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

  • June 21, 2015 at 8:28 pm

    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….

  • December 9, 2014 at 6:19 am

    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?

  • December 8, 2014 at 9:17 am

    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.

  • December 6, 2014 at 4:32 pm

    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


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