Failed state—Lately, this has been a widely held view of the Republic of Haiti, whether overtly expressed or slightly sugar-coated to mitigate the harshness of the bitter pill. I had long been mourning the ever-increasing decompensation of our sister state, but on 12 January 2010, I wept openly. I wept again at the devastation of four hurricanes in the past decade and yet again in February 2019 when about 30 Haitians fleeing their homeland by the perilous sea route perished in a shipwreck on the shoals of Abaco, Bahamas.
It was not long before I dried the tears of gloomy pessimism and sought to understand what brought the country once called the “Pearl of the Antilles” to its knees on the international breadline. I needed a better grip on what caused a centuries-long fall that bids well to hit bottom before the century is not much older. Among my goals was writing Haiti’s decline in hopes of promoting better-targeted assistance for Haiti in the form of a more sustainable hand up, rather than endless but ineffective handouts.
I thought that what I might share might become an object lesson for my own homeland, inciting more compassion, more reasoned dialogue with the Haitian government to achieve a more mutually beneficial Bahamian immigration policy and more energetic and vigilant support from Haiti to make it work. Even more, I thought the story might serve as an object lesson to a people who might be flirting with tentative excursions down the roads to ruin that may be perceived in Haiti’s history.
With much reason, John Henley, writing in Britain’s The Guardian (14 January 2010) following the 2010 earthquake, termed Haiti’s decline—“The Descent to Hell”. Henley quotes British historian Alex von Tunzelmann who noted: “Haiti has had slavery, revolution, debt, deforestation, corruption, exploitation and violence.” In this writer’s opinion, the one statement encapsulates one of the primary causes and a good part of the results of the rotten root.
Under the domination of imperial France (1625-1789), a plantation economy built on the backs of an accumulation of nearly a million slaves was undoubtedly seminal, creating a garden of good for the European masters and evil for those whose labour made it flourish. How valuable was the pearl? Henley’s article notes that by the late 18th century, Haitian exports constituted 60 per cent of all the coffee and 40 per cent of all the sugar consumed in Europe, a volume that bested the output of all of Britain’s West Indian colonies combined.
Then, in 1789, Haiti’s brutally exploited masses said enough and cut away the heavy hand of France. Unfortunately, that hand found a new way to turn the screw on its former bondsmen. To give diplomatic recognition to the new republic, without which Haiti would be cut off from world trade, France demanded reparations from Haiti to the tune of 150 million francs, later reduced to 60 million francs. As this diabolical demand was backed by the superpowers of the day, Haiti paid. When the obligation was finally satisfied in 1947, Haiti found itself heavily indebted, after borrowing from several ‘Peters’ at predatory interest rates to pay the vengeful French ‘Paul’. Towards the end, Haiti’s debt servicing was consuming more three-quarters of its national budget.
So, yes indeed, slavery and imperialism seeded and midwifed Haiti’s poverty. Haiti can rightly sing an old Bahamian song: “Pay me, oh; pay me what you owe me. The chances are slim of the country’s former overlords giving any real consideration to reparations for a monstrous assault on a people it had sinned against for centuries. But Haitians can enjoy a bitter smile at an unexpected source of retribution. Today, France is singing its own sad song of internal unrest—Payback is a bitch.
Haiti’s troubles are not a one-track phenomenon or a static one. They continue because emancipation was not complete when the Haitian republic was declared in 1804. Its leaders, from the first until now, learned and yearned for the despotism of their country’s former masters. This is abundantly clear from the behaviour of the first of them; Dessalines, Christophe and Faustin declared themselves emperors, investing that status with the most harmful traits of European imperialism.
Henri Christophe built for himself Citadelle La Ferrière, chateau and palaces, including the fabulous Sans-Souci Palace. He created a nobility, scattering titles and money with profligacy, although the source of Haiti’s wealth: the cultivation of sugar, coffee, spices and indigo and associated plantations had been seriously impacted by the revolution. Faustin Soulouque, who made himself Emperor Faustin 1, was not to be outdone in creating peers and spending, further depleting Haiti’s ever more challenged resources.
Nothing changed as the 19th century turned into the 20th. By the 1950’s, the taste for absolute rule, extralegal military interventions and self-enrichment had become deeply ingrained in the psyche of Haitian leadership, and the masses became more and more deprived, their needs continually marginalized. However, when François Duvalier came to power (1957-1971, added a new and bloody page to the history of despotism and thievery.
His son Jean-Claude, “Baby Doc”, gave his all to walking in his father’s huge, corrupt footsteps. His spending $2 million on his wedding to Michèle Bennet was a drizzle compared to the bleed out of Haiti’s tenuous resources to fund his princely lifestyle. It is thought that he fled to France in 1986 with as much as $900 million. Doubtless, much of the money with which he funded his lavish lifestyle in Europe was derived mainly from international aid and the millions borrowed for projects that never saw the light of day or were abandoned after a sham engagement to blind creditors. Then there were the under-the-the table deals with foreign multinationals, soliciting contracts, beneficial to those forging the deals but bringing further ruin to Haiti.
The early Haitian emperors may be gone, but successive presidents of modern Haiti have become their heirs in what has become a predatory democracy, where elections are virtually meaningless in terms of according power and or any adequacy of resources to the masses. What is new is, Robert Fatton, Jr, has described in his book as “a form of governability based on the acquisition of personal wealth through the conquest of state offices.” (Haiti’s Preditory Republic: The unending transition to Democracy). Fatton noted that “politics becomes an entrepreneurial vocation” and the transformation of honest men and women into “a rapacious species of officeholders that devour public resources for their exclusive private gains.”
Here is the object lesson. Do Bahamians recognize that seats in Parliament and governance are in danger of becoming “entrepreneurial vocations”. Our country was almost brought to its financial knees from the depredations of office holders who were either sleeping on the job, turning a blind eye for profit or actively engaged in the depredation of the public purse.
We are not yet Haiti, not yet a failed state, but the past decade put our national feet on a banana peel for the slide into a hell like the one our sad sister country is experiencing. We still have time to steer the ship of state into strong channels of accountability and prudence. It is time to invigorate, revamp or pass the following pieces of legislation and bills: The Freedom of Information Act, The Financial Transactions Report Act, the Proceeds Act, Public Financial Management Bill, Financial Administration and Audit Act, Fiscal Responsibility Bill, and the proposed Public Debt Management Bill and Public Procurement Bill. While we can’t legislate honesty, we can do more to protect our country’s resources and future from vocational malfeasance in public service and elsewhere. We have to deny empty rituals of democracy and give equity and unity the force of religion, supported by gospels of truth, probity and an inviolable love of country.