Haiti, synonymous with generational poverty, misrule and human misery, is reeling from a series of calamities as grave as any the island nation of 11 million people has suffered through.
In July, gunmen assassinated president Jovenel Moise, whom the opposition had accused of attempting to illegally prolong his term. The political crisis remains unresolved.
In August, a powerful earthquake killed more than 2,000 people and injured 12,000, recalling the devastating 2010 quake and the ensuing failure of donor relief to rebuild the country.
And as the year draws to a close, Port-au-Prince is now considered the kidnapping capital of the world as armed gangs operate with impunity. The weak central government is unable to control the gangs in a security vacuum caused by the departure of a U.N.-led peace-keeping force in 2019.
In this episode of History As It Happens, historian Alan McPherson, an expert in U.S. foreign relations with Latin America and the Caribbean, discusses the roots of Haiti’s struggles, which date to its founding as the first free Black republic in 1804.
“Haiti was poor from the very beginning of its independence. Beyond the sin of colonialism and slavery, there is the original sin that it wasn’t just a revolution, it was a revolution by Black slaves… and so this strikes fear in the hearts of slave owners throughout the Americas,” said Mr. McPherson, the author of “The Invaded: How Latin Americans and Their Allies Fought and Ended U.S. Occupations.”
The result was the U.S., starting under President Thomas Jefferson, refused to recognize Haiti’s sovereignty as an independent nation. And its former French overlords in 1825 imposed an indemnity on Haiti worth 100 million francs, or $21 billion today.
Thus, from the outset, the new nation was viewed as illegitimate by its most powerful neighbor and straddled with suffocating debt.
“Whatever Haiti could make on the world stage through exports, a lot of it had to be paid back in terms of loan repayments,” Mr. McPherson said. The repayments helped trap Haiti in a cycle of poverty.
By the early 20th century, the U.S. was worried about instability and foreign influence in Haiti, namely by Imperial Germany as World War I began, so President Woodrow Wilson ordered an invasion. The U.S. occupied Haiti until 1935.
“What it creates in Haiti is a particular political culture of, first of all, fearing foreigners. Also, fearing any kind of centralized power, and not wanting to contribute to the good of society. There’s very little sense of civic responsibility. There is very little development of institutions like universities, a free press, a functioning Congress, or market forces… Haiti never really fully developed them,” Mr. McPherson said.
For Mr. McPherson’s observations about why Haiti is so troubled today, listen to this episode of History As It Happens.