Long before the biggest natural disaster in Haiti's history shook Port-au-Prince on the afternoon of Jan. 12, the Caribbean nation of 10 million struggled to feed and shelter its expanding population. More than a million families relied daily on international food aid, and the capital sprawled with shantytowns build by unemployed farmhands who had migrated to the city in search of work. Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, but its culture and history are undeniably rich. Under French rule in the 1700s, Haiti was the wealthiest colony in the New World and represented more than a quarter of France's economy. After a Haitian slave revolt defeated the French army in 1801, the newly independent nation became the first country in the New World to abolish slavery. But Haiti's fortunes ebbed when the 20th century brought three decades of American occupation, multiple corrupt regimes, natural disasters, environmental devastation, and the scourge of HIV. Newsweek discussed Haiti's storied past and uncertain future with Michele Wucker, the executive director of the World Policy Institute and author of Why the Cocks Fight: Dominicans, Haitians, and the Struggle for Hispaniola.
Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the same island and the same basic climate and geography. Why is Haiti considerably poorer?
Haiti won its independence after a long revolution that destroyed a lot of the country. They were then required to pay a large indemnity to France or else many countries—including the United States—refused to acknowledge Haiti for fear that it would encourage an American slave revolt. More recently, both Haiti and the Dominican Republic were occupied by the United States, but Haiti was occupied for much longer. By the time the U.S. pulled out in 1934, Haiti's own institutions had atrophied.
How does the legacy of the Duvaliers (Francois "Papa Doc" and his son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc," who ruled Haiti from 1957 to 1986) contribute to Haiti's current conditions?
The Duvaliers left Haiti economically decimated. A large number of educated professionals left the country during the Duvalier regimes, and the period that followed was so unstable, it was hard to lay down roots and build infrastructure. International investment was limited because it was an unreliable business environment.
Haiti has a history of limiting foreign ownership of its land and industries. Will it need to open up its borders to multinationals and can it provide the security foreign investment requires?
Haitians must have a feeling that they are in control of their own destiny. After the coup against President Aristide in 2004, there was a lot of controversy over what Haiti's economy should look like. A lot of Haitians felt that reform was being dictated by Washington. Haiti wasn't given enough of a chance to help itself, which made the political instability worse.
Food aid from the United States has helped feed the poorest Haitians but it also seems to have put Haitian farmers out of business. How can Haiti build an effective farming system?
As for Haitian farmers competing with U.S. imports, it raises the larger question of how the U.S. subsidizes its farm industry and dumps surplus crops in the form of food aid. This practice has done a lot of damage in Haiti and other developing countries. For Haiti to sustain its own people, it needs to rebuild the roads and infrastructure needed to transport crops internally.
How have deforestation and soil erosion impacted Haiti?
Deforestation has drastically worsened the impact of hurricanes and tropical storms. On the southern border between the countries, you can see the green forest stops and it's barren on the Haitian side.
Given that Haiti is vulnerable to hurricanes and earthquakes, it would be prudent to establish building codes and other disaster response initiatives. How can this be implemented?
A lot of Haitians living in the diaspora are interested in helping back home, and that will play an important role in rebuilding Haiti. At the same time, there are administrators from big international aid organizations living in Haiti who are paid well and live in lovely homes. These resources could be spent more effectively by employing Haitians rather than top-loading with international consultants.
How have racism and cultural identity had an impact on Haiti's interaction with other countries?
Haitians are very proud of their heritage as they should be. But when you've got a country that's constantly derided and accused of making a pact with the devil, it's hard to get the aid and investment the country needs. Haiti has done amazing things. To be the country that started the end of slavery is so powerful. Haiti has fantastic music, a language that is very witty and creative, and people with an amazing spirit and work ethic. Those things are too easily forgotten by outsiders, but anyone who has spent any time in Haiti can't help but fall in love with it.