If you want to understand anything about Haiti, you must read this book. Paul Farmer is brilliant, simply brilliant, and this book takes us for an informative trip back in time to when Farmer was less a mythical hero and more a frustrated doctor struggling to help the people of Haiti. Three hundred years of systematic oppression has befallen the people of Haiti, and worse yet virtually no one, even academics, really understands the extent and vulgarity of this oppression.
Farmer recounts a concise history of Haiti in a digestible, heart-breaking, but incredibly important book. With an introduction by Noam Chomsky, this is on my top ten books of all time. Read it.
For reviewing purposes, besides what general impressions I can recount from memory, often I like to pickup the book I’m reviewing (which I may not have read in months or years) and include some of my highlighted text. With this book that would prove a difficult task; firstly because I didn’t highlight nearly as much as I normally would, since I am already well versed on the history of Haiti, and secondly because had I highlighted all that ‘needs highlighting’ this review would prove to be several dozen pages. This is possibly the most comprehensive social justice-minded book on Haiti ever published.
Farmer notes on page 50 that he is telling a “Haitian” version of Haiti’s history — not so much choosing to ignore or tell certain accounts, as to tell them from a different perspective. This same approach is what makes A People’s History such a radical and amazing work.
Shortly thereafter, Farmer notes that although the United States refused to recognize Haiti after its independence (to do otherwise would threaten the American status-quo cf slavery), we were happy to capitalize on Haiti. “Well before 1900, the number of North American ships docking in Haiti’s ports exceeded the number reaching all of Europe. However much (sugar, etc) Haiti could sell and ship to Europe, we were happy to sell even more to Haiti. The United States has a long history of getting rich by selling its goods to poorer nations; think of this as the beginning of neoliberal globalization policies.
Between 1784 and 1791, the annual import to Haiti was 29,000 slaves, and at the time of the American revolution Haiti (the size of Maryland) was generating more wealth than all of the 13 colonies. Contrast Haiti’s poverty today against its former wealth and you’ll gain some perspective of the deliberate and effective violence wrought over the last 200 years.
Farmer writes of various Western nations mugging hated repeatedly for various trivial or even invented slights. Untold sums were redirected from the state coffers to pay invented debts to Haitis former masters. By 1900, more than 80% of state revenue was earmarked for debt payment. The United State routinely invaded Haiti and raided its national vaults; sending warships to its harbors in 1849, 1851, 1857, 1858, 1865, 1867, 1868, 1869, 1876, 1888, 1891, 1892, 1902, 1903, 1904, 1905, 1906, 1907, 1908, 1909, 1911, 1912, 1913, 1914, and finally invading and occupying the country a few decades beginning in 1915. The New York Times noted in 1915, without apparent intended irony, that after invasion “All Haiti’s Affairs Now in Our Hands … to guarantee the political and territorial integrity of the Haitian Republic.”
After US invasion, the brutalization of Haiti was ratcheted up a notch. Hundreds of thousands of acres were stolen for North American firms. Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of peasants were disposessed. Thousands were murdered by Marines in a “practically indiscriminate” manner “for some time” (as noted in a letter by a US general). Financial America noted “the run-of-the-mill Haitian is handy, easily directed, and gives a hard day’s labor for 20 cents, while in Panama the same day’s work costs $3.” Sadly, almost one-hundred years later, the average Haitian still works for less than $3 per day.
Eventually Duvalier rose to power, although not without US help (something Farmer notes is an “embarassing fact often forgotten or obscured”). In the first four years of his tenure, Papa Doc would receive $40.4 million from the US government, “much of it in the form of outright gifts.”
Farmer chronicles Papa Doc’s reign, the rise of his son (Baby Doc), and the continued impoverishment of the Haitian commoner. By the 1980s the soil was so depleted that it could produce only .9 units of rice, compared to the 5.04 units soil in the US would produce, or 6.04 in Spain. At this point we’re only about a third of the way through the book, and this is where things really get interesting — at least for me, as everything happening after this point took place within my own life time. Racism and oppression are two things that I feel are often dismissed as having been “in the past,” but in fact racism and oppression have been getting worse in Haiti, not better. Farmer points out how Baby Doc exceeded his father for violence, and then the junta to replace Baby Doc exceeded him. And in all of this: the United States, quietly working behind the scenes to undermine the stability of Haiti, keeping it ripe for business interests.
READ THIS BOOK.