How Did Things Get So Bad in Haiti?

The New York Times

July 9, 2021

Welcome to The Interpreter newsletter, by Max Fisher, who with Amanda Taub writes a column by the same name.

On our minds: Haiti’s cycle of turmoil.

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How Did Things Get So Bad in Haiti?

Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, in 2017.Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times

When you ask someone who claims to have the answer why Haiti has such deep problems, from poverty and turmoil to this week’s presidential assassination, you are likely to get a one-word answer that is frustratingly incomplete.

They might blame corruption or coups. For sure, but how did it get so corrupt? Why is there such a pattern of coups in the first place?

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Or they’ll say that Haiti receives too much foreign aid, stifling innovation. Maybe, but dozens of countries receive more aid than Haiti and don’t have its problems.

They might point to the decades of European hostility toward Haiti’s 1804 revolution. A factor for certain, though not a full explanation: Other countries have endured more recent aggression without falling to such depths or for so long.

Or they’ll cite American meddling. (A 1915 intervention put down violence that had killed the country’s president and forced the appointment of a pro-American replacement; another in 1994 overturned a military coup and restored Haiti’s elected leader.) That’s part of the story, but not all of it: American interventions have been more destructive in quite a few countries — sponsoring coups, insurgencies, civil wars, mass exterminations and decades-long embargoes — that all suffered for it but don’t look quite like Haiti.

The short answer is that there is no short answer. Haiti, by many metrics, resembles a country emerging from, or in the midst of, but without the actual war. That doesn’t happen because of one event or factor. It requires lots of them; a decades-long series of man-made and natural disasters, some related and some coincidental, but each building on the others to create what Haiti is today.

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Still, “it’s complicated,” however true, is not particularly enlightening. So when I think of how to summarize Haiti’s present-day, I think of Jean-marice Buteau and his mango crates.

Mr. Buteau, a Haitian fruit exporter, was profiled 10 years ago by an NPR series on the country’s troubles. But his story is timeless.

Haitian mango growers lose about half of their stock to spoilage and damage for want of better infrastructure. This leaves many without the money to climb out of poverty by, say, sending their children to school or reinvesting in their farm. Mr. Buteau wanted to distribute plastic crates to the farmers, reducing the share of mangoes lost to damage.

“It’s very self-serving because I’m going to have more product,” he told NPR. “I mean, I’m not a philanthropist. I’m doing this because I need the product.”

Perhaps you see where this is going. Mr. Buteau teamed up with local farmers and international NGOs to make the crates happen. Things moved slowly and there were years’ of hurdles. The scheme eventually failed, crashing up against a troubled government ministry that failed to deliver a deed transfer necessary to build the crate distribution shed.

The story was a small one, but indicative of the self-reinforcing feedback loop that can form between poverty, poor infrastructure and weak governance.

Those three forces can, if they become severe enough, turn into a perfect storm of dysfunction that almost resembles state failure.

The mechanism interlinking them is scarcity. When a country becomes severely poor — not so much in absolute terms, but relative to the cost of living, which has risen sharply in Haiti — competition for bare-subsistance resources becomes much fiercer. Government salaries tend to fall or simply not get paid out. Desperate to feed their families, government employees turn to corruption. Institutions ranging from the local police precinct to the agricultural ministry re-engineer themselves from service-providers into parasitic resource-extractors.

Scarcity worsens, both because institutions get less effective and because corruption and crime take more money out of peoples’ pockets. But also, because the institutions are less effective, it becomes much harder for communities to climb out of that scarcity. Over time, untended infrastructure erodes — both physical infrastructure like roads and ports and social infrastructure like schools and civil society — accelerating the decline into scarcity.

In Haiti’s case, an unlucky string of extreme events have drastically worsened that self-reinforcing cycle. A coup, a foreign intervention, a hurricane. And, in 2010, a major earthquake.

The quake destroyed many homes and businesses whose owners could not afford to insure them, plunging them deep into poverty. It also drove up the cost of living because, with domestic production nearly gone, many essentials had to be imported into a now-devastated port. The government had to pour what little money it had into triaging emergencies, like propping up an already-struggling hospital system, much of which had literally collapsed. Governance worsened and corruption rose. (The ministry that was supposed to help with Mr. Buteau’s paperwork failed to do so, in part, because it had become a pile of rubble.)

With many families relocating into the devastated city center, crime skyrocketed. Many police, nearly as desperate to pay for food as the criminals, turned a blind eye or even helped in exchange for a cut. In the years since the earthquake, despite billions in aid, the country’s poverty rate has risen to about 60 percent.

Now that you know how the cycle works, it’s not hard to understand how Haiti devolved from its 2010 crises to those unfolding now. In 2017, anti-corruption investigators accused top officials, including the president, of embezzling from low-interest loans made by Petrocaribe, a Venezuelan-led oil cartel, to help recover from the earthquake. Petrocaribe had handed billions of dollars directly to the government rather than aid agencies (partly in response to a school of thought blaming such agencies for Haiti’s problems).

While some dispute the allegations specifically against the president as politically motivated, there is little doubt that much of the Petrocaribe money was siphoned off by graft and by the governing class handing itself patronage contracts.

The influx of money inflated the cost of living, pushing Haitians deeper into poverty, all while demonstrating, in many citizens’ eyes, the ruling class’s self-dealing. (Haiti has one of the highest inequality rates in the world, according to one metric.) Corruption at this scale also worsens the quality of governance because it shifts institutions’ allegiance to whoever pays them. Protests erupted. With organized crime increasingly rampant and policing weak, criminals exploited the disorder to take over whole neighborhoods.

The state receded and unrest extended to high-level political dissent. Last year, the president, Jovenel Moïse, dissolved most of Haiti’s parliament. This year, when Mr. Moïse’s term ended but he did not leave office, opposition leaders tried to install a Supreme Court judge in his place. In response, he pushed out three sitting Supreme Court judges. It is a dramatic story but not so different from the smaller-scale crises playing out in many Haitian institutions, where scarcity leads to resource competition and a decline in governance, which worsens scarcity, restarting the cycle.

This is not to say that Haiti’s troubles all flow from this one set of crises. You could tell similar stories about the cycles set off by, say, the 2004 military coup. Or the 1991 coup. Or, for that matter, the American intervention in 1915, which became an occupation that lasted until 1934.

In each case, there are real villains who exploited or even encouraged the cycle of poverty, poor infrastructure and weak governance, either for ideological reasons or personal gain. But they are only able to do so because the cycle itself has become so entrenched. There’s no one-word explanation for how it got that way, which means there is no one-way answer for how to get out of it. But a first step is understanding that it’s become larger than any one villain or force.

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The New York Times

July 9, 2021