Magazine article New African

Why Haiti Is Poor: Since the Devastating Earthquake Hit Haiti on 12 January 2010, the World Media Have Been Repeating Ad Nauseam That the Country Is "The Poorest in the Western Hemisphere". but It Was Not Always like That. the "Sugar Island", the "Pearl of the Antilles", Was Once the Richest in the Caribbean Region. Clayton Goodwin Traces How It Became the "Poorest in the Western Hemisphere"

Magazine article New African

Why Haiti Is Poor: Since the Devastating Earthquake Hit Haiti on 12 January 2010, the World Media Have Been Repeating Ad Nauseam That the Country Is "The Poorest in the Western Hemisphere". but It Was Not Always like That. the "Sugar Island", the "Pearl of the Antilles", Was Once the Richest in the Caribbean Region. Clayton Goodwin Traces How It Became the "Poorest in the Western Hemisphere"

Article excerpt

HAITI HAS SUFFERED THE DEVAS-tation of being hit by the worst earthquake in the Caribbean for some 200 years. The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, has described the catastrophe as being "one of the worst humanitarian crises in decades ... The damage, destruction, loss of life is just overwhelming". The capital city, Port au Prince, has suffered particularly severely.

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Haiti, the "poorest country in the Western hemisphere", as the world media have repeatedly described it, has, since the earthquake, suffered a battering from the media itself. Reports have concentrated not unnaturally on the poverty, political instability, bad governance and the struggle for life.

Yet in wallowing in "horror stories" of the "long descent into hell", "rape, murder and voodoo on the island of the damned", and what one commentator has referred to as the equation of "poor black with murderous gangs", there has been little, if any attempt, to put the result of exploitation, invasion, and embargoes into the context of Haiti's unique history. The world's perception of Haiti comes mainly from the James Bond film Live and Let Die and Graham Greene's novel, which later became a film, The Comedians. The prevailing image is that of voodoo and of the sinister Tontons Macoutes (the paramilitary force of the Duvalier era) in their "trademark" sunglasses, together with reports in recent times of immigrants fleeing the country and the prevalence of HIV-Aids.

Left alone, however, Haiti hardly intrudes on the world's consciousness. One radio report said that it had "fallen off the international radar". It was not always thus.

Hispaniola, the island which Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic, was once one of the richest in the world. The name Haiti means "Land of High Mountains", and it was inhabited by the Taino branch of the Arawak people when the Europeans arrived just over 500 years ago.

The indigenous population was forced by the Spanish to work in the gold mines and many died through their lack of immunity to imported diseases, to malnutrition and to the severity of the colonists' rule. There was little cohesive opposition after the capture and public execution of Queen Anacaona (c. 1504). Later the western districts were ravaged by French pirates, from whose practice of smoking meat over a wooden frame (in Arawak: buccan) the word "buccaneer" is derived.

France acquired the western part of the island through the Treaty of Ryswick in I697--while the eastern part was retained by Spain. Many settlers were attracted to the rich resources of Haiti, which developed into France's richest possession in the New World. With neighbouring Jamaica, Haiti was the world's largest producer of sugar, which contributed substantially to the wealth of Western Europe.

Called the "Sugar Island" and the "Pearl of the Antilles", Haiti (or St Domingo as it was then called) surpassed all the other European colonies, and thus France was the envy of the world in the 18th century. To produce these riches, large numbers of African slaves were brought in to labour on the plantations. A significant class of mixed-race population, "gens de couleur", also soon sprang up. The changing conflicts and alliances between blacks, whites and those of mixed race--as well as the effect of outside Intervention--have been a constant factor in Haitian society and history.

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The consistent demand for new slaves, because of the high incidence of mortality, meant that a large number were independent in mind, closer to Africa, and not so subdued by years of slavery. Their distinctive religion and a strong African contribution to the local Creole language maintained and enhanced a sense of identity.

The plantocracy put down the frequent slave uprisings with much severity. The success of the French Revolution in 1789 showed that a strong state could be overthrown "from below". …

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