Jared Diamond’s Haiti story

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I’m not entirely comfortable with the ‘why is Haiti poor’ discussion that broke out in a small way in the blogosphere after the earthquake. The issue right now isn’t how to bring better economic policies to Haiti, it’s how to bring doctors, medical supplies,  food, and water (we’ve been going with donations to Doctors Without Borders and Partners in Health in our house, any other suggestions are welcome in the comments).

Still, the economic stuff will matter again soon enough. I read Tyler Cowen’s eight hypotheses for Haiti’s poverty (my favorite: “Hegel was correct that the ‘voodoo religion,’ with its intransitive power relations among the gods, was prone to producing political intransitivity as well”). Several of his commenters pointed to a chapter in Jared Diamond’s Collapse. So I went and read Diamond’s Chapter 11, “One Island, Two Peoples, Two Histories: The Dominican Republic and Haiti.”

It’s very interesting: The Spaniards came to the island of Hispaniola first, settling mostly on the greener (rainier) side. (Not quite. See update 2 below.) Before long, the home country got too preoccupied with growing difficulties elsewhere in its empire to pay much attention to Hispaniola anymore. The French showed up later, took the dry end of the island, and then—because they were rich and their empire was on the rise—were able to convert it to intensive sugar cane cultivation, importing and brutally exploiting lots and lots of African slaves who eventually got fed up and revolted. Once independent, the Haitians understandably wanted to stop hacking at sugar cane. They also wanted to keep the Europeans out. So Haiti settled into an existence of isolation and subsistence farming. The Spanish side of the island, which eventually became the Dominican Republic, experienced no such sugar-cane boom, and was conquered by the Haitians a couple of times along the way, but welcomed immigrants from Europe and developed multiple cash crops.

Then, in the 20th century, both Haiti and Dominican Republic were ruled for decades by murderous tyrants, but the Dominican murderous tyrant (Rafael Trujillo) was at least interested in industrial development. He was also eventually succeeded by a former minion (Joaquín Balaguer) who, while not at all a nice guy, did turn out to be a patriot and a total tree hugger. Meanwhile, Haiti’s despicable “Papa Doc” Duvalier was succeeded by his only slightly less despicable son. The result: The Dominican Republic, while still poor, is much richer than Haiti—and it still has trees.

This is the tale Diamond tells, and he recounts it in compelling detail. It’s a convincing case of what economists call “path dependence.” There were several forks in the developmental road over the centuries, and the poor Haitians kept choosing or getting shoved down the wrong path.

None of this is any help at all, though, in figuring out how to make Haiti less poor now. Diamond’s only suggestion is that maybe the Dominicans can help. The first thing that comes to my mind is to buy more Barbancourt rum. Better ideas would be appreciated, but I think they should probably wait till the medical emergency is at least partly addressed. And to have much chance of working, they should probably come from Haitians.

Update: Haitian Ambassador to the U.S. Ray Joseph offered some more tales of path dependence on Rachel Maddow last night. If it hadn’t been for Haiti’s successful revolt, France never would have been willing to give up the Louisiana Territory to the U.S. for a song, he said. And Haiti also provided key support to Simon Bolivar’s successful campaign to drive Spain from the New World.

Update 2: A reader e-mails a revision of my tale of Spaniards sticking to the eastern side of Hispaniola:

Actually, they settled on the whole island, but the Spanish authorities didn’t want their subject trading (or “smuggling” as they referred to any trade with the crown enemies) with the English and the Dutch.  So in the early 17th century, governor Osorio as per the order of Spanish king Felipe III ordered the whole western part of the island depopulated.   This episode is know in Dominican history as the “Devastaciones de Osorio” and it actually caused the collapse of the island economy.