This year I visited Cap-Haitien, which is on the North coast of Haiti and about the 10th largest city in the country. Here are my observations and thoughts on what I saw during the 4-day trip.
My impression of Haiti is a country in complete disrepair…buildings, utilities, water, electricity, police, government fiscal management…nothing works in Haiti. I did see one exception. Everyday a garbage truck came by and collected garbage. I found this interesting that somehow the government was able to get that done when they are so ineffective at most everything else. My only conclusion was that garbage piling up makes such a visual statement about government failure that there is a motivation to at least get that taken care of.
So how is it that things don’t get built in Haiti? Haitian men have excellent construction skills. I’ve watched them work. Block, cement, stucco, tile. Quality skills that US contractors pay top dollar for. Is it lack of money in Haiti? Well, yes and no. There is money. It’s just not being allocated to creating anything. To learn why you have to understand the roots of Haitian politics.
Haiti’s history is one long cluster-fuck of thugs, bullies, coups d’etat, takeovers, corruption, and theft. In its history, the people who came to Haiti were mainly soldiers and pirates. They didn’t come to build anything. They came to conquer and take. The typical cycle was some strongman conquered and took over. He confiscated and stole from any producers. He exploited resources. He enriched himself and bankrupted the country until his time came to an end under the weight of his ineptitude and corruption.
Another thug conquered his way to power and the cycle repeats. Basically the history is hundreds of years of piracy. In other words, the one with the biggest gun takes ownership, a culture of piracy that remains today. This threat of confiscation or “nationalization” has to be a big factor when multi-national companies decide against locating a plant in Haiti.
To further understand Haiti’s history, compare it to how America was settled. American settlers were not soldiers or pirates. They were tradespeople who came to America to build things. They were farmers and carpenters and stone masons. They came to America with their skills and they brought with them the English rule of law which would protect their private property. They built homes and farms and businesses, and built a legal system so that what they built could not be confiscated by would-be pirates.
But, in Haiti the law of the jungle prevails. The people in charge use their power to enrich themselves. The resources are squandered. The well-meaning foreign aid is stolen or mis-allocated. The UN has a large presence in Haiti, but an effective and honest local police force is desperately needed. It’s one of the many things the Haitian government is incapable or unwilling to provide. All of the Haitians I spoke to told me the UN presence has made a big difference controlling street crime. At least now Haitians are secure to go about their daily lives.
Everyday at 8am, noon and 5pm the sidewalks of Cap-Haitien overflow with students coming and going to school in their uniforms. There’s a strong respect for education in Haiti among the parents and the kids. I saw all the kids doing homework. While out walking in the evening I saw groups of kids sitting under street lamps reading their schoolbooks when the electricity was out at their homes.
I saw the enthusiasm among the students and I heard the commitment in the words of the parents. Every parent was proud to make the financial sacrifice to send their kids to school but then they would ask, “Why do we do this? There are no jobs for my kids when they graduate.” There is this recurring theme in almost every aspect of Haitian life—the frustration with a dysfunctional government and economy.
Listening to these parents got me thinking. In America the politicians all tell us the answer to unemployment is education. If we “invest” in education the economy will strengthen and jobs will miraculously appear. But what I saw in Haiti tells me this is not necessarily so. Haitians are going to school and studying hard, yet that changes nothing.
Of course, American politicians are talking their own book. They want the electorate to accept the importance of unbridled spending on education. So when unemployment rears its ugly head what are politicians going to do? Lower taxes to stimulate the private sector so businesses start hiring? No. They will choose to raise taxes to “invest” in education. The fact the school system is progressively less effective at preparing a kid for constructive employment is never discussed.
But, back to Haiti. Am I knocking education or suggesting those parents are fools for sending their kids to school? No, not at all. Those parents have no choice but to send their kids to school. It keeps them off the street and gives them a valuable gift of education. And what becomes of all those Haitian kids embracing a good education? The lucky ones will someday make their way to another country where they can use it.
Haiti is an interesting study in free-market capitalism at its basic level. In America we walk into a grocery store and find packaged food on the shelf. All of this is created by large corporations which we are told are evil. We don’t see the farms. We don’t know what’s in those semi-trucks on the freeway. We don’t see the process. Is it any wonder Americans don’t understand how capitalism works?
When I arrived in Cap-Haitien I walked around the center of the city and couldn’t find any stores. I told my Haitian friends I wanted to go to a store. I thought I could learn more about Haiti by seeing the products on the shelf. My friends took me to a huge street market. I walked through it in wonderment.
On the periphery I saw pickup trucks filled with produce. Inside the market men carried goods with wheelbarrows. I was especially taken with the pride each vendor took in displaying their goods encouraging me to buy their tomatoes, garlic, onions or peppers. I want to be there when some politician tells them, “You didn’t build that.”
As I walked through the crowd I had a clear vision of something my favorite economist, Thomas Sowell, talks about: “the invisible hand” of capitalism. And here it was. Some farmer outside the city has produce. Some guy has a pickup truck and brings it to the market. Vendors display the produce and the consumer comes to buy what he needs.
At each step along the way a person’s role creates profit and wages. If the farmer produces more, his reward is greater profits. If the farmer produces too much then he adjusts his output. If the truck owner is unreliable then another truck owner steps in to fill the need. So much gets done and all simply by individuals pursuing their self-interests.
When one considers the myriad of details which go into a complex economy, it really is astonishing to watch free market capitalism work so flawlessly in a country like Haiti where virtually nothing else is working. It’s a tribute to the power unleashed by individuals free to pursue their self-interests. Imagine if these ambitious, resourceful people had a legal system which protected them.
A crisp 100 Gourde note – about $2.14
Why is most of the commerce done in the street by small vendors? There are no jobs in Haiti so the people create their own by becoming these small vendors. In this dysfunctional country, free market capitalism is the hero. It’s what keeps the people clothed and fed and employed. Where the Haitian government has failed to provide what is necessary to support a growing economy, the entrepreneurs are the only thing keeping the country going.
Haitians know where the problem lies
In all the conversations I had with Haitians I found a recurring theme. Haitians see government and politicians for what they are. Haiti has a culture of mismanagement which goes back to Columbus’s arrival on the island. The Haitian people have suffered corruption, theft, shakedowns and abuse for over 500 years. So Haitians are not under the delusion government is going to come along and fix things. They know government is the problem and not the solution. I found that refreshing and healthy. Haitians know about self-reliance.
So what holds the country together? The answer is found in the Haitian people. Their resourcefulness, their ambition, their talents, their love for education, and their devotion to family all play a role. They face the daily struggles with such grace. It’s humbling to watch them, especially when so many in the world show little appreciation when an easy life is handed to them.
All photos taken by the author