How was the richest country in the Western Hemisphere turned into the poorest?
To understand and to confront the terrible disaster that has just occurred in Haiti, it is vital to understand how wealth was destroyed and poverty constructed in that country. Otherwise we are likely to assume that the massive overcrowding of Port-au-Prince, the flimsiness of the shacks of the poor, and the deforestation and consequent impoverishment of the soil are all the fault of the people who live there.
And as long as we believe that, we will assume that the only salvation must come from us, smarter or better people from outside. And if we act on that premise, we will continue to squash the promise of that proud little country that has had so much determination and ingenuity that they defeated Napoleon, 8 years before Wellington finally stopped his career at Waterloo.
Haitians, in the western part of Hispaniola, won victory in their revolution in 1804, just 8 years after the 13 North American colonies started theirs. They financed and armed Simón Bolívar, enabling him to carry the national liberation struggle to and through South America. Their power was such that they invaded and conquered the eastern part of the island, driving the Spaniards from Santo Domingo. But then, beginning in the mid 19th century, too many forces began to conspire against them, a combination far more powerful even than Napoleon's expeditionary army. I don't yet know the full story as well as I should, but it is clear that French bankers, Arkansas rice growers, U.S. timber interests and much else was involved in destroying the national wealth. And for Haitians to regain some of it, they are going to have to free themselves of those and similar outside interventions. Aristide tried it, and made some progress before he was whisked out of the country by a frightened U.S. military. Others will try and will get further if given a chance. The poverty is reversible, I am convinced, and only the Haitians can do it.
But the starting point for understanding the country's tragic history, including hurricanes, civil wars and invasions by U.S. Marines as well as brutal exploitation of the natural and human resources, has to be the amazing revolution 200 years ago. The most stirring account I ever read is James, C. L. R. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. New York: Vintage, 1963. But if you don't have that handy, this is also good to read:
FRANKLIN W. KNIGHT | The Haitian Revolution | The American Historical Review, 105.1 | The History Cooperative