Cross Currents

A cross cultural blog
MARCH 6, 2010 6:34AM

Haiti, History, and Santayana

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Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I’m appalled at how many people don’t know recent Haitian history. The 30 years of the Duvaliers gets condensed into one phrase, “The US-supported Duvalier regime.” For US policy, the dilemma of the Duvalier years in Haiti was how to help the people in an abysmally poor country run by kleptocrats. This dilemma is repeated, not only in Haiti today, but in many countries. 


Again, Haiti is in the headlines for its desperate need. Its government is among the ten most corrupt in the world, according to Transparency International.  Calls for the US to provide more aid are are loud.  If we don’t understand the events and decisions of US policy towards Haiti in the Duvalier era, we can not improve  the effectiveness of US policy and aid in today’s crisis.  


Francois Duvalier (Papa Doc) earned his nickname and his popularity in the 40s when he worked in a US-sponsored program to help combat rampant disease among Haiti’s poorest citizens.  In 1957, Francois Duvalier, he was elected president of Haiti by a landslide. In 1961, he violated the Haitian constitution, replaced the parliament with one he controlled. The US strongly objected to the increasing repression as well as embezzlement of aid money.


By mid-1962, the US had suspended aid to Haiti. Duvalier refused to meet US conditions for renewal of aid (improved human rights and an accounting for US funds received in the past) and condemned American policy towards Haiti.  By 1964, Papa Doc had declared himself President-for-life and established the Tonton-Macoutes, securing his hold on power.  He ruled until his death in 1971. 


US aid to Haiti didn't resume until a few years after Papa Doc died and his son, Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) became president. The thinking was that maybe the US could help desperately poor Haiti and influence the very young Baby Doc to make much needed reforms to bring democracy and economic development to Haiti. 


It looked like Baby Doc was moving Haiti in the right direction. In the 70s, he restored some degree of freedom of the press, and allowed some  opposition groups and a human rights league to form. He spoke of further reforms to come.  The US resumed aid in 1973.  Support for the regime seemed to be working.  


The period of liberalization ended with Baby Doc's marriage to Michelle Bennet in 1980.  Their three million dollar wedding when the country’s annual per capita income was around $300 dollars destroyed his popularity. In response to increasing social unrest, he was increasingly repressive.  By 1983, the US and the Pope called for change. 


The US had a choice to, again, withdraw from Haiti or to continue both pressuring the government for change and providing aid to Haiti’s people, while limiting misuse of their funds.  The prospect of real political change looked remote and the US continued to provide aid to Haiti, working, where possible through effective NGOs, rather than Baby Doc’s government, ensuring US aid was accounted for. In short, working to help the people of Haiti, not the president and his cronies. 


The need was great. When I was in Haiti in 1985-87, I frequently saw children with the characteristic crippling of polio. At a time when AIDS had become associated with Haiti, most health clinics did not adequately sterilize needles before reusing them, so getting vaccinations was risky. The majority of the population was illiterate and very, very poor.  The majority of children were malnourished. Typhoid, malaria and tuberculosis were endemic. Deforestation was causing major ecological damage. 


Programs funded by USAID included, providing TB clinics and subsidizing the cost of TB drugs; a vaccination program aimed at getting vaccines -- and sterile needles to every child, and support for research on AIDS. Another USAID program focused on the reforestation of Haiti’s denuded hillsides. 


In the early 80s, vaccination rates climbed from around 60% to nearly 80%.  No doubt sterile needles and education programs helped Haiti’s AIDS rate remain comparatively low. Reforestation was less successful. A manager of that program told me the most they accomplished was to slow the rate of deforestation. 


In 1986, when the Haitian army showed signs that was no longer willing to support Baby Doc, the US negotiated Duvalier's departure and a path towards elections and democracy. There was a provisional governing council, a new constitution, and elections were scheduled for a lower and upper house of parliament and a new president.  


Duvalierist para-military groups assassinated presidential candidates and shot up the polls on election day. In the following ten years, Haiti had 13 different heads of state; some elected, some successful coup leaders. When his first term finished in 2001, Rene Preval became the only Haitian president in over 100 years to leave the presidency after serving a full, uninterrupted term in office. The next five years saw another coup and a temporary regime until Preval won the 2006 elections. 


President Preval remains in power. He’s instituted some necessary reforms, but has been ineffective at combatting the corruption that puts Haiti in the ten most corrupt countries of the world. 


US policy and aid towards Haiti again has to meet the challenges of helping people in dire need while navigating a corrupt and not very effective government. I welcome constructive comments on how US policy towards and aid for Haiti in the Duvalier years could have been more effective. 

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Oh my gosh, I knew so little of this coming in! You're right that the media has no interest in actually filling in the gaps of American knowledge but remains content to repeat canned and meaningless phrases like "the US-supported Duvalier regime." It's funny but your back story here actually gives me some sympathy for all the diplomats of the US government who've worked on the problem for the last half century; things are always more complicated than they seem, and trade-offs are required.

Well, I don't have any answers. Did you read David Brooks' column about US aid in light of the recent Haitian earthquake? I can't remember if you were in on the conversation on doloresflower's blog about that. The thing you have to give Brooks is that he is solution-oriented rather than someone who simply highlights the injustice of it all.

Do you have any ideas, Malusinka?
Keeping U.S. corporations and the IMF and World Bank out of Haiti might have been a good move towards damage control in Haiti, much like in other countries around the world.

The history of corporations in the Republic of Haiti

Haiti is another example of Naomi Klein’s “Disaster Capitalism”.
Unless Brooks has written more than one post on Haiti, I posted a piece on what he said. It's called, "Let them eat Cake." What frustrated me about his piece is that he took standard conservative remedies and applied them to a place he knows little about.

Americans understand so little about abject poverty. While Haiti has a serious problem with malnutrition, in the US, obesity is a more common problem among the urban poor.

The thing about Haiti is that it's starting from such a low level. Raising education levels isn't incenting more kids to finish high school or making the schools a bit more challenging. Haiti's challenge is to reach basic literacy.
I searched around Naomi Klein's website, and again, I got the impression of someone fitting a global theory to a country that she knew relatively little about.

There aren't many US (or other) corporations in Haiti. Aid is the biggest industry. The majority of USAID contractors in Haiti are charities or non-profits.

Haiti's economy is so dysfunctional that no one's making much of a profit out of it -- including the Haitians, with the possible exception of Haitian kleptocrats.
Have you read that recent controversial book on aid to africa? It's written against the conventional ways of giving aid. I would love to read it. I'll look it up and check back here.
Thanks for this. Rated.
Here it is....Dead Aid. Here's an article about it:

I'm going to check at the library....having visited Laos and seen the NGO restaurants that looked like they were taken from the finest haute cuisine of Paris, I'm not surprised that the way aid is dispensed in nations like Afghanistan, Haiti and Laos is rife with corruption, I have to say.

(Although except when I went to Laos in the 1990's I'd never eaten a five course french meal with wine and appetizers...all for under $15 I was outrageous....NGO's also drive very fancy cars....sensitive to the locals they often are....)
Very informative post, Malusinka.
The thing about Haiti and Afghanistan is that the countries are corrupt. It's really hard to get anything done.

The Peace Corps volunteers working for the ministry of health were supposed to monitor the vaccination clinics and pharmacies and to report on how the programs actually worked in the rural areas.

Our jeeps took about 6 months to clear customs. For 3 months, we were in language training, but for 3 months, 10 of us were basically not able to do our jobs. (Local transportation featured guaranteed sardine-like conditions in badly maintained vehicles with serious risks of carbon monoxide from leaky exhaust systems, dodgy brakes on narrow, twisty mountain roads, drunk drivers, and being stranded when the vehicle broke down or failed to show up. With one jitney a day in many areas the risk of being stranded in a village with no phone (that was in the days before mobiles) and no car to be hired as a taxi was very real.

That meant the loss of nearly 3 person-years of work. Did someone offer a bribe to speed up the process? I don't know, but I wouldn't be too surprised.

Corruption isn't just at the top, it's woven into every aspect of society. It's very difficult to control everything aid purchases once it's left your warehouse/office. Dedicated aid workers, whether expat or local tend to want their program to succeed. They are so concerned about, say, their TB patients that they are willing to pass along, say, some antibiotics to get their supply of TB drugs in time to keep their patients on their regimen and reduce the risk of developing drug-resistant TB. Yes, goods supplied for aid are passed to the black market, but not for personal profit.

Ultimately, the question comes back down to, should we give up on corrupt countries? If so, then we need to pull out of Haiti, no matter how bad the earthquake damage. Do we repair the damage, like destroyed roads and ports but leave the potholes in roads that were in terrible shape before the quake?

My feeling is that the best bet for Haiti progressing, for more democracy, less corruption, more economic growth is providing aid to Haiti and accepting, that no matter how much we try to minimize it, that aid will be wasted in corruption.
It goes back to the Creole elite, and the U.S. isolation of Haiti because of fears of a slave rebellion too, but very well pointed out, and the big question: What about Aristide now?
I think US isolation in the 1800s was a shame, but I don't see that it is the cause of economic problems today. The biggest change in the post-revolutionary economy was the destruction of the plantations in favor of subsistence farms -- the ex-slaves wanted economic independence as well as freedom. Slavery, in particular the low standard of education it left behind probably continues to be an influence.

Aristide has been elected twice and never managed to serve out his term. He's been accused of turning Haiti into a narco-state and of embezzling the revenues of Haiti's telecom (the biggest source of revenue in the country). I hope his supporters have given up on him and vote for someone who might bring them stability. There's some hope, since he no longer controls the elections. He is very good at public relations and has many adamant supporters in Haiti. He did institute some very necessary reforms, but I hope the country can come up with someone better than him for the next election.
Thank you for these revealing insights into Haiti's recent history. rated.
This is cogent, concise history. I learned a few hings, and I like that.

You write with authority that is not imposing or preachy. There's areal art to that.

Have you read "Collapse" by Jared Diamond? he devotes a chapter to the island and it's divergent history.

I think Sean Penn has a very good idea with his new org, getting entrepreneurs to invest. It might not appeal to some of my fellow leftists to crank up resorts and tourism, but it will feed babies and grow a middle class there. Banal as it is a middle class equates to better health care and education.

Solid post. Thank you.
Greg, yes, I read most of Collapse. Haiti has some really spectacular scenery and a great cuisine. But, so many tourists don't like seeing the poverty. The few tourist destinations tend to exclude the locals.

Plus, investing in a country with such turbulent politics is not particularly attractive.

I'm for anything that might work, but not all that hopeful. To make a middle class, you need education. At least half the population is rural and rural areas, in general, don't have electricity or running water. It's hard to attract teachers.