History, Environment, Politics Make Haiti Poor With all eyes on Haiti, many have speculated about why the nation is the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. Author Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, says there's no simple answer — it's is a complex mix of history and environment, plus social and political policy.

History, Environment, Politics Make Haiti Poor

History, Environment, Politics Make Haiti Poor

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With all eyes on Haiti, many have speculated about why the nation is the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. Author Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, says there's no simple answer — it's is a complex mix of history and environment, plus social and political policy.


Devastated. That's the word we've used the most to describe Haiti after a powerful earthquake hit there last month.

Before that, the word we used the most was impoverished. The phrase, poorest nation in the western hemisphere comes up again and again. And many of you wrote to us to ask why is Haiti so poor in comparison to the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola.

With us to explain is Jared Diamond, he's professor of geography and contributor and co-editor of the book, "Natural Experiments of History" as well as the books, "Collapse" and "Guns, Germs, and Steel."

We also want to hear from you. Do you have questions about Haiti's history of poverty? Give us a call. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Jared Diamond joins us now from our studios in California, NPR West. Welcome to the program.

Professor JARED DIAMOND (Professor of Geography and Physiology, University of California, Los Angeles): Thank you. It's nice to be back with you.

ROBERTS: The Haiti-Dominican Republic experiment is - it's an interesting little test tube there because they do share an island, so you can't really use geography as an explanation of all their differences.

Prof. DIAMOND: You can use a little geography but you're going to have to use a lot of culture and history. The bit of geography is, yes, they do share an island. If one takes the plane flight from Miami to Santo Domingo and you fly over the border, you look down and on one side, it's brown - that's Haiti. On the other side as if cut by a knife, it's green - that's the Dominican Republic. Partly, it's because the Dominican Republic, the eastern half is wetter and has more fertile soils and gentler slopes so it has less soil erosion and less deforestation.

But the main reason is not geography, but is instead, colonial history, the different consequences of Haiti being colonized by rich France that brought in lots of slaves, and the eastern half that became the Dominican Republic being colonized by Spain, which by then was poor, didn't bring in many slaves and was more concerned with Peru and Mexico.

ROBERTS: How did being colonized by France and becoming a largely slave colony end up with Haiti being so deforested?

Prof. DIAMOND: Well, the French ships that brought slaves from Africa to Haiti and unloaded those slaves, now you have empty ships. Are they going to cross back empty or carry some stuff? And the French had them carry stuff. Namely, they cut-down trees and exported lots of timber from Haiti.

So part of the reason why the Haitian side today is brown is that deforestation that began two centuries ago, plus the fact that it's dryer. When you cut down trees, they regrow more slowly and the deforestation persists.

ROBERTS: And since charcoal is the primary fuel on the island, why couldn't the dependents on trees be replaced by an import?

Prof. DIAMOND: To have imports - the imports cost money. Initially, Haiti was the richest colony in the world. It's incredible that it accounted for about half of France's foreign exchange because of its sugar plantations, up to independence in 1804. But then, after independence, Haiti did not want to accept immigration or investment from Europeans who would bring back slavery.

Europeans and Americans did not want to invest in Haiti because they did not want to see a former slave colony succeed, independently. And so, Haiti gradually became and poorer and poorer until they are now the poorest country in the New World, unable to shell out the money to import oil and other stuff that would replace charcoal.

ROBERTS: Although considering it was once so rich and full of resources, you would think that enlightened leadership might be able to overcome some disadvantages in geography and colonial history, how has Haiti faired there?

Prof. DIAMOND: Enlightened leadership might help to overcome those severe disadvantages. But Haiti, like many other countries, and we won't name the United States in that connection, Haiti has consistently not had enlightened leadership. Haiti, like the Dominican Republic, had a long series of dictators, culminating in the 1930s and 1940s in the two most evil dictators in recent New World history: Duvalier, dictator of Haiti, and Trujillo, dictator of the Dominican Republic. Duvalier failed to develop Haiti. Trujillo did develop the Dominican Republic as his private business.

ROBERTS: And so even though neither of those was a particularly altruistic leader, Trujillo ended up actually setting some progress in motion on the Dominican Republic side of the border?

Prof. DIAMOND: Trujillo did set up industries from which to make money himself. He protected the forest carefully so that he could make money from the forest, whereas Duvalier was not nearly as interested in doing those things. And the result is that the evil, horrible Trujillo nevertheless promoted some industrial development of the Dominican Republic that has then carried on since Trujillo, with the result that today, the Dominican Republic, on a per capita basis, is about seven times richer than Haiti. It has 33 times more TV sets, 24 times more electricity, eight times more doctors and a thriving democratically elected government.

ROBERTS: What role does language play in the disparate development?

Prof. DIAMOND: Interesting role. In Haiti, because 85 percent of the population were slaves who developed their own lingua franca, Haitian Creole - Haitian Creole today is spoken essentially by no one but Haitians, whereas in the Dominican Republic, the Spanish part, the Spanish could not afford to introduce many slaves, so the language remained Spanish.

Spanish today is one of the world's major international languages. That means that it's easy for other countries to communicate with the Dominican Republic. It's difficult for them to communicate with the great mass of Haitians. The Haitian elite speak French, but 85 percent of the population does not. And so, language has been something that has isolated Haiti, while connecting the Dominican Republic.

ROBERTS: My guest is Jared Diamond and we are talking about the distinctions among or between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, which share the island of Hispaniola. You can join us at 800-989-8255, or send us email: talk@npr.org.

Let's hear from Ray in Sunbury, Georgia. Ray, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

RAY (Caller): Thank you very much.


RAY: My comment was that I think the United States generally needs to have a better understanding of the early history of independence period of Haiti, the history of the problems of Duvalier and Baby Doc regimes and this sort of thing. But Haiti from the very beginning did not have enlightened and at times almost literate leadership. There was a pent-up distrust and hatred between the independence of a black Haiti and the Dominican Republic even during - before Dominican Republic became totally independent from Spain.

They also actually went to war against each other, with the Haitian leadership - I believe this is under Dessalines - invading the Dominican Republic. And this is one reason for the distrust and hatred today between these two countries.

ROBERTS: You know, Jared Diamond, shortly after the Dominican Republic became independent from Spain, the Haitians conquered them.

Prof. DIAMOND: That's true. The caller is correct that the early independence of Haiti is important for understanding Haiti. Once Haiti became independent after a bloody war with France, naturally, the last thing the Haitians wanted was more Europeans coming in to re-enslave them. Haiti being rich and powerful, as our caller mentioned, conquered the Dominican Republic and controlled the Dominican Republic for the next 22 years.

It's also the case, as our caller mentioned, that in Haiti, there has been a divide between the wealthy elite who speak French and send their kids to school in France and the mass of the population that doesn't speak French. And the result is that the elite has been interested in promoting their own interests, and has not been interested in promoting the interests of the vast majority of Haitians who speak a different language.

ROBERTS: Ray, thank you for your call. We've been talking about the two nations on Hispaniola, but there are other islands around there that share similar geography, sometimes similar history. How does the Haitian and Dominican Republic experience compare to say, Cuba or Jamaica?

Prof. DIAMOND: It's an interesting, wide-scale comparison. One can compare not just Haiti and the Dominican Republic sharing the same island, but as you mentioned, Cuba and Jamaica, other large islands. Of those islands, Haiti is the one that was originally by far the richest and ended up by far the poorest. It had the furthest fall. It had the fiercest war of independence. It was most resistant to outsiders. And Haiti is also the Caribbean island that outsiders, especially initially the United States and Europe, least wanted to see succeed.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call from Margaret in Salt Lake City. Margaret, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

MARGARET (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I'm really appreciating this program, because I have really been scratching my head wondering why Haitians are so impoverished and seem to be so forsaken, in Obama's words. My question is, you know, in terms of our relief aid to Haiti and the rebuilding that has to be done because of this earthquake, where do we actually stop the aid because they were so impoverished to begin with? Do we just keep rebuilding the country until it's a first-world country? Or - you know, how much aid do we actually give?

Prof. DIAMOND: Good question. Haitians will rebuild Haiti. We won't rebuild Haiti. The most we will do is help Haitians to rebuild Haiti. But Haitians, they're really hardworking. They're ingenious people. And with a little help, they'll go a long way. A friend of mine just came back from Haiti. And one thing that struck him was that Haitians, in their gardens, take old rubber tires that we would throw away or burn, and they take rubber tires and they put bottoms on them and then they fill them up with soil and they use them as little planters. So, in their - around the houses, there'll have five of these miniature gardens made with rubber tires. Those are ingenious people who, with a little help can go a long way.

ROBERTS: My guest is Jared Diamond. He's author of the books "Collapse" and "Guns, Germs, and Steel" and co-editor of the book, "Natural Experiments of History."

We are talking about the differences between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, why one - although still a developing country - is a functioning democracy with some assets, and the other still the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. And you can join us with questions or comments at 800-989-8255. Or send us email: talk@npr.org.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's take a call from Shaler(ph) in Miami. Shaler, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

SHALER (Caller): Thank you very much. I would like to thank Professor Diamond for his input. It's very just and it's fair in the way that he talked about the Haitian-Dominican problem.

Yes, we - for the past, maybe, 50 years - the leaders of Haiti have not had any vision on how to develop the island. They've been very corrupted. And to be fair to your comment, professor, Haiti - there is a little difference between the people of Santo Domingo and Haiti, which is not much. I believe that Haitians have not forgotten about the massacre that happened in the early 1800s. And also - I'm sorry, early 1900s. And also, that we do share a lot in common, except for the language.

And I've started up a Haitian cultural society here in Miami. I have had a lot of Dominican citizens that have come by our center to help out and share the grief. And to let you know that we are a very close people, there are a lot of Dominicans that live in Haiti, vice versa. And we know that the Haitians, like you say, are hard workers. We go there to work the agriculture, the sugar cane, and pick the cottons. And we also wonder why that we have the vision to also plant sugar canes and crops that the Haitians come back home and work - and sell them to international market.

I do appreciate your input, sir. It feels good to know that somebody had studied Haiti and had had the time to make the differences between the two people that share the same island. Thank you very much, Professor Diamond. And thank you very much, TALK OF THE NATION.

ROBERTS: Yeah. Thank you for joining us. The massacre he referred to in the early 1900s, Jared Diamond?

Prof. DIAMOND: Yes. There was a massacre on the Trujillo in, I believe, the late 1930s. Trujillo decided, on short notice, at a time when there were lots of Haitian agricultural workers in Dominican Republic, Trujillo decided that he was going to kill them. And in the course of about a week, something like 25,000 Haitians were killed. They were hacked to death. That was one of the reasons today why Haiti and the Dominican Republic have troubled relationships, the memory of that. But as our caller mentioned, the countries were also close. There were something like one million Haitians working today in the Dominican Republic.

So when I think of things that could produce a hopeful future for Haiti, I see the involvement of the United States, the involvement of France -former colonial owner of Haiti - but also the involvement of the Dominican Republic that shares the same island and - for which it's strongly in the Dominican's interest to make sure that Haiti succeeds.

ROBERTS: We have an email from Carol in Wayne, Pennsylvania, who says: Haiti is approximately 80 percent Roman Catholic. What leadership role has the church taken, morally or socially?

Prof. DIAMOND: Well, that's an interesting question. In the beginning, in the 1800s, the Vatican was one of the, possibly the European state that took the longest to recognize the independence of Haiti. I think the Vatican and the United States with the two holdouts that did not recognize Haitian independence until the 1860s.

In addition, remember that Haiti is over populated. It has a big population problem, lots of people. Haiti desperately needs family planning. But the Catholic Church has not been a positive leader. In many cases, it's been a negative force in family planning.

ROBERTS: There's also been some talk lately about either relocating the capital from Port-au-Prince, or at least trying to sort of spread out the population density within Haiti in some more rational way. Does that make a difference, do you think?

Prof. DIAMOND: I don't see the possibility for that happening. There's already a big investment in Port-au-Prince with, what, a million, couple of million people. If this were Singapore, if you had a dictatorial government and lots of money, you could talk about redesigning the capital. But Haiti needs more urgent things than redesigning the capital. It needs functioning roads. It needs functioning water, functioning electricity, functioning schools, entry-level businesses -all of that has to come first.

ROBERTS: We have one last email from Christiana(ph) in Syracuse, who says: Could your guest talk about the huge payments that Haiti was forced to pay France for winning their war of independence? What effect does this had on the long history of the Haitian economy?

Prof. DIAMOND: After Haiti became independent around 1804, the French demanded and extracted from Haiti indemnities, payments from Haiti for the valuable slave plantations that France lost. And Haiti was still paying money to France until the late 1800s. That money could have gone to other purposes for developing Haiti. At the same time, given the state of the government in Haiti during the 1800s, one would ask what use actually would have been made with the money.

So, yes, those payments to France were significant, but I would not place too much importance on them.

ROBERTS: Jared Diamond is author of the books "Collapse" and "Guns, Germs, and Steel." He joined us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Thank you so much.

Prof. DIAMOND: You are welcome.

ROBERTS: Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY on President Obama's budget, and what it means for basic science, alternative energy and NASA.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts, in Washington.

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