By Mike Cronin

The commentariat are in an uproar over President Trump’s alleged use of the term “shit-hole” to describe Haiti and parts of Africa.  They say it’s a racist slur.

If the president did indeed use that word in a public setting, it’s noteworthy for its vulgarity, but is it really a racial slur? Is it even wrong?

Let’s consider Haiti. It is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.  Right next door to Haiti – on the very same island – the Dominican Republic has the largest economy in Central America and the Caribbean, and it enjoys a much better standard of living. Why?

When the January, 2010  7.2 magnitude earthquake hit Port-au-Prince, nearly a quarter of a million people died because something like 60-70% of all the buildings were severely damaged or collapsed outright, including the presidential palace.  Compare that to the exponentially more powerful earthquake that hit Chile that same month, where less than a thousand people died.  What accounts for the different results?  Form of government, property rights, building codes, and insurance. Chilean citizens have a semi-capitalistic country, a decent economy, property rights, and insurance, so they built their buildings to be earthquake resilient – and survived the more powerful quake in much better shape.

What is now Haiti, on the island of Hispaniola, was the first place Christopher Columbus landed during his first voyage in 1492.  Within the first decade, the Spanish began bringing in African slaves, and within 25 years, much of the natives were either enslaved by the Spaniards or killed by diseases brought by them…and the Spaniards were themselves being killed by tropical fevers. Before long, the Spanish were more concerned with conquering the mainlands of North and South America, and began to lose interest in Hispaniola. Haiti became a haven for pirates in the interim, but by the late 1700s, France was a power, and Spain ceded the western third of Hispaniola to the French. (To this day, Spanish is spoken in the Dominican Republic, while French-influenced Haitian Creole is spoken in Haiti.)  Napoleon sent French troops to enforce French rule, but many of them succumbed to tropical fevers, and in 1804, after a successful revolt against the weakened French forces, the slaves declared themselves free and named their nation Haiti.  It was one of the few bright spots in the history of this place.

While Haiti began as the first nation founded by slaves who had “freed” themselves via revolt…they never truly freed themselves. The leader of the revolt, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, declared himself Emperor Jacques I in 1804. The first “free” Haitians simply traded their physical chains and European masters for a succession of Haitian masters and the chains of varying degrees of dictatorship. Except for a brief period around the last two decades of the 19th Century, Haiti has never been a prosperous country, partly because Haitians themselves have never maintained the kind of rights-respecting government that allows prosperity, and partly due to massive foreign debt.

Indeed, at the behest of US banks to whom Haiti was deeply in debt, the US military occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934. The US occupation had mixed results.  There were some republican reforms to the government and much improved infrastructure, which was often accomplished by impressing locals into labor gangs in lieu of charging taxes, which of course generated resentment and resistance from the local population. Between the end of the US occupation in 1934 and now, the history of Haiti amounts to a succession of “presidents” with dictatorial powers enriching themselves and their cronies on the backs of the Haitian people and at the expense of Haiti’s natural resources, peppered with coups and revolts and foreign interventions.

The history of Haiti is one of slavery, disease, dictatorships, piracy, environmental destruction, foreign intervention, abject poverty, neglect, exploitation, corruption, and natural disaster. Shit-hole may be a rude word to describe it, but is it inaccurate? And how is it racist?

A Matter of Perspective


By Mike Cronin

No doubt you know that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west once every 24 hours.  It has done so for billions of years and will continue to do so for billions more.

Fact: The sun rises and sets about 16 times per day.

Fact: The sun rises and sets once every two weeks.

Fact: The sun doesn’t rise or set at all.

All of these facts are true.  How can that be?

Each is true from a certain perspective – and false from other perspectives.  The first is true from the perspective of people on the earth’s surface.  The second is true from the perspective of an astronaut onboard the International Space Station.  The third is true from the perspective of an astronaut on the surface of the moon.  The last is true from the perspective of the sun itself.

Perhaps you’ve heard it said that in so-and-so’s world, XYZ is quite different than in your world. Maybe you were taught to think of Western Europe, the US, the British Commonwealth, and Japan as the “first” world, and places like Haiti, Somalia, and Afghanistan as examples of the “third” world. Yet we all live on the same planet, so how can we be living in different worlds?

The first, second, and third worlds aren’t really separate worlds; they just appear that way from certain perspectives.  Sometimes using such metaphors can be useful in helping us frame our understanding of the actual world; sometimes the metaphors become euphemisms and are used to evade harsh truths.

For example: Haiti is the poorest, least-developed country in the western hemisphere.  It occupies part of an island called Hispaniola; the remainder of the island is taken up by the Dominican Republic. Compared to Haiti, the Dominican Republic is doing well. Some folks who call Haiti a failed state and a third-world country may be setting a scene or weaving a narrative (i.e. depicting things from a certain perspective) in order to ask you for donations to help the poor souls that live there.

Such people may mean well, but the solution to Haiti’s troubles probably depends on understanding things from a more difficult perspective.

Consider this: The 2010 earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince (Haiti’s capital) was followed less than a month later by an even more powerful earthquake in Chile.  Both earthquakes caused about the same amount of destruction in terms of the value of the property destroyed, yet the death tolls were staggeringly different.  In the Haiti quake, nearly a quarter of a million people lost their lives.  In the Chilean quake, the death toll was three orders of magnitude smaller. (A little over 500 people died).

Why was there such a vast difference between the two? How can a more powerful earthquake cause far less loss of life, but the same amount of property damage?

In Chile, there are building codes, insurance, robust first response capabilities, adequate hospitals, and property rights. In Haiti there are not. The property damage was the same from the perspective of cost, but vastly different from the perspective of number of buildings destroyed.  In Haiti, a good portion of the buildings in Port-au-Prince collapsed outright, including the president’s palace.  In Chile, many buildings suffered damage that will be expensive to fix…but far fewer buildings actually collapsed – because most were built to code to withstand earthquakes.

haiti palace

The Haitian presidential palace after the 2010 earthquake.

Why did Chile have those benefits and not Haiti?  Because for most of its history, Chile has given at least some recognition to the concept of individual and property rights.  Chileans had incentive to achieve and build and protect their investment.  Haiti, though its existence as a nation is essentially the result of a slave rebellion, never really adopted the concepts of individual freedom or property rights.  It has been ruled by a series of thugs, some worse than others, who would simply take what they wanted.

The harsh truth in the more difficult perspective: Sending aid to Haiti may help some Haitians stave off the reaper a little longer, but no amount of aid can help the Haitians adopt a philosophy of recognizing and respecting rights.

Understanding that a difference in perspective can be trivial (as in the case of knowing astronauts see 16 sunrises per “day”) or pivotal (as in the case of sending aid to Haiti), and how differing perspectives might be compared or judged against each other, is a critical skill to develop – one many of our elected leaders have failed to acquire.