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Haiti: A Brief History of Haitian Hope in the Face of Foreign Contempt

A three-part essay by Marie Burge

Monday, March 29, 2010

This opinion piece was published in March 2010 in the Charlottetown Guardian and in la Voix Acadienne.

Over the past forty-two years the Latin American Mission Program (LAMP) of the Dicese of Charlottetown has worked in the Dominican Republic (DR) and maintained a connection with, and concern about, the people of Haiti. A number of LAMP missionaries have worked directly with Haitians in the DR. The many youth who have participated in the Faith and Justice Experience have found that their visits to Dominican-Haitians communities are unforgettable.

The majority of the Dominican people live in extreme poverty. One sign of the ultra-extreme poverty of Haitians is that so many have immigrated to the DR looking for a better life. The DR and Haiti share the island of Hispañola as well as a history based on colonial cruelty, slavery, territorial disputes, foreign exploitation, US military occupation, and “economic re-structuring” at the hands of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. When Columbus made his “discovery „ in 1492, the Europeans found about 100,000 peaceful and industrious Arawak, aboriginal people, who were highly skilled in food production and other advanced life skills Within 20 years the Aboriginal population was killed off. The French were the main colonizers of Haiti. With France‟s greedy eye on sugar plantations, the country became rich for the Europeans; wealth built on the backs of slaves. France bought and delivered nearly half a million slaves from West Africa. From the beginning the slaves lived in terrible, unbelievably inhuman conditions. In 1697at the end to a 9-year war in Europe, Haiti was formally ceded to the French; and the Dominican Republic to the Spanish. In 1700 Haiti was the most valuable French possession in the Americas.

By the end of the1700s, there were 480,000 African slaves in Haiti, and 60,000 mixed race (Mulattos and freed slaves) while rich land-owning Europeans numbered only around 20,000. Obviously the Europeans did not feel any threat from being so outnumbered.. In 1791 a revolutionary force, made up mainly of slaves, rose up, led by former slave Toussaint L‟Ouverture. Within three years Toussaint‟s “army” forced the French National Convention to ratify the abolition of slavery, the first country in the world to abolish slavery.

On November 28, 1803 Haiti became the first independent state in Latin America, and the first black republic in the world. A new constitution was adopted, giving people more rights and freedoms.

The new country, the Republic of Haiti was forced to pay penalties to France for loss of property (e.g slaves and land) during the revolt, keeping it locked in a cycle of debt ($150 million gold francs = 21.7 billion dollars today). These demands, of course, also had an impact on the development of the Dominican Republic, given that the Eastern part of the Island was part of the Republic of Haiti for about 20 years. Haiti paid every cent of this “debt” to France. This was done on the backs of peasants and workers. Schools, hospitals and social programs were shut down in order to pay off France‟s penalty. Upper classes remained untouched by the payment. Today, significant voices in the international community are demanding that France pay Haiti back in full at today‟s dollar value. That unjust extraction of financial resources set a pattern for many future international relations which keeps Haiti today in modern-day chains.

Haiti Now: Modern-day Chains and Haitians' Will to Live

In the late 1700s, Haitian affairs were not a concern for the United States. The USA was occupied in its own political processes, its own war leading to the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and its Constitution in 1787. A mere 16 years later in 1803 Haiti became the first independent state in Latin America, and the first black republic in the world. A new constitution was adopted, giving people more rights and freedoms. However along with France, the USA feared that the Haitian freedom movement would spread.They feared that abolition fever would spread and deprive them of their “right” to slave labour for their plantations. Also it was an affront to them that a country of slaves could become a modern republic. In many ways it is incredible that the very existence of Haiti seemed to be a thorn in the American side. At every moment during the twentieth century and during the beginnings of the twenty-first century, the USA could not seem to keep its hands of that tiny beleaguered country.

The new phase which colors the life of Haitians began in 1915 when the United States occupied Haiti, saying the country was in massive debt to American banks. In the occupation, the US employed a policy of forced labor against the population; Haitian peasants were forced at gunpoint to build railroads, buildings and other infrastructure for American companies and the neocolonial administration. Haitians who resisted were forced into concentration camps and innocent civilians mercilessly mutilated or slaughtered. There were several massacres committed by US troops; in 1929 US marines gunned down 264 protesting peasants in Les Cayes. In 1934 the physical US withdrawal of troops did not eliminate US influence: history shows that the US supported successive coups for over 20 years until 1957 when the United States found a Haitian president, Francois Duvalier “Papa Doc”. He was from the upper class. His open brutality to fellow Haitians obviously pleased the US. Duvalier, in contravention of the legitimate constitution, declared himself president for life, giving himself 14 years of absolute and cruel power and the right to name his successor. His son, “Baby Doc”, equally devoid of moral guidelines, and none too civilized, ruled Haiti until 1986. Both father and son blatantly stole public funds including $16 million from the International Monetary Fund. Baby Doc turned the country into a trans-shipment point for cocaine trafficking. He established the “Tonton Macoutes”, his death squad, which openly beat, tortured and killed citizens. These two dictators stayed in power in the service of North Americans.

After an uprising which overthrew Baby Doc, in 1990, a Haitian priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was elected on a pro-poor platform. The US openly supported his opponent (an official from the World Bank) giving him millions of dollars plus all sorts of resources to win. Jean-Bertrand Aristide won with 67% of the vote. His opponent won 12% of the vote.

In 1991 a military coup removed Aristide. The opposition had engaged the old “Tonton Macoutes”, giving the impression that the violence and killings of that year were carried out in the name of the Aristide government. Again thousand of Haitians were murdered. As the result of international pressure, US troops restored Aristide in 1994 but only after he agreed to implement a neoliberal program. This translated into the privatization of education, & health, protection of corporate sector, minimizing peasant food production. Opposition elements, both Haitian and American, made every attempt to prove to the people that Aristid could not deliver on his promises. In 1995, the US troops left Haiti. Then in 2004 a US- backed coup removed Aristide. The US marines were sent in, followed by UN troops who occupied Haiti and remain there to this day, with backing from France and Canada. In 2006, Rene Preval, was elected president.

In all of this aggressive intervention, and with the images produced by mainstream media, Haitians are poorly presented. Those who work with them in their communities know that they will never let their hope die, nor will they stop singing, dancing and caring for each other in whatever way they can. These real friends tell us that Haitians are blessed with forbearance and forgiveness. They know that the powers which have dictated Haitian life over the years are part of the absolute poverty which Haitians live day and night. Real friends of Haiti know that Haitians will find their own way and that it will be the best way for Haiti.

The Building of Haiti: of Haitians, for Haitians, and by Haitians

The ultimate tragedy in Haiti is not the earthquake of January 12, 2010. There are a number of historical tragedies which continue to contribute to the vulnerability of the Haitian people. The disrespectful and abusive international interventions over the centuries have kept Haiti in a state of economic and social poverty. The earthquake simply, but catastrophically, revealed the human consequences of this fact. Registering 7.0 on the Richter scale, the Haitian earthquake killed over 200,000 people. By contrast, the quake that hit California‟s Bay Area in 1989 was also of magnitude 7.0. It killed only 63 people. This difference is due chiefly to America‟s economic and social development. Americans build stronger homes, buildings and roads, are better nourished, and have health care and search and rescue systems. Compare that to Haiti which was actively denied those opportunities. In the aftermath of the quake, as would be expected, Canada, the USA and many countries responded with emergency humanitarian aid. It would be ungracious to comment in those days and weeks that many of Haiti‟s vulnerabilities had been the historical result of the policies and practices of those same countries. The language from donor countries about what now needs to be done to “re-build” Haiti is misplaced and misleading. It implies that some semblance of an infrastructure existed before January 12. The fact is that sewer, water, hydro and road systems were ramshackle at best, or non-existent at worst, in the majority of the country. Haiti‟s greatest infrastructural need at present certainly is not buildings to house government officials and bureaucracies.

Another real tragedy involving the future of Haiti is that the international community remains unrepentant in its conviction that Haitians are incapable of participating in, and directing the development of their own country. Even in the meeting of the Friends of Haiti in Montreal on January 25, 2010, there was little room for the voice of the Haitian communities. The testimony of Haitians themselves and of their real friends “on the ground” entreat the peoples of the world to reject media images of Haitians as helpless and even tending to violent outbursts. The media showed images of a few Haitians pushing and shoving to get relief supplies. What the media often missed were the scenes in which the food recipients, already half starving, calmly went to one side and called together friends and neighbors to share what they received. Those who know the Haitian people present them as a generally loving, generous, caring, sharing community.

The extraordinary military presence in the tiny country also serves to confirm the belief that they are unruly and incapable of taking responsibility for their own lives. Since 2004, Haiti was already occupied by 9,000 troops (MINUSTAH). The Security Council sanctioned this military involvement “ having determined that the situation in Haiti continued to constitute a threat to international peace and security”. Given the ongoing excessive military presence, it seemed inexplicable that the United States government marked the earth quake by dispatching 20,000 marines and taking over the Port-au-Prince airport among other aspects of daily life. The Government of Canada followed this by sending 2,000 troops.

Organizations on the ground, such as health promoters, indicate that Haitians are more than able and qualified to organize health, education, and food production brigades across the country, developing capacities community-by community. International money in this time of building must be based on Haitian community-control and Haitian sovereignty, honouring the capacity, resilience, generosity, and creativity of the Haitian people. Dr. Paul Farmer, of Partners in Health/Zanmi Lasante, with decades of intimate and successful work with Haitians in a large section of the country suggests that in the health care field alone, there is need for training within their own communities of 500,000 more Haitian health care workers. The same is true for the development of food security, and educational systems, along with sewer, water, hydro, roads and construction technologies.

The world must keep a critical eye on every move which might undermine Haitian sovereignty. Haitians want, and are capable of creating, a truly democratic government and people-centered public institutions.

More information

Canada Haiti Action Network

This article in French: Haïti: Un bref historique de l’espoir haïtien face au mépris de l’étranger

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