By Garry Pierre-Pierre
Editor’s note: Second of a three-part series
HAVANA, Cuba – Haitians and Cubans have been allies for quite some time, and that bond remains to this day. The two countries share warm relations, and Cuban doctors over the last 20 years have literally saved thousands of Haitian lives working in clinics in far-flung places in the mountainous country.
No two countries in the Caribbean have had the sort of international impact as Haiti and Cuba have. They have led some seminal revolutions that have affected the world, and earned the has provoked the ire of world powers. They are two small countries with outsized influence, even if Haiti is considered by many to be a car crash pile up that evokes poverty voyeurism. So as Cuba finds itself coming out from under a 50-year embargo, it is worthy to take a look at how the two countries have taken divergent paths and the way forward for both.
Last month, I spent a week in Cuba and saw a country buzzing with excitement, as people get ready to capitalize on economic opportunities that are looming on the horizon.
Haiti was the first country to stoke the ire of the international community. A country roughly the size of Maryland, it was a prosperous French colony whose slaves had the temerity to fight and defeat the mighty French army led by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1804 after a TK war of independence. At that time, the French and English armies were embroiled in the so-called 100 years wars and fought many a proxy battles including Haiti. This is why the French aided the United States revolution during its war of independence against England.
England, for its part helped Haiti during its fight to rid itself of French rule and slavery. The Brits were supposed to be Haiti’s trading partner and help with its standing in the world. But the U.S. convinced England that aiding Haiti would be detrimental to its national security and economic well-being. After all, how long would it take for the slaves in the South to copy the Haitian revolution and upend the status quo in the United States?
England, despite its loss to the U.S. and its friction with France, abandoned Haiti and left the country twisting in the wind for nearly a century. Haiti had no significant world trading partners. Haiti was not recognized by the U.S. until 80 years after it became a sovereign nation.
The isolation had a devastating toll on the nascent nation. During that time, Haiti plunged into chaos and misrule. A rapid decline began and the country has been led by a series of right wing miscreants and sycophants with no leadership quality — a trend that continues sadly to the present.
While Haiti was struggling, Cuba’s economy boomed during the early 1900s when sugar and cotton were king and it grew sugar in abundance. It was the primary tourist destination in the Caribbean and organized crime figures flocked there to get into the game and established successful casino operations and other attractions.
But the economic good time was not shared by most. The economic and social gaps widened tremendously, leading to the Cuban revolution of 1954 led by three men, Fidel Castro and his brother Raoul and Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Shortly after taking power, Castro adopted communism as the country’s new doctrine, infuriating the U.S. at the height of its own cold war with the Soviet Union. The Eastern European nation helped Cuba along, providing it with oil and other goods it needed. The U.S. reaction was swift and President Kennedy imposed an embargo that is still in place, even though the Obama administration is taking measure to lift it piece by piece.
While Cuba had Castro, we had the Duvaliers and as a staunch capitalist, I will take Castro over Duvalier.
Obviously no two countries are exactly alike and in this case it’s no different. But there are similarities and Cuba and Haiti are a perfect example of this. As Cubans attempt to recreate and develop their nation, I would say they’ve emerged rather well under the embargo. Castro, for all of his faults, left a well-educated and proud populace. I’m confident that Cuba will rise again and will thrive. It has the human resources for that. I, unfortunately, am not so optimistic about my beloved homeland. We lack the educated workforce necessary to move a nation forward.
I urge the next president of Haiti to make a visit to Cuba its first priority and sit down with his Cuban counterpart and get a primer on how to develop a poor country with pride and dignity. It would be a great first step and a move in the right direction.