Haiti: A history of struggle and exploitation

``Old Toussaint L'Overture'' by Larry Richardson.

By Amanda Zivcic

January 23, 2010 -- Since the earthquake struck Haiti on January 12, 2010, there has been a global outpouring of support. Many people, horrified by the scenes of sheer devastation, the astronomical death toll and the struggle of survivors to gain access to medicines, food and shelter, are left wondering: why so many?

The oft-repeated tag of Haiti being “the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere” is true but this did not just happen. It is the result of a history of colonialism, slavery, imperialism, foreign military intervention, foreign-imposed dictatorships and unjust debt.

The Caribbean nation’s indigenous people were all but wiped out by 1520 due to the disease and exploitation that came with the arrival of the Spaniards in 1492. After France and Spain divided the island of Hispaniola into Haiti and the Dominican Republic, French and Spanish settlers arrived.

The colonisers brought enslaved Africans with them to establish tobacco, sugar and coffee plantations. The slave plantations began Haiti’s environmental destruction, the destabilisation of its soils, helping make natural disasters, such as landslides, much more destructive.

After a successful slave revolt, Haiti became the world’s first post-colonial black state.

Toussaint L’Overture

In 1791, the heavily African-majority northern plains of Haiti were home to the beginning of the slave revolution. Led by former slave Toussaint L’Overture, the Haitians defeated the French slave owners.

Appealing to the ideology and principles of the French Revolution, the Haitians secured the abolition of slavery throughout French territories in 1794. It was in the name of the revolutionary French Republic that the Haitians defeated armies from Spain and Britain. The British lost more troops against the former slaves in Haiti than in any other campaign during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.

But by 1801 France, was under Napoleon Bonaparte’s military dictatorship. In December, Bonaparte sent a force of 20,000 elite troops to invade Haiti and re-establish slavery.

Although Toussaint was captured by treachery, the Haitian ex-slaves, now led by Jean-Jacques Dessalines, defeated the invaders and declared independence in 1804.

The repercussions of this were immense. The abolition of the Atlantic slave trade three years later and the end of slavery in the Caribbean (except Cuba) within 30 years was a direct result. As the first independent state in Latin America, it served as a launching pad for the revolutionary struggles in the early 19th century that liberated much of South America from Spanish rule.

For the European colonial powers and the US (where slavery remained until the 1860s), an independent state of self-liberated slaves was an abomination. An international embargo was imposed. This was lifted in 1825 in return for a Haitian commitment to compensate France for loss of their property — the Haitian slaves. This was the beginning of Haiti’s crippling debt.

US domination

In 1915, the US invaded and occupied Haiti, transferring the gold reserves of the Haitian National Bank to US-owned Citibank. Haiti’s constitution was changed to allow for US ownership of land. This fuelled the creation of large, lucrative plantations, in the process driving peasant farmers from their land into urban slum areas — where 90% unemployment remains.

This was a military-driven economic and political takeover, hugely profitable for US capitalists. Haitians resisted the de facto US take over. But they were brutally repressed, with the death toll somewhere in the tens of thousands. The US trained the hated and repressive Haitian National Army to control the population after US troops withdrew in 1934.

From the late 1950s, the US backed the psychotic dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and, after his death in 1971, his son, Jean-Francois “Baby Doc” Duvalier.

Papa Doc created the infamous terror squads known as the Tonton Macoutes. His son established 11 cent per hour, US-owned sweatshops in the slum areas. During the Duvaliers’ reign, it is estimated that more than 50,000 people were killed by the Tontons.

Baby Doc was overthrown by an uprising in 1986.

Jean Bertrand Aristide

Following a string of military regimes, anti-Duvalier movement leader and pro-poor priest, Jean Bertrand Aristide, was elected president in 1991. Hugely popular among Haiti’s poor, Aristide and his Lavalas party had a commitment to mass education, health care, and development of local agriculture. He lasted nine months before a US-orchestrated coup removed him.

Outraged Haitians rebelled, demanding his return. Thousands were killed in areas, such as Port-au-Prince’s Cite Soleil where Lavalas had popular support.

In 1994, Aristide was restored as president with US assistance. During his exile, Aristide was given the choice of accepting US support, which was tied to accepting neoliberal IMF and World Bank “reforms”, or have Haiti face ongoing rule by the murderous coup regime.

Despite the conditions imposed by the IMF and World Bank, ongoing social reform still took place under Lavalas, particularly after Aristide’s landslide re-election in 2000. These reforms included disbanding the hated Haitian army, building more schools than in the entire of Haiti’s prior history, encouraging local farming, providing health care, and fostering grassroots organisations.

This led to a second US-backed coup against Aristide.

Kidnapped from his bed by the US military, on February 29, 2004, he was flown to the Central African Republic as a new regime was installed. US marines and Haitian death squads unleashed a new reign of terror against the people. In June, they were replaced by a force of 7000 UN troops, mainly Brazilian, who have also been cited for human rights violations.

In 2005, a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) statement “called publicly on all armed groups to respect the safety of civilians and allow the wounded to obtain emergency care”. “Ironically, the following day, the UN Stabilisation Mission in Haiti launched a day-long military operation in the Cite Soleil slum, and the trauma centre received 27 gunshot victims — three-quarters of whom were women and children.”

After the earthquake, Haiti certainly needs our solidarity, support and funding. But we also need to remember how and why it is so poor and stand in solidarity with Haitian movements calling for an end to its debt, for a real democracy based on self-determination and sovereignty free from foreign occupation, for and endogenous (internal) development rather than aid.

[This article first appeared in Green Left Weekly, issue #823, January 27, 2010.]