Haiti: A Shattered Nation

By Elizabeth Abbott, 2011

Review is copyright 2015 by Wil C. Fry. All Rights Reserved.

Published: 2015.11.05

Copyright 2015 by Wil C. Fry.
Some rights reserved.
Full Title: Haiti: A Shattered Nation
Author: Elizabeth Abbott
Year: 2011
Publisher: Overlook Duckworth
ISBN 978-1-59020-141-1 (U.S.)
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Author’s Wikipedia page


This book is an update to Abbott’s 1988 history, Haiti: The Duvaliers And Their Legacy, adding two chapters and an explanatory introduction. The story begins in 1492, when explorer Christopher Columbus discovered the island of Hispaniola, and briefly runs through the French rule of 1625-1804, during which African slavery was “the most brutal bondage known to mankind”. Abbott spends only a few pages on the Haitian revolution, and only one chapter on the U.S. occupation of 1914-34. Eight-five percent of the book focuses on Haiti’s modern history, from the rule of “Papa Doc” through the massive earthquake that struck in 2010, killing more than 100,000 people and causing about a million to be homeless.

What I Liked Least About It

Perhaps my least favorite part of this book was the Introduction, which made little sense to someone who had yet to read the rest of the book. Abbott begins by trying to explain why she decided to add to her 1988 volume and create a new edition, but then spends several pages referring to specific parts of Haitian history that make little sense out of context. The Prologue wasn’t much better, beginning with “The Tonton Macoutes marched up...” and goes on for six pages before saying what the “Macoutes” actually are (a murderous goon squad supported by the government). For a reader such as myself, the supposed audience (“I wrote Haiti for non-Haitians”), much of these first sections was unintelligible.

If you plan to read this book knowing little of Haiti’s history, I recommend beginning at Chapter One and saving the Introduction and Prologue until you’ve finished the book.

One other minor nitpick is common to many histories and biographies — the photographs are all in one section in the center, eight unnumbered pages, instead of incorporated into relevant sections of the narrative. By the time I’ve read 240 pages, I already have pictures in my head of some of the major players, and then I see the photos which look completely different.

A Personal Interest

Unlike many history books I read, I have a personal connection to the history of Haiti — my wife is a first-generation U.S. resident, the child of Haitian immigrants who came to the United States in the 1970s, during the rule of “Baby Doc” (Jean-Claude Duvalier). Thus, my own children — and half of their relatives — are of Haitian descent. Neither my wife nor I, nor our children, have ever been to Haiti, but it is a large part of my wife’s identity and I had a strong desire to be more informed.

What I Liked Most About It

As with many histories, my favorite part is simply learning. Like most U.S. residents, I previously knew very little about this island just south of our shores — Haiti occupies about three-eighths of the island, with a land area of 10,714 square miles; if Haiti was a U.S. state, it would be the 44th-largest, smaller than Hawaii but larger than Massachusetts.

I also appreciated the author’s care in differentiating between types of sources, whether a statement was confirmed by everyone involved, or disputed, or just a rumor. And despite having some personal involvement — she was the sister-in-law to a man who ruled the country for about two years — it was apparent she was careful to put this aside.


This is the most depressing book I have ever read, bar none. Unlike most histories, which can at least wrap up on a high note of hope for the future or a description of lessons learned, there is almost nothing good to say at the end of this one. Haiti remains today one of the world’s poorest nations by any measure (GDP per capita, for example). Extreme poverty and a history of government corruption ensure the impossibility of protecting its people from the repetive natural disasters, mostly hurricanes.

Even when other nations intervene, and they often do, the results are less-than-stellar. Examples include the outbreak of cholera that killed 9,000 people after UN peacekeepers apparently introduced a strain of the disease never before seen in the Western Hemisphere, the intentional extinction in the 1980s of the Creole pig by a U.S. agency (USAID), and the abject failure of the American Red Cross to do anything substantial with half a billion dollars in donations in 2010.

According to a survey before the 2010 earthquake, 67% of Haitians would leave “if they could”, three-fourths of the population lived on less than two dollars per day, and half the population had no access to potable water. Only 10% had electricity. Even before the earthquake, official unemployment rates were near 70%. One in 12 Haitians is infected with HIV, and only 10% of those receive treatment. Two-thirds of women reported they’d been “violently abused”.

This is exactly why I would recommend this book to U.S. readers. It cannot possibly hurt to know more about Haiti.

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