From Poverty to Prosperity: The Roots Causes of Poverty and Migration in Haiti

Originally Published: BAJI Reader 2, no. 1 (Spring 2011): pg. 18-21


On January 1, 1804, a revolution led by slaves against colonialism and slavery was the very first successful Black movement in the world resulting in an independent state. On January 1, 2010, the Republic of Haiti celebrated its 206th year of Independence. Tragically, on January 12, 2010 at 4:53 pm, this beautiful, mountainous "Pearl of the Antilles" was brought to its knees by a major natural disaster--this time by a 7.0 earthquake.

In the wake of the recent earthquake, the international community has come to the immediate aid of Haiti. Cuba and Venezuela were some of the first-responder nations to the catastrophe, sending doctors and medical equipment to assist with the wounded. Not too far behind was the United States. The U.S. sent aid, governmental organizations, and the military. Of course this is not the first time there has been such a massive military presence in Haiti by the U.S. government; unfortunately, this is a well-designed strategy for U.S.-Haiti relations. Anytime conditions in Haiti have been unstable, the American government has sent the military in to “protect democracy” and “protect American and foreign interests.”

U.S. Occupations of Haiti

On July 28, 1915, three hundred and thirty United States Marines, led by Admiral William B. Caperton entered Port-au-Prince, Haiti. This was the first U.S. occupation of Haiti which consequently lasted 19 years. During the occupation, the U.S. Government led by then-President Woodrow Wilson, initiated several administrative changes. The most significant change was the redrafting of the Republic of Haiti’s Constitution. The U.S. (through its puppet-president Philippe Sudré Dartiguenave) amended the constitution repealing the article that was set forth by Jean-Jacque Dessalines in 1804, forbidding land ownership by foreigners. Additionally, the U.S. created the Army of Haiti (Forces Armées d’Ayiti) whose primary purpose was to maintain stability in the Republic. Ultimately, on August 7, 1933, Haiti and the U.S. signed an agreement on the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country which eventually ended the first U.S. occupation of Haiti.

On December 16, 1990, Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide became the first democratically-elected President of Haiti. On February 7, 1991, Aristide was sworn in as President and subsequently on September 30, 1991 President Aristide was overthrown by a coup d'état led by Haiti's military chief, Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras. In September 1994 as of result of the coup, some twenty thousand U.S. troops entered Haiti to assist with the return of the overthrown President Aristide; this came to be known as U.S. Operation Uphold Democracy that officially ended on March 31, 1995.

In addition to Operation Uphold Democracy in 1994, the United Nations has continued to have a presence in Haiti since the ousting of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004. MINUSTAH (French: Mission des Nations Unies pour la Stabilisation en Haïti; English: United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti) is led by the Brazilian Army. The current UN mission is authorized until October 15, 2010. This “peacekeeping” mission has been criticized since its inception. MINUSTAH has conducted raids in the many slums of the capital and have killed many innocent civilians in the process. On July 6, 2005, MINUSTAH carried out a raid in the Slum of Cité Soleil which resulted in the death of about 23 people. In addition to Cité Soleil, there have been reports of a campaign of “political cleansing” in the Slum of Bel Air. Reports from pro-Lavalas sources, as well as journalists such as Kevin Pina, contend that the raid targeted civilians and was an attempt to destroy the popular support for Haiti's exiled former leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, before scheduled upcoming elections.

Haiti is known to the world as the “poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.” It’s a  nation full of political instability and corruption. Many observers believe there is no way that Haiti can ever be salvaged or developed. Nations that enter; declare they enter Haiti, to strengthen democratic institutions and to promote peace and prosperity. Yet brutal dictators such as Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, the former dictator of Haiti, who succeeded his father “Papa Doc, continues to live in exile in France and remains free and unprosecuted for the criminal acts he committed while in power.

Additionally, the country’s infrastructure was in shambles and now as a result of the hurricanes of 2000 and 2004 and the earthquakes of January 2010, the infrastructure in Haiti has completely collapsed. Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to occupy Haiti in the wake of the earthquake and remain completely oblivious to the needs of the people of Haiti. The U.S. is much more concerned with stopping a potential migration of Haitians in to the U.S.

Economic Globalization and Migration Trends  

When attempting to understand migration trends of Haitians, it is pertinent to understand the root causes of migration. Many Haitians who risks their lives to get on a boat and make the conscious decision to leave Haiti do not do it by choice, but rather out of necessity. John Maxwell in his article Racism and Poverty states: When large numbers of people are reduced to eating dirt – earth, clay – it is impossible to imagine poverty any more absolute, any more desperate, any more inhuman and degrading.

About 80% of Haiti’s population is unemployed and living on less than a dollar a day. In a population of about 9 million people, 6.2 million lives in poverty. Additionally, as a result of the policies of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB) and their willingness to grant loans to nations they are aware would have tremendous difficulty in repaying the loans, the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) were instituted, also known as, conditionalities for new loans or for obtaining lower interest rates on existing loans. Through conditionalities, SAPs commonly implement internal changes such as privatization and deregulation (which generally leads to less accountability and oversight). This leads to the privatization of health care (we have all seen how well it’s going in the U.S.), the privatization of education, and all other social programs. All in all, what SAPs programs provide is a lack of oversight and mechanisms of accountability, everything transfers from public to private hands, where the interests is not in serving the population, but personal gain.

Economic Globalization is another factor which has a tremendous effect on increasing poverty rates in Haiti. The biggest problems that economic globalization creates is: (1) Brain Drain -- this is in response to the opportunities in richer countries such as the U.S., Canada, and France; because of this avenue many Haitians leave and never come back and (2) Sweatshops -- foreign businesses invest in Haiti to take advantage of lower wage rates and to exploit workers. A measure backed by the U.S. is the Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement (HOPE) Act of 2006. Ultimately, this act created an avenue for increase economic development in Haiti, as well as, exploitation of Haitian workers. In 2008, HOPE II was passed which required Haiti “to establish an independent labor ombudsman’s office and a program operated by the International Labor Organization to assess compliance with core labor rights and Haiti's labor laws in the country's apparel factories.” Now with the additions made to HOPE II the U.S. created some form of accountability to worker exploitation. One of the significant changes that were seen was the increase of Haiti’s minimum wage from 70 gourdes to 200 gourdes (1.75 USD to 5.50 USD) which was strongly opposed by Haitian Industrialists.


The State of Haiti: Natural Disaster

Before the earthquakes on January 12th, the masses of Haiti were homeless; suffering from malnutrition and hunger, which was primarily in part of the hurricanes, floods, mudslides and food crises. Although many of the problems stem from the natural disasters that have damaged the island, they can also be traced to the racism and classism that exist in the nation. Haiti’s most serious social problem is the economic gap between the impoverished Creole-speaking black majority and the French-speaking mulattos, 1% of whom own nearly half the country’s wealth.

In August 2008, four major storms ravaged Haiti (Tropical Storm Fay and Hanna and Hurricane Gustav and Ike) killing hundreds and displacing hundreds of thousands. The storms caused flooding in all ten of the departments in Haiti. The storms destroyed approximately one-third of the country’s rice crop, where in many parts farming is the only means of survival. Therefore, as a result of the storms, the livelihoods of many were destroyed and the food crisis in Haiti exacerbated. Regrettably the circumstances have not changed one bit in regards to the recent earthquakes in Haiti. In spite of the massive influx of aid into Haiti, many are still hungry, not receiving the proper medical care and are living in sheet-covered tents. Some statements provided by community leaders in Miami are that the classism is evident in Haiti. Some have come back with reports that many of the masses are suffering from starvation and shockingly others are actually overeating.

Now to be fair, not all of the response to the earthquake has been poor, there have been a couple of huge things that came out in response to the disaster. The first of which was the designation of Haiti for Temporary Protected Status (TPS). Temporary Protected Status was a campaign that many nationally and a few internationally aggressively fought for since the storms of 2000 and 2004. However, unfortunately, on December 19, 2008 a denial letter was sent to President Rene Preval in response to his request for TPS, stating that “Haiti does not currently warrant a TPS designation.” Nonetheless, on January 15, 2010, Secretary Janet Napolitano of the Department of Homeland Security announced the designation of TPS for Haitians as a direct result of the earthquake on January 12th.

The second positive that has come out of the catastrophe has been the tremendous support worldwide for overall debt cancellation for Haiti. In the U.S. this effort is led by many organizations, one of which I have had the opportunity to work with and is very invested in the campaign for debt cancellation, Jubilee USA Network. This organization has worked closely with Congress, specifically, Rep. Maxine Waters to introduced the Jubilee Act for Responsible Lending and Expanded Debt Cancellation Act. The debt cancellation for Haiti movement is growing strong and now we must look to the future for the development and sustainability of Haiti.


Upward Bound: What’s in Haiti’s Future?

To say that we can predict what the future holds for Haiti would be a massive stretch. However, I do not believe it’s a stretch to think about what we would like to see for the future of Haiti. Ayiti Cheri’m translates into “My Darling Haiti,” Haiti is a beautiful island with an equally rich and beautiful history. Haiti was once a prosperous country and I truly believe with the right intentions it will have its day. Specifically, I am suggesting the following policy considerations to address critical concerns for sustainability in Haiti: 

(1)    Poverty: We, the international community, need to recognize that Haiti is poor. We cannot only say it, but we must acknowledge it and figure out the root causes to its poverty. With the knowledge gained, we must then find applicable solutions. We must find solutions to address the issues of deforestation, clean water, and reliable electricity.

(2)    Debt Cancellation: The biggest problem as I previously mentioned, is that institutions purposefully lend money to nations that cannot pay them back, to institute Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) which in the end does more harm than good. We have learned through history that throwing money at the problem does not work. There is a lack of accountability and because of the high corruption rate in Haiti nothing ever gets accomplished. There needs to be accountability mechanisms created by the government of Haiti to deal with this problem of corruption, as well as, accountability mechanisms created by the lending institutions of the work that was required with the money provided.

(3)    Political Instability: Acknowledge the political instability in Haiti, which in turn should lead to the formulation of policies to deal with Haitian migrants as we have done with other groups. The denial rate for Haitian political asylum is about 85-90%.Yet almost every day a Haitian is killed for political reasons or takes a life-threatening journey to the U.S. to escape political persecution.

(4)    Economic Reform: There is a need for a massive overhauling of Haiti’s political and economic structure. Instead of the U.S. sending in troops to “protect democracy,” how about the U.S. and the rest of the international community send it developers to assist with the reformation of the economic system in Haiti. One of the biggest things Haiti lacks is a system of taxes. This has been the primary attraction for many who come to Haiti to make a “quick buck.” It is imperative for a country to have a system of taxes to assist with the economic stability of the country.

(5)    Sovereignty: Haiti is an independent nation, yet with the continuous occupation of the nation and the never ending parade of troops, many would believe otherwise. Haitians must allowed be able to run their own country without interference from other nations. The international community needs to take a step back instead of “kidnapping” presidents and stop installing puppet presidents.

Although at the present moment Haiti is suffering, it is not in vain. Haiti will one day get off its knees and stand up on its two feet. It will have righted all of its wrong and be a prosperous nation. The day will come where the people will not flee their home, but will rejoice in the beautifulness that is Haiti. The day will come where the doctors, engineers, and entrepreneurs will come home and the brain drain will end. With this renewed spirit, a new dawn of economic prosperity and political stability is on the horizon.