Backgrounder

Haiti’s Troubled Path to Development

Hobbled by foreign interventions, political instability, and natural disasters, the former French colony has long suffered from underdevelopment.
Two men overlook Port-au-Prince in the wake of the 7.0-magnitude earthquake of 2010.
Two men overlook Port-au-Prince in the wake of the 7.0-magnitude earthquake of 2010. Allison Shelley/Reuters
Summary
  • Once the wealthiest colony in the Americas, Haiti is now the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country, with more than half of its population living below the World Bank's poverty line.
  • Foreign intervention and debt, political instability, and natural disasters have stymied the Caribbean country’s development.
  • The assassination of Haiti’s president and the ongoing pandemic have increasingly challenged the Biden administration’s plans for closer ties.

Introduction

Few countries have struggled with development like Haiti. Since breaking free from French colonial rule over two centuries ago, the Caribbean state has weathered multiple foreign interventions, chronic political instability, and devastating natural disasters. The confluence of these forces has transformed what was once the wealthiest colony in the Americas into the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

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The United States has had a long and troubled history with Haiti, including a nearly twenty-year, sometimes bloody, occupation in the early twentieth century. Despite an often rocky relationship, the two countries maintain close economic and social ties, although bilateral relations were strained under President Donald Trump. During his tenure, Trump sought to restrict immigration from Haiti, and while President Joe Biden promised a new approach, the assassination of Haiti’s president and a worsening economic crisis have challenged U.S. policy on multiple fronts.

What are Haiti’s origins?

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Spanish settlers arrived on the island of Hispaniola, which comprises modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic, in 1492. Within a quarter-century, diseases brought by Europeans, such as smallpox and measles, decimated the indigenous Taino population. Over the next three centuries, European colonizers imported hundreds of thousands of enslaved people from western and central Africa to harvest sugar, coffee, and timber, all lucrative exports.

The first postcolonial black republic, Haiti became a beacon of abolition, self-determination, and racial equality.

In the early 1600s, French traders established an outpost on the western third of the island, which Paris annexed as the colony of Saint-Domingue several decades later. In the late 1700s, Toussaint L’Ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, both formerly enslaved, led a rebellion against French rule that culminated with the creation of Haiti in 1804. The first postcolonial Black republic, Haiti became a beacon of abolition, self-determination, and racial equality.

What is Haiti’s economic situation?

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. More than half the population lives under the poverty line, and many rely on subsistence farming to feed their families. Haiti is also heavily dependent on external revenue: Since 2010, Haiti has received more than $13 billion in international aid, most of which has funded disaster-relief missions and development programs. Meanwhile, remittances from the Haitian diaspora have steadily risen over the last few years, totaling a record $3.8 billion [PDF] in 2020, or 23 percent of Haiti’s gross domestic product (GDP).

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For the last decade, Haiti has run an average annual trade deficit of $190 million. Its major industries include sugar refining, flour milling, and cement and textile manufacturing; textiles account for 90 percent of all its exports. The United States is Haiti’s largest trade partner.

In recent years, natural disasters, disease, political instability, mismanagement of humanitarian relief, and a depreciation of the gourde—Haiti’s currency—have strained the economy. Tourism, once a vibrant sector, has declined. Compared to a record 1.3 million tourists in 2018, which drew in $620 million, Haiti welcomed only 938,000 travelers in 2019. That same year, the neighboring Dominican Republic welcomed nearly 7.6 million tourists. However, the COVID-19 pandemic likely reduced travel to both countries in 2020.

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International lenders canceled Haiti’s debt following a massive earthquake in 2010, but its borrowing has since risen to $3.94 billion, including nearly $2 billion from PetroCaribe—the Venezuela-led regional alliance that offers its members subsidized oil. Further upheaval, including an escalating protest movement, the 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moise, and back-to-back natural disasters in July and August 2021, has placed further stress on the country’s economic situation.

Why has Haiti had such difficulty developing?

Since its independence from France, Haiti’s development has been menaced by forces that run the gamut, including interference of foreign powers, domestic political malfeasance, natural disasters, and epidemics.

Foreign intervention and debt. Freedom from France in 1804 did not mean an end to foreign powers intervening in Haiti. France only recognized an independent Haiti in 1825, after its former colony agreed to pay reparations that would be worth $22 billion today. Over the next 120 years, as much as 80 percent of Haiti’s revenues went to paying off this debt.

The United States recognized Haiti only in 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln was championing emancipation at home and abroad. Subsequent U.S. administrations viewed Haiti through a mostly strategic lens. Wary of encroaching German influence in the Caribbean at the outset of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson ordered Marines to Haiti in 1915, purportedly to restore political stability. In the five years prior, seven Haitian presidents were ousted from office or assassinated. During the nearly two-decade occupation, the United States controlled Haiti’s security and finances. It also imposed racial segregation, forced labor, and press censorship, and deposed presidents and legislatures that opposed the U.S. presence. Some fifteen thousand Haitians were killed in rebellions against the U.S. administration, the bloodiest of which occurred in 1919 and 1929. President Franklin D. Roosevelt withdrew U.S. troops in 1934 as part of his Good Neighbor Policy.

Political instability. The U.S. withdrawal was followed by a series of unstable governments, which culminated in 1957 with the establishment of a dictatorship under Francois Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude. Their twenty-nine-year rule was characterized by corruption that drained the nation’s coffers and human rights violations that left some thirty thousand people dead or missing. In 1986, massive protests and international pressure forced the younger Duvalier to flee the country, giving way to a new constitution and democratic institutions [PDF].

However, political instability persisted. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the country’s first democratically elected president, was twice deposed in coups, in 1991 and 2004. Both prompted U.S. military interventions supported by the United Nations. In 2004, the United Nations launched a thirteen-year peacekeeping mission, the Brazil-led UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) [PDF], which sought to restore order after the fall of the Aristide government. In 2011, the election of Michel Martelly as president was clouded by allegations of U.S. meddling on his behalf. He later stepped down after postponing presidential elections twice and ruling by decree for more than a year. Haiti was cast into a political vacuum in 2016, when fraud allegations against Martelly’s successor, Jovenel Moise, postponed Moise’s official election until early 2017.

Moise’s presidency saw mass protests and calls for his resignation in response to increased fuel prices and the removal of government subsidies, accusations of corruption, a worsening economic crisis, and dispute over his administration’s legitimacy. The widespread social unrest culminated in Moise’s July 7 assassination. Some of the mercenaries arrested on suspicion of involvement had received U.S. military training. Ariel Henry, named prime minister only days before the murder, took over as acting president and has since come under suspicion after Haiti’s chief prosecutor alleged that Henry was in communication with a key suspect.

Natural disasters. Located on a geological fault line in a region prone to severe storms, Haiti suffers more natural disasters [PDF] than most Caribbean nations. Widespread deforestation has left the country especially prone to flooding and mudslides, which strike Haiti at twice the rate as the Dominican Republic.

Moreover, a number of factors magnify the impact of disasters, including a lack of city planning, substandard infrastructure and housing, large coastal populations, and widespread dependence on subsistence farming.

A massive earthquake near the capital in 2010 killed 220,000 Haitians and displaced 1.5 million more. At $8 billion, basic reconstruction costs surpassed the country’s annual GDP. Between 2015 and 2017, drought led to crop losses of 70 percent, and in 2016, Hurricane Matthew decimated the country’s housing, livestock, and infrastructure. Haiti was then struck by back-to-back disasters in August 2021, when a magnitude 7.2 earthquake rocked the southern peninsula, destroying 30 percent of local homes, killing over 2,000 people, and displacing tens of thousands more. Days later, Tropical Storm Grace exacerbated the destruction, dumping heavy rains and triggering flash flooding and landslides.

Epidemics and aid mismanagement have further complicated matters. Dengue and malaria run rampant, and cholera, introduced by UN peacekeepers from Nepal after the 2010 earthquake, has killed ten thousand people and infected nearly one million more. At the same time, critics say nongovernmental organizations have poorly administered billions of dollars in aid.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected Haiti?

Haiti has had relatively low COVID-19 case numbers, and the government turned away two offers to receive donations of the AstraZeneca vaccine, citing low fatalities and concerns about the vaccine’s efficacy. In early 2021, the Haitian government enforced preventative measures, including a mask mandate, social-distancing requirements, and a curfew. Though it received its first vaccines only in July 2021, when the United States donated five hundred thousand doses, Haiti’s COVID-19 death toll remains under one thousand people and its number of infections under twenty-five thousand, although the true number could be higher due to minimal testing. Some doctors say Haiti’s young population—the average age is twenty-four—could also have played a role.

However, health authorities warn about the spread of new virus variants, and say vaccine hesitancy, misinformation, and a weak health-care system are hampering Haiti’s vaccination campaign. “We have to open new structures to take more patients with respiratory difficulties to avoid a catastrophe,” Ronald Laroche, a doctor who opened a COVID-19 center in Haiti in June, told Reuters.

How have recent U.S. administrations approached Haiti?

Washington’s stated aims have been to bring political and economic stability to its southern neighbor while easing Haiti’s humanitarian distress. The Barack Obama administration focused on strengthening Haiti’s national police force, boosting economic security, improving health and education services, and buttressing infrastructure. Under Obama, the United States led the international responses to Haiti’s crises, calling the country its “top foreign assistance priority” [PDF] in the Caribbean, and continued to support the United Nations’ MINUSTAH mission. Since the 2010 earthquake, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has been Haiti’s top donor, contributing roughly $5 billion, including millions in support of disaster-risk reduction programs.

On trade, a series of accords struck by President George W. Bush and extended under Obama provide Haitian textiles with duty-free access to the United States. As of 2020, over 80 percent of all Haitian exports were going to the United States. 

Immigration has been a central issue in the U.S.-Haiti relationship. Between 1990 and 2015, the Haitian immigrant population in the United States tripled as Haitians fled political instability and natural disasters, though some previous U.S. administrations responded with harsh detention and repatriation policies. After the 2010 earthquake, Obama granted Haitians temporary protected status (TPS), which affords undocumented migrants from troubled countries the right to live and work in the United States for renewable periods of up to eighteen months.

According to the latest American Community Survey, more than one million people of full or partial Haitian descent resided in the United States in 2019, making the country home to the largest Haitian population outside of Haiti.

What did Trump do?

The Trump administration cut USAID’s humanitarian and development assistance to Haiti by nearly 18 percent in 2017 as part of broader reductions to U.S. foreign aid, but preserved funding for initiatives to reduce poverty, improve infrastructure and services, and promote democratic institutions. Several trade agreements from the Obama era have likewise endured, including Haiti’s duty-free access to U.S. markets, which was among the deals renewed by the Trump administration. When protests erupted across Haiti in 2019, Trump supported President Moise, who faced accusations of political illegitimacy and growing authoritarianism.

At the same time, Trump diverged from his recent predecessors on immigration, particularly with regard to TPS, which he sought to end for many countries. In late 2017, he denied some 59,000 Haitians an extension of their protected status, leading to the deportation of more than 1,600 [PDF] of them in 2018 and 2019. However, Haiti’s TPS designation was subsequently extended several times due to the country’s instability and legal challenges that prevented the Trump administration from completely terminating it.

What is Biden’s approach?

Before taking office, President Biden promised a new era of U.S. engagement with Latin America and the Caribbean. His response to Haiti’s latest crises has spurred calls for stronger action, as well as local opposition to any potential U.S. intervention.

In January 2021, the administration announced that it was sending an additional $75.5 million in development aid and health assistance to Haiti, although overall security assistance to the Caribbean nation has steadily declined in recent years. Following the August earthquake, the administration approved another $32 million in disaster-relief funds and authorized USAID rescue teams to be dispatched to the island. The Biden administration also revived TPS for an estimated 155,000 Haitians, announcing in August a new, eighteen-month TPS designation in response to Haiti’s deteriorating political situation. 

But Biden has maintained some aspects of Trump’s border policy. The administration continues to uphold Title 42, a pandemic-era public health order allowing for the immediate expulsion of migrants. Among those affected are thousands of Haitian asylum seekers. And according to a 2021 report [PDF] by a coalition of immigrants rights groups, the United States deported more Haitians in the first three months of Biden’s presidency than during all of 2020. 

Meanwhile, some policy analysts have argued that the Biden administration’s response in the aftermath of President Moise’s murder was lackluster. Some Congressional leaders have urged Biden to intensify efforts to provide relief and support Haitian security services ahead of Haitian elections scheduled for November 2021, while immigration advocates have pressed the administration to halt deportations and increase the refugee cap. The White House has appointed a new special envoy to Haiti to coordinate the U.S. response, but has ruled out sending U.S. troops or additional military assistance. 

Recommended Resources

CFR’s Paul J. Angelo and David Gevarter detail the assassination of President Moise and what it means for Haiti’s future.

Edwidge Danticat looks at the legacy of Haiti's occupation in the New Yorker.

Isabel Macdonald evaluates Haiti’s claim to reparations from its former colonizer in the Guardian.

Nathalie Baptiste explores the legacy of the Duvalier dictatorships on Haiti and its diaspora for Foreign Policy In Focus and the Nation.

NPR discusses the UN response during the deadly spread of cholera after the 2010 earthquake.

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