The United States owes Haiti a big debt

Yesterday the Obama administration announced $100 million in financial aid for earthquake stricken Haiti. At the same time, the U.S. government announced a temporary suspension in the deportation of Haitian immigrants. Both of these things are positive steps. But much more is needed, and in fact, owed to Haiti and its people, by the United States, by France and by the wealthy industrialized countries in general.  (Click here for suggestions of where to donate, and here.)

Since Haiti got its independence, through hard and bloody struggle, at the end of the 18th century (the second country in the Western hemisphere to do so), it has been subjected to 200 years of abuse amounting to national martyrdom. But the average person in the United States has not been made aware of this. In fact, during such epic struggles as the civil rights movement in the United States and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, racist reactionaries were always bringing up the subject of Haiti to prove that black people are inherently unfit for self government.

But when one actually examines Haiti’s history, one is amazed that the country has survived at all, and highly impressed by the resilience and courage of the Haitian people.

In 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of The French, sent a huge army commanded by his brother in law to recapture what had been France’s richest colony and return its people to slavery. Two year’s later, Napoleon’s troops ended up fleeing with their tails between their legs, but in 1825, a French fleet showed up demanding that Haiti pay France the equivalent of $22 billion for the loss of the colony. Of course, there was no mention of compensation to the Haitian people for all those years of slavery.

The ruling class in the United States, via pre-Civil War governments, was terrified that if Haiti prospered, their own Black slaves would also take it into their heads to rebel. So the United States backed France in this outrageous demand. Feeling it had no choice, the Haitian government of President Boyer knuckled under to the French demand, which included a requirement to borrow the money to pay France from French banks, at extortionate interest rates.

All plans for improving the lot of ordinary Haitians were abandoned, and the French debt was finally paid of on the backs of the Haitian peasantry – in 1947!

Even after Abraham Lincoln recognized Haitian independence in 1862, the U.S. showed a growing propensity for interfering in Haitian internal affairs. To give just a few examples: In December 1902, the U.S. Navy intervened to support an attempt by Haitian army general Pierre Nord Alexis to take over the government in a coup. Alexis proceeded to rule as a corrupt dictator until he was overthrown in 1908. 

In 1915, the brutal U.S. supported dictator, Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, was overthrown and killed after ordering the execution of 163 prominent political prisoners. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who feared German commercial influence in Haiti, but also that the Haitians might choose a president less friendly to their Uncle Sam, sent in the U.S. Marines, who basically ran Haiti until Franklin Roosevelt withdrew them in 1934, after 19 years of racist misrule and peasant rebellions.

But the nightmare was not over. In 1941, the U.S. and the dictator of the neighboring Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo, threw their support to President Elie Lescot, who established his own corrupt dictatorship until driven out in 1946. (In 1937, Trujillo, another gruesome U.S. ally, carried out a massacre of from 20,000 to 30,000 Haitian immigrants).

Haiti had not hit bottom. This came with the dictatorship of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who took power in 1957 and quickly became the most brutal dictator of them all. However bizarre and outrageous Papa Doc’s methods of rule, the United States saw him as a valiant foe of communism, and lavished money on his regime – most of which was stolen by Duvalier and his relatives. The Duvalier dictatorship, which was continued by Duvalier’s son “Baby Doc” until 1986, murdered tens of thousands of leftists and other opponents, and picked Haiti clean. It also ran up huge international debts for purposes alien to the interests of the Haitian people.

After much struggle, Haiti held elections in 1991 and chose as president the radical Catholic priest, Jean Bertrand Aristide. Aristide was soon overthrown by the leftovers of Duvalier’s military and death squads. The Clinton administration intervened to return Aristide to power in 1994 but with a catch: Aristide had to accept the whole “Washington Consensus” package of neo-liberal economic policies, and leave office in 1996 at the end of his term which began in 1991, not taking into consideration the years in which the military had displaced him.

Nevertheless, Aristide’s government initiated some progressive policies, including disbanding the army and promoting improvements of education. But the neo-liberal program had the result of driving vast numbers of Haitian farmers off the land and into the slums of Port au Prince and other cities, because they could not compete with taxpayer subsidized U.S. food imports. This created a cheap labor force for offshore “maquiladora” industry, but did nothing to cure Haiti’s historic poverty. (Last year, some, but not all, of Haiti’s debts were cancelled).

Aristide was elected again in 2002 and, among other things, initiated a campaign to force France to pay back all the billions of dollars that it had extorted from Haiti since 1825. But he was overthrown in 2004, with the connivance of the French and U.S. governments and sent into exile in South Africa, where he now resides.

Given this history, it is clear why Haiti remains the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. But our understanding of the historical, economic and political reasons for Haitian poverty is covered up by a nonstop ideological campaign which seeks to blame the Haitians for their own poverty. We are treated to lurid tales of Papa Doc Duvalier ruling through Voodoo without being told that he was being heavily financed by the Eisenhower administration and its successors, and that today Haiti’s poverty is more the result of voodoo economics than of actual Voodoo (Voudon).

Many readers will recall the anti-Haiti campaign in the 1980s when the Haitian people were portrayed as poisonous carriers of AIDS to be kept out of the United States, come what might.

This history should be all that is needed to explain why Haiti was in such bad shape even before the earthquake. In fact, the destruction and suffering caused by the earthquake was made much worse by the poverty of the country-the substandard housing, the lack of emergency services, the denuded hillsides (denuded by people cutting down trees for firewood because they can’t even afford kerosene) which gave way, tumbling slum dwellers to their deaths.

There are thousands of Haitian immigrants and Haitian Americans in the United States, and the remittances they send back to their families and communities in Haiti are the country’s major source of foreign exchange money. But the United States gives out very few permanent legal resident visas to poor Haitians, and rounds up and deports thousands of Haitian immigrants every year, either for being undocumented, or for minor brushes with the law.

So what should the United States do for Haiti? First, it should stop deporting Haitians immediately, and give them the same Temporary Protected Status (TPS) enjoyed by several other nationalities. The difference between the Obama administration’s announcement of a suspension of deportation and actual TPS is that the latter has a fixed time period and permits the person to work in this country. The latter is vitally important right now to allow Haitians living in the United States to send as much money as they can back to their homeland, to help the reconstruction effort. This step, which has been demanded by SEIU, America’s Voice and many other labor, community, political and religious figures and organizations, would be a fitting first step in the campaign to pass a comprehensive immigration reform package in Congress.

Secondly, the lesson of Haiti should teach us that the “Washington Consensus” of neo-liberal policies such as “free” trade, privatization of public functions, budget austerity and repression do not bring prosperity but only misery to people in developing countries. If Haiti eventually “moves left” and decides to throw in its lot with the ALBA group of countries in Latin America, led by Cuba and Venezuela, the United States should not oppose this or try to disrupt it. After all, Venezuela and much of the rest of South America owe their freedom in part to revolutionary Haiti, which supported Simon Bolivar’s struggle with the sole condition that he abolish slavery in the lands he liberated. (He did.) 

And it should be clear that however much money the U.S. sends to Haiti in earthquake aid, Haiti owes the U.S. exactly nothing.

Photo: A man surveys hundreds of bodies of earthquake victims at the make-shift morgue in Port-au-Prince, Jan. 14. The magnitude of the disaster is overwhelming. Grogory Bull/AP



Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.