by Leslie Alexander
January 12, 2011 marks the grim one-year anniversary of the Haitian earthquake. In the past year, as Haitians have tried to rebuild from that disaster, they have suffered a cholera epidemic and flooding from Hurricane Tomas. Thousands remain homeless, buildings in ruins, and violence widespread. The political process offers little hope for relief. Haiti's recent, much-watched Presidential elections, like so many in its past, have been marred with accusations of fraud and corruption. Haiti is now arguably the most desperate nation in the Western hemisphere and among the most desperate places anywhere in the world. This month, historian Leslie Alexander puts Haiti's recent crises in a longer perspective and reminds us that historically the United States has often hindered, rather than helped, Haiti deal with its many challenges.
For more on Haiti, read this 1994 Origins article.
One year ago, on January 12, 2010, a devastating earthquake struck the island nation of Haiti. The following day, as tens of thousands of the dead and dying lay beneath the rubble and remains of their homes and communities, American televangelist Pat Robertson stated that the earthquake occurred because Haiti and its people are cursed. The curse, he claimed, was the result of a “pact” that the Haitian people made with the Devil centuries ago to gain their freedom from the French.
At the same time, other news outlets were reporting on the extreme poverty in Haiti. The mantra that “Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere” was repeated incessantly, by nearly every media source, until it started to sound both like a chant and an accusation, rather than a statement of fact.
And then, just two weeks after the earthquake, a blog posting appeared, in which the author proudly declared that he had not (and would not) donate a single penny to Haitian relief because, as he put it, why should he give money to people “who got themselves in such a predicament in the first place?”
He further argued that the lack of economic resources and infrastructure—and the failure of the Haitian government to adequately respond—were an indication of the fact that Haitian people could not be trusted to take good care of themselves. So why, he wondered, should he give such people any of his money?
The blog took the internet by storm; it was splashed across the news, and the blogger, Paul Shirley, a former NBA basketball player and ESPN commentator, was later fired by ESPN for his comments.
However inaccurate or inhumane, each of these comments—Pat Robertson’s veiled reference to the Haitian revolution, the mantra about Haiti’s poverty, and the blogger’s frustration with Haiti’s internal problems—represent the most powerful and widespread beliefs about Haiti.
News reports unquestioningly accept and perpetuate the notion that Haiti is a country composed of poverty-stricken, uneducated people, under the control of incompetent leaders. And others, including the New York Times, promote the image of Haiti and its people as somehow pathologically corrupt, doomed, and “cursed” due, at least in part, to their cultural and religious practices, especially the religion of Vodun (often mistakenly referred to as “voodoo”).
New York Times columnist David Brooks argued that Haiti’s poverty can largely be explained by voodoo’s influence, which he described as a “progress-resistant cultural influence.” Likewise, Wall Street Journal contributor Lawrence Harrison issued an even more devastating critique of voodoo, in which he maintained that Vodun is a religion “without ethical content” that has undermined Haiti’s social, cultural and economic viability.
The problem with global news reporting on Haiti, however, is that none of these problems and challenges has been put into any real or accurate historical perspective. Our understanding of how and why Haiti is in such dire straits remains extremely limited and marred by profound misunderstandings.
As New York Times op-ed contributor Mark Danner explained, “there is nothing mystical in Haiti’s pain, no inescapable curse that haunts the land. From independence and before, Haiti’s harms have been caused by men, not demons.”
One can point to a long list of human harm to Haiti. But to understand Haiti’s so-often tragic political and economic journey it is particularly crucial to highlight two historical processes: the crippling diplomatic and economic legacy of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) and also the importance of Haiti’s relationship with the United States, which swung from overt opposition for much of the nineteenth century to imperialist intervention through much of the twentieth.
From Colony to Republic: The Haitian Revolution
Arguably the most important issue in Haiti’s past and present is the epic tale of how it came to be an independent republic.
Haiti (formerly Saint Domingue) was a French colony that played a crucial role in trade between Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas during the eighteenth century. Although Saint Domingue was relatively small (approximately the size of Maryland), it was the wealthiest colony in the Caribbean.
By 1789, the colony had attained a height of prosperity not surpassed in the history of European colonies. It contained 8,000 plantations and provided France with 40% of its profit from trade on an annual basis. More importantly, it produced a staggering amount of cash crops: more than one-half of the sugar and coffee consumed in Europe and the Americas, as well as significant amounts of cotton and indigo, were exported from Saint Domingue in the 18th century.
Race relations were unusually complex in Saint Domingue. The enslaved population was the largest in the Caribbean, about 500,000, which was nearly twice that of Jamaica, the Caribbean colony with the second largest number of slaves.
Since the European settlers only numbered about 40,000, the French colonists established a three-tiered racial hierarchy, in which a small class of free people of color, known as gens de couleur, occupied a middle position between the enslaved Africans and the European planter class.
The goal, of course, was to create a social and political “buffer” between the slaves and the settlers. Until the 1780s, this strategy was quite successful. There was little, if any, violent resistance in Saint Domingue, and the French reaped unimaginable profits from their Caribbean colony.
Given these circumstances, it is natural to wonder how the Revolution in Haiti began. Political conflict emerged when the gens de couleur, the free Black population, began to pressure the colonial government for equal rights.
In the midst of this political power struggle, a revolt erupted in August of 1791 under the leadership of a slave named Boukman, a reputedly influential man who used the religion of Vodun to inspire followers.
Vodun is essentially a blending of African spiritual beliefs with Catholicism. Significantly, it was this use of African spirituality that prompted Pat Robertson to describe the Haitian Revolution as “a pact with the Devil,” since the Haitian Revolution began immediately after one of Boukman’s spiritual ceremonies.
Enslaved Africans, armed with machetes, began beating drums, chanting, and marching from plantation to plantation, killing, looting, and burning the cane fields. Beginning with 12,000 followers, Boukman’s revolt quickly blossomed into the largest, bloodiest slave uprising in history. By the end of September, over a thousand plantations had been burned, and hundreds of Whites had been killed. The gens de couleur soon joined the rebels, and violence continued to spread.
After months of fighting and bloodshed, it became clear that the revolt had become impossible to control. In December of 1791, fresh troops sent from France clashed with insurgents, then led by François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture who had successfully created an organized army of over 20,000. In 1793, Louverture gained control of the government and declared an end to slavery.
But the country was not yet free. Over the next several years, both the French and Spanish attempted to re-impose European control and ensure the system of slavery would continue.
In one of these conflicts, in 1802, the French captured Louverture who died in 1803 while in French custody. Naturally, the French hoped that by capturing Toussaint, they would “chop the head off the rebellion,” but that did not happen.
Members of the gens de couleur (who interestingly enough, had fought on the side of the American rebels in the Revolutionary War) rose to power to replace Louverture. By 1803, the Black rebels successfully defeated the French, and their new leader, Jean Jacques Dessalines, either killed off or drove out all the remaining Europeans colonists.
In 1804, Haiti declared its independence and announced the formation of the first independent Black republic in the Western Hemisphere. After significant political turmoil in the wake of the revolution, Jean Pierre Boyer became the president of Haiti from 1818 to 1843 and Haiti settled into a brief period of political stability.
The Legacy of Revolution
The Haitian Revolution has been referred to as the “Vietnam of its day”—the story of an underfunded, militarily inexperienced group of insurgents who managed to defeat one of the world’s strongest powers. In essence, a band of former slaves defeated Napoleon’s army—the army that had inspired fear across Europe—and drove them out of Haiti.
The legacy of the Haitian Revolution has played a significant role in determining Haiti’s destiny ever since. Although the Haitian Revolution was celebrated in some quarters, the saga of a successful slave rebellion and the subsequent establishment of an independent Black republic caused outrage around the world and ultimately caused Haiti to become one of the most hated and persecuted countries in history.
Immediately after Haiti’s declaration of independence in 1804, the newly formed Black republic served as a beacon of hope to people of African descent around the world. From their perspective, Haiti represented the ultimate victory over slavery and the culmination of Black political autonomy.
During the revolution, enslaved people had thrown off their shackles and declared their right to self-determination. Once Haiti became a sovereign nation, it appeared to be a living manifestation of what Black people throughout the African Diaspora had hoped to achieve and was celebrated widely in abolitionist circles.
Clearly, however, this vision of Haiti was not universally—or even broadly —embraced. Although the Haitian revolution was inspiring to the opponents of slavery, it was not well-received by the major slaveholding nations—the United States, England, and (obviously) France—and sent shock waves around the world.
In slaveholding countries, the idea of an independent Black republic composed of former slaves was not only repugnant but threatening. After all, such a reality shook the very foundations that the fragile system of slavery was based upon.
If Haiti could have a successful slave rebellion, couldn’t the same thing happen elsewhere? Perhaps in their very midst? And, ultimately, it was the system of slavery that provided the political and economic foundation of their societies.
Even worse, as some leaders admitted, the reality of Haiti challenged the other central component of slavery—White supremacy. Political leaders around the world announced their feelings about this matter openly. As Napoleon explained in the midst of the war in Haiti, “My decision to destroy the authority of the Blacks in Saint Domingue (Haiti) is not so much based on considerations of commerce and money…as on the need to block forever the forward march of Blacks in the world.”
Other nations agreed, and imposed diplomatic and economic sanctions on the newly formed Republic. These embargoes froze Haiti out of the global economic market, and denied the burgeoning nation diplomatic participation in the international political scene.
The Birth of U.S. Foreign Policy Toward Haiti
The U.S. relationship with Haiti was antagonistic from the beginning.
In 1791, shortly after the outbreak of the Haitian revolution, George Washington’s administration contributed significant funds to assist French planters in their fight against the Black rebels, and from that time an unwillingness to accept the reality of a free Black nation marred the U.S. government’s policy toward Haiti.
There was a brief period, in which John Adams’s administration offered some support to Toussaint Louverture in hopes that Louverture would contain French military operations in the rest of the Atlantic World. However, once Haiti gained full independence, the U.S. government’s policy towards Haiti cooled significantly.
Thomas Jefferson, for example, believed that Haiti should be under French control, and openly encouraged Napoleon to re-conquer the island. After Haiti declared its independence in 1804, Jefferson was deeply troubled and suspended all diplomatic and commercial relations with the former colony.
Although the United States eventually re-opened trade relations and benefited from their commercial relationship, the government still refused to open diplomatic ties or formally acknowledge Haiti’s independence. The United States did not agree to recognize Haiti diplomatically until 1862—nearly 60 years after Haiti gained its independence.
Undoubtedly, Southern politicians’ and slaveholders’ desires drove U.S. policy toward Haiti. In the wake of various slave revolts in the United States, Southerners worried that recognizing Haiti would be a tacit endorsement of slave rebellion and therefore ferociously opposed the idea of establishing formal diplomatic relations with the Black republic.
In 1826, Southern antagonism towards Haiti erupted on the floors of Congress, when John Quincy Adams proposed that the United States should participate in a conference of independent American nations at which Haiti might also be represented. In response, Southern congressional leaders unleashed their fury in a tirade against the Haitian republic, spewing racist propaganda and insisting that Haitian independence must never be recognized.
Years later, during a speech in 1893, abolitionist Frederick Douglass aptly described the U.S. government’s response to the Haitian Revolution as a demonstration of Americans' discomfort with Black freedom and self-determination. “Haiti is black, and we have not yet forgiven Haiti for being black…After Haiti had shaken off the fetters of bondage, and long after her freedom and independence had been recognized by all other civilized nations, we continued to refuse to acknowledge the fact….and treated her as outside the sisterhood of nations.”
French Debt, Haitian “Freedom”
Until 1825, the U.S. government could easily justify their non-recognition policy on the grounds that its ally, the French government, was unwilling to recognize the independence of its former colony. From a purely diplomatic standpoint, it would have been a poor strategic decision for the United States to acknowledge Haiti if the French refused to do so.
That changed in 1825. In order to gain diplomatic recognition, and to gain entrance into the global trade arena, the Haitian government entered into a very costly agreement with France.
France agreed to recognize Haiti as a sovereign nation, but demanded that Haiti pay compensation and reparations in exchange. The Haitians, with their diplomatic and economic backs against the wall, agreed to pay the French.
The French government sent a team of accountants into Haiti in order to place a value on all lands and physical assets, including the 500,000 citizens who were formerly enslaved, and declared the value at 150 million gold francs, which in contemporary terms would equate to well over $20 billion.
Payments began immediately. And although Haiti was finally able to officially “buy” its economic freedom and diplomatic recognition, the debt of 150 million francs was a massive burden from which Haitians have never been able to fully recover.
Although the official debt was later reduced, France forced Haiti to pay an annual fee for its national sovereignty for nearly 100 hundred years—from 1825 to 1922. For almost a century, then, Haiti endured French-imposed penury.
By 1915, Haiti still “owed” France $121 million francs, and much of their resources went to paying off its debt. For instance, 51% of Haiti’s revenues from coffee went to service the exterior debt, 47% went to pay internal debts associated with building the nation’s infrastructure, with only 2% available for all other expenses.
This reality of suffocating debt, then, more than any other factor, explains how and why Haiti eventually became known as the “poorest country in the Western hemisphere.”
And paying the French did not always help Haiti diplomatically with other countries. The United States, for example, continued its policy of non-acceptance of the fledgling republic despite French recognition of Haiti.
Due in part to its diplomatic isolation, debt, and economic struggles, Haiti entered into a troublesome era. Beginning in 1843, there were a series of military coups in Haiti. President Boyer was driven into exile, and over the next several years there were numerous short-lived presidencies culminating in the election of Faustin Élie Soulouque in 1847. Late in 1849, he was named Emperor Faustin I, and was officially crowned in 1852.
The shift from president to emperor was not simply a change in name. The decision to embrace the title of emperor was a reflection of the fact that the Haitian government was moving away from its democratic republican values towards the vision of an empire. Faustin I emphasized class hierarchy, created a secret police and a personal army to destroy his opponents, and the government became more imperialistic in its foreign relations.
Fortunately, by the turn of the decade, American abolitionists and the Haitian government finally had reasons to celebrate. First, in January of 1859, Emperor Faustin I was deposed by a military coup d’état, and his opponent, Fabre Geffrard, re-established a republican government.
More importantly, the Civil War broke out in the United States in 1861, which not only gave activists hope for the end of American slavery, but also prompted the Union government to finally extend diplomatic recognition to Haiti. After lengthy debate in Congress, President Abraham Lincoln enacted the law recognizing Haiti and appointed the first Haitian commissioner in June of 1862.
Despite these successes, it soon became clear that racism and the legacy of slavery proved more difficult to destroy than Black activists and their White supporters might have hoped. And although the relationship between Haiti and the United States government changed markedly, it remained fraught and complex.
From Neglect to Exploitation
While the first 100 or so years of Haitian history was marred by political isolation and economic embargoes that devastated the nation’s attempts to establish and stabilize an independent republic, the next 100 years became, in many respects, the exact opposite. Rather than being ignored and excluded, Haiti became the subject of conquest, occupation, and control by western nations, particularly the United States.
Haiti’s political victory in 1862 proved to be hollow at best. Gaining diplomatic recognition from the United States, which had once seemed beneficial, exposed Haiti to the possibility of foreign intervention and eventually resulted in occupation and manipulation by foreign nations.
Between 1862 and 1915, Haiti experienced tremendous internal turmoil. Dozens of military coups, horrific violence, and political instability devastated the island nation. For some observers, this might serve as evidence that Haitians were unable to effectively govern themselves. The reality is more complex, however.
In many ways, the story of Haiti’s internal conflict is not unique. Political turmoil, violence, repression, and military coups have often followed revolutions in history. The American, French, and Russian Revolutions are just a few of the most obvious examples.
Even so, the extent and frequency of Haiti’s problems set it apart from other revolutionary legacies. So what makes Haiti different? It is not, as Haiti’s detractors might claim, a pathology among Haitians or evidence of a curse. It is, instead, a function of the social, political, and economic legacies of Haiti’s history as a former slave colony that gained its freedom against all odds.
In addition, as in many former colonies, the racial dynamics that Europeans imposed had a lasting impact. In the case of Haiti specifically, the three-tier racial hierarchy that had developed under French rule morphed into an antagonistic divide between former slaves and former members of the gens de couleur.
Between 1868 and 1915, severe racial discord caused significant violence in Haiti as each group sought to gain control over the government. These racial tensions were exacerbated by the political and economic devastation that the Haitian Revolution, decades of political and economic embargoes, and the national debt to France had wrought.
Vulnerable, and struggling to recover from decades of neglect, Haiti was soon targeted by many countries, including Germany and France, as a site for potential political and economic imperialism.
Germany, in particular, developed strong economic interests in Haiti, and the presence of German investors in Haiti directly affected Haitian politics. For instance, German forces put down a Haitian reform movement in 1892 that they feared would be injurious to their economic development plans.
Ultimately, however, Germany’s presence in Haiti had an even more profound impact on Haiti’s destiny. In 1914, following the outbreak of World War I, the U.S. government became increasingly concerned about Germany’s preoccupation with its Caribbean interests. Although the United States officially stayed neutral during much of the First World War, it remained determined to counteract Germany’s potential power in the Americas.
As a result, in 1914, following more political conflict among the Haitian leadership, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson sent American troops to invade Haiti and commenced what became a devastating and brutal military occupation. The United States occupied and ruled Haiti by force from 1915 to 1934, often using violence to suppress Haitians who opposed foreign occupation. In one skirmish, alone, the U.S. military killed over 2,000 Haitian protesters.
For nineteen years, the United States controlled customs in Haiti, collected taxes, and ran many governmental institutions, all of which benefited the United States. In 1922, for example, the United States extended Haiti a debt consolidation loan that was designed to pay off its remaining debt to France. But in many ways, Haiti simply exchanged one master for another. Although Haiti was finally free of its debt to France, it now had a new creditor—the U.S. government and the U.S. banks who made a small fortune off the loan arrangement.
Although the United States finally withdrew troops from Haiti in 1934, the U.S. government still maintained fiscal control over the country until 1947, when Haiti finally paid off its loan to the United States. In order to do so, however, Haiti was forced to deplete its gold reserves, leaving the country bereft. Perhaps more importantly, the removal of the U.S. military did not result in the removal of U.S. influence in Haiti.
The Duvalier Years
As the Cold War set in after World War II, the most devastating impact of U.S. interference in Haiti was the government’s ongoing support of the Duvalier regime, which ruled Haiti from 1957 to 1986. Fearful that Haiti would fall to communism, the U.S. government concluded that it would offer full support to the Duvalier government.
During that 30-year period, Haitians were forced to live under dictators "Papa Doc" and "Baby Doc" Duvalier, a father and son team, who openly murdered their opponents and stole millions of dollars from the Haitian people. Some members of the Haitian leadership have since claimed that the Duvaliers stole close to $1 billion. Even so, both Duvaliers enjoyed the backing of the United States because of their staunch “anti-communism” and the economic opportunities that Haiti offered American business.
The kleptocratic Duvalier regime began in 1956, when François "Papa Doc" Duvalier seized power in a military coup d’état. Within a decade, Papa Doc declared himself “president for life” and imposed a brutal dictatorship.
The U.S. government turned a blind eye to Duvalier’s violence, corruption, and human rights violations—even training Duvalier’s counterinsurgency force, the Leopards. These problems grew exponentially under Baby Doc’s leadership.
In 1971, Papa Doc Duvalier died, and his son Jean-Claude, “Baby Doc,” assumed power with the endorsement of the U.S. government. In fact, many American politicians and businessmen saw Baby Doc’s regime as an opportunity to exploit the island nation and turn it into “The Taiwan of the Caribbean.”
Given its proximity to the United States, American financial investors convinced the Haitian government to reduce its focus on agriculture and shift the economy towards manufacturing and export. As Haiti expert Paul Farmer explained, U.S. developers urged the Duvalier regime to embrace this economic strategy as the best path towards modernization and economic development.
The problem, however, was that Haiti’s economy suffered immeasurably from this plan. Agricultural production dropped precipitously and Haiti was forced into a dependent and vulnerable economic position in the global market.
In the meantime, Baby Doc’s terror continued. He formed death squads that murdered as many as 60,000 opponents of his regime, while stealing millions of dollars from the Haitian people and accumulating hundreds of millions of dollars in national debt. According to most estimates, Haiti owes $1.3 billion in external U.S. debt and 40% of that debt was created by the Duvaliers. Meanwhile, American investors have benefitted financially from the spiraling national debt.
Baby Doc was forced to flee Haiti in 1986, in the face of growing opposition from the Haitian people. Shortly thereafter, in 1990, Haiti held free, peaceful, democratic elections which resulted in Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s short-lived first presidency. [Read here for more on the history of Haiti after 1990]
From Aristide to Today
Since 1990, Haiti has continued to suffer extraordinary political conflict and violence. The last twenty years have only reinforced Haiti’s popular negative reputation, as a country marred by corruption, poverty, incompetence, and ignorance.
Even today, Haiti is plagued by protests over financial mismanagement, riots in response to the October cholera epidemic and the November flooding from Hurricane Tomas, and outrage over alleged election fraud.
As of the writing of this article, the Haitian Presidential elections remain contested. Election experts from the Organization of American States have just recently issued a report urging that the government-backed candidate, Jude Celestin, be dropped from the runoff elections because of fraudulent and improper ballots (which would put Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly in the runoff with current front runner Mirlande Manigat).
Whatever the outcome of this election, however, current understandings of Haiti are incomplete without the broader historical context. One cannot grasp the reasons behind Haiti’s plight unless one acknowledges Haiti’s painful journey—the first 100 years in which Haiti was punished, abused, and pushed aside from the global economy and political community, followed by the second 100 years in which Haiti has been occupied, controlled, manipulated, and exploited.
And, in the end, it is the combination of these factors—the extremes of either neglect or overt imperialism, and the unending weight of external debt—that have caused Haiti’s current predicament.
As we mark the first anniversary of the devastating earthquake that killed an estimated 300,000 Haitians, we need to acknowledge the full history of Haiti and the role that the American government played in creating Haiti’s plight. This will be particularly crucial for those who wish to see Haiti recover, blossom, and grow in the coming years.
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