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Haiti: Don’t ignore the politics

Haiti: Don’t ignore the politics

Like Bill Easterly, I think David Brooks goes a bit too far here:

Why is Haiti so poor? Well, it has a history of oppression, slavery and colonialism. But so does Barbados, and Barbados is doing pretty well. Haiti has endured ruthless dictators, corruption and foreign invasions. But so has the Dominican Republic, and the D.R. is in much better shape. Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the same island and the same basic environment, yet the border between the two societies offers one of the starkest contrasts on earth — with trees and progress on one side, and deforestation and poverty and early death on the other.

As Lawrence E. Harrison explained in his book “The Central Liberal Truth,” Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile. There are high levels of social mistrust. Responsibility is often not internalized. Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10.

We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures. But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.

"Dictators, corruption and foreign invasions," it seems to me, vastly understates the political turmoil of Haitian history. Haiti has experienced 34 coups in its history — an average of one every six years. There’s simply no way to develop institutions under those conditions.

Brooks’ analysis also seems to assume that all dictators are created equal. While the Dominican Republic’s late 20th century dictators Rafael Trujillo (who played a not insignificant role in Haiti’s tragic history) and Joaquín Balaguer were certainly brutal, they did at least demonstrate some interest in building that coutry’s infrastructure, unlike the Duvaliers whose most lasting contribution to Haiti’s infrastructure was probably the  98 percent deforestation that makes Haiti’s hurricanes so deadly. 

Unlike Haiti, he Dominican Republic has also had a continuous, if flawed, democracy for the last three decades. Haiti’s 2004 Hurricane hit just a month after the coup at Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the interim government was in no position to govern under the best of circumstances. Food riots and the four hurricanes of 2008 followed before the earthquake delivered the knockout punch. Skipping immediately to culture and religion while skipping over other factors, particularly political turmoil, seems far too simplistic. 

As for why Haiti has never had good governance, there’s certainly no simple answer, and I think Tyler Cowen is right to ask, "Is it asking too much to wish for an economics [or political science, or journalism] profession that is obsessed with such a question?"