Hobbled by foreign interventions, political instability, and natural disasters, the former French colony has long suffered from underdevelopment.
Backgrounder by Rocio Cara Labrador
Few countries have struggled with development like Haiti. Since breaking free from French colonial rule over two centuries ago, the Caribbean state has weathered multiple foreign interventions, chronic political instability, and devastating natural disasters. The confluence of these forces has transformed what was once the wealthiest colony in the Americas into the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
The United States has had a long and troubled history with Haiti, including a nearly twenty-year, sometimes bloody, occupation in the early twentieth century. Despite an often rocky relationship, the two countries remain closely bound. Today, the United States is Haiti’s top trading partner and foreign benefactor, as well as home to the world’s largest Haitian diaspora community.
What are Haiti’s origins?
The first postcolonial black republic, Haiti became a beacon of abolition, self-determination, and racial equality.
Spanish settlers arrived on the island of Hispaniola, which comprises modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic, in 1492. Within a quarter century, diseases brought by Europeans, such as smallpox and measles, decimated the indigenous Taino population. Over the next three centuries, European colonizers imported hundreds of thousands of slaves from western and central Africa to harvest sugar, coffee, and timber, all lucrative exports.
In the early 1600s, French traders established an outpost on the western third of the island, which Paris annexed as the colony of Saint-Domingue several decades later. In the late 1700s, former slaves Toussaint L’Ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines led a rebellion against French rule that culminated with the creation of Haiti in 1804. The first postcolonial black republic, Haiti became a beacon of abolition, self-determination, and racial equality.
What is Haiti’s economic situation?
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. More than half the population lives under the poverty line, and many rely on subsistence farming to feed their families. Haiti is also heavily dependent on external revenue: foreign aid accounts for more than 20 percent of the government’s annual budget, while remittances from the Haitian diaspora account for more than a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).
For the last decade, Haiti has run an average annual trade deficit of $190 million. Its major industries include sugar refining, flour milling, and cement and textile manufacturing; textiles account for 90 percent of all its exports. The United States is Haiti’s largest trade partner.
In recent years, natural disasters, disease, political instability, mismanagement of humanitarian relief, and a depreciation of the gourde—Haiti’s currency—have strained the economy. Tourism, once a vibrant sector, has declined. In 2017, Haiti derived just 10 percent of its GDP from tourism, compared to an average of 15 percent among Caribbean states.
International lenders canceled Haiti’s debt following a massive earthquake in 2010, but its borrowing has since risen to $2.6 billion, including nearly $2 billion from Petrocaribe—the Venezuela-led regional alliance that offers its members subsidized oil.
Why has Haiti had such difficulty developing?
Since its independence from France, Haiti’s development has been menaced by forces that run the gamut from the interference of foreign powers to domestic political malfeasance to natural disasters and epidemics.
Foreign intervention and debt. Freedom from France in 1804 did not mean an end to foreign powers intervening in Haiti. France only recognized an independent Haiti in 1825, after its former colony agreed to pay reparations that would be worth $22 billion today. Over the next 120 years, as much as 80 percent of Haiti’s revenues went to paying off this debt.
“For an entire century, Haiti geared its economy to paying back the French debt and missed out on industrialization, education, and development of its government and democratic institutions,” says Brian Concannon, founder and executive director of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti. “It really couldn’t develop.”
Haiti geared its economy to paying back the French debt and missed out on industrialization, education, and development
Brian Concannon, Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti
The United States recognized Haiti only in 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln was championing emancipation at home and abroad. Subsequent U.S. administrations viewed Haiti through a mostly strategic lens. Wary of encroaching German influence in the Caribbean at the outset of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson ordered Marines to Haiti in 1915, purportedly to restore political stability. In the five years prior, seven Haitian presidents were ousted from office or assassinated. During the nearly two-decade occupation, the United States controlled Haiti’s security and finances. It also imposed racial segregation, forced labor, and press censorship, and deposed presidents and legislatures that opposed the U.S. presence. Some fifteen thousand Haitians were killed in rebellions against the U.S. administration, the bloodiest of which occurred in 1919 and 1929. President Franklin D. Roosevelt withdrew U.S. troops in 1934 as part of his Good Neighbor Policy.
Political instability. The U.S. withdrawal was followed by a series of unstable governments, which culminated in 1957 with the establishment of a twenty-nine-year dictatorship under Francois Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude. Their rule was characterized by corruption that drained the nation’s coffers and human rights violations that left some thirty thousand dead or missing. In 1986, massive protests and international pressure forced the younger Duvalier to flee the country, giving way to a new constitution and democratic institutions [PDF].
However, political instability persists. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the country’s first democratically elected president, was twice deposed in coups, in 1991 and 2004. Both prompted U.S. military interventions supported by the United Nations.
Aristide’s successors offered little in the way of stability. In 2011, Michael Martelly became president following a contested election clouded by allegations of meddling by the United States on his behalf. A musician with no previous political experience, Martelly postponed presidential elections twice and ruled by decree for more than a year. Haiti was cast into a political vacuum in 2016, when the election of Martelly’s successor, Jovenel Moise, was annulled amid fraud allegations. The country was ruled by an interim government until early 2017, when a second round of elections confirmed Moise’s victory.
Haiti continues to rank among the top fifteen most corrupt countries in the world, with Moise under investigation for money laundering.
Natural disasters. Located on a geological fault line in a region prone to severe storms, Haiti suffers more natural disasters [PDF] than most Caribbean nations. Widespread deforestation has left the country especially prone to flooding and mudslides, which strike Haiti at twice the rate as neighboring Dominican Republic.
Moreover, a number of factors magnify the impact of disasters, including a lack of city planning, substandard infrastructure and housing, large coastal populations, and widespread dependence on subsistence farming.
A massive earthquake near the capital in 2010 killed 220,000 Haitians and displaced 1.5 million more. At $8 billion, basic reconstruction costs surpassed the country’s GDP. Between 2015 and 2017, drought led to crop losses of 70 percent, and in 2016, Hurricane Matthew decimated the country’s housing, livestock, and infrastructure.
Epidemics and aid mismanagement have further complicated matters. Dengue and malaria run rampant, and cholera, introduced by UN peacekeepers from Nepal after the 2010 earthquake, has killed ten thousand and infected nearly one million more. At the same time, nongovernmental organizations have poorly administered billions of dollars in aid. Some critics, including Concannon, say aid delivery has suffered from a top-down approach. “There isn’t enough participation of the Haitian people or accountability to ensure these projects are needed or well implemented,” he says.
What is U.S. policy toward Haiti?
Recent U.S. administrations have sought to bring political and economic stability to its southern neighbor. The Obama administration focused on strengthening Haiti’s rule of law, boosting economic security, improving health and education services, and buttressing infrastructure. Meanwhile, the United States has led the international responses to Haiti’s recent humanitarian crises, calling the country its “top foreign assistance priority” in the Caribbean. Since the 2010 earthquake, the U.S. Agency for International Development has been Haiti’s top donor, contributing roughly $5 billion in relief.
On trade, a series of accords struck by President George W. Bush and extended under President Barack Obama provides Haitian textiles with duty-free access to the United States. Eighty percent of all Haitian exports came to the United States in 2017.
U.S. policy toward Haiti in recent decades has also been characterized by favorable stances on immigration, beginning in the 1960s during the Duvalier dictatorships. Between 1990 and 2015, the Haitian immigrant population in the United States tripled as many fled political instability and natural disasters. After the 2010 earthquake, Obama granted Haitians temporary protected status (TPS), which affords undocumented migrants from troubled countries the right to live and work in the United States for renewable periods of up to eighteen months. By 2015, nearly seven hundred thousand Haitians lived in the United States, making it home to the largest population of Haitian immigrants worldwide.
The Trump administration slashed Haiti’s development fund by 18 percent in 2017 as part of broader cuts to U.S. foreign aid, but it has preserved funding for initiatives to reduce poverty, improve infrastructure and services, and promote democratic institutions. Trade agreements from the Obama era have likewise endured.
At the same time, President Donald J. Trump has diverged from his recent predecessors on immigration, particularly with regard to TPS. In late 2017, he denied Haitians an extension, leaving some fifty-nine thousand to face deportation in 2019. Roughly 30 percent of Haitian TPS holders were fifteen or younger upon their arrival. Parents to some twenty-seven thousand U.S. citizens, many must now choose between fragmenting their families or starting together anew in a country rife with challenges.