Jan 21, 2010


All this news on the Haitian earthquake has really got me doing cursory research into the history of Haiti. A few of my friends have also been seeking and sharing information - and nearly all major U.S. media outlets have been reporting - of a Haiti devastated and broken before the earthquake.

To quote John Henley of The Guardian, "Haiti has had slavery, revolution, debt, deforestation, corruption, exploitation and violence," says Alex von Tunzelmann, a historian and writer currently working on a book about the country and its near neighbours, the Dominican Republic and Cuba. "Now it has poverty, illiteracy, overcrowding, no infrastructure, environmental disaster and large areas without the rule of law. And that was before the earthquake. It sounds a terrible cliche, but it really is a perfect storm. This is a catastrophe beyond our worst imagination."

The article stated that the slave rebellion that began in 1791 and continued to November 1803, resulted in thousands of slaves being hanged, drowned, burned, and buried alive. This battle resulted in the first free black state in our hemisphere. Haiti declared independence on January 1, 1804. One would think that after such a brutal battle (on both sides) for freedom from reportedly one of the most inhuman and violent slave colonies, that Haiti would be able to reap the benefits of also being one of the most profitable Caribbean colonies. Not quite. It is reported that life expectancy for a Haitian slave was 21 years, and that despite the small size of the French colony in comparison to its counterparts, Haiti accounted for more than one-third of the entire Atlantic slave trade. France's success - Haiti exported 60% of all the coffee and 40% of all the sugar consumed in Europe in the 1780s - was built through dreadful abuse and exploitation. One former Haitian slave is quoted as writing "Have they not hung up men with heads downward, drowned them in sacks, crucified them on planks, buried them alive, crushed them in mortars?" when describing the atrocities they faced under the hands of the French. So, basically, the French slaves fought for their freedom in what was at the time a hugely successful colony that clearly the French did not want to lose.

One would think that the success of Haiti coupled with the fact that as Haiti gained its independence, the French Revolution in 1789, and the American Revolutionary War 1775-1783 were resulting in a new mindset of human rights (Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Declaration of Independence). Would that relate to the male citizens of the free black state of Haiti? Where would Haiti fit?

The Challenges

First off, the revolution left destruction to the Haiti's infrastructure and plantations. The other reasons appear to vary depending on who's doing the reporting. The Guardian article seems to place some blame on the decades of corrupt governance under Papa Doc (I wish I could promise to get back to this man but I doubt I'll get to him but the gall of his son making a donation to Haiti post-Jan 12 earthquake with the funds his family stole from the country!), the reparations that had to be paid to France, and the deforestation due to poor land management beginning with the French and then by the Haitian people as they cut it down and utilized it for housing, and charcoal. After reading this article I thought to myself, "the poor Haitians." It just seemed like they fought for independence so valiantly but due to poor land management, corrupt government officials, and a greedy France, they were destined to end up where they are today. Mostly very poor, with little to no infrastructure and no way to rebound from the slew of natural disasters they have faced recently. Further reading helped to offer some depth to the explanations given in The Guardian article.

Jamaican columnist, John Maxwell (Jamaica Observer) in his Jan 17th article No, Mister? You Cannot Share My Pain! helps explain how the reparations participated not only in the financial but wider crippling of Haiti. According to this article, the United States' City Bank offered the Haitians a 'debt exchange,' paying off the French reparation, or rather a portion of the debt, for a lower interest, longer term debt (that was paid off in 1947). This would seem to be offering a helping hand but it was this involvement and fear of Haiti defaulting on their loans that resulted in the US occupation of Haiti (1915-1934 -wiki source so read with care). During this occupation, the US seized their treasury, exiled their president, and instituted American Jim Crow policies to separate the society. Under US occupation, foreigners could own land in Haiti (versus Haiti's previous constitution that offered refuge and land to any escaped slave of any color only after they were made citizens and certified as 'black' regardless of color), the introduction of US enterprise resulted in the felling of old growth Mahogany and Caribbean Pine for doors, boats, etc. The deforested land was used to produce goods such as rubber and sisal for ropes. In fact, thousands of hectares of additional land was razed for agribusiness by the Haitian government in compliance with the US.

Maxwell quotes author, Marguerite Laurent as writing "Don't expect to learn how a people with a Vodun culture that reveres nature and especially the Mapou (oak-like or ceiba pendantra/bombax) trees, and other such big trees as the abode of living entities and therefore as sacred things, were forced to watch the Catholic Church, during Rejete - the violent anti-Vodun crusade - gather whole communities at gunpoint into public squares, and forced them to watch their agents burn Haitian trees in order to teach Haitians their Vodun Gods were not in nature, that the trees were the 'houses of Satan'."

The third and final article I will include in this post is by Sir Hilary Beckles. In his piece he fills in some blank spaces in the story thus far:

1. At the declaration of independence in the US, slavery had yet to be abolished...clearly if the US wasn't planning to free its slaves, having Haiti a free and independent state of black slaves was not necessarily the most ideal situation.
2. Reparations - the French refused to recognize the Haitian's hard won independence and instead declared them a pariah state. The US refused to recognize them, and the British who were negotiating with the French to obtain ownership of Haiti, also stood in solidarity with the French. To quote Sir Beckles, "Haiti was isolated at birth - ostracized and denied access to world trade, finance, and institutional development...Then came 1825...The economy is bankrupt; the political leadership is isolated. The cabinet took the decision that the state of affairs could not continue." This once flourishing French colony "had to find a way to be inserted back into the world economy. The French government was invited to a summit. Officials...told the Haitian government that they were willing to recognize the country as a sovereign nation but it would have to pay compensation and reparation in exchange." A value was placed on all lands, physical assets, citizens, animals, properties, and services.

This began the systematic destruction of Haiti as the payment amounted to 70% of the country's foreign exchange earnings. The last payment to France was made in 1922. Defeated on the battlefield, France had won on the field of finance. In the years when coffee crops failed, or sugar yield was down, the Haitian government borrowed on the French money market at double the going interest rate in order to repay the French government a debt they should not have paid at all.

The earthquake in "many ways...has been less destructive than the hate. Human life was snuffed out by the quake, while the hate has been long and inhumane suffocation - a crime against humanity."

3. A final note - in 2001 at the UN Conference on Race in Durban, South Africa, strong representation was made to the French government to repay the 150 million francs now valued at US$21 billion. Makes a lot of sense to me.

I hate when people harp on the past and use it as an excuse for lack of progress. I have never actually gotten passionate about the request of other groups of slave descendants requests for reparations because I see that as black people, because of the struggles of our ancestors, we have opportunity to succeed and do exceedingly well. In fact, I take pride in doing well without any special consideration even if it requires working doubly hard. However, I'm sure you'll agree that there is a debt owed to the people of Haiti. Not for the brutality of slavery, the profits from it, being made less than human and objectified, the rape of our mothers and sisters, or the murder of a generation of people, language, culture, and civilization, BUT the audacity of expecting these same marginalized people who have fought for their freedom to pay reparations to the source of all that abuse. That in no way was or ever will be fair and won't ever sit well with me.

I believe in donating time and money continuously but in times like these, it is good to help those in urgent and immediate need.

Knowledge is key. It is the first step to advancement. How will we better our future if we do not know the lessons of our past? The first obligation we all have to our children, siblings, relatives, and other human beings is to share the information we gain. If we do not know the history of our peoples and the world around us, how can we progress? There are some questions we never think to ask, and things we will possibly never encounter unless someone shares their experience and/or their knowledge. Even the smallest bit. Perhaps it will light a spark and encourage further inquiry. That alone is a gift.

Disclaimer: this post is blend of my opinion and the articles I have read. I have borrowed liberally but I have shared my sources. Read and come to your own conclusions. It is not for you to agree with me, BUT for you to seek!

"Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it"
George Santayana