As grim accounts of the earthquake in Haiti came in, the accounts in U.S. news media all carried the same sentence: “Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.”

earthquakeGee, I wonder how that happened. Haiti made a lot of people rich, so how did it get so poor – especially when it had the advantages of a century of American colonialism, occupation, and the propping up of its corrupt dictators? Even though the CIA staged coups d’état against every democratically elected president the country has ever had?


It’s an important question. Consider that the same 7.0 tremor hitting San Francisco wouldn’t kill nearly as many people as it did in Port-au-Prince.

“Looking at the pictures, essentially it looks as if [the buildings are made 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,” said 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.”

When a pile of cinderblocks falls on you, your chances of getting out alive are slim. Even if you survive, a poor country like Haiti doesn’t have the equipment, communications infrastructure, or emergency service personnel to pull you out of the rubble in time. And if your neighbors get you out, there’s no ambulance to take you to the hospital or doctor to treat you once you get there.

In Haiti, don’t blame the tectonic plates – 99 percent of the death toll is attributable to poverty. So back to the question: How’d Haiti become so poor?

The story begins in 1910, when a U.S. State Department-National City Bank of New York consortium (now called Citibank) bought the Banque National d’Haïti, that country’s only commercial bank and its national treasury. In effect, the deal transferred Haiti’s debts to the Americans. Five years later, President  Woodrow Wilson ordered troops to occupy the country in order to keep tabs on “our” investment.

From 1915 to 1934, the U.S. Marines imposed harsh military occupation, murdered Haitian patriots, and diverted 40 percent of Haiti’s gross domestic product to U.S. bankers. Haitians were banned from government jobs. Ambitious Haitians were shunted into the puppet military, setting the stage for a half-century of U.S.-backed military dictatorship. The U.S. kept control of Haiti’s finances until 1947.

Sure, we stole 40 percent of Haiti’s national wealth for 32 years, but we let them keep 60 percent. Why should Haitians complain?

Civil disorder prevailed until 1957, when the CIA installed President-for-Life François “Papa Doc” Duvalier. His brutal Tonton Macoutes paramilitary goon squads murdered at least 30,000 Haitians and drove educated people into exile.

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 U.S., cool to Papa Doc in his later years, quickly warmed up to his kleptomaniacal playboy heir. As the U.S. poured in arms and trained 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. The money was placed in personal accounts in Switzerland and elsewhere.

Under U.S. influence, Baby Doc virtually eliminated import tariffs for U.S. goods. Soon Haiti was awash in predatory agricultural imports dumped by American firms. Domestic rice farmers went bankrupt. A nation that had been agriculturally self-sustaining collapsed. Farms were abandoned. Hundreds of thousands of farmers migrated to the teeming slums of Port-au-Prince.

The Duvalier era ended in 1986 when President Ronald Reagan ordered U.S. forces to whisk Baby Doc to exile in France, saving him from a popular uprising.

Once again, Haitians should thank Americans. Duvalierism was “tough love.” Forcing Haitians to make do without their national treasury was our nice way of encouraging them to work harder, to lift themselves up by their bootstraps. Or, in this case, their flip-flops.

The U.S. has been all about tough love in Haiti ever since. We twice deposed 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.) And it was kind of us to support a new government put together by former Tonton Macoutes.

Despite everything we’ve done for Haiti, they’re still a fourth-world failed state on a fault line. But we haven’t given up. American companies like Disney generously pay wages to their sweatshop workers of 28 cents an hour.

What more do these ingrates want?

New York-based cartoonist, columnist, and author Ted Rall can be reached via his web site,