strategies for a developing world…

Haiti: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

On the occasion of Haitian Flag Day, May 18, the Haitian Relief Effort Committee and The Resource Networks at the Federal Reserve Bank of NY staged  a cultural awareness program to celebrate the rich history, heritage, culture and cuisine of [Haiti]. The event consisted of an information session followed soon  thereafter  by a reception featuring performance by Emeline Michel. Invited as the keynote speaker, Jocelyn McCalla spoke of Haiti: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. Following is the text of the presentation.

First, allow me to begin by getting the obvious out of the way: Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. There is no escaping it.

This is splashed in headlines and in every story that is published online and in print. Newspaper editors insist on reporters including this catchphrase in their articles in order to make it easy for the average reader to have a ready-made term of reference. Unfortunately this fails to do justice to Haiti, for there is much to learn about Haiti, and much that it can teach us today.

Haiti was once the crown jewel of the French Empire, the pearl of the Antilles… so precious to the French rulers that they traded the Louisiana territory – which doubled the size of the United States, so that they could keep Haiti and the riches it provided in order to prosecute war against Britain.


Today, May 18 marks the 207th anniversary of an event that sealed for good the fate of the French Empire in North America. On this day, the seeds of an independent Haiti were planted when blacks and colored, former slaves and free people of color, vowed to life free in a land that they controlled or they would die trying. These men and women proved to the world then that they were the equal of others in all aspects. How did the pearl of the Antilles turn 200 years later into the poorest country in the western hemisphere? And can it rise from the most devastating earthquake so far this century? In the next 20 minutes, I’ll take you through a quick history of Haiti and draw for you the outlines of the plan for recovery that will hopefully lead to a radical break from the recent past.

Haiti: A Historical Perspective

From 1492 to 1791

columbus_taking_possessionChristopher Columbus first set eyes on the island of Haiti on December 5, 1492 at the end of the long journey that had taken him to the Americas in his search for a shortcut to the East. The lush and mountainous tropical island was then inhabited by the Tainos who welcomed the strangers from Europe, offering them food and shelter, helping them repair their tempest-tossed boats and build an encampment. It turned out that this was at their peril. Soon afterwards, the Spaniards undertook to plunder the land of the gold that they thought plentiful.

To find and retrieve the coveted metal, they enslaved the Tainos, subjecting them to hard labor and brutal repression.

The Tainos died in large numbers, succumbing to new diseases, hard labor, and failed revolts against Spanish oppression. They were nearly extinct on the island by the year 1500, barely eight years after Columbus claimed the island for the Spanish crown.

Spain brought Africans into the colony to offset the loss of the natives. This did not however prevent the complete extinction of the Tainos. There’s little trace today of their civilization in Haiti or the Dominican Republic.

For several years, African slaves were treated in much the same way as European indentured servants, earning their freedom after a few years of service. At that time, Hispaniola was nothing more than a convenient Caribbean outpost for ships crossing the sea lanes leading to North America. It attracted British and French pirates and adventurers who fought with the Spanish for control of the island for much of the 16th and 17th century. In 1695, the French and the Spaniards agreed to divide up the island. The Spaniards held on to the eastern part of the island and the French gained control over its western side, which they named Saint-Domingue. The Spaniards renamed theirs Santo Domingo.

Thanks to a steady supply of African slave labor, the French produced in large quantities sugar, cacao, cotton, indigo, coffee, tobacco and spices.


By 1791, Saint-Domingue’s population consisted of about 500,000 slaves – two thirds of which were native Africans –, 40,000 free people of color or freedmen and about 30,000 French nationals. It was the richest colony in the new world, producing more wealth than the United States, despite its small size.

The Haitian Revolution

In August 1791 the slaves, led by a religious leader named Boukman, rose up against their masters and overseers. The revolt which broke in the North spread like wildfire through the sugar plantations in the West and South.

The slave revolt was fueled first and foremost by the brutality of the slave system that the French had erected and the injustices that the people of color felt at the hands of the “grands blancs” and the “petit blancs” – literally the big whites and small whites — who inhabited and ran the colony on behalf of the French monarchy. But it was triggered by the upheavals of the French revolution which culminated in 1789 into the storming of the Bastilles. Within two years, Toussaint Louverture, a literate house slave emerged as the leader of the rebellion, able to shape the rebels into disciplined fighters and to suppress dissent, by force when necessary, amongst rebel leaders. By building his army, and playing the French against the Spaniards, Louverture consolidated his leadership and gained ever greater control and political power. By 1801 he was the uncontested ruler of the colony, which he kept within the fold of the French empire, hoping to retain a large measure of autonomy. Unfortunately Napoleon Bonaparte disagreed and sent a large military force to remove Louverture from power and re-establish slavery. They achieved their first goal: Louverture’s forces were defeated and he was spirited away to Fort-de-Joux in France where he died shortly thereafter, succumbing to deprivation, the cold weather and loneliness. They failed however in reinstating colonial slavery. To the cries of “koupe tèt, boule kay,” the former slaves rose up again against French rule under the new leadership of Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Alexandre Pétion. By November 1803, they had completely defeated the French and reclaimed control of the colony. To safeguard their victory, they declared independence.


Haiti started out as an independent nation with no road map and little capital. The sugarcane plantations and most of the mills that had produced so much wealth in the jewel of the new world had been destroyed for the most part by the rebellious slaves who successfully denied the advantage to the French troops through slash and burn tactics. Many of the plantation managers had fled to Louisiana or returned to France. Haitian leaders had become steeped in warfare during the thirteen-year struggle, but they had little skills in setting up or managing government and large scale agricultural production. And the Haitians themselves no longer wished to work under slave-like conditions in large plantations.

With foreign trade brought to a standstill by an international boycott of Haiti, and the real fear of another attempt by the French or other colonial powers to destroy the new nation, Haitian leaders spent available resources on preparing for another invasion by building forts all over the island. The Citadelle La Ferrière which looks over northern plains and coastal waters from atop a tall mountain near the town of Milot stands today as a magnificent symbol of the ingenuity and determination of the Haitians to be free.

citadelle-la-ferriere06Subsequent struggles between the Haitian revolutionaries took place under these adverse conditions and have marked Haitian behavior and the socio-economic and political landscape since. From the ashes of colonial Saint-Domingue rose a new nation that held much hope for a new beginning but which, with scarce resources, ended up tailing others and embracing their unjust class structures and prejudices. For much of the 19th and 20th century, “to be European” in skin color, religion, language and mannerisms was the mark of success. Racism continued to hold sway in Haiti and little was done to combat it.

Autocratic rule has also been the norm rather than the exception. In 1915, as the United States began to spread its wings south and East of the border, US troops occupied Haiti. The American occupation ended in 1934 but it left bitter memories among the Haitians who saw their brothers build roads and perform work in chain gangs under the watchful eyes of gun-toting US marines and army troops who ceaselessly expressed disdain and scorn for the blacks that dared think of themselves the equals of whites.

Contemporary Haitian history is marked by the 30-year dictatorship that the Duvaliers (père et fils) imposed on the country until 1986 when Jean-Claude Duvalier lost power and was exiled to France. During their rule, they plundered the country of its remaining resources, invested little in public health, education or the economic infrastructure and forced most of Haiti’s skilled workers, managers, educators, physicians and nurses into exile.

steber Since 1986, Haitians have continued to struggle with building a modern democratic state that is founded on the rule of law, respect for human rights and a more equitable distribution of wealth.

In the last two years however, stability had returned to Haiti, in spite of the fact that hurricane season in 2004 and 2008 had set the country back. Efforts by the government to tackle corruption and violent crime, increase revenues, and divest itself of unprofitable business ventures had earned it accolades throughout the world. Former President Bill Clinton joined international efforts to help turn Haiti around by trumpeting its comparative advantage and promoting direct foreign investments in the country.

And then there was 1/12.

Post-Earthquake Reconstruction

“The thing” — as Haitians refer to the earthquake that hit Port-au-Prince and several other towns to the west and south of the capital, namely Pétionville, Jacmel, Léogane, Petit Goâve and Grand Goâve – hit Haiti’s political and economic center with unimaginable force.

The toll has been staggering: in less than 60 seconds, as many as a quarter million Haitians and friends of Haiti lost their lives. The bustling commercial district in Port-au-Prince became nothing but a huge pile of rubble composed of concrete, stones and mangled steel rods under which was buried millions worth of domestic and imported goods. The earthquake destroyed over $10 billion worth of Haiti’s physical assets, leading to 1 million homeless, a screeching halt to business and commercial expansion, and significant stress on the remaining infrastructure.

On January 12, most government facilities and schools, and many hospitals, banks, hotels and shopping centers collapsed onto themselves, burying in their womb the staff and clientele that were attending to the business of the day ahead of nightfall. Many of the buildings that survived the initial quake will have to be torn down. Care for the hundreds of thousands injured, protection of the thousands orphaned, and providing for the health and education of Haiti’s youth, are challenges that will endure for years.

haiti-quake The devastation was heartbreaking, yet with remarkable generosity Haitians reached out to their neighbors, extending support where none existed, and sharing what little they owned with the less fortunate. The international community offered swift and significant assistance. With its cooperation, Haitians are working every day to clear the streets of waste and rubble, to organize temporary shelter, sanitation, and food distribution, and to prevent the outbreak of disease. We are struggling to restore essential government services.

Thankfully, we are not alone in our efforts. The world is standing with Haiti today as we confront the imperative need to envision and prepare for Haiti’s rebirth. States and multinational financial institutions have pledged about $10 billion of support to the reconstruction efforts over the next five years. In the four months since the quake, non-governmental organizations have collected about $2.5 billion from individuals and corporate donations, half of it from the United States. This sum does not include the many emergency responses undertaken by Haitians in Haiti and abroad shortly after the news spread in the Diaspora.

“The Thing” will forever live in our memory as the most heart wrenching event in recent history. Yet, paradoxically it compels us to switch from making slow incremental change to speedily transforming the socio-economic structure and the political culture that have held Haiti back for so long. It compels us to fulfill the promise of an independent Haiti and achieve what has escaped us so far this century: freedom from hunger, diseases and illiteracy.

Some of the key steps that will enable Haitians to have a better life in the months and years to come include the following:

1. Haiti must redirect capital flows away from Port-au-Prince to develop economic growth poles in key provinces, including new roads, ports and airports, affordable, earthquake-resistant and hurricane-proof housing, hospitals, schools and trade centers to revitalize communities. This plan will take years to implement, but we have begun.

2. Food security must be achieved through appropriate investment in agriculture and protection of the environment. Haiti must take steps to reverse the erosion that has depleted its land of the soil that plants need for growth. Reforestation, modern sanitation systems, thoughtful development of its natural beauty and coasts will ensure that Haiti becomes an ecologically sound country and a viable tourist destination.

3. Haiti must commit to establishing once and for all universal primary education: Most of our schools and universities were destroyed, but the yearning of Haitians to learn remains whole. This is an economic imperative.

4. We must enlist the Diaspora to rebuild and revitalize Haiti: There is great talent and experience among Haitians abroad. We need nurses, teachers, engineers, foremen, technicians, accountants, lawyers, administrators, investors — people of many talents — to work hand in hand as we rebuild. We encourage employers of Haitians abroad to “lend” their employees to Haiti – for a week, a month, a year. In this way potentially hundreds of employers around the world will enable thousands of Haitians now living abroad to help us rebuild Haiti, better.

Will we succeed?

When the slaves revolted in August 1791, they didn’t know whether or not they would succeed. They were tired of the chains that tied them to a master who treated them worse than cattle. They yearned to live free, return to their homeland and care for their loved ones. They broke their chains and didn’t take a second look. Yet their dreams remained illusory until Toussaint Louverture took command and cleared the path to freedom.

We are faced with a similar challenge today. Will we succeed? There is no doubt that we will put our best foot forward.

etienne6 Haitian playwright and actor Frank Etienne says: “S’il arrive que tu tombes, apprends vite a chevaucher ta chute. Que ta chute devienne ton cheval pour continuer le voyage ! » (If you happen to fall, learn quickly to ride your fall. May your fall be the horse that you ride to continue the journey.)

Frank Etienne who lost much to the earthquake turned 74 years old last month. Yet with exemplary determination, he quickly wrote and staged a new play about “the thing,” and filled his patched up house with murals to ride into the future.

Similarly, just 10 days after January 12, blind Haitian violinist Romuel Joseph said matter-of-factly from a hospital bed in Miami: “I need more than an earthquake to make me stop my work in Haiti.” A Julliard-trained musician and Haitian-American citizen who lost his pregnant wife when the floors underneath them opened up, destroying the music school that he had patiently built over the last 10 years with private grants and donations, Mr. Joseph could very well trade life in Haiti for life amongst loved ones in the United States. And he has other compelling reasons: he may never play the violin again; his left hand was badly fractured. Yet he is determined to start over and build a new music school for the hundreds of children who attended.

I visited Haiti a month after the earthquake and like many was struck both by the magnitude of the devastation and the perseverance and the resilience that Haitians demonstrated when others would simply run away.

Over the months and years ahead, to restore her society as well as her infrastructure, Haiti will need voices within and without to advocate relentlessly for human rights, the rule of law, basic justice and fair opportunity for all. I will lend my voice. I hope you will too.


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2 Responses

  1. Women in the USA adopted the song I will survive as a marching anthem in the 70s and even today. Well, Haitians have always risen from the ashes, and I know in the cockles of my heart that we will rise again.

  2. This is a vital and inspiring and moving speech. Wish I could have heard you deliver…Gail


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