The World

What Haiti Really Needs Right Now

It’s not more intervention by the U.S., or donations to humanitarian organizations.

Haitians work on rebuilding a school.
A worker walks through the Lycee Phillippe Guerrier, which damaged in a recent earthquake, in Les Cayes, Haiti, on Tuesday. Richard Pierrin/AFP via Getty Images

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This summer, Haiti has witnessed one tragedy after another. First, in July, there was the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. Then in mid-August, an earthquake struck in a rural zone southwest of the capital. A few days later came flooding due to a tropical storm. Jonathan M. Katz, an former Haiti correspondent who writes the newsletter The Long Version, says many of his old friends and colleagues in the Caribbean island have had enough—and that no one should perceive Haiti as being unlucky, but rather as being long exploited. What are the real origins of Haiti’s compounding disasters (spoiler alert: The U.S. has played a big role), and what would really get the country up on its feet? To dive more into Haiti’s disasters, the history that explains why Haiti lacks resources in the first place, and what Haitians actually need, I spoke with Katz on Wednesday’s episode of What Next. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Mary Harris: If you’re an American who’s sitting here thinking, “I guess should I give money to the Red Cross to help Haiti,” should you do that?

Jonathan M. Katz: No, that I wouldn’t do, because that doesn’t really help anybody. The Red Cross doesn’t address the root causes of the problems in Haiti, and in fact has a history of adding to the root causes. We, as Americans have played a major role in causing Haiti’s poverty—like, a direct role in making Haiti as poor as it is today. I would say that if Americans want to get involved in fixing Haitian poverty, that is possible, but it means first and foremost addressing the inequities and the extraction and all of the roiling that we have done in the past. It really takes a lot of digging and self-awareness.

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Is it worth looking at the 2010 earthquake as an example of how the will to help is there, but the resources aren’t? And that, when the resources come in, they come in in the wrong way?

Oh, 100 percent. When people remember—if people even now remember—the quake from 11 years ago, they often remember that there were these big, totemic money figures floated about. But where did the money go? If you actually look back at that, you’ll see that much more was pledged to Haiti than was ever delivered, and the vast majority of the money that was given never went to Haiti. It just went in circles from one hand to the next in the donor countries. One of the biggest figures was a half a billion dollars to the U.S. Department of Defense. The point of that money was to fund a military response, which did do some things, like help repair the port in Port-au-Prince. But the vast majority of that money, the vast majority of time and resources, was there to prevent social unrest, and to essentially keep people from leaving Haiti and coming to the United States. The risk of all of those things happening was extremely overblown. But, you know, the vast majority of U.S. soldiers dispatched to Haiti never left their ships. They never set foot on Haitian soil.

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And they were there to do a job they didn’t really need to be doing.

Exactly. So, you mentioned the Red Cross—

Which also had a half-billion dollars.

Exactly. It spent that money internally. I’m not saying necessarily that it was pocketed—this is how an organization works. It has people whose salaries and travel have to be paid. And the Red Cross bought a bunch of hygiene kits and tarps, and distributed those. But, you know, a vanishingly tiny fraction of all the money that was spent or talked about ended up in the hands of Haitians. I mean, it was far less than 1 percent. And much of that went to the Haitian elite.

The vast majority of ordinary Haitians saw nothing: They got a tarp, they got a T-shirt from an NGO, maybe they got a bag of rice that lasts them a couple of weeks, and that was it. So they end up clearing the rubble themselves, repurposing it, and rebuilding their own homes. And the way they rebuild their homes is as fragile and unsafe as it was before the last disaster struck.

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Haitians are, by necessity, the most self-sufficient, creative people you will ever meet in your life. The problem isn’t a lack of knowhow or a lack of desire or will. It is really a lack of material resources. But understanding why those resources are lacking in Haiti is necessary in order to figure out how to fix that problem.

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Part of what I really appreciate about your reporting is that you put disasters like this earthquake or the 2010 earthquake in a wider context of how Haiti has been exploited—European countries coming in and draining it of resources in all kinds of ways and setting the country up for failure. I wonder if there’s one example in particular that contextualizes the historical roots of what’s happening now.

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Haiti’s real claim to fame in the world is that it is the only country ever born out of a successful revolution by enslaved people. It was a French colony called Saint-Domingue, and the enslaved people who were brought there from Africa rose up, overthrew slavery, defeated the most powerful army in the world—Napoleon’s army—and made themselves free in 1804. And for that they were rewarded with exclusion and exploitation by other countries, many of whom, especially the United States, were still practicing slavery and did not want this example of a self-freed people reaching their own enslaved population.

They feared it.

Yes. And that is a major theme of American history leading up all the way to our Civil War. There’s talk all throughout the 19th century about another Haiti happening.

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Weren’t Haitians also compelled to pay back the people who had enslaved them?

Exactly. France’s biggest response was in 1825. King Charles X sent over some gunboats and said: I got a great offer for you guys. It’s an offer you can’t refuse either. You pay us back for your freedom, for the land that you your fathers and mothers were enslaved on. If you do that, we will give you diplomatic recognition. And if you don’t, we’re going to reinvade and bombard you. And Haiti agreed to the deal. Haitians paid back every cent of what ended up being 90 million gold francs, which is worth about U.S.$20 billion today. The principal was paid back by the 1880s and the last bit of interest was paid back in 1947.

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All of the resources, all of the customs revenues that could have been kept in Haiti and used to build the country, to build infrastructure, ended up going to French planters. But more than that, in order to fill the hole of the Haitian budgets, the government had to take out major loans. Some of those loans were taken out from U.S. banks—the most important one of those that was involved was the City Bank of New York, now just known as Citibank, under Citigroup. In 1914, in order to ensure that Wall Street banks got their debt payments paid, the U.S. Marines came ashore, went into the Haitian central bank, basically stole half of Haiti’s gold reserves, put them on a U.S. warship, took them to Wall Street, and put them in a vault there.

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That set Haitian politics into a complete tailspin. In the summer of 1915, the last Haitian president who was ever assassinated—until Moïse was assassinated just a couple of weeks ago—was assassinated in that context, which then was the pretext for a U.S. invasion. And it led to an occupation that lasted until 1934, which was the longest time the United States has ever militarily occupied a foreign country until that record was broken by the U.S. in Afghanistan in the past year.

You’ve drawn this parallel between how the United States has behaved in Haiti and more recently in Afghanistan, and I’m wondering if we can draw that out a little bit more here. At the same time this summer that Haiti was suffering so many tragedies, the United States was pulling out of Afghanistan. How would you compare and contrast these relationships, between the United States and Haiti and the United States in Afghanistan?

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The United States’ involvement in both countries started with invasions to thwart what it considered to be hostile, militarized movements. In Afghanistan it was the Taliban. In Haiti it was basically guerrilla fighters known as Cacos, who operated especially in the mountains of northern Haiti. We set up puppet governments in Afghanistan with Hamid Karzai. In Haiti we set one up with Philippe Dartiguenave, who was just this milquetoast senator who had no real constituency. Dartiguenave’s government had to depend on the Marines for protection, and the Marines came up with the idea of setting up a Haitian client military instead of just having Marines there—to set up basically a police force and fight the insurgents in our stead in Haiti, which was called the Gendarmerie d’Haïti. The same thing has been tried in many other places that the United States has since invaded, occupied, etc. In Afghanistan, that’s the Afghan National Security Forces.

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Do Afghanistan and Haiti also share this history where nongovernmental organizations come in and try to do some of the work that you would traditionally think a government would do?

Absolutely. Afghanistan is a great example of a country where the United States blows it up and then, in order to rebuild, it assigns itself and its defense contractors and humanitarian groups to rebuild what it just blew up. Haiti is a very similar case. The United States implemented an explicit policy of bypassing Haitian governments and standing up what are now known as NGOs in its place.

I think some people in the U.S. would say the whole reason we need to stand up these outside organizations in countries like Haiti and Afghanistan is because when the governments are not necessarily trustworthy—when there’s corruption and graft—if we are filtering our money through third parties instead of the governments, maybe more of it will get to the people who need it. What would you say to that?

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I would say that that is a sensible reaction in theory, but it doesn’t really jibe with the evidence on the ground.

Why not?

If it were the case that there was this endemic corruption and the United States and foreign NGOs are just trying to work their way around it, then you would expect that at the very least, corruption would be reduced, right?

So you’re saying the corruption came with U.S. involvement, was a byproduct of it.

Absolutely. Corruption is often talked about as the excuse for not giving money to Haitians. But then we then end up making Haiti a more corrupt place than it was before. The U.S.’s power players in Haiti are this very tiny elite who have their hands in all kinds of violence and drug trafficking and really, really nasty stuff.

If the U.S. and other countries were helping Haiti the right way, what would that look like?

Honestly, the biggest thing is just to put money in Haitians’ hands. And I don’t mean the elite. Put money in the people’s hands so they can rebuild their own lives in the best way they see fit. Haitians can do it. They just need the money and the resources and the time to do it.

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