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Le Saut Falls, Sodo, Haiti

douard Jean. Toussaint Dirige Vers la Bataille


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Why is Haiti so Poor?

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I have painted a grim picture. Haiti is a devastatingly poor country. The causes of this misery are many and varied. Most of them are stubbornly resistant to change or amelioration. Many of the woes of Haiti are beyond Haiti's capacity to cure even if a just government and economic order were to appear, which, of course, is highly unlikely.


Haiti suffers many many ills which I've tried to catalogue above. Ironically, one often hears that Voodoo is the major cause of Haiti's misery. I want to address this claim because I believe it is a complete myth. That is, I hold that Voodoo in no serious way causes Haiti's misery. But, the concentration on this non-cause dissipates much energy from more useful tasks.

Christian missionaries claim that the Voodoo religion is some sort of satanic worship and thus Haiti's suffering is caused by a combination of divine punishment and the ineptness of the satanic powers.

I will not comment one the supernatural part of it. But, the factual claim that Voodoo is a satanic worship is flatly mistaken. Voodoo is an African family-spirit religion. The spirits (not gods, but spirits--sort of like angels in Christianity) are invoked for moral advice and help with daily affairs. Additionally, Voodoo is a healing religion. Much of this healing is effective for local health problems. In general my strong impression is that people are very pragmatic about their healing. If a houngon or mambo (priest or priestess) heals, then people will use them again, otherwise not.

I don't want to paint a romanticized picture. There is widespread use of healing practices which go beyond the houngon and mambo's abilities. Wherever this occurs it should be combated as poor healing practice. Similarly, the Haitians have added a new rite to African Voodoo. This is the petro rite, a black magic rite which includes such exotic and socially damaging practices as death curses and the creation of zombis. There is no question that these practices are harmful. But, the observers of the Haitian scene whose evidence I find most plausible, maintain that these petro services probably account for no more than 5% of Voodoo practice.

I have no personal stake in defending Voodoo. But, it is factually wrong to blame Voodoo's excesses for seriously contributing to Haiti's misery. The reason that this is such an important issue is tied to the question of Haitian self-image and the rights of the Haitian people to their own culture. The problem is not Voodoo, but some excesses and superstitions in an otherwise legitimate religion. More importantly, it is the religion of Haiti's people.

My suspicion is that the criticism of Voodoo is not really because of its alleged harmful practices, but simply because it is not the religion that Western missionaries would prefer the Haitian people to follow.

A second version of the myth is to claim that Voodoo is filled with harmful medical practices and superstitions and must be erradicated. Again, I believe the extent of this harm is greatly exaggerated, but I do agree that there are indeed harmful medical practices and superstitions in Voodoo's present form.

However, when I balance these factors against the importance of Haitians having their own culture, their own ways; when I balance these negative factors against the poor self-image that Haitians already have of their culture, it seems more important that critics of Voodoo concentrate their criticisms not on the religion as a whole, but on the harmful practices themselves.

If we look back in Western culture to the Middle Ages we find a Christianity riddled with superstition. The process that won the day in that struggle is precisely what I advocate for Voodoo. Medieval Christianity was purged of its worst superstitions and the religion survived. This is the need in Voodoo.


Haiti needs jobs. Hundred of thousands of people are unemployed in Port-au-Prince, or can only find part-time work. Thus, at first glance it would seem that the arrival of American manufacturing operations in the 1970s would be a boon to Haiti. Well, are they really? The case is not so clear.

On the positive side, some 350,000 jobs now exist in the manufacturing sector which did not exist 15 years ago. 350,000 people have full-time employment; people who were unemployed before.

However, the national minimum wage is $2.60 daily. Most companies evade even this pittance by shifting their pay system to piece work and then making it so that the typical wage is closer to $2.00 than the minimum wage.

Until the fall of Duvalier, labor unions and labor activity were illegal. Even now few people know what a labor union is and the government continues to harass any labor activity. Additionally, the press of the hundreds of thousands who have no work, and who would very much like even these $2.00 a day jobs, keeps workers disciplined not to rock the boat.

The $2.00 a day actual wage is nearly double the $1.00 typically earned in the agricultural sector. However, the American firms who own and run these plants earn fantastic rates of return on capital, profits entirely generated by the labor of the Haitians. Any sense of justice one can muster calls for a fairer distribution of the wealth created in these plants.

Are these plants a way out of Haitian poverty? Yes and no. Immediately, they do employ the unemployed and that is a positive factor. But, the non-living wage which is paid insures that people will not rise out of their squalor and misery, but will remain at subsistence level.

This situation is quite like the early Industrial Revolution in the United States and England. Most of us are familiar with the hard and long battles which labor had to fight to get a fairer portion of the wealth their own labor created. The Haitian fight is hampered by many factors which were not as limiting in the United States--the high level of illiteracy, more severe levels of government oppression than existed here, more competition for jobs, etc.

So, I find this new development in Haiti to be a puzzle. Does it help or hinder Haitians? I just don't know. With just reforms this manufacturing sector could profit both Haiti and foreign investors. At present some Haitians do survive because of these jobs, and fortunes are made by the investors.


Haiti is a small country, about the size of Maryland. It has between 6 and 6.5 million people. The soil erosion, inability to compete in the international economy, backward agricultural technology and many other factors combine to make this population of 6 to 6.5 million one which Haiti cannot easily support.

The overwhelming portions of the best Haitian lands are used to grow export crops for North America and Europe. This production benefits only a handful of the Haitian elite. Thus, if only the land were returned to the Haitian people and used for local food crops, Haiti would have no difficulty in providing a sound diet for all her people.

Even minimal improvements in agricultural technology (wider use of oxen and plow, for example), or improved understanding of agricultural problems (stronger national help in fighting soil erosion) and the land that is in production of local food crops could be much more productive.

Since hunger is caused by the present social system, it would seem that it is not overpopulation which causes the crisis in Haiti. But this view is shortsighted. A reformed use and understanding of agriculture (both highly unlikely) would make it possible for Haiti to feed its present population and even the expected population into the next century. But, eventually, Haiti will face a population crisis. Certainly by 2025, only 38 years from now, Haiti's present 2.2% growth rate will make Haiti incapable of feeding her people in the best of circumstances.

There are population control programs throughout Haiti. But they simply don't work. Much research shows that moral preaching, sex education, available contraceptive measures and even force do little to reduce populations in very poor nations. This is because people NEED lots of children. They need them for 4 reasons:

  1. As workers in the farm fields.
  2. As old age insurance for parents who have no other security.
  3. Because in a life of low material gratification, raising children is among the few joys and delights one can have.
  4. Because they suffer high children mortality rates, people must have many children so that enough will survive to accomplish 1-2-3.

Sociologists know that only economic development can effectively lower the birthrate, and that economic development--providing old age security, and some level of material comfort, almost invariably lead people to voluntarily limit birth rates. Such a rise in material standard is also accompanied by higher levels of education, which further contributes to voluntary birthrate limits.

Is it really overpopulation which causes Haiti's misery, or is the overpopulation another result of Haiti's misery? It's not a clear case at all. With more humane social planning, Haiti could provide for its people NOW. But what about in a few years? Population is a puzzle.

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