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.

In 1928 Jean Price Mars, scion of a prominent black Haitian family, affirmed the legitimacy of Haiti’s African cultural traditions in his seminal treatise, Ainsi parla l’oncle (“Thus Spake the Uncle”). It was a timely and compelling argument that resonated throughout a world on the brink of decolonization. In Haiti, at first it inspired a positive celebration of indigenous culture. It also hardened loyalties based foremost on family, color and clan that, across all social and economic groups, degenerated into administrative dysfunction.

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.