Contemporary Slavery in Haiti

Slavery is no stranger to Haiti. When Christopher Columbus landed on the island of Hispaniola in 1492 it was already inhabited by peaceful Arawak tribes who traded generously with Columbus and future European explorers. Agriculture was good on this island and the Arawak were able to grow many foods, rice and cassava being staple foods in the 15th century. Columbus claimed Hispaniola for Spain in 1493.

French buccaneers came to the area around 1625, and France claimed the western portion of Hispaniola, taking title from Spain. In the late 15th century the French began using the Arawak as slaves until the native tribes were extinct, then they began importing African slaves to grow tobacco, cotton, and cacao in what is now Haiti. The fertile soil and tropical climate made Haiti one of the richest of the 18th century French colonies. In the late 1700’s the colony received more than 40,000 slaves a year from Africa and was exporting millions of pounds of goods a year to markets in Europe. The steady inflow of slaves kept production costs low, and Haiti was transformed from a quiet, peaceful island to a profit machine for European traders.

Haiti had a long, tumultuous period between 1821 and 1930 while it struggled under political uprisings and various dictatorships for true independence. During its Great Depression of the 1930’s the United States dumped exports of food into Haiti’s markets, effectively eliminating food production in Haiti. Rich, terraced farmland was turned into shanty towns when farmers couldn’t compete with cheap food from the US. Forests were soon extinct and erosion washed precious topsoil into the ocean. The wealthy countries of the world tried to help Haiti become capitalistic by lending money at low interest rates with intent to improve sanitation and infrastructure in Haiti. In actuality it was a long overdue payment that eased the consciences of the nations who had stripped Haiti’s wealth for centuries, but it did little to help Haiti—instead it indebted Haiti to wealthy nations and assured that these nations continued to get the larger share of Haiti’s production.

The devastation from the earthquake of January 2010 was an indirect result of Haiti’s subjection to wealthy nations. Hillsides of vegetation were replaced by shantytowns that became deathtraps in the earthquake. Wealthy countries have sustained much worse quakes with far lower death tolls. In wealthy economies, recovery from such disasters is an economic stimulant, but in this case the only nations that will benefit from this disaster will be the wealthy countries that Haiti is subject to. There ought to be a law against such forms of slavery.