Above and below: A few photos of a model-train diorama made by a doctor named Tom who often works in Haiti. These dioramas are based on historical and on-the-ground research on the Haitian American Sugar Company in Léogâne (HASCO) and its railroad. I don’t know the doctor’s full name but if I did I would gladly credit him here: he’s an artist.
I found these online back in 2009 when I was researching an essay on Haitian foods. If you have never chawed and sucked on a woody, juicy piece of sugar cane, you have missed one of the few ecstatic experiences available to humankind (you name the others). Best part: when you’ve finished with a bite of cane, you get to spit the white pulp out onto the ground like a man.
Sugar is a big part of life in Haiti; like citizens of most sugar-producing nations, Haitians use more sugar in their coffee than coffee (although they are also by tradition a coffee-producing country). Desserts in Haiti are almost unbearably sweet. Haitians love a nice cake.
Unlike most tall structures in the Port-au-Prince area (including churches and their steeples), the HASCO mill’s red and white smokestack, out of use for decades, survived the 2010 earthquake. The smokestack is not pictured in Doctor Tom’s dioramas, because his old-time trains are in a town about eighteen miles west of the capital. By the way, the smokestack and the sugar mill used to be outside Port-au-Prince, but because the city has expanded so hugely in the past two decades, the smokestack, symbol of a very different age in Haiti, now appears to be more centrally located.
HASCO opened its Haitian operations in 1912, and it is thought to have been one of the American businesses that the U.S. government was trying to protect when the Marines intervened in Haiti in 1915 and began a 19-year occupation. HASCO was once a major employer in Haiti, not only directly employing more than three thousand people but also buying up cane from tens of thousands of small-holding cane growers around the country.
I seem to remember the smell of sugar in the air in early 1986, when I first went down to Haiti. In any case, HASCO closed in 1987, little more than a year after the Duvalier dynasty fell. The huge post-Duvalier flow of smuggled sugar from both Miami and also the Dominican Republic across Haiti’s border did the company in, not that it was such a great company. Both types of sugar — like Miami rice at around the same time — undersold the local product. Perhaps HASCO officials also sensed that, while Duvalier’s had been a harsh regime to deal with, democracy — if it ever properly came to Haiti — was not going to be an easy ride, either.
According to New York Times reports, the company first began to have problems when the Duvalier regime barred HASCO from refining its sugarcane, in 1985. Never one to take into account the needs of Haitians, the Haitian government, which often operated (and still operates) in shadowy ways for obscure reasons, then began importing refined sugar at world market prices and selling it on the Haitian market for a profit. I imagine a lot of Haitians went without sugar during those years. Anyway, once Duvalier fell, border and customs control became more porous, and dealers in US and Dominican sugar saw a new market opening.
Here’s a case study by the Lambi Fund that includes some information about grassroots farming groups in the wake of HASCO’s collapse. The Mobile Pump and HASCO
So many companies in Haiti have gone the way of HASCO, so many farmers have been put out of work by global economic practices. It’s way past time now for the Haitian government to begin to draft a 10-year economic and environmental plan for the country that includes something more than the no-future garment jobs and small, desperate stabs at tourism that have come in the wake of the earthquake, all based exclusively in the north of the country that was untouched by the quake. The south and the western peninsula also need help and direction (though the saner course, often, is to keep poor ideas and misdirected funds out of your district in Haiti — just go on being hungry and poorly clad and housed, but at least your own master). And I am not talking about the gold, silver and copper mines that are soon to scar the land: these are notoriously exploitive.
An economic path out of misery for Haiti can only come from new ways of imagining the place, and that means answers other than globalized markets and sweatshop labor. It means that Haitians and Haiti’s influential friends have to think in new and original ways, if indeed, three years after so many responded so publicly to the horrors of the earthquake, Haiti still has any real friends. It also means that the Haitian government must begin to include and to respond to the Haitian people.