Haiti's Curse

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Claire Robertson is Professor of African and Caribbean History at The Ohio State University. Her latest book is Genital Cutting and Transnational Sisterhood: Disputing U.S. Polemics (University of Illinois Press, 2003).

Much has been made of Pat Robertson’s claims that the earthquake is punishment for Haitians’ sins, but despite widespread refutation of this assertion, there are clearly problems with many Americans’ perceptions of Haitians and their history.  A well-informed retired military officer told me, “The treatment by the U.S. of Haiti has been criminal.”  So it has; the cataclysmic impact of disasters (not forgetting the four hurricanes in 2008 alone) on Haiti could have been largely avoided had ours and others’ policies toward it been enlightened rather than greedily racist.  We have committed manifold sins against Haiti, and purposefully underdeveloped it to our profit. 

A brief history is persuasive.  Haiti is the only independent nation born of a slave revolt, in the then French, very profitable, colony of Saint Domingue.  On June 7, 1803, the heroic leader of this revolt, Toussaint L’Ouverture, imprisoned by the French, died; his generals declared Haiti independent on Jan. 1, 1804.  This declaration related closely to events on Guadeloupe, where the Napoleonic dictatorship of France, whose revolutionary government had freed the slaves in 1794, re-imposed slavery with many bloody atrocities, including the murder of all black soldiers in the French army (they enlisted because they were offered freedom in exchange, and served faithfully).  These proceedings convinced Haitian revolutionaries that the French negotiated dishonestly, and they chose independence.  During the war of the French Revolution, the British invaded French Caribbean islands re-imposing slavery, only later to trumpet their role as “liberators” of the slaves.  Haiti was their only failure.  Subsequently, the slaveholding colonial powers refused to recognize Haiti, even after they finally abolished slavery themselves (1838 for the British, 1848 for the French, 1865 for the U.S).  In 1825 the French decided to recoup their losses by utilizing gunboat diplomacy to extort “reparations” from Haiti, whose isolated position made finding customers for their sugar cane difficult.  The upshot was that, from 1825 to 1947, approximately 80% of Haiti’s GDP was sold to profit the French, thus stifling any efforts to promote a Haitian-oriented economy.  Infrastructure went unbuilt or disintegrated.  Most Haitians were desperately poor, and what happened next only worsened their situation.  

The U.S. decided to capitalize on Europe’s absorption in World War I by seizing Haiti and its wealth in 1915, where we remained until 1934 and carried out a brutal assault on its population, using aerial bombing.  We reintroduced forced labor.  Herbert Seligmann, eminent author and journalist, wrote in cataloguing American atrocities there, “[T]he American invasion … is only additional evidence that the U.S. is among those Powers in whose international dealings democracy and freedom are mere words, and human lives negligible in face of [racism], political chican[ery], and money.”  (The Nation, July 10, 1920).  We created the army later employed by our subsidized dictators, the Duvaliers (father and son in power from 1957 to 1986) to terrorize the population (most Caribbean nations do not have armies).  From 1986 to 1990 Haiti had despicable U.S.-backed military governments.  In 1990 a populist president was elected in Haiti by a landslide, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who began a campaign for the French to repay the “reparations” they had collected and tried to better the situation of most Haitians by raising the minimum wage and abolishing the army.  Right-wing forces supported by U.S. Republican administrations ousted him in 1991 and in 1994 after the Clinton administration had restored him to power but a Republican-dominated Congress was elected.  In 2000 Aristide was again elected by a landslide; this time the CIA engineered his kidnapping and transportation to the Central African Republic, after the Bush administration effectively blocked development loans to undermine his government.  Today about half of Haiti’s huge international debt stems from loans made to the Duvalier regimes, who pocketed them.  In 2003 the Haitian government sent about 90% of its foreign reserves to Washington to pay these debts, even though international law considers them to be “odious debt” that need not be repaid.

And so, even though Obama has given priority to aid to Haiti not duplicated by the Bush administration with regard to New Orleans, this is a drop in the bucket insofar as our moral debt to Haiti is concerned.  We now have an enormous opportunity to redevelop Haiti to make the profits of its resources go to its people, instead of re-colonizing it with the CIA and sweated labor.  Sustainable development from below is key to a stable democratic prosperous country, not corporate colonization.  If we can do this, we will show that we are not the invincibly racist greedy people that our history with Haiti suggests.*  

*For further information see Paul Farmer, The Uses of Haiti (Common Courage Press, 2005; Pathologies of Power (University of California Press, 2003), and http://globalresearch.ca/articles/FAR404B.html.  Material on the French Revolutionary period in the Caribbean comes from a work in progress by the author.

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