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Why Haiti Remains Poor

A revolt of young Haitian intellectuals 65 years ago inadvertently opened the door for a black nationalist ideology that continues to dominate -- and hold back -- Haiti.

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David Nicholls' From Dessalines to Duvalier: Race, Colour, and National Independence in Haiti (1979) provides a detailed account of these young men's futile attempts to leverage the successful undoing of Lescot into tangible political influence. The coalition of students, labor unions, black nationalists and leftists did not hold. Challenging their claim for leadership were less advantaged, very ambitious and older members of a rising black middle class whose political message centered on "noirism," or black nationalism.

In Bonjour et adieu à la négritude (1980), Dépestre judged the mortal sin of his generation to be its abdication to ethnic nationalism. There was the U.S.-trained military, led by Col. Paul Magloire, who would be the next president, and an all-star noirist team. Prominent among them were the future dictator François Duvalier and his mentors, Lorimer Denis and Clovis Désinor, who would serve in successive cabinets. These men had little interest in economic development. They wanted power and would settle for whatever personal gains they could extract from a shrinking treasury.

No one noticed at the time, but in the tumult of '46, when all rejoiced at the coming end of formal American influence, the country was at the peak of its organizational and economic performance. It is difficult to imagine today, but in 1950 Haiti's gross domestic product surpassed the Dominican Republic's. According to the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), Haiti's GDP that year was $3.2 billion, versus $2.5 billion for the DR. The per capita income for Haitians was then $1,051, and for Dominicans $1,045. 

Two decades of routes disrupted by World War II had created unprecedented demand for all the sisal, coffee, cacao, cotton, banana, sugar and other agricultural products Haiti could spare. Traders in Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haitien found their coffers overflowing from goods sold to the United States.

Robert and Nancy Heinl, in their history of Haiti, Written in Blood, observe that the newly emancipated politicians had millions in cash from duties in both directions and other levies, including a new income tax introduced in 1947. Sadly, there was no reinvestment in the agricultural sector that produced wartime fortunes.

In August 1946, a parliamentary body of questionable integrity selected Dumarsais Estimé, an attorney and senior civil servant, as president. And soon after, the men in the photograph and many other Haitian intellectuals set aside their vision of a transformed Haiti. Dépestre accepted a fellowship to study in France. Someone not in the photo -- the very influential Jacques-Stephen Alexis, physician, novelist, Marxist and co-founder of La ruche -- also took off for Paris.

Estimé put the final nail in the coffin of Haiti's troubled foreign-investment environment. In 1947 he annulled American Standard Fruit's banana-export license. Then he turned over the business to seven of his closest friends. These men knew even less about bananas than Estimé did about modern governance. Banana exports -- Haiti's second largest by value -- fell from 500,000 stems in early 1947 to 134,257 stems in 1949, a 75 percent decline in two years. Exports soon ceased altogether.

Haiti's chronic hostility toward foreign investments, and the government du jour's successive confiscations of corporate property, continue to earn the country a high-risk designation for global capital. While the Dominican Republic attracted $13.5 billion in foreign direct investments between 2000 and 2009, Haiti drew just $371.9 million.

Long before the added complication of a Marxist regime next door in Cuba, the young men in the photograph would have warranted the attention of a U.S. intelligence officer, perhaps one about their own age. This may explain why this photo, carefully annotated with a typed list of names on the reverse side, found residence in a file cabinet at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince. In a soon-to-be-published memoir, my father explains how the photo ended up in his hands a decade later.

Nearly all of the young men in the photograph were gone from Haiti within five years; most went to universities in Europe and North America. Some never returned. Others became victims of the Duvalier terror. And Haiti, entrenched in a parochial and paranoid cult of color and familial alliances, is poorer than ever.