Haiti: A Shattered Nation

Revised and updated version of The Duvaliers and their Legacy

Hictory, as Baby Doc Duvalier fled to France, ending three decades of brutal dictatorship. The Duvalier regime slaughtered at least 50,000 people, many in the infamous Fort Dimanche. Duvalierism drove a million people into exile, cowed the six million who remained, and tortured hundreds of thousands.

Haiti tells the story of how the exploitation of natural and human resources of this once-rich nation, the world’s First Black Republic, has transformed Haiti into the western world’s poorest nation and the ‘republic of NGOs.’ Haiti’s insider account of the notorious Duvaliers, father and son, traces that systematic descent and how its handmaiden of foreign aid enabled murderous and corrupt regimes to remain in power while ceding responsibility for basic services to NGOs.

A Shattering Tale of Desolation

By chance, I read Elizabeth Abbott’s excellent history of Haiti while on assignment in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The comparisons were striking. Both countries are among the world’s most wretched. Both have had their natural wealth plundered by venal regimes. And in both, foreign “aid” has arguably done much more harm than good.

Haiti was once the jewel of the French Empire, part of a lush Caribbean island where everything grew, but in the one glorious moment of its dismal history its African slaves — many of them Congolese — rose up, defeated Napoleon’s army, and established the world’s first black republic in 1804.

The response of the young United States was to slap a crippling trade embargo on its tiny neighbour lest the contagion reached its own restive slaves. This “forced Haiti’s neck into an economic noose that strangled bright hopes and pushed her further down the road to economic and social catastrophe”, Ms Abbott writes. There followed a string of 22 rapacious presidents and self-styled emperors, only one of whom served a full term without being killed, exiled or dying in office. This sorry succession ended with a humiliating US occupation from 1915-34 that achieved little except exacerbate the disastrous divisions between Haiti’s light-skinned elite and its black masses.

In 1957 François “Papa Doc” Duvalier exploited those divisions to seize power, launching a singularly evil dynasty that lasted until his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, fled in 1996.

Ms Abbott’s description of the Duvaliers’ reign is a real-life version of Graham Greene’s The Comedians, full of detail that one suspects only an insider could obtain. Ms Abbott, a former journalist, was married during the 1980s to the brother of Baby Doc’s successor, Lieutenant-General Henri Namphy.

Papa Doc had, for example, a torture room in his palace with a peephole so he could watch. Ms Abbott also explains how the Duvaliers had a vested interest in keeping millions of Haitians in abject poverty, using them as “visible objects of misery that (they) peddled to the world in return for the gigantic handouts that could then be stolen”. They were helped by absurd US policies such as sending huge quantities of surplus rice to Haiti, thereby destroying its agricultural base.

Successive US presidents overlooked the Duvaliers’ crimes because, like Mobutu, they were anti-communist. By the mid-1980s aid constituted 70 per cent of Haiti’s budget, ensuring the regime had plenty of money to buy support and remain in power. The exception was Jimmy Carter, who linked aid to human rights, and Baby Doc threw a wild champagne party when he was defeated by Ronald Reagan in 1978.

Aid remains a mixed blessing. After last year’s catastrophic earthquake the world promised $5.3 billion to rebuild Haiti, but much of the money never materialised. The legions of non-governmental organisations in Haiti “squabbled, double-dealt and struck out for themselves”. Many spent much less than they received in the glorious opportunity for fundraising that the disaster provided. Consequently, hundreds of thousands of Haitians still live in camps, and mountains of rubble are part of the landscape.

Worst, the NGOs’ unilateral provision of basic services in this “republic of NGOs” has emasculated the Government and deepened its dependence on aid. It has done nothing to target the endemic corruption that has bedevilled Haiti for two centuries. “The post-earthquake mantra — Building Back Better — can inspire Haiti’s betterment only if the rot at the core of its social and government structures is targeted as an enemy,” this insightful book concludes.

The Times (London), Martin Fletcher

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