Devastation Puts Spotlight On Haiti's History, Troubles The recent devastation in Haiti caused by an enormous earthquake is casting a light placed a focus on the historical, political and economic background of the Caribbean nation. Host Michel Martin talks with Eduardo Gamarra, a political science professor at Florida International University, who studies the regional dynamics of the Caribbean, particularly Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Devastation Puts Spotlight On Haiti's History, Troubles

Devastation Puts Spotlight On Haiti's History, Troubles

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The recent devastation in Haiti caused by an enormous earthquake is casting a light placed a focus on the historical, political and economic background of the Caribbean nation. Host Michel Martin talks with Eduardo Gamarra, a political science professor at Florida International University, who studies the regional dynamics of the Caribbean, particularly Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later in the program, our visit with soul singer Maxwell. He's back from his long hiatus from the music industry, and he'll tell us what he's been up to and why he came back. But first, we want to talk more about Haiti, its history, its politics, and why it matters. First, in history: Many people know that Haiti is the poorest and the least-developed country in the Western Hemisphere, plagued by natural disasters and human-made ones, like constant political upheaval. Four out of five people are considered poor. But Haiti is more than the sum of dire statistics.

To get a better understanding of Haiti's history, politics and economics, we've called Eduardo Gamarra. He's a Political Science professor at Florida International University, and he joins us now from Miami. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Professor EDUARDO GAMARRA (Political Science, Florida International University): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And it's worth mentioning that Haiti became independent from France in 1804. If you'd talk a little bit about how the circumstances of its independence helped shape it's future.

Prof. GAMARRA: Well, almost in every single way, it was the first independent black nation in the world, the first, in fact, state to cast off slavery and obviously to end, even in the Americas - with the exception of the United States - it was the first independent nation. That, of course, gave it a tremendous burden, not only in terms of its development, but over the long term, the kind of national elite that it founded and the kinds of problems that Haiti has had historically in the formation of a state, and - or I should say, perhaps, in its inability to form a nation state.

MARTIN: You know, one detail that you shared with us earlier that I found fascinating was that Haiti helped pay for its independence from France by selling all of its mahogany trees, and that this kind of began a pattern of sort of deforestation that has contributed to some of the serious impacts from natural disasters that are suffered elsewhere without as significant an effect, but you also mention in history - that Haiti has a history of foreign interventions, in the last hundred years three interventions by the United States. Why is it? Why has that happened? Why has the U.S. continued to intervene in Haiti's affairs?

Prof. GAMARRA: Well, the first part of your question, Haiti paid for its independence, and it paid for it dearly. And, you know, not only the pattern of deforestation that, in fact, has contributed to its inability to feed itself and to, in fact, create a viable export economy, which contrasts dramatically with its neighbor, The Dominican Republic, which is wealthier and better integrated into the world economy and so forth. But also a national elite that has been predatory on its own people over the last two centuries. And that contributed to a tremendous amount of domestic turmoil that inevitably led to foreign intervention.

And I would say, and as many Haitians will tell you - and they are very reticent when it comes to foreign intervention, because each and every time the foreigners have come in, when they've left, while they may have left some infrastructure and some things that are a little better, over the long term foreign intervention has been negative for Haiti.

MARTIN: And talk to me, if you would, about the economy of Haiti. How has Haiti sustained, or how has it been up until this current disaster?

Prof. GAMARRA: Well, the dramatic thing about Haiti is that the two main items in its production, in its gross national product, if you will, are one, foreign assistance, and secondly remittances. And, of course, this largely speaks to a country which has a devastated economic infrastructure. Its ports have been devastated over the years. It has no real road infrastructure. And so its export economy has been, you know, largely absent. And in that context, Haiti depends, really, on international charity to a certain extent, but also on the goodwill of its own citizens who are all over the world, particularly in the United States and Canada, and are sending them this kind of, you know, amount of money back to Haiti on a daily basis.

MARTIN: We're going to talk more about this - my next question - with our next guest, but I did want to ask you: What do you think should happen going forward? Particularly in regard to U.S. relations with Haiti. There are those who consider Haiti a failed state now. I don't know if you used that term or not, but what do you think should happen going forward?

Prof. GAMARRA: Well, you know, I think that Haiti has incorrectly been called a failed state. I think that Haiti has largely been a state that has never really developed, a state that is, you know, more than anything else, incomplete. It's not only incapable of controlling its national territory, but it's also been incapable of just simply doling out simple things like public policy, no health care, no education and the like. And so you really have to look at Haiti as an unconcluded or inconclusive state. So to have a failed state, you'd have had to have a state in the first place.

And secondly, I think, you know, going forward, one of my observations about 20 years ago was that perhaps Haiti needed to have - you know, despite this notion that international receiverships are not necessarily desirable - but Haiti really needs to receive great international attention, not just promises. And one of the things about Haiti is that the international community has made repeated promises about rebuilding and reconstruction, and we have never really fulfilled those promises.

MARTIN: Eduardo Gamarra is a Political Science professor at Florida International University. He studied the regional dynamics of Latin America and the Caribbean, including Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and he joined us from Miami. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Prof. GAMARRA: Thank you.

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