Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Haiti’s Problems Have Ties To Outside Intervention

Bois Caiman is site of the voodoo ceremony presided over by Dutty Boukman on August 14 1791 (1). It is widely accepted as the starting point for the Haitian Revolution. Some scholars, however, have deemphasized the role of the Bois Caiman ceremony in sparking the Haitian revolution or have even gone so far as to question whether the event even took place (2). Whatever the ultimate disposition of these claims, no one can deny that the historical memory Bois Caiman has political and spiritual resonance for many Haitians to the present day.

Dutty Boukman was the papaloa, or vodoun priest, who conducted the ceremony at the Bois Caiman in late August, 1791, usually understood to have been the opening of Haitian Revolution. Boukman prophecied that Jean François, Biassou, and Jeannot would be leaders of the slave revolt that would free the slaves of Haiti. Boukman is thought to have been of Jamaican birth.

Soon after the revolt began Boukman was apprehended by the French authorities and beheaded. The French publically displayed Boukman's head in a move caluculated to dispell his aura of invincibility that Boukman had cultivated (in keeping with the tradition of earlier Haitian rebels). While the rebellion was temporarily quelled in northern Haiti it continued in other parts of Haiti and soon became unmanageable.
© 2010

Haiti’s Problems Have Ties To Outside Intervention

Many of the recent reports about Haiti have observed that it is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, without referring to the actions of other nations that contributed to that situation.

Haiti as a republic had its beginning when Toussaint L’Ouverture led a rebellion to free his people from French slavery. Napoleon’s forces were defeated and Haiti declared its independence in 1804. France demanded reparations of 150 million francs (about 21 billion dollars) to recognize Haiti as a free nation and to compensate for its losses of land and slaves. That arrangement led one writer to say, “For Haitians, the freedom they had won with their blood had also to be paid in cash.” France granted conditional recognition as did some other European powers such as Great Britain, but the U.S. refused to follow suit. The reparations debt was not paid in full until 1947.

Thomas Jefferson referred to L’Ouverture’s army as “cannibals” and feared the Haitian success would stimulate slave uprisings. Since Haiti had been exporting cotton, coffee, hides, sugar and molasses to the U.S., Jefferson urged Congress to discontinue trade with Haiti, following the lead of France and Spain. Robert V. Hayne, a South Carolina senator, said of Haiti, “We can never acknowledge her independence.”

In 1915, following the killing of the Haitian president, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson sent the U.S. Marines to occupy Haiti because it occupied a strategic place in the region. Wilson wrote in 1920 to his secretary of state that the U.S. would not tolerate any revolutionary efforts and added: “We consider it our duty to insist upon constitutional government there and will, if necessary (that it, if they force us to it as the only way) take charge of elections and see that a real government is erected which we can support.”

The occupying troops put down dissenters. The Nation magazine wrote in 1920, “Haitian men, women, and children, to a number estimated at 3,000, innocent for the most part of any offense, have been shot down by American machine guns and rifle bullets.…”

During its occupation, the U.S. disbanded the Haitian military, managed elections, collected taxes, and was in charge of customs and many other governmental offices. The Haitian constitution was rescinded and a new one written by Franklin D. Roosevelt, assistant secretary of the Navy, who later became U. S. president. As president, in 1934, Roosevelt withdrew the Marines because of public protests and the U.S. installed its handpicked president. Among protestors was the NAACP’s James Weldon Johnson.

The U.S. continued to keep its hand in internal Haitian affairs, trying to ensure a president it considered friendly would be in office. Some leaders who were friendly with the U.S. were considered as despots by the masses of Haitians whose labor was exploited. Among the most brutal of the leaders the U.S. supported were Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son and successor Jean-Claude Duvalier. The Duvaliers were backed with U.S. military and economic aid in part because they opposed communism, a huge bonus during the Cold War. The Duvaliers ruled from 1957 to 1986 and maintained power with the notorious Tonton Macoutes, who murdered opposition leaders.

During a political crisis in 2002, the U.S. helped block international loans to Haiti that were scheduled for building infrastructure. The U.S. demanded that the military government step aside, which it did, then U.S troops were sent in followed by U.N. forces. In 2004, a coup backed by the U.S. forced President Jean-Claude Aristide from office.

Haiti today is deeply indebted to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, both largely controlled by U.S. interests, According to Haitian officials in 2003, most of the debt was incurred under the Duvaliers.

Throughout its existence Haiti has been under the thumb of other nations – through indebtedness, occupation and from forced foreign policy decisions. These have hampered the development of its economy. Foreign corporations have paid Haitian workers low wages to increase profits on the goods they make.

It is commendable that some nations, in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake, are writing off Haiti’s debts or considering them as grants.

(George E. Hardin worked as a photographer, reporter and editor, and in public relations during a long career before he retired. His column appears every other week.)

*W.E. A.L.L. B.E. Radio*On Haiti, King, Obama, Race, Religion & Other Matters: A Conversation With The Honorable Rev. C.T. Vivian

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Of historical interest -- You can see a clip of Toussaint's last moments in prison from the award-winning new short film "The Last Days of Toussaint L'Ouverture" at This film is the basis for a new feature (not with Danny Glover) that is in development.