Haitians: Migration and Diaspora

By Lundahl, Mats | Ibero-americana, July 1, 2000 | Go to article overview

Haitians: Migration and Diaspora


Lundahl, Mats, Ibero-americana


Anthony V. Catanese, Haitians: Migration and Diaspora. Westview Press, Boulder, CO and London, 1999 ( 143 pages). ISBN 0-8133-3543-4.

Anthony Catanese's little book on Haitian migration is a welcome addition to the literature on an underresearched subject - a subject which is assuming increasing importance over time, not least from the point of view of those directly involved, the migrants. As Catanese points out, Haitian migration, both domestic and international, is by no means a new phenomenon. During the French colonial period. Maroon slaves regularly escaped to the Spanish side of the frontier where the treatment was better. The uprising against the French colons in 1791 triggered an exodus of whites, to Cuba for example, where coffee industry flourished for a time as a result.

From the late nineteenth century onwards emigration became a regular feature of Haitian society. The rise of sugar production in the Dominican Republic and Cuba sharply increased the demand for labor in both countries and during the course of the first three and a half decades of the twentieth century, until the closure of Cuba to Haitian labor in the early 1930s and Trujilio's massacre of Haitians in 1937, the stream of migrants continued. While the Trujillo incident would prove to be only a temporary setback, Cuba never came back as an important outlet for Haiti's surplus population. Instead, the Bahamas received increasing numbers of Haitians in the 1950s and during the following decade an increasing number of Haitians made it to the United States and Canada.

Today, few areas in the Caribbean are untouched by Haitian emigration. In the Dominican Republic the Haitian immigrants are no longer just cane cutters. The economic boom of the past few years has inceased the number of Haitians in the urban economy. In addition, the tumultuous political events in Haiti following the downfall of Baby Doc in 1986 and the successive military regimes, brought the boat people problem sharply into focus. Although this problem has been reduced in quantitative ternis after the return of Jean-Bertrand Aristide to Haiti in 1994 (after a three-year exile) and the peaceful transition to a new democratically elected president the following year, the economic situation remains precarious and could, at any moment, trigger a new large outflow.

Catanese's book deals not only with migration itself, but also makes an effort to go into the underlying causes. Thus, after a brief introduction presenting some statistics related to poverty in Haiti, in the second chapter a method is suggested for identifying the poor. The idea is to provide operational criteria that may serve, for example, the development agencies and non-governmental aid organizations to develop methods of targeting assistance to households. Since poverty is a multidimensional concept, what Catanese suggests is a sequential approach in six steps: if the household ... then it is considered poor, if not, then if ... the household is poor, if neither ... nor ... then if ... it is poor, etc., where all the 'ifs' are easily identifiable. Unfortunately, no evidence is presented of how the approach worked in the concrete Haitian context, or how well the sequential approach corresponds to more traditional notions of poverty.

The next two chapters deal with one of the most important reasons for low incomes in Haiti: deforestation and the way to combat it. Chapter 3 puts deforestation into the historical perspective of concentration of political power in Port-au-Prince, political instability, the tendency for governments to serve individual, selfish interests rather than public welfare and the isolation of the peasantry from government activities. The outcome of all this is a lack of a social contract between government and citizens and between the citizens themselves, making any positive action to stop land degradation next to impossible. The direct causes of deforestation are well-known: on the one hand the need for charcoal and wood and on the other the tendency for cultivation to become ever more labor-intensive as the agrarian population grows, shortening the length of the fallow period and increasing the exposure of the soil to rain and wind in the process. …

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