NEW YORK--As grim accounts of the earthquake in Haiti came in, they all carried the same descriptive sentence: "Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere ..."
How did Haiti get so poor? It's an important question. The same 7.0 tremor hitting San Francisco wouldn't kill nearly as many people as in Port-au-Prince.
"Looking at the pictures, essentially it looks as if (the buildings are of) breezeblock or cinderblock construction, and what you need in an earthquake zone is metal bars that connect the blocks so that they stay together when they get shaken," notes Sandy Steacey, director of the Environmental Science Research Institute at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland. "In a wealthy country with good seismic building codes that are enforced, you would have some damage, but not very much."
Earthquakes are random, but in Haiti, don't blame tectonic plates. Ninety-nine percent of the death toll is attributable to poverty.
How'd Haiti become so poor? The story begins in 1910, when a U.S. State Department-National City Bank of New York (now called Citibank) consortium bought the Banque National d'Haiti--Haiti's only commercial bank and national treasury--in effect transferring Haiti's debt. Five years later, President Woodrow Wilson ordered troops to occupy Haiti in order to keep tabs on "our" investment.
From 1915 to 1934, the U.S. Marines occupied the country, murdered Haitians patriots and diverted 40 percent of Haiti's gross domestic product to U.S. bankers. Haitians were banned from government jobs and the ambitious were put into the puppet military, setting up for a half-century of military dictatorship.
The Unites States kept control of Haiti's finances until 1947. We stole 40 percent of Haiti's national wealth for 32 years. Despite having been bled dry by U.S. bankers and generals, civil disorder prevailed until 1957, when the CIA installed President-for-Life Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier. Duvalier's brutal Tonton Macoutes paramilitary goon squads murdered at least 30,000 Haitians and drove educated people to flee.
Upon Papa Doc's death in 1971, the torch passed to his even more dissolute 19-year-old son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. The United States quickly warmed up to the kleptomaniacal playboy heir, pouring in arms and training his army as a supposed anti-communist bulwark against Castro's Cuba. Baby Doc stole an estimated $300 million to $800 million from the national treasury, according to Transparency International, and placed the money in personal accounts in Switzerland and elsewhere. Under U.S. influence, Baby Doc virtually eliminated import tariffs for U.S. goods. Domestic rice farmers went bankrupt. Farms were abandoned and farmers migrated to the teeming slums of Port-au-Prince. In 1986 President Ronald Reagan ordered U.S. forces to whisk Baby Doc to exile in France.
We've twice deposed the popular democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The second time, in 2004, we even gave him a free flight to the Central African Republic. (He says the CIA kidnapped him, but whatever.)
Yet, despite everything, they're still a fourth-world failed state on a fault line. And still, we haven't given up. American companies like Disney generously pay wages to their sweatshop workers of 28 cents an hour.