Cuba: The Way We Understand Haiti’s Poverty

Haroldo Dilla Alfonso

Cuba and Haiti.

HAVANA TIMES — One of the questions that most people ask me when they learn of my interest in Caribbean issues is the main cause behind Haiti’s economic backwardness.

Our neighbor has become one of the world’s poorest countries, despite the well-known devotion, industriousness and zeal of its inhabitants.

This question has also been posed to numerous experts, who have identified a series of causes, including, among others, the destruction caused by the anti-slavery and independence war that brought Napoleon’s army its first significant defeat abroad, the counterrevolutionary blockade imposed on the black republic (which involved compensation payments to France) and the weakness of Haiti’s institutions.

All are clearly sound reasons that help explain the phenomenon, but I fear none affords us a sufficiently convincing explanation. Suffice it to recall, for instance, that, throughout the 19th century, Haiti was more economically dynamic than the Dominican Republic (serving, in fact, as an essential bridge between the Dominican Republic’s flimsy economy and the rest of the world), and that its republican period (I don’t want to call it “democratic”) was more sophisticated than that of many Latin American countries. Compensation payments to France, though onerous, never had the paralyzing effect that nationalist analysts have sought to demonstrate.

Haiti’s decadence truly begins in the 20th century. The country was densely populated and its agricultural land was fragmented into innumerable estates as a result of the agrarian reform, such that any attempt to introduce a plantation economy into the country would have been politically catastrophic. This was something the United States came to understand well when it occupied the country in 1915 and faced a vigorous peasant revolt. That is why Haiti did not go down the contradictory, painful and modernizing road of plantation investments that were the fate of Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. While these societies experienced rapid growth as of the beginning of the 20th century, Haiti did not.

This does not mean that Haiti was “left out.” It managed to insert itself into the market, but in the worst way possible. What Haiti did was enter the regional market, controlled by the United States, by exporting its most abundant resource: an unprotected and unqualified workforce. As a result of this, it was doomed to a socio-demographic hemorrhaging and stuck at the very extreme of the commercial periphery. These are the main reasons behind Haiti’s backwardness that explain how it was overcome by the Dominican Republic by the first third of the 20th century (the slaughter of Haitians perpetrated by Trujillo was symptomatic of this) and its regrettable condition of a downtrodden nation today.

There are two things, however, that I do not mean to say with this.

I don’t mean to say that this was the sole reason. It is evident, for instance, that a more responsible and sensitive political elite (Haiti’s elite is particularly insensitive and predatory) could have modified some of the rules of the economic game in the region. I also believe that, if an elite of that nature never arose, it is because of a regional “dynamic” that left Haiti without many alternatives.

I also don’t mean to suggest that Haiti’s poverty is to be blamed on Dominicans and Cubans, as a vulgar nationalism would be quite willing to affirm. Haiti’s poverty is the result of the region’s capitalist dynamics, which privileged investment and technical progress in the two countries that received Haiti’s laborers.

It is however unquestionable that a greater challenge continues to exist in connection with these two countries and Haiti.

Haitians continue to immigrate to the Dominican Republic and to contribute to the country’s economic growth, but there is no official recognition of this contribution. There aren’t even any policies aimed at considering Haitian immigrants worthy of basic respect and, as a result of these, they are victimized in countless ways and their descendants deprived of rights. I never once ran into a decent Haitian restaurant in all of Santo Domingo. If Dominican society wants to take a step forward, it has to begin to understand that difference is a virtue, that there is a Dominican-Haitian minority whose culture is part of its reality.

With respect to Haiti, there are positive aspects of Cuba’s policy towards the country, like the commendable assistance efforts in the sphere of health. That, however, is not the issue we are discussing. Since the 1930s, there has been no consistent Haitian immigration to Cuba, though several tens of thousands of people of Haitian origin live in Cuba’s east, their culture still having the status of folklore. Cuba, however, will have to confront the challenge posed by Haitian immigration in the not-so-distant future, when the work market becomes more flexible – and Haiti’s workforce will be the only resource available to compensate for the island’s depopulated and aged society.

This will be quite a challenge, bearing in mind the marked nationalism of Cuban society – a nationalism typical of island states that even prevents us from understanding the reality of our transnational society and the absence of a democratic and tolerant political culture that would allow us to assimilate differences as part of our national makeup.

12 thoughts on “Cuba: The Way We Understand Haiti’s Poverty

  • I can agree with some of this – but indeed, when the world closed its doors to Haiti after 1804, “development” in Haiti was limited, not to say crippled, by those (French Haitians and Haitian French) willing to crawl back and continue (to their advantage) trade. Trade in mahogany, sugar, then coffee. But, unlike the Dominican Republic – which continued to receive immigrants from Europe as well as the newer ideas, ideas of government, and technologies – Haiti remained practically frozen in time, with the clock stopped in 1804 or 1812, like a rare insect preserved in amber. Although the port cities (Jacmel, Au Cap, Jeremie) in Haiti that engaged in trade were recipients of immigrants (not only from Europe, but from China, and eventually Syria/Lebanon) – much if not most of Haiti’s interior (and her elite) remained socially, judicially, psychologically, locked in a mindset from the pre-19th century slaveowners, and Northern France brigands…pirates! To this day, some of that elitist mindset and prejudices, social class biases, persist. As I understand, some 500,000 Haitians immigrated to Cuba in the 30s – and this article acknowledges the concentration of this population in an area of Cuba. What is the citizenship status, participation, school enrollment., of this population? (The author notes that this minority group, and contemporary Haitians, will constitute a strong pool of laborers/workers for Cubans.) Hmmm….

  • I understand how knowing our history can help us know who we are today and how we got to be where we are today. Having read the article and discussion I am not sure who benefits. How non-Haitians interpret the situation may be an interesting mental past-time but does it benefit the Haitians? Have we learned anything from the discussion – other than people have different interpretations about the historic past and that capitalism is a significant factor? Did we not know these things before?

  • Like all international organizations, La Francophonie is a political entity. Nevertheless, the consensus selection of Michaëlle Jean says something of the high regard many people in the French speaking countries around the world have for her. Prior to this position, she was the UNESCO Special Envoy for Haiti and was instrumental in bringing responsible development to help rebuild the nation of her birth.

    I see no need to belittle her accomplishment. She is a great Canadian we can be proud of.

  • Her appointment is a token recognition to the $120,000,000

    contribution that Canada poured into the West African Francophone countries recently and has more to do with Quebec/ Canadian politics than anything else

    j may


  • “Again, the very wealthy few control the governments and tthat includes the local police, the state police, the National guard and the regular armed forces.The public has no chance of rising up against that sort of evil strength.”
    That Mr. Goodrich is a perfect description of the Castro family regime’s Cuba!
    Further, you write: “half the world subsists on $2.00 a day under capitalism”.
    In Cuba where the workforce is 5.2 million and the population is under 11.2 million, average earnings of the 5.2 million are under a dollar a day resulting in Cubans having to subsist on less than half a dollar per day. The reality of Socialismo in practice!

  • True.

  • You don’t understand how economies work. Capitalism does not take money from the poor and give it to the wealthy. Capitalism creates new wealth and then distributes it unevenly, with more going to the wealthy and less going to the poor.

    The rich are getting richer, true. But the poor are also getting richer. The poor today are better off than the poor of 50 or 100 years ago. As a percentage of the world population, there are fewer poor today than 50 to 100 years ago.

  • At present and for the next 15-20 years , capitalism will take more and more money from the poor and give it to the .001% who own most of the world.
    The poor and working people of Haiti no less than those in any other capitalist country will suffer as a result.
    There is no reform possible given that .001%’s control of both the economies and the governments of the vast majority of the world has always worked this way save for about a 30 year period after the Great Depression when the needs of the poor and unemployed had to be addressed or face the riots and possible revolutions that result from such drastic conditions .
    At present the levels of inequity and economic inequality are at all time highs and are increasing . The U.S. leads all industrialized countries in income and wealth disparities and that rate of inequality is increasing.
    Again, the very wealthy few control the governments and that includes the local police, the state police, the National Guard and the regular armed forces. The public has no chance of rising up against that sort of evil strength.
    Global capitalism is facing doom within 15-20 years due to the replacement of both high- cost human labor and, increasingly and then the rocketing, automation of all workplaces by smarter-than-human machines.
    Just as the race to lower-wage markets killed U.S. industry so too will all capitalist enterprises necessarily race to replacing the relatively expensive humans in Bangladesh, etc with the cheaper and faster super-smart machines.
    Within 20 years (easily) there will be no human workers and capitalism cannot work without all those paychecks .
    In the time between now and that near future times will be very hard for all the poor of the planet and the vast majority of the planet’s population will be getting poorer and poorer .
    Eventually ,the vast unemployment and resulting poverty will cause a collapse of capitalism and the totalitarian form it has maintained in joint with totalitarian government.
    Until that far better capitalist-less future all we can do is to try to ameliorate the most drastic cases of suffering on a person-to-person basis because neither the very wealthy nor the governments they control will take any steps that will seriously address the cause of the poverty.
    And the thinking of Martin Luther King Jr. should always be remembered when it comes to charitable giving by the wealthy and their foundations and paraphrased that thinking is that charitable giving is very good until it causes the giver to forget or salve over the reasons that giving is necessary.
    The reason for poverty in the world is global capitalism in the form of the neo-liberalism enforced on the world for close to 100 years by the American Empire.
    Haiti stands out as among the poorest of the poor but half the world subsists on $2.00 a day under capitalism and that is the big picture and the big issue that is not being addressed.
    We are dealing with the symptoms of a disease and not with the disease itself because we are not allowed to .

    Don’t forget that.
    There is ample evidence of this eventuality for those who look into what happens when machines and super-human AI take the jobs humans used to do and do them far better and far more efficiently and cheaper than humans are able to do.

  • “It managed to insert itself into the market, but in the worst way possible. What Haiti did was enter the regional market, controlled by the United States, by exporting its most abundant resource: an unprotected and unqualified workforce. As a result of this, it was doomed to a socio-demographic hemorrhaging and stuck at the very extreme of the commercial periphery.”


    The migration of Haitian workers is more a consequence of poverty than a cause of poverty. In fact, since the Haitian workers abroad send remittances to Haiti, they cause more “wealth” than poverty.

    Just like in Cuba.

  • As your article reflects, Haiti’s tragedy is chronic and multi-factorial . Whatever philosophical and anthropologic analyses we may engage in, is of little interest to the ordinary Haitian citizen, whose only concern is to break the yoke of hunger, sickness and despair which is an integral part of their lives.

    Having been a number of times to Haiti, I have no doubt, that no country has done more for Haiti than Cuba. A 500 strong Cuban medical team, provide healthcare services to the poorest across that nation. Hundreds of Haitian physicians have graduated from the Caribbean School of Medical Sciences in Santiago de Cuba and hundreds more are in training.

    Cuba has provided hundreds of professionals in every area of technical support and thought thousands to read and write. But Cuba is acutely aware, of its un-payable debt of gratitude that our nation contracted with Haiti and most of the English Speaking Caribbean Islands during the XX century.
    No one better than the rich and famous Cubans who lived in Miramar, Kholy, Nuevo Vedado, Biltmore, Vista Alegre or el Casino in Camaguey, can describe with greater melancholy, the palaces, cathedrals, mansions, villas, farms, yachts, airplanes and private beaches they lost in Cuba.
    What most fail to say, is that everything visible and invisible that is worthy of talking about in Cuba, that was constructed prior to 1959, was achieved with the work, sweat, tears, blood and lives of these unspoken and unrecognized heroes, who were forced to live in “barracones” or huts without electricity, running water, dirt floor, no healthcare, schools or jobs, all of which were unfit for farm animals.
    Working in an horrendous, and stifling heat in the backbreaking sugar cane harvest, these humble men and women turned Cuba into the largest sugar producer in the world and a huge upper class of Hacendados y Colonos who competed successfully against American and English transnationals.
    Today, these hard working men, women and children, are threatened with deportation from the Dominican Republic, Bahamas, Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. They are treated as sub-human and exploited mercilessly, with only the government of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, leading the charge in their defense.
    Cuba has no financial resource to do more than the extraordinary generosity they have exhibited, but Cuba can create an orderly immigration of thousands of Haitian families and provide them with plots of follow lands presently devoured by Marabu, where they can work, support their families, educate their children and produce literally overnight, many produce, coffee, cocoa and small animals, which are missing in today’s marketplace.

  • An interesting piece. This sentence raises many questions:

    “Cuba, however, will have to confront the challenge posed by Haitian immigration in the not-so-distant future, when the work market becomes more flexible – and Haiti’s workforce will be the only resource available to compensate for the island’s depopulated and aged society.”

    So is it the official plan of the Cuban government to invite Haitian immigrants or guest workers to work in Cuba and make up for the shrinking Cuban population? In decades past, Haitians were brought in to work the sugar plantations. How much can Cuba afford to pay Haitians and will they be willing to work for that little?

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