Commentators have been competing to come up with ever more complex explanations for “Why Haiti Is So Poor.” The single most important cause is probably that Haiti attained its independence in 1805, culminating in a massacre of the remaining whites, before the ending of the slave trade would have cut direct cultural contact with Africa. Wikipedia’s article on the History of Haiti notes [January 17, 2010]:
“At all times, a majority of slaves in the colony were African-born, as the brutal conditions of slavery prevented the population from experiencing growth through natural increase. African culture thus remained strong among slaves to the end of French rule, in particular the folk-religion of Vodou, which commingled Catholic liturgy and ritual with the beliefs and practices of Guinea, Congo, and Dahomey.”
Therefore, despite theoretically being a French-speaking, Roman Catholic, Western Hemisphere country, 21st Century Haiti remains culturally rooted in Africa. Indeed, Haiti isn’t even particularly poor for a country with an African culture: 22 sub-Saharan African countries have lower per capita GDPs than Haiti’s $1,300, with Zimbabwe last at $200. ...
A new book edited by Jared Diamond, Natural Experiments of History, focuses heavily on the comparison of Haiti and the neighboring Dominican Republic that Diamond began in his last bestseller, Collapse. Diamond, the author of the Pulitzer-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel, is both smart and about 90 percent honest. That makes him the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind that is contemporary intellectual discourse.
Diamond’s January 15th article in the leftwing U.K. Guardian, A Divided Island: The forces working against Haiti, summarizes his thinking on how Haiti’s quantity and quality of population have hurt Haiti compared to the D.R., which has a moderate per capita GDP of $8,200 versus Haiti's $1,300. Diamond's essay is a dry read, but more frank than most of what you’ve heard:
“But Haiti's area is only slightly more than half of that of the Dominican Republic so that Haiti, with a larger population and smaller area, has double its neighbour's population density.”
(Economist Tyler Cowen blogged yesterday that until a decade ago, when kidnappings became routine, he hadn’t been afraid of crime when he visited Haiti because the overpopulation was so extraordinary: “There's just not enough room for anyone to mug you, at least if you exercise due caution. Nor, for that matter, were there very many beggars, since usually there was no one to beg from.”)
Diamond goes on:
“The combination of that higher population density and lower rainfall was the main factor behind the more rapid deforestation and loss of soil fertility on the Haitian side.”
In Collapse, Diamond praised the D.R.’s old megalomaniacal dictator Rafael Trujillo (1891-1961) for stealing much of the forestland and exploiting it cautiously in a rational manner. Dominican kleptocracy helped avoid the tragedy of the commons that contributed to the ecological ruin of Haiti, where the common folk chop down all trees for cooking fuel.
Diamond goes on to point out—cautiously!—another advantage the D.R. has over Haiti: it’s whiter.
“A second social and political factor is that the Dominican Republic – with its Spanish-speaking population of predominantly European ancestry – was both more receptive and more attractive to European immigrants and investors than was Haiti with its Creole-speaking population composed overwhelmingly of black former slaves.”
The relative whiteness of Dominicans isn’t widely understood in the U.S. because we are mostly familiar with the largely black Dominican baseball players, such as Sammy Sosa. But Dominicans generally tend to look more like the American-born Dominican mulatto slugger Alex Rodriguez than the black slugger Manny Ramirez. The current president of the D.R. looks like the fat guy in the Laurel and HardyMuhammad Ali, and he’s the only one of the last five presidents with any clear black ancestry. movies crossed with
Trujillo had an explicit policy of whitening the Dominican Republic’s population through immigration from Europe—and expelling Haitian illegal immigrants. He was the only national leader actively to recruit Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany during the 1930s.
“Hence European immigration and investment were negligible and restricted by the constitution in Haiti after 1804 but eventually became important in the Dominican Republic. Those Dominican immigrants included many middle-class businesspeople and skilled professionals who contributed to the country's development.”
To summarize Diamond, Haiti has more people per fertile acre of farmland than the Dominican Republic, and less human capital per capita.
That human capital can be overwhelmingly cultural. Thus another former sugar-growing black Caribbean country, Barbados, independent since 1966 although Queen Elizabeth II remains the official head of state, has a per capita GDP of $18,900, an average life expectancy of 74 years.
“The culture of slavery, as well as zero-sum traditional African culture, powerfully sustained by a religion (Voodoo) without an ethical code, are palpable to any foreigner who has lived [in Haiti], as I did for two years. Barbados, which I have visited several times, remained a British colony until 1966, by which time it had substantially absorbed British values, attitudes, and institutions. The Barbadians are sometimes referred to as Black Englishmen or Afro-Saxons.”
(Still, that raises the question of why Barbados has a lower crime rate and a higher literacy rate than some other ex-British colonies like Jamaica. Robert MacNeil’s PBS series The Story Of English suggested that selection played a role in Barbados' more genteel culture: “[Barbados] was the first main port of call for the slave ships. It is said that unruly slaves from the least domesticated tribes were progressively shipped up the ‘claw’ of the West Indies until they reached Jamaica.” [p. 220])
Barbadian blacks were cut off from fresh infusions of African culture when the British Parliament voted the end of the slave trade in 1807. Sugar plantation owners could no longer afford to work their slaves to death and replace them with new slaves from Africa. The British government carried out an orderly emancipation, with compensation for slaveowners, in the 1830s.
Although 90 percent of Barbados’ population is said to be “Afro-Bajan”, Barbados has a fairly large mixed race middle class who typically call themselves “white” (for example, the Barbadian pop singer Rihanna, who is considered black in America, recently complained “I Was Bullied At School For Being White”) and espouse traditional white standards.Ironically, more than few of these West Indians who call themselves white in the Islands have gone into the civil rights business as black leaders in the U.S. For example, President Obama’s “African-American” Attorney General Eric Holder called America “a nation of cowards” last year for not talking enough about race, is a light-skinned Bajan-American (something he wasn't brave enough to mention in his famous speech about race).