Recently, Pat Robertson had this to say about Haiti:
“Something happened a long time ago in Haiti … they were under the heel of the French, uh, you know, Napoleon the third and whatever … and they got together and swore a pact to the devil, they said, we will serve you, if you get us free from the Prince. True story.”
While it’s easy enough to say Robertson is an out-of-touch old crank, most everyone is taking exception to the devil crack and not to Robertson’s comment that Haiti is in deep trouble while its neighbor, the Dominican Republic, enjoys a happy, prosperous economy. This is wrong.
Historically, the origin for the deal with the devil myth stems from Haitian revolutionaries engaging in Vodou ceremonies to enlist supernatural aid in their fight for freedom. Vodou isn’t devil worship. It’s African religion and many of its practitioners combine it with Catholicism. Robertson’s comment was reminiscent of the things being said about Haiti when it first gained independence in 1804. Indeed, it’s like the white world never forgave Haiti for being a nation founded in the wake of a slave rebellion.
On to the question of Haiti and the Dominican Republic: Are they really that different and, if so, why?
From 1800 to around 1880, both nations faced civil wars, political violence, and economic dislocation. Around 1880, both nations stabilized. Haiti was a liberal democracy with a prospering economy and a cultural renaissance. The Dominican Republic was ruled by a dictator, which held the political violence in check for a while. Both nations’ peaceful interludes came to an end around 1911, and the USMC went in to run Haiti in 1915 and the Dominican Republic in 1916.
In both cases, the Marines went in to protect US interests. That is to say, the fighting men of the USA were put to work to keep City Bank of New York from losing its shirt in defaulted Haitian debt and to protect sugar industries from getting wiped out in the Dominican Republic. While the USA left the Dominican Republic when sugar prices collapsed in 1924, it stayed in Haiti until 1934 and ran the Haitian economy until 1947.
That’s the first difference: Longer US involvement in Haiti. As the US ran Haiti, it brought Jim Crow laws to the nation and enforced a system of racial segregation and favoritism. The US also brought back the old French forced labor system – the corvée – which, with the Jim Crow laws meant the US revived slavery in all but name in Haiti.
Both Haiti and the Dominican Republic had a stretch being ruled by dictators – Papa Doc Duvalier in Haiti and General Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. As dictators went, both men were brutal thugs that favored their own families. Both were also first-generation dictators. That means they at least had a vision of what they wanted to do for their nation. Haiti, however, had a cancer baby dictator: when Papa Doc died, his indolent son Baby Doc took over and ran Haiti like his personal piggy bank. Because the CIA helped to assassinate Trujillo in 1961, the Dominican Republic was spared the degradations a Trujillo Jr. would have surely visited upon it.
Baby Doc ran Haiti into the ground from 1971 to 1986. On the other side of the island, the Dominican Republic got another first-generation dictator, Balaguer. So there’s another key difference: Haiti’s US-supported cancer baby dictator.
The USA went back into Haiti in 1996 to reinstate Aristide after a controversial election. Eight years later, the US went into Haiti to take Aristide out. After the US returned to Haiti, it opened the Haitian market to heavily subsidized US food exports. US food was so cheap, Haiti’s agriculture sector all but vanished. It withered to the point where it could not hope to support the domestic demand for food were the cheap US supplies to vanish.
Those supplies vanished in 2006, when world food prices spiked in the wake of US corn producers sending their crops to the energy sector instead of the food markets. When that happened, many Haitians could afford nothing more than cakes of dirt. The less toxic the dirt, the more costly the cake made from it.
After the tropical storms of 2008 and 2009, Haiti was even more desperate. The damage from the storms compounded the food crisis and left Haiti in no state to deal with a further natural disaster. That disaster came with the recent earthquake. Had the earthquake struck the Dominican Republic’s capital, I imagine the desolation would have been equally dreadful and the situation almost as desperate as what we seen in Haiti.
But the earthquake, like the tropical storms of 2008-9, savaged Haiti the most. One could also say that the US government savaged Haiti far more than it did the Dominican Republic. If Haiti did make a deal with a devil, then that devil had a US passport.