This article is from the March/April 2010 issue of Dollars & Sense: Real World Economics, available at

issue 287 cover

This article is from the March/April 2010 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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Making Sense

Haiti’s Fault Lines: Made in the U.S.A.

By Marie Kennedy and Chris Tilly

The mainstream media got half the story right about Haiti. Reporters observed that Haiti’s stark poverty intensified the devastation caused by the recent earthquake. True: hillside shantytowns, widespread concrete construction without rebar reinforcement, a grossly inadequate road network, and a health-care system mainly designed to cater to the small elite all contributed mightily to death and destruction.

But what caused that poverty? U.S. readers and viewers might be forgiven for concluding that some inexplicable curse has handed Haiti corrupt and unstable governments, unproductive agriculture, and widespread illiteracy. Televangelist Pat Robertson simply took this line of “explanation” to its nutty, racist conclusion when he opined that Haitians were paying for a pact with the devil. But the devil had little to do with Haiti’s underdevelopment. Instead, the fingerprints of more mundane actors—France and later the United States—are all over the crime scene. After the slave rebellion of 1791, France wrought massive destruction in attempting to recapture its former colony, then extracted 150 million francs of reparations, only fully paid off in 1947. France’s most poisonous legacy may have been the skin-color hierarchy that sparked fratricidal violence and still divides Haiti.

While France accepted Haiti once the government started paying up, the United States, alarmed by the example of a slave republic, refused to recognize Haiti until 1862. That late-arriving recognition kicked off a continuing series of military and political interventions. The U.S. Marines occupied Haiti outright 1915-34, modernizing the infrastructure but also revising laws to allow foreign ownership, turning over the country’s Treasury to a New York bank, saddling Haiti with a $40 million debt to the United States, and reinforcing the status gap between mulattos and blacks. American governments backed the brutal, kleptocratic two-generation Duvalier dictatorship from 1957-86. When populist priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected president in 1990, the Bush I administration winked at the coup that ousted him a year later. Bill Clinton reversed course, ordering an invasion to restore Aristide, but used that intervention to impose the same free-trade “structural adjustment” Bush had sought. Bush II closed the circle by backing rebels who re-overthrew the re-elected Aristide in 2004. No wonder many Haitians are suspicious of the U.S. troops who poured in after the earthquake. Though coups and invasions grab headlines, U.S. economic interventions have had equally far-reaching effects. U.S. goals for the last thirty years have been to open Haiti to American products, push Haiti’s self-sufficient peasants off the land, and redirect the Haitian economy to plantation-grown luxury crops and export assembly, both underpinned by cheap labor. Though Haiti has yet to boost its export capacity, the first two goals have succeeded, shattering Haiti’s former productive capacity. In the early 1980s, the U.S. Agency for International Development exterminated Haiti’s hardy Creole pigs in the name of preventing a swine flu epidemic, then helpfully offered U.S. pigs that require expensive U.S.-produced feeds and medicines. Cheap American rice imports crippled the country’s breadbasket, the Artibonite, so that Haiti, a rice exporter in the 1980s, now imports massive amounts. Former peasants flooded into Port-au-Prince, doubling the population over the last quarter century, building makeshift housing, and setting the stage for the current catastrophe.

In the wake of the disaster, U.S. aid continues to have two-edged effects. Each aid shipment that flies in American rice and flour instead of buying and distributing local rice or cassava continues to undermine agriculture and deepen dependency. Precious trucks and airstrips are used to marshal U.S. troops against overblown “security threats,” crowding out humanitarian assistance. The United States and other international donors show signs of once more using aid to leverage a free-trade agenda. If we seek to end Haiti’s curse, the first step is to realize that one of the curse’s main sources

Marie Kennedy and Chris Tilly are present and past board members of Grassroots International (, which has worked with Haitian partners for nearly 20 years (including on current relief). Both are affiliated with UCLA; Tilly is also a Dollars & Sense Associate.

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