The Many Buildings and Rebuildings of Haiti

Haiti's infrastructural history is complex. Built and rebuilt several times over, the story of the nation's roads might not hold the human interest of the revolution or the political intrigues of the early 20th century, but it provides vital context for understanding the development of the Haitian economy and social structures.

Patrick Bellegarde-Smith is a professor of Africology at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee and renowned Haitian scholar. He's the written and edited several books on the nation including Haiti: The Breached Citadel and Invisible Powers: Vodou in Haitian Life and Culture. We conducted an e-mail interview with Bellegarde-Smith about the nature and history of the human-built environment in Haiti. It's presented here in slightly edited form.

Haiti Rewired: In a Caribbean context, how has the building of Haitian infrastructure differed from similar places? How did the revolutionary struggle and the years afterward impact the where and how of structural building?
Patrick Bellegarde-Smith: The building of roads during the French colonial period was dictated by the necessity of colonization. Most all cities -- in Haiti, the Caribbean and Latin America -- were established on the coastlines so that production was easily transported from the plantation to the port cities. All economic production was geared toward the metropolis, France, and scant resources remained behind. In fact, the French built no schools, few churches....

After the Haitian state was proclaimed in January 1804, several measures were implemented. Fearing an invasion by the French, the capital was moved into the interior, the town of Marchand (now Dessalines); forts and fortresses were rapidly built throughout the territory; all plantations were nationalized pending redistribution of land to former slaves; all persons of African descent, upon landing on Haitian soil, would become, automatically, a Haitian citizen. N.B. The nationalization of lands was undertaken by North Vietnam, and the "law of the return," became Israel's policy, upon the independence of these two countries.

The blueprint for all buildings was anchored on European models, the Native American population having been decimated to extension 50 years after Spanish colonization of Haiti, before the transfer to France in 1697.

HR: A half-serious question: given the problems in Port-au-Prince, would there be any popular support for building a resurgent Dessalines?
Bellegarde-Smith: Some Haitian and foreign scientists are saying it is unwise to rebuild on the same site. It will most likely be rebuilt, but strong measures must be taken to make sure that Haitian laws are applied and strengthened. And the city needs to be smaller. Valuable lands good for agriculture were used to grow the city. This is a mistake. I favor its expansion into the mountains, taking into consideration the precious watersheds, leaving flat land for more appropriate use.

HR: Geographically, Haiti is an interesting place with lots of elevation change and microclimates. How have its topography and climate shaped the human engineered structures on the island?
Bellegarde-Smith: The island of Haiti, and consequently the Republic of Haiti, is volcanic, on several fault lines and tectonic plates. The country has suffered from earthquakes in the past, notably in the 19th century. Haiti is more mountainous than Switzerland, with little arable land left for a population of more than 9 million inhabitants. The tallest peak, Morne La Selle, approaches 10,000 feet, and ice forms on the peak in the Caribbean pine forests. Yet, the structures show little differentiations from those in the lowlands.

HR: Both colonial and dictatorial political programs have included "infrastructure building."
Bellegarde-Smith: ... and these periods when Haiti had democracy, also! Public buildings were built on European models, as were all the organs of the state, and the governing ideologies of its elites.

HR: Often, it seems, though, that Haitians were not consulted on these "improvements," and were largely used as forced laborers.
Bellegarde-Smith: Forced labor was used by the U.S. Marine Corps after the United States invaded Haiti in 1915 until it withdrew in 1934. This "corvée" was used for road construction. It is good to know that most roads in Haiti still follow the colonial roads established by the French in previous centuries.

Indigenous housing -- for the poor -- follows a combination of Amerindian "ajoupas," and African construction.

HR: Maybe we can focus in specifically on road-building. In the U.S., there were several periods of road building using different materials, financing schemes, and forms of labor from horsepaths through the early macadamized roads of the 1820s to the superhighways of the Eisenhower era. Can you describe how the extant Haitian road system got built? Are there homegrown road building techniques or materials that may prove useful for future infrastructure projects?
Bellegarde-Smith: I do not have the statistics on hand, I am sure that some people do -- I am not an engineer. There are relatively few asphalted road in Haiti, and the "routes nationales," the major "highways" are all two lanes, are repaired from time to time, than quickly fall into disuse. The radiate as spokes, from Port-au-Prince toward the provincial capitals of Cap Haitien, Hinche, Port-de-Paix, Gonaives, Jacmel, Les Cayes and Jeremie. This is virtually a magnificent illustration of the saying, "all roads lead to Rome," as the center of the Roman Empire! Port-au-Prince gets the lion's share of all revenues, and possesses about all the infrastructure. Not any more. It is now about 85 to 90 percent destroyed.

The central government, and sometimes, its foreign allies, built the roads. These were rebuilt by the Americans during the first U.S. military occupation of Haiti, in 1915-1934, largely to insure U.S. troop movements into the interior where Haitians were fighting a guerrilla war against the U.S. Marine Corps. (About 50,000 Haitians lost their lives, for about 12 Marines).

It might be intelligent to transfer some funding to local authorities and use local construction material, in a further effort to decentralize Haiti, a project mandated by the Haitian Constitution of 1987.

HR: While Americans tend to think of road building and maintenance as duties of the government, other arrangements are possible. Are there ways that Haitian civil society has or could take on that role?
Bellegarde-Smith: The Haitian government needs to be strengthened, and the earthquake provide a unique opportunity to increase its role, against the powerful private NGOs that seem, at times, to govern Haiti to their own benefits based on their own narrow agenda. This has weakened the Haitian state immeasurably. The Haitian state has been repressive, partly because it is weak.

HR: Given the rather nasty history of foreign road building projects, what's the proper role for outsiders in this type of work?
Bellegarde-Smith: I propose that Haitian engineers, architects and Haitian firms are given a leading role. Second, Haitians living abroad -- part of the Haitian diaspora -- who are business people with some resources and some talent are called to do the job.

Images: 1. United Nations. 2. World Bank.

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