Lessons from a Divided Island

CAMBRIDGE: Seven hundred miles off Florida’s coast lies one of the most impoverished places on earth. Hispaniola was Christopher Columbus’s first stop in the New World. Just a hour-and-a-half flight south of Miami, we might expect that island to be a tropical paradise and a favored spot for offshore US business. But reality is more cruel.

Hispaniola is home to two nations. Haiti, on the western side, is the poorest country in the Americas. The Dominican Republic, to the east, is more successful, with six times Haiti’s average income. It too, however, experienced political and economic horrors until a breakthrough in the past decade. With President Jean-Bertrand Aristide returning to office in February, Haiti’s long cycle of poverty and violence could end, but only if Haiti and the US understand the lessons of Hispaniola’s tortured history.

Hispaniola’s impoverishment has colonial era roots. Europeans colonized the Caribbean islands as sugar plantations, ruthlessly bringing African slaves by the millions to work, and die young, on those plantations. Tropical forests were cut down to expand the plantations. Hispaniola suffered the worst fate of deforestation, soil erosion, and collapse of agricultural productivity, especially on the Haitian side.

After slavery ended, the once beautiful island could barely sustain the former slave populations because the soils were exhausted by overuse and erosion. Racism in America made conditions worse. America refused to recognize Haiti as an independent country until the 1860s, nearly six decades after Haiti’s slave rebellion successfully ended French colonial rule.