Haiti’s glory and poverty

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


Spain's conflicted immigration policies

The incoherence and contradictions of Spanish immigration practices are among the more serious consequences of the disunity of Spain that I've been describing here lately, the multiplicity of governmental authorities with overlapping powers and conflicting agendas.

For the past 15 years and up until recently, almost all those goverment authorities, from the national ministries of social services and foreign relations down to municipal mayors and town councils were doing everything they could to encourage immigration, for different but convergent reasons. The local authorities were in many cases pressured by local builders and agriculturalists who wanted cheap man- or womanpower, to build homes or pick olives and strawberries. The lefties in the Socialist party exulted in Spain's ever greater diversity, and the righties -- the same folks making money on the cheap labor -- enjoyed making a display of their Christian generosity toward the newcomers.

But then, just a few months ago, the bottom fell out of the housing market. No more demand for cheap unskilled labor. Fewer buyers for industrial goods, and thus fewer jobs. And the local governments, which had been financing themselves mainly by licencing construction projects and collecting tax on rising real estate values, were suddenly strapped. The immigrants were the first to be "let go", but there they were, still needing to eat, their kids needing school, all of them needing medical services at least occasionally.

To qualify for public services in any town in Spain, all you need is proof that you live there. You do this by showing your national ID if you are a citizen or your passport and proof of residence, such as a light bill, if you are not. The process is called empadronamiento, registration in the municipal padrón or registry. This according to a 1997 law signed by the then Minister of Social Services, Mariano Rajoy.

But lately the mayors of some towns have invented new requirements for empadronamiento -- such as proving that you have more than 20 square meters of living space per member of your family, or (in one town) that you are not here on a tourist visa (which is the way many immigrants start out, until they can find a job and get more settled). Their rhetoric is obfuscatory, involving peculiar (perverse) interpretations of clauses in the law, but they appear to believe they can save money by denying school and medical services to immigrants. But they also lose money, because the central government gives financing to municipalities according to their registered (empadronado) population, regardless of immigration status. The net result is just to make life a lot more difficult for immigrant families, already in bad straits with no jobs.

A lot of this anti-empadronamiento agitation is coming from mayors and even regional presidents of the opposition Popular Party, whose head is that very same Mariano Rajoy -- who deals with the contradiction by not dealing with it, saying vague things about guaranteeing everybody basic education and medical rights "just for being human beings" and at the same time that probably the law on immigration ought to be changed in some unspecified, but presumably more restrictive fashion.

For generations Spain, impoverished after the loss of the remnants of empire in 1898 (Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines), then torn by civil war (1936-39) and finally suffocated by a dictatorship that was both oppressive and economically stagnant, was a net exporter of people -- until the 1973 petroleum crisis wiped out jobs in the countries they'd been migrating to, slowing the outflow almost to nil. Finally, the death of Franco and the dismemberment of his system, the reforms begun by his successor Suárez and carried further and with greater energy by the Socialist government of Felipe González turned Spain into a country to come to, not one to flee from. By the year 2000, Spain's rapid economic growth and reputation for civil liberties turned this fountain of emigration into one of the countries with the highest rate of immigration anywhere -- 8 times greater than neighboring France, which was where so many Spaniards had been looking for work in earlier decades.

France and other industrialized countries already had a large proportion of immigrants, but Spain's post-2000 rate of attraction has been so great that it has now surpassed France in percentage of foreign born: 12% of Spain's 47 million people (as compared to 8% in France).

More than 36% of these come from the 20+ countries of "Iberoamerica," mostly Ecuador (11.13%) and Colombia (6.40%), though we also know several Argentinians and Uruguayans and Peruvians. About as many (nearly 35%) come from other countries in the European Union, including nearly 10% from Rumania (where the language is distantly related to Spanish). Others face a far greater linguistic and cultural hurdle, including the nearly 15% from North Africa (mostly Morocco) and another 4% from Sub-Saharan Africa; the ones we know here in Carboneras are mostly from Senegal or Mali.

Now that the housing boom is over and unemployment in almost all industries is at record highs, Spain is no longer so welcoming. But conditions in the source countries of most of those immigrants continue to be even worse, and Spain (as well as other countries of Western Europe) are going to be increasingly dependent on young foreign-born to take care of their aging native populations and to do the jobs that have to be done.

Las claves del empadronamiento de 'sin papeles' -- ELPAÍS.com
Inmigración en España - Wikipedia, la enciclopedia libre
EUROPA: Inmigrantes entre la expulsión y la muerte - IPS ipsnoticias.net
Immigration en France - Wikipédia


España mañana, folks

Apologies. My weekly commentary on Spain, scheduled to appear on Sunday (preferably) or Monday (if necessary), will have to wait yet another day. I want to discuss the ticklish problem of immigration policy, as hot a button here as it is in the U.S. or many other countries. But this weekend and today, Monday, have been consumed by a business trip to Murcia (not the most exciting town in Spain, but business is business). So, hasta mañana, amigos lectores.