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Why Haiti is Poor: The Elite (III)

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In my last installment, my friend Milfort Bruno and I were in the Haitian countryside near Cap Rouge, listening to the Marcelin family explain why they no longer grow coffee for export. High-quality coffee had once been a significant source of the foreign exchange that a poor country like Haiti would need to develop.
The Marcelins had told me that the forced destruction of their Creole black pigs in the early 1980s had deprived them of a key source of organic fertilizer. But they had much more to say.
Pierre, their spokesman, explained that they used to sell their coffee to “rich” merchants in Jacmel, the nearby port (which was especially hard hit by the earthquake). “The merchants gave us a low price, and then got a much higher price when they exported,” he said. “But when we asked the merchants for loans to help buy our inputs, they turned us away.”
The Marcelins said they started to cut down the coffee bushes – Pierre gestured to the machete hanging from his belt – and instead planted bananas, sweet potatoes, and fresh vegetables (“things we can eat”).
There was more. Coffee bushes need shade, but they said they are felling their taller trees, to make and sell charcoal. Pierre said, with some shame, that they know they are contributing to their country’s deforestation crisis, but they have no choice. “It’s the only way we can earn a little money to buy cooking oil, or rice."
The Marcelin family’s experience is confirmed by more formal analysis. Michel-Rolph Trouillot is a brilliant Haitian anthropologist who teaches at the University of Chicago. In Haiti: State Against Nation (1990), he explained that the slave revolution of the early 1800s eliminated the colonial elite that had been based on large landholdings. The new local upper class that gradually emerged set themselves up as merchants in Jacmel, Port-au-Prince and other ports, and taxed the coffee exports of the independent small farmers like our friends, the Marcelins. (This elite was mostly, although not totally, of mixed racial background.)
It took time, but Haitian small farmers cut back on their coffee production, until by now exports have practically disappeared.
But the Haitian poor majority did more than just sit back and let the elite rule them unchallenged. In 1986, they ousted Jean-Claude (Baby Doc), the second of the two Duvalier dictators. And in 1990, two-thirds of the Haitian people voted for Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a slum priest who was – then – an honest, courageous man, who was committed to transforming their country.

James North
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