Generally speaking, we of the Global North very rarely speak of Haiti, except to sometimes drop the fact that it is currently the poorest country in the western hemisphere, constantly plagued by poverty, natural disasters, and political violence. In fact, just this past August, Haiti was devastated by a magnitude-7.2 earthquake, killing 1,900+ people, leaving even more injured, and destroying important aspects of infrastructure necessary for recovery. Hospitals were quickly overwhelmed, unable to handle the immense influx of the injured and dying. Then, not yet 3 days after, as authorities struggled to get the country back up and running, the nation was struck with a tropical depression (a category adjacent, but less than that of a hurricane in terms of severity), which further caused more damage to vital infrastructure, as well as delay time-sensitive rescue efforts of those still trapped and in danger due to the earthquake. Lest you’d think natural disasters were the only thing disrupting everyday life in the country, just a month prior, the country’s president, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated by foreign mercenaries in his own home. He was shot 12 times and left to be discovered by authorities the next morning. And more recently, we have all seen the news and repugnant images of tens of thousands of Haitian asylum-seekers executing their rights according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to seek refuge in the United States, and yet being turned away out of hand. Images of people being whipped by American border patrol on horseback have evoked disturbing imagery of the USA’s troubling past with slavery.
With such an onslaught of terrible news coming from this country and its people, the question necessarily arises; why does Haiti seemingly have such horrendous luck in the state of global affairs, and why does it seem structurally unable to address the issues that arise within its borders?
The allusion to slavery in the prior paragraph was no accident, as Haiti’s unfortunate history begins squarely within this disgusting institution. In 1492, when Christopher Columbus claimed to have “discovered” America, he landed on the island of current day Haiti/Dominican Republic and set off a chain reaction in coming decades that would result in the systematic genocide of tens of thousands of indigenous residents of the islands. Following this, in 1697, Spain formally ceded half of its claim to the territory to France, which in it saw a perfect climate to create a colony of plantations meant to export sugar, coffee, cocoa, indigo, and cotton. The colony of Saint-Domingue (as it was dubbed by the French) quickly became France’s most financially beneficial New World possession.
In order to maintain the economy now responsible for 2⁄3 of the French Empire’s foreign income, the island became dependent on the import of African slaves, necessitating more than half a million imported by 1787. Around this time in the 18th century, the French Revolution was raging on across the Atlantic. This momentous overthrow of unjust hierarchies elicited many enslaved and free Haitians alike to begin openly questioning the systems they lived in. Indeed, if these revolutionaries across the pond were declaring the Universal Rights of Man, stating that “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights”, why should it not apply to them and their brethren? Apparently oblivious to the irony of their actions, the liberty-seeking French decided instead to keep the institution of chains. In their eyes, they absolutely had to maintain the enslavement of millions of individuals. In order to do so, the French and Haitian bourgeoisie devised a new system of racism, classifying the rights of residents of Saint-Domingue based on how much “blackness” an individual had in their ancestry– introducing a new aspect of racism into the colony that had not yet existed prior–replacing the purely class-based discrimination of yesteryear. On top of this, in an attempt to maximize the profit of their “investment” and ward off any thoughts of insurrection, slavery was maintained through cruelty and torture. Indeed, it was more cost-effective for slave owners to terrorize and work their slaves to death (and then buy new slaves) instead of ensuring somewhat decent treatment of the plantation workers. One plantation owner, describing the sheer availability of new slave labor, described how “the coasts of Africa are bountiful”. At the time, practices such as burying slaves and covering their faces
with molasses so that they would be literally eaten by bugs were commonplace. Due to beyond cruel treatment like this (and so much more), the life expectancy of the average slave during the 18th century was only 4 years after arriving at the colony, and the average slave died at a heart-wrenching 21 years of age. A short, brutish life of hard labor awaited anyone who had the misfortune of being born the “wrong” skin colour.
Despite all of these roadblocks to freedom, the exploited class had had enough of the truly abhorrent conditions and the unmatched cruelty of their so-called masters. As of 1791, a coordinated revolt of slaves all across the island disrupted the usual plantation and trade activities. Seeking their freedom, as well as a fundamental upheaval of the economic activities of the island, these revolutionaries began burning the institutions of slavery to the ground. Over the next grueling 13 years, these revolutionaries resisted monumental imperial powers, fighting long and hard to prevent Napoleon de Bonaparte and the French empire, the Spanish empire, the English empire, and even some American war efforts from taking back the island. At long last, in 1804, the former slaves were victorious and declared their newly freed state ‘Haiti’. This nation was (and still is) the only successful revolt of slaves in history and the first nation to have formally outlawed slavery. Truly, its existence as a nation was in direct opposition to the colonialist efforts of the global superpowers at the time–a concept that these said imperialist states could not stand.
Initially, many of the Empires at the time, such as France, Great Britain, Spain, and the United States outright refused to recognize Haitian independence. Eventually, in 1825, France decided to recognize the state’s sovereignty on the condition that the latter paid 150 million gold francs–equivalent to ~10 times the countries annual wealth–in compensation for expenses during the war and potential lost revenue from having lost the colony. The Haitian people were literally being extorted for having the audacity to desire an escape from horrific slavery.
This non-negotiable agreement (sent under threat of an armed flotilla of warships by Charles X of France) forced Haiti to re-organize its economy to send money to France, as well as to take
some high-interest loans from banks in other countries (including the extorting French power). In the end, the debt was not paid in full until 1947, an arrangement fiscally crippling the Haitian state and civil society for more than a century and a half, setting back progress indefinitely and directly leading to some of the most prominent economic and political issues we see in the country today. It is estimated that the net sum paid out by the burgeoning nation over this time was equivalent to 20-30 billion dollars in today’s money. In fact, according to experts, from 1804 to 1947, about 40% of Haiti’s wealth was siphoned away by the United States and France every year. Looking at figures like this, and the constant political meddling by foreign powers, is it any wonder that Haiti has struggled to this day?
France was not the only foreign power to be caught meddling in Haitian affairs. Obviously, the United States (with its economy based on slavery) was concerned about the optics of the successful uprising of the oppressed. To put it simply, this new nation could not be allowed to succeed. The US did not accept the young country’s independence until 1862. Until that time, America refused to trade with and embargoed the newly founded state.
In 1915, the American Empire took a more active role in its intervention in Haiti. Seeing an opportunity with the assassination of the current Haitian president, 5000 American troops were sent under the pretense of the protection of American assets. Over the course of this 19-year occupation, thousands of Haitians were killed by American forces, and the invasion lead to a coerced treaty in which the US claimed official rights to dictate Haiti’s finances: “[t]he occupation was a land grab, a power grab and a resource grab for Haiti’s ... wealth” (Suggs). Although the occupation officially ended in ‘34, the US continued to control Haiti’s finances until ‘47.
In 1957, Haiti would enter a period of authoritarianism like no other: François Duvalier, better known as Papa Doc, assumed control of the island state and brutally ruled for 14 years. Despite popular outcry, he maintained an iron grip on the country, in part through the support of the United States. In exchange, Haiti was to maintain a strong anti-communist stand at the height of
the cold war. Upon François’ death in 1971, the formality of feigning democracy was entirely overlooked, as 19-year-old Jen-Claude Duvalier (also known as Baby Doc) succeeded his father, and went on to rule for more than a decade and a half.
By 1986, the Haitian people had finally had enough, and a major insurrection broke out across the island, forcing Baby Doc to flee (aided by US President Reagan) to seek refuge in France, leaving the administration of the country up to a military council for the next few years.
In 1990, the first free and democratic national election in the country’s history had the people electing Jean-Bertrand Aristide to hopefully lead their country towards a brighter future. Yet, just a few months into his presidency, his political reforms angered the Haitian elite and military, leading to a quick overthrow by a CIA-funded military coup in 1991. In 2001, Aristide was once again elected to lead with “90% of the vote. But [the United States] would not accept the results of that election either, so it organized a cut-off of international aid to the government and poured millions into the opposition.” (Weisbrot). 3 years into his term, he was overthrown by another coup, one that Aristide claims (with a fair amount of evidence) was once again orchestrated by the USA. In fact, the former president, staff from his administration, and even the presidents of other Latin American countries at the time would go on to claim that he was in fact a victim of kidnapping by joint US and Canadian armed forces; relocated to the Central African Republic against his will. In fact, CARICOM (an organization of Caribbean countries) “called for a United Nations investigation into Aristide's removal, but were [...] pressured by the U.S. and France to drop their request.” (Fenton)
Skipping ahead through a few administrations, in 2010, a popular candidate in the national elections, Jude Célestin, was forced to step down after mixed efforts of Canadian and American forces. Apparently displeased with the preliminary results of the election, they threatened the candidate and applied a new tabulation formula to find a new candidate, Michel Martelly, to have won the election instead. “[A]s the Center for Economic and Policy Research has shown,
the formula was completely invalid, a statistical nonsense, and the tabulation of vote totals was a sham.” (Ives). Michel Martelly went on to lead the country for the next half-decade.
In the election of 2016, the now late Jovenel Moïse–a severely unpopular candidate backed by the United States–ran for election, but received little to no support from the Haitian people. Despite only 8.7% of all registered voters casting in favor of Moïse, as well as many allegations of a fraudulent election having taken place, the US immediately validated the results of the elections and wholeheartedly backed Moïse’s presidency. To this day, the US has never addressed the claims that it mishandled or meddled with the Haitian national elections.
Finally, we get to this year, when, at the end of his constitutionally mandated term, Moïse refuses to step down and continued his unpopular rule, vocally supported by the Biden administration. “In general, Moïse has been consolidating power around himself increasingly over the past years, which has created a deepening crisis of governance,” said Laurent Dubois, co-director of the Democracy Initiative at the University of Virginia and an expert on Haitian history. This claim to power was one that the Biden administration publicly supported, following the US’ tried and true strategy of “reflexively siding with or tolerating leaders accused of authoritarian rule because they advance U.S.’ interests or because officials fear instability in their absence.” (Kitroeff)
"For 217 years, the whole history of the country has been based on conspiracies, coups, assassinations," the late Moïse stated in reference to global interactions with Haiti. “[The world] always conspire[s] to destroy it, never to build it. More than 30 presidents [in 2 centuries have been] overthrown or assassinated.”
All in all, Haitian history has been mainly characterized by foreign meddling for the benefit of the elite and the bourgeoisie–overseas and at home. And, recently, a small amount of the repercussions of the United States’ actions in the past 2 centuries have come back knocking at their doorstep. In the past 2 months, more than 14,000 Haitian migrants have arrived at the
Texan border seeking asylum, a right which, as mentioned prior, should be afforded to them under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as Title 8 of the United States Code. And yet, the administration seems less concerned with affording these people decent treatment, a court date to review their situations, or even just bare minimum humane treatment. Instead, what we have seen has been the immediate deportation of thousands of Haitians at the border. This handling of the situation is so appalling that it caused the Haitian special envoy to quit from the Biden administration, citing the inhumane treatment of these migrants at the border.
Even ignoring the literal centuries of chaos created in Haiti at the hands of the American government, the political discourse in popular American media ignores this fact and remains disgusting. Especially on the right of the aisle, political pundits such as Tucker Carlson openly peddled white supremacist propaganda, citing the ‘Great Replacement Theory’, stating that: “No sane, first-world nation opens its borders to the world (...) There's only one plausible answer ... To reduce the political power of people whose ancestors lived here, and dramatically increase the proportion of Americans newly arrived from the third world ... In political terms, this policy is sometimes called the great replacement - the replacement of legacy Americans, with more obedient people from faraway countries."
This was disseminated on Tucker Carlson Tonight, literally the most viewed political news show in the nation, with a nightly average audience of 4.56 million viewers. This kind of talk about the issue, incredibly common in the everyday discourse of the nation is frankly ghoulish. Carlson is far from the only American with thoughts like this. Putting aside the fact that these are human lives we are talking about–there shouldn’t be a “rational reason” to help them out–the US played a major role in why things are the way they are today in Haiti. How dare any American, especially any American politician in a position of power, have the audacity to stand here and deny these migrants a chance at a proper life? Haiti was never even given a chance to succeed, and her people are owed so much more than the geopolitical short straw they were handed just
because a few hundred years ago, they happened to live in a good spot to make coffee and sugar.
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