The continued portrayal in the US media of Haiti as the basket case of the hemisphere without accurate contextualization further wounds the Haitian people in their hour of direst need, and misleads the American public.
The French colony of Saint-Domingue achieved its independence and became Haiti in 1804 after a brutal twelve-year struggle that began with an uprising of enslaved peoples led by Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henry Christophe, who together defeated the French royalist and revolutionary armies, the Spanish and British imperial armies who tried to take advantage and finally Napoleon Bonaparte. Bonaparte sought to restore slavery and use Haiti as a launching pad for an invasion of the United States, sending some 50,000 troops to Haiti, where they were decimated by the Haitian forces and yellow fever. Bonaparte finally surrendered the project and sold the Louisiana Territory for 60 million francs to Thomas Jefferson, our Francophile president. Jefferson expressed his gratitude to the Haitians by assisting in the French blockade intended to punish Haiti. He closed our ports to all Haitian vessels as US slaveholders were terrified of the spread of the “contagion” known as liberty. It wouldn’t be the last time the word “contagion” was wielded in association with Haitian people, nor would it be the last time Haitians would be wrongly turned away from these shores.
The three great revolutions of the time period: the US (1776), the French (1789-1799) and the Haitian (1792-1804) should be taught in our schools as a trilogy. Haiti under the visionary Toussaint Louverture sought to realize the ideals of the US Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man for all men–unlike their authors. Haiti contributed massively to liberation struggles elsewhere, perhaps most significantly in Venezuela, assisting Simón Bolívar twice in his quest to achieve independence from Spain. That the Haitian Revolution alone has been virtually erased from history impoverishes us all. We should know whose shoulders we are standing on.
The blockade of Haiti eventually brought the new nation to its knees. The price of lifting the blockade was the payment of some 150 million francs (equal to $21 billion today) in reparations to the French for lost “property”–some of which was in the form of enslaved human beings. France also required that Haiti discount its goods at 50 percent, making it even harder to pay this debt. Though France later lowered the payment to 90 million francs, the cycle of forcing Haiti to borrow from French banks to make the payments chained the nation to perpetual poverty. Haiti did not finish paying her “debt” until 1947.
In the interim, concerned by increasing German interests in Haiti, and fears that it might occupy the Panama Canal, the United States invaded and occupied the country from 1915-1934. The US Assistant Secretary of the Navy at the time–none other that Franklin D. Roosevelt–rewrote the country’s constitution. Since then, and especially under the brutal Duvaliers supported by postcolonial interests–Haitians have endured one corrupt dictator after another. Only those receiving the bribes have been blamed, however. What of the postcolonial corporate interests who offered? Are they not to be held accountable too?
In 1990 the populace elected the leftist priest Jean-Bertrande Aristide. History eventually repeated itself: the same “former” colonial powers intervened and used indebtedness again as their controlling weapon of choice. Former US President Bill Clinton, now the US envoy to Haiti and in charge of leading the quake assistance brigade, championed the structural adjustment programs imposed that effectively privatized Haiti’s infrastructure.
The massive disaster we are seeing unfold on our television screens is directly connected to this policy. There are no first-responders–police, firemen, medical rescue workers or otherwise–in Haiti because the national infrastructure had already been gutted by powers far more devastating than the earthquake. The country has been servicing an unbearable and wrongful debt for centuries, at the expense of its own people.
That aid comes with strings attached is an old story, but when we are complicit in creating the conditions that make aid a survival necessity, and then cut off every other alternative–what have we done but reinstated slavery?
We can stop this cycle now. We must prevent, at all costs, our government, any government, the IMF or the World Bank, commercial lending institutions or corporate interests from taking any actions whatsoever that will further indebt or privatize Haiti’s resources. Haiti’s debt should be canceled completely, and it is Haiti that should be the recipient of long-overdue reparations.