Haiti’s Curse

Painting by Jean Walgens Pierre, age 12.



Dried veggies, small scoop. Red beans, big scoop. Vitamin powder, medium scoop. Rice, big scoop. Dried veggies. . . .

People poured into Chaminade’s gym this morning, squinting as they tried to find friends camouflaged by hairnets and masks. Now we are getting to work, filling and sealing bags of food that will be shipped to Haiti. There is an air of festivity: After listening, passive, to so much daily bad news, it feels good to be doing something, especially packing food with Haiti Health Promise for a country that has been torn by political chaos since its president was assassinated on July 7. Before that, violent gangs terrorized the populace. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew struck. In 2010, an earthquake of 7.0 magnitude reduced the capital to rubble, and the United Nations peacekeepers who came to help brought a cholera epidemic.

How much suffering can one little country take, we murmur as we scoop, pour, seal, stack.

Then the news comes over the microphone, vibrating through the gym: Western Haiti has just been shattered by another earthquake, this one even more powerful than 2010’s, with a 7.2 magnitude.

Dried veggies, small scoop. Red beans, big scoop. Vitamin powder, medium scoop. Rice, big scoop. Our hands blur. It is easy to go fast when I think about filling hungry kids’ bellies. We catch a rhythm, stay in sync a while, scoop, fill, seal, stack—and my thoughts shoot to the new disaster, the screaming in the streets, and the little boy next to me has to nudge me, stay awake, lady, it’s time to scoop red beans.

So easy, to mourn and say, Why them, why so much suffering? I said it when I went there, back in 2010, and a man held out a baby to me and begged me to take her as my own, take his daughter home with me and raise her here. Why should any parent ever be brought to that? In this air-conditioned gym, I ask it again; we all do. The people of the Haitian diaspora ask it, too. The headlines we are pulling up on cell phones on a quick break ask it again and again. After all, the Dominican Republic is the other half of the same island, and it has not borne nearly as much tragedy. Haiti just seems cursed.

We leave it there, shaking our heads. Maybe we will write a check. Maybe we can come back and pack more food. We feel helpless in the face of all this unequal suffering, its capriciousness.

The thing is, though, there are reasons.

First and most practically, this once lush island lies on an earthquake fault and within a hurricane zone, so it is will always be vulnerable to tropical storms and quakes. But that does not explain the political stability, lousy roads, crumbling buildings, lack of  jobs, education, health care, and food. That answer lies in the past.

The DR was a Spanish colony, and Haiti was a French colony, and while that difference in itself means nothing, the history played out very differently. In 1791, in a stunningly brave, bloody revolt, enslaved Haitians freed themselves. Desperate to hold on to Haiti, with its precious sugar, coffee, and indigo, France hurriedly abolished slavery. It hoped to keep the colony and the labor force, but by 1804, Haiti was independent. The rebel forces had lost an estimated 350,000 soldiers—and killed 50,000 European troops.

The Haitians’ unprecedented ability to create a free state that was no longer ruled by a White colonial power set off its own earthquake, sending shock waves around the world. All who considered other human beings their property were officially terrified. Haiti’s triumph was heroic, and the country was now positioned to become a model democracy.

And then the French sent the bill. They were charging their “runaway slaves” for what they would have been worth to France had they remained French property.

They charged ten times what we paid Napoleon for the Louisiana Purchase.

Of course the Haitians could not pay; France knew that. “Newspaper articles from the period reveal that the French king knew the Haitian government was hardly capable of making these payments, as the total was more than ten times Haiti’s annual budget,” writes Marlene Daut, professor of African diaspora studies at the University of Virginia. French banks lent Haiti money, and Haiti eventually defaulted on the loans. Meanwhile, they had to put a nationwide school system on hold and levy punishing taxes in order to pay installments to France—or else they might be invaded and colonized all over again.

“This was not diplomacy,” says Daut. “It was extortion.”

Desperate to raise money, Haiti exported timber to Europe, turning its forests into gleaming mahogany and rendering its land vulnerable to erosion, the nutrients washed away. The veggies we are scooping could have been growing in people’s yards, and grains in the fields around their villages. Instead, we are scooping out vegetables so desiccated they look like red pepper flakes.

Eventually, the French reduced their demand by 60 francs and claimed the sum would cover only one-twelfth of their losses. (Human labor being a valuable commodity when it is not coerced).

Yet the 90 million francs Haiti still had to pay was five times France’s annual budget.

It took Haiti until 1947 to pay off all the loans. The cost was more than monetary; Haiti had not yet been able to develop a health care system, a strong public school system, or a stable political landscape.

Meanwhile, from 1915 until 1934, the United States occupied Haiti, because we were afraid the Germans would take it instead as their Caribbean base. “The U.S. confiscated Haiti’s gold reserves, imposed racial segregation and forced labor, and . . .  consolidated Haiti’s debt to France, but replaced it with debt to U.S. banks,” notes a summary in The Week. “Haitians repeatedly rebelled against foreign occupation, and the U.S. responded with violence, killing 2,000 protesters in just one skirmish. When the U.S. finally gave up and pulled out, it left a desperately poor and unstable nation.”

The United States then supported the regimes of Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier, who stole hundreds of millions from a country that could not spare it. The death squads the Duvaliers used were trained by the United States.

In the decades since, Haitian politics have been famously corrupt and chaotic. The country’s median income in Haiti is $450, Daut notes. The median income in both France and the United States is just over $31,000.

Random tragedy? Inexplicable poverty?

Dried veggies, small scoop. Red beans, big scoop. Vitamin powder, medium scoop. Rice, big scoop. At least these boxes of food might reach somebody who is hungry. Most of the aid sent by the West has been siphoned off or has sat unclaimed because there was no coordinated system of distribution. Equipment gets donated that is defective or requires expensive parts the Haitians cannot access.

We keep scooping. A few hours later, we clap, stretch, and listen to the final count: We have packed enough food to feed 430 kids for a year. It feels like a small, solid triumph. A notch on the balance sheet. Two days later, The Washington Post reports that the number killed in the earthquake has risen to 1,297 people. A few hours later, I hear 1,400. Rescue workers are still digging more bodies from the rubble. Thousands are injured. The quake will cost about $8 billion.

And tropical storm Grace is on its way.

There is no catching up for Haiti, because natural disasters are only the photogenic part of its suffering. This country won and bought its freedom, yet it has been panting and sweating and getting nowhere ever since, running laps on a conveyor belt installed by the French and maintained by the United States.

I suspect that is Haiti’s curse.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.