San José State University
Department of Economics
Thayer Watkins
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Political and Economic History of Haiti


Haiti is a country with a number of notable attributes, some good and some bad. It is the first republic of people of African descent and the second oldest nation in the Americas, the first being the United States of America. It shares another attribute with the U.S. The only two countries which were not able to abolish slavery without the extensive bloodshed of civil war were Haiti and the U.S. The U.S. and Haiti share the record for the extremes of per capita income. The U.S. has the highest per capita income in the Americas and Haiti has the lowest.

While Haiti's independence as a nation started with a slave rebellion the notion that this was a straight black versus white affair is wrong. Haiti's struggle for independence was a much more complex affair. In addition to black and white ethnic groups there was a class of mulattoes who were important in business and as land owners. Also within the ethnic groups there was some division between supporters of monarchy and of republicanism. And to add to the complication there was the role of the Hispanic people who shared the Island of Hispaniola with Haiti. The full story will be told later. First it is necessary to cover the origin of a a French colony on the Island of Hispaniola.

Early History

In 1492 Christopher Colombus on his first voyage to the Americas established a Spanish settlement, Navidad, on the north coast of the island of Hispaniola in what is now Haiti. That settlement was destroyed by the natives but Columbus on a later voyage established Isabela farther to the east on the north coast. The Spanish colony, called Santo Domingo, became a staging point for later expeditions and provided supplies for the conquistadores in Mexico and elsewhere. The first administrator for Santo Domingo was a brother of Christopher Columbus. Spaniards were given estates on the island and the right to compel the labor of the natives. The native population very nearly disappeared during the first half of the 16th century as a result of epidemics and enslavement. As a consequence the disappearance of the native population the population of Hispaniola, even in the Hispanic Dominican Republic, is not mestizo, as is the case in much of Latin America.

After the conquest of Mexico and the establishment of New Spain Santo Domingo lost is status as an administrative center and its economy lacked dynamism. By the end of the 16th century Spain was losing control of the seas to French, Dutch and British forces. Pirates preyed upon weak colonies such as those of Santo Domingo. By the middle of the 17th century French settlers occupied a the island of Tortuga off the north coast of Hispaniola and later French Huguenots began to settle the north coast of what is now Haiti. By 1700 the Spanish king had relinquished control of the western part of Hispaniola to the French. The French settlement was at first known as Sainte-Dominigue but later the name Haiti was adopted based upon the native name for the area which meant mountainous.

During the 18th century the French colony grew and prospered. By the time of the French Revolution Haiti was producing more than half of all the coffee produced in the world and Haiti was producing 40 percent of the sugar for France and Britain and accounted for 40 percent of France's foreign trade at a time when France was the dominant economy of Europe.

The prosperity of the French colony was based upon slavery. By the time of the French Revolution the population of slaves in Haiti was somewhere between 500 and 700 thousand. Most were slaves imported from Africa, predominantly from the west central african region of Dahoumey. The hard labor of the plantations along with the epidemics endemic to the tropics kept the mortality rate high necessitating continuing importation of slaves from Africa. The origin of the slaves in Dahoumey left its effect on the culture of Haiti, particularly in the religion known as Voodoo.

The century of domination of white slave holders over the African women produced a subpopulation of mulattoes. The mulattoes being offspring of the white elite were given special privileges that led to mulattoes accumulating land and some wealth. The mulattoes definitely were below the white elite in social status but they were definitely above the pure African slaves.

During the 18th century communities of escaped slaves developed in the mountain wildernesses. These people were called maroons from the Spanish word cimaron for wild. These maroon communities carried out wars against the slave plantations. One war in 1751-1757 resulted in the deaths of six thousand. The French were able to put down these wars but not able to wipe out the threat from the maroons. The maroons acquired military experience for this period of guerrilla war. Mulattoes of the cities acquired military experience while serving in the French units suppressing the warfare of the maroons. Some mulattoes gained military experience fighting on the side of the revolutionaries in the battle for independence of the British colonies (the American Revolution). The mulattoes had a self-interest in preserving slavery in the colony but they wanted their legal and social status made equal to that of the whites.

The French Revolution Leads to a Rebellion in Haiti

The rebellion of Haiti was not a simple black versus white affair. Instead the political matrix was as follows:

  Political Afiliation
Royalist  Republican 
Blacks  XXX XXX 
Mulattoes   XXX 
Whites  XXX XXX 

The political changes taking place in France at the time of the French Revolution brought change for the colonies. The National Assembly decreed that the mulattoes of the colonies who owned land and paid taxes would have the rights of citizens including the right to vote. The colonial administrators in Haiti refused to grant those rights to mulattoes and the mulattoes rebelled in 1790. The French put down the mulatto rebellion using black volunteers.

In 1791 a clique of black leaders including some maroons initiated a slave rebellion. Along the north coast the slaves massacred all the white they encountered. But the whites of the city of Cap Francais were able to defeat the slave rebels. The death toll was ten thousand blacks and two thousand whites. A thousand plantations had been destroyed in the uprising.

After the defeat of the slave rebellion in the north, there was a separate rebellion of mulattoes in the west and south. In the south the white administrators again used black troops to put down the mulatto rebellion. The National Assembly in France demanded the colony grant equal rights to the mulattoes. Now a division developed within the whites of Haiti between those who accepted the commands of the revolutionaries in Paris and those who rejected them. Political chaos in the various regions of Haiti where in some places black slaves fought white masters, in others, mulattoes fought white administrators and in still others black royalist fought white republicans and mulatto republicans.

Some leaders emerged from the chaos. The background of one of the leaders is of interest. Francois-Dominique Toussaint Louverture was a black slave of a family which trained him as a house servant and provided him with an education. He was one of the very few black Haitian leaders who could read and write. When Toussaint heard of the slave rebellion he arranged for the evacuation of his master's family from Haiti. He then joined the rebellion.

Francois-Dominique Toussaint Louverture

In April of 1793 Republican French forces with the aid of thousands of blacks defeated the white royalist forces at Cap Francais. The black recruits to the republican cause were promised their freedom. In August of 1793 the republican French administrator of Haiti abolished slavery.

Three black rebellion leaders chose not to ally themselves with the republican French administrators of Haiti and instead committed themselves to the representatives of the Spanish king in Santo Domingo. The Spanish authorities provided supplies for two separate armies led by black Haitians one of whom was Toussaint.

It is believed that Spain and Britain had agreed to divide Haiti between them. Britain landed troops at Mole Saint-Nicolas near the tip of the norther peninsula and at Jérémie near the tip of the southern peninsula. They then moved east to attack the city which is now called Port-au-Prince and captured it in June of 1794. Disease incapacitated the British troops and mulatto forces stopped the foreign troops saving Haiti for Republican France for the time being. Toussaint, the black leader who had allied himself with royalist Spain, decided to switch sides. The deciding factor was that republican French authorities had abolished slavery but Spain, although it had promised to abolish slavery, had not done so in the territory it had captured.

In July of 1794 France and Spain signed the Treaty of Ryswick which required the Spain to turnover the western part of its holding on the island of Hispaniola to France. This meant that Spain could no longer provide supplies or refuge to the black royalist troops fighting in Haiti. Those troops then disbanded and joined Toussaint. In 1795 under the Treaty of Basle Spain ceded the rest of its holdings on Hispaniola to France.

In 1796 mulatto forces were attempting to depose the French commander of republican troops and Toussaint came to his rescue. In gratitude that commander made Toussaint the lieutenant governor of Haiti. Later French commissioners made Toussaint the commander of all French forces in Haiti. Toussaint then consolidated his power by bringing one commander of mulatto forces, Rigaud, into an alliance and negotiated a truce with the invading British forces. He subsequently expelled the French commissioner. When Rigaud's forces clashed with Toussaint's forces they were defeated, in part, with supplies provided by the U.S. In 1800 Rigaud left Haiti leaving Toussaint in undisputed control of Haiti and the rest of Hispaniola. In 1801 a new constitution made Toussaint governor-general for life.

In 1802 Napoleon Bonaparte sent 16 to 20 thousand troops under the command of his brother-in-law to take control away from Toussaint. These forces with the aid of white and mulatto forces wore down Toussaint's army and two of his lieutenants, along with their troops, switched sides. Toussaint surrended and was later taken to France where he was imprisoned and finally died.

When Napoleon restored slavery on the Caribbean island of Martinique Haitian leaders again rebelled against the French. War between Britain and France again broke out. To raise funds Napoleon sold Louisiana to the United States. This meant that Haiti no longer had the strategic importance to France that it once had and Napoleon no longer wanted to use military resources to suppress the rebellion. The commander of the French forces in Haiti fled to Jamaica leaving Haiti in the control of the black general Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a former field slave.

Among the troops Napoleon sent to Haiti was a regiment of Polish troops. When Napoleon forces failed to gain control of Haiti, the Polish troops rather than returning to Europe settled in Haiti, took Haitian wives and raised families. Their descendants still live in Haiti and maintain their Polish identification. Some have blue eyes.

Haitian Independence

On January 1, 1804 Haiti declared independence from France. In 1805 Dessalines declared himself Emperor of Haiti.

Emperor Dessalines tried to create a court but his efforts were the subject of ridicule by the more educated mulattoes. He did not however give titles, taking the position that only he could be royal. Dessalines tried to establish ties between the black and mulatto leadership by encouraging marriages. The major mulatto military leader Alexandre Petion refused the offer of marriage to a daughter of Dessalines.

Dessalines failed in other matters as well. He tried to revive production by forced labor on the plantations but failed. He also tried to secure control of the Spanish eastern side of the island but that too failed. Dessalines was ultimately assassinated, probably upon the orders of one or more of the mulatto leaders.

Jean-Jacques Dessalines

The Partition of Haiti

After the death of Dessalines there were two strong contenders for rule in Haiti: Henri Christophe and Alexandre Petion. The mulatto elite created a constituent assembly to form a government. The elite selected Henri Christophe, a black general, to be president and Alexandre Petion to head the legislature. The selection of Christophe was a case of the elite attempting to support stand-in black leaders who would follow the dictates of the elite. This was called the politique de doublure.

Christophe had no intention of being a puppet president. He raised an army and marched on Port-au-Prince but could not take the city which was commanded by Petion who had the artillery that Christophe lacked. Christophe marched north and captured Cap Haitien. Christophe declared himself King Henry I of Haiti and renamed Cap Haitien Cap Henry. He brought in warriors from Dahoumey in central Africa to serve as his elite guard.

In the south Alexandre Petion was made president-for-life of the Republic of Haiti with the capital at Port-au-Prince.

Christophe made an effort to revive the export economy of Haiti. The plantations were kept intact under State ownership and the freed plantation slaves could not leave their plantations. Working conditions were easier than they were under slavery and the plantation workers got one quarter of the crop for remuneration.

King Henry tried to create a royal aristocracy by giving out titles. Some were amusing such as the Count of Marmalade. He also, at great cost in human lives (ten to twenty thousand), built a palace for himself (San Souci) and a citadel (La Ferriere).

San Souci
La Ferriere

King Henry's rule was severe but as export production improved, standards of living in his kingdom improved as well. In Petion's Republic in the south conditions took a far different direction. Petion, who became President-for-Life in the Republic, believed in the ideals and policies of the French Revolution. He distributed state-owned land in small parcels to create a society of free yeoman farmers. The land was given free to his soldiers and sold at low costs to others. The small farmers of the Republic tended to produce for their own subsistence and not the crops for export such as sugar cane. The small farmers did produce coffee for a cash crop but not in sufficient quantity to generate export earnings to pay for imports. Without sugar cane production on the south the sugar mills and other subsidiary enterprises had to close thus depressing the economy. The Country Study for Haiti summed up the situation as follows:

In the south, the average Haitian was an isolated, poor, free, and relatively content yeoman. In the north, the average Haitian was a resentful but comparatively prosperous laborer.

The partition of Haiti produced an accidental comparative test of different economic institutions and policies.

Alexandre Petion was widely respected and honored. He provided refuge and assistance to Simon Bolivar which enabled Bolivar to recover from defeat at the hands of the Spanish and go on to win independence for Hispanic South America. When Petion died in 1818 King Henry attempted a reconciliation of the two Haitis but the republicans of the south did not want rule by an autocrat. Later King Henry suffered a stroke and realized that he would lose control in his kingdom. He knew he could expect very harsh treatment from his subjects so he committed suicide.

The Republic had selected an aide of Petion to govern, General Jean-Pierre Boyer. When King Henry committed suicide in 1820 Boyer led an army to the north to capture Cap Haitien and reunite Haiti. In 1822 Boyer conquered the Spanish parts of Hispaniola thus bringing all of Hispaniola under control from Port-au-Prince. Haitian control of Santo Domingo continued until 1844. Under Boyer the economy of Haiti stagnated. He made matters worse by making a large payment to the government of France to secure final acceptance of Haitian independence. The fiscal hardships associated with that payment made economic conditions even worse. In 1843 open rebellion broke out against Boyer charging him with corruption and dictatorial rule. When his army began to defect to the side of the rebels Boyer fled to Jamaica.

The competition between blacks and mulattoes for political control in Haiti continued throughout the rest of the 19th century and into the 20th century. The politique de doublure made it complicated to determine exactly who was in control. The two political parties were the National Party, controlled by blacks, and the Liberal Party, controlled by mulattoes of the cities. Hispanic nationalist forces gained control in Santo Domingo in 1844 and in the 1860s Spain again came into control of the eastern two thirds of Hispaniola.

In 1915 General Guillaume Sam gained the presidency and had 167 political prisoners executed. An outraged mob in Port-au-Prince sought President Sam who fled to the French embassy. The mob took Sam from the embassy and tore him apart and paraded through the streets displaying the parts of Sam. The complete breakdown in law-and-order was used as a justification for the occupation of Haiti by U.S. troops.

In addition to ending the bloodshed in Haiti the U.S. occupation was probably influenced by the fear that German businessmen might be gaining political control of Haiti which would threaten U.S. interests in the Caribbean and access to the Panama Canal.

From 1915 to 1934 American administrators ran the government of Haiti. During the occupation a considerable amount of infrastructure was put into place.

American forces left Haiti in 1934. Rafael Trujillo Molina, the commander of the Army in the Dominican Republic came into control of the Dominican Republic about 1930. He had ambitions of controlling all of the island of Hispaniola and developed agents in Haiti to work toward that end. Soon the politics of Haiti not only had the competition between the black and mulatto political factions but Trujillo's agents were active.

In 1957 a medical doctor, François Duvalier, won a free and open election for the presidency. Although Duvalier was the legitimate winner of the election, once in office he had no scruples about the use of power and force to continue in office. Duvalier ruled Haiti from 1957 to 1971. He created a network of executioners throughout the Haitian countryside called the ton ton makouts. It is estimated that thirty thousand Haitians were killed for opposition to his rule during that period.

When François Duvalier died in 1971 the Duvalier political machine put his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier in charge. The son did not have the taste for ruling that his father had. But Jean-Claude did have a taste for luxury that had to be fed by corruption and theft. The regimes of the Duvaliers have been characterized as kleptocracies, rule by thieves. Jean-Claude's rule lasted from 1971 to 1986.

The Economic History of Haiti

Compared to the political history, the economic history of Haiti is relatively simple. The original economic basis for the Spanish colonies on Hispaniola was sugar plantations. The French continued the sugar economy and introduced coffee. There were other plantation crops grown such as cotton and cacao for chocolate but it was sugar and coffee that were the most important. Under the French plantation system, based upon slave labor, Haiti was an enormously profitable operation. The Haitian sugar economy was in competition with the northeast region of Brazil, which previously had been the major source of sugar for Europe. The French sugar and coffee operations in Haiti were so productive that its exports to Europe were comparable and perhaps exceeded the total exports of the British North American colonies.

After the battles associated with independence there was some attempts to retain the large scale plantation agriculture of the colonial period but that effort was doomed. Land was distributed into small scale farms but these units devoted only a fraction of their resources to growing export crops like sugar and coffee. Often the output is consumed domestically and there are no exports of sugar or coffee.

In the latter part of the 20th century tourism became an important element of the economic base of Haiti. But the political instability and the public's association of Haiti with AIDS severely crippled the Haitian tourism industry.

In recent decades the low wage rates of Haiti have attracted manufacturing assembly operations. Haiti is one of the few countries that has pay scales low enough to compete with China.

The development of manufacturing assembly operations in Haiti was helped greatly by changes in the tariff rules that allowed Haitian operations to function much like the maquilidoras of the U.S.-Mexican border areas where the products assembled from material from U.S. sources could re-enter the U.S. without duties being charged.

The Earthquake of January 12, 2010
and Its After Effects

Haiti is a nation of nine million people 80 percent of whom are living on the thin edge of survival. The 7.0 earthquake of January 12th, 2010 not only killed about a hundred thousand people outright but put millions at risk of death from lack of water, food, medicine and settler. It also unleashed social turmoil that will exact its own toll.

The island of Hispanola is seismically active. It is located above where the North American tectonic plate meets the Caribbean plate. The two plates slide laterally about 2 cm. per year, which is about the same activity as along the San Andreas fault in California. This makes Hispanola about as seismically active as California. Major earthquakes struck in 1751 and 1770. In the 19th century there was a major quake in 1842. In 1946 an 8.0 quake struck Hispanola in 1946. But those earthquake did not take human life to the extent that the 2010 has because they were not centered near major cities. The 1946 was an 8.0 quake but its death toll was less than two thousand, a major tragedy at the time, but minor compared to the hundred thousand death toll of the 2010 quake.

The general public are conditioned to interpreting the significance of an earthquake by its magnitude measure but the effect depends not only on its magnitude but on the distance from the epicenter. A quake that is twice as far away has only one fourth of the effect. The distance depends not only on the horizontal distance but the vertical distance as well. For example, the epicenter of the January 12, 2010 quake was 16 miles away from Port-au-Prince horizontally and 8 miles below the surface. That make the distance from the epicenter to Port-au-Prince about 18 miles straight line distance. Because of Haiti's layout in two peninsulas the Haitians in the northern peninsula may have felt the quake but they were not much affected by it. Likewise the Haitians at the end of the southern peninsula away from Port-au-Prince were also little affected.

The government and industry were destroyed in the region of Port-au-Prince and it will be a long time before the economy can function again. For the people now desperately trying to survive that is of little concern. Some have fled to the Dominican Republic. The Dominican Republican however do not want a mass migration of Haitians to their country. The army of the Dominican Republic will be heavily contolling the border. The government of the country of Senegal in African has offered to admit Haitian migrants. For many Haitians the major goal for the forseeable future will be migration.

Haiti is relatively densely populated now with about eight hundred people per square mile. This is double what it was in 1970 and triple what it was in 1950. The population density of Cuba is only about 250 people per square mile. For Mexico it is 140 and for Nicaragua 115. For Venezuela it is 81. Even the Dominican Republic seems a bit uncrowded at 540 people per square mile compared to Haiti at 800.

Half of the population of Haiti are under the age of 21. And there are not many old people by comparison. This is going to make for a highly mobile population for the immediate future; i.e., many young people wanting desperately to find a different place to live.


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