‘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.