widespread fear of insecurity is highly profitable for everyone who works in the security industry, and also for the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) forces, whose presence – though often peaceful and helpful – has become a thorn in the side of almost every Haitian. Following the rampant rumours that UN forces were responsible for reintroducing cholera to a country where it has been absent for more than 150 years, MINUSTAH is these days more often resented as an occupying force than seen as a protector.
Many Haitians say that the problem with their country is that it never actually overthrew systematic slavery: colonial slavery was merely replaced with that of the poor majority by the wealthy minority. Few believe that any change of government will be strong enough to root out the corruption and élitism that underpins most economic and political decisions in Haiti. And while the world today continues to focus on the problems resulting from the earthquake – up to a million people remain homeless – Haitians themselves recognize that it was the ongoing political mayhem and social (dis)order that paved the way for the devastation.
This is a country of extreme poverties, extreme injustices and an extremity of unexploited resources – most found far from the business district and wrapped up in the wit, creativity and resourcefulness of a surprisingly hardy people.
|Leader||President Michel Martelly.|
|Economy||GDP per capita $646 (Dominican Republic $4,637, United States $45,989). An estimated 80% live in poverty and there is widespread unemployment (over two-thirds of the labour force does not have a formal job). Haiti’s public sector and infrastructure were in disarray even before the earthquake. Remittances from expatriate workers are a lifeline for some|
|Monetary unit||Haitian gourde, though US dollars are widely accepted.|
|Main exports||Apparel, oils, cocoa, mangoes, coffee.|
|People||10.0 million. Annual population growth rate 1.9%. People per square kilometre 316 (UK 253).|
|Health||Infant mortality 64 per 1,000 live births (Dom Rep 27, US 7). HIV prevalence 1.9% and holding steady. High risk of infectious diseases (bacterial and protozoal diarrhoea, hepatitis A and E, and typhoid fever, dengue fever and malaria, leptospirosis).|
|Environment||CO2 emissions per capita 0.2 tonnes (US 19.9). Extensive deforestation, soil erosion; inadequate supplies of potable water. Subject to severe storms June-October, as well as occasional flooding and earthquakes.|
|Culture||95% are descendants of African slaves. There are vibrant traditions such as ‘Carnaval’ as well as a long history of innovative craftwork and colourful artwork.|
|Religion||Roman Catholic 80%, Baptist 10%, Pentecostal 4%, Adventist 1%, other Christian 1%), none 1%, other 3%. A popular joke is that 80% of Haitians are Catholic, 20% are Protestant and 100% are Vodou.|
|Language||Haitian Creole (spelled ‘Kreyol’ to distinguish it as a separate language and not just a derivative form) and French are both official.|
|Human Development Index||0.404 – 145th of 169 (Dom Rep 0.663, US 0.902).|
Country ratings in detail
|Income distribution||The richest Haitians live like movie stars, with their Miami weekends and their beach mansions, while the poor struggle to find 10 gourdes for a tap-tap (bus) ride.|
|Literacy||53%. Many schools collapsed in the earthquake and have not been rebuilt and many children were forced to drop out after their families suffered severe economic setbacks.|
|Life expectancy||61 years (Dom Rep 73, US 79). Up from 54 years when last profiled.|
|Freedom||An ostensibly free press but also a long history of journalists receiving death threats. Haitians are quick to share opinions and argue loudly. But after years of terror by government-backed street gangs, they know where to draw the line.|
|Position of women||The Vodou religion traditionally elevates the female but women remain among the poorest and most vulnerable. In the year after the earthquake, rates of rape have skyrocketed – largely due to the poorly lit tent camps.|
|Sexual minorities||While not illegal, there seems to be little place in today’s Haiti for homosexuality. Though the country is not as homophobic as some others in the Caribbean, there are no gay or lesbian venues and little cultural tolerance.|
|New Internationalist assessment||The government has been virtually non-existent in recent years. The elections of 2010 and 2011 have now launched flamboyant musician ‘Sweet Mickey’ Martelly as the new president of Haiti. The presidential race was far more about the poorest segments of society fearing the oppression of the richest than it was about the actual qualifications of either candidate. But for now, Martelly has ‘the people’ on his side and, more than a year after a devastating earthquake and a widespread cholera epidemic, what ‘the people’ really want for their country is change.|
This article is from
the June 2011 issue
of New Internationalist.
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