The suffering of Haiti’s people today is rooted in slavery and imperialism. The Times newspaper has described Haiti as “the unluckiest country” while the racist US evangelical Pat Robertson said that Haitians had “swore a pact to the devil” when they rose up against slavery in the 1790s.
But it is imperialism, not the resistance to it, which has been the problem.
A 17th century treaty, agreed by the European powers, gave the French government the colony of Saint-Domingue (today’s Haiti). This was the western third of a territory that had been grabbed earlier by the Spanish ruling class – the island of Hispaniola.
By the 1780s Saint-Domingue was the most profitable colony in the world, producing sugar, coffee, cotton and tobacco.
Exports from Saint-Domingue made up two thirds of the gross national product of France. It was a larger source of income for its colonial masters than Britain’s 13 North American colonies combined. Saint-Domingue became the world’s single largest producer of coffee and the source for around 75 percent of its sugar. Hundreds of thousands of slaves were hurled into this hell. Death rates were so high that at its worst the colony brought in around 40,000 new slaves a year. On 14 August 1791, the slaves rose up in a great rebellion. They took inspiration from the 1789 French Revolution combined with their own ideas of freedom and justice.
Led by Toussaint L’Ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the uprising defeated the slave owners, beat back the French, British and Spanish armies and undermined the whole slave system. The British ruling class had hoped to shift the situation to their advantage and take over Saint Domingue. Their defeat was one of the greatest military disasters in British history, with the British losing 50,000 troops.
Haiti became the world’s first black republic in 1804. But the great powers were determined to punish the country for having the audacity to resist. They feared otherwise that Haiti would become a beacon of struggle, encouraging other slaves and colonies to furious resistance.
The European powers that had devastated Haiti during the wars that followed the slave rebellion now tightened the screw economically. Eventually France agreed that trade could be resumed – but only if its government agreed to pay compensation to the slave owners of 150 million francs (equivalent of about $35 billion today).
Haiti, which should have received recompense for the foul crime of slavery, had to pay its masters! And although the sum was later cut to “only” 90 million francs, Haiti continued to pay until 1947. These payments, along with investment in building up defences through fear of being attacked again, diverted money from the things ordinary people needed. It meant crippling poverty for people in Haiti.
A series of dictatorships ran the country throughout the 19th century. Interference from outside powers intensified as the US increased its dominance in the region.
In order to meet its “debts” to France, the Haitian government had borrowed heavily from US banks. The US invaded Haiti in 1915 and troops occupied it until 1934 in order to police the debt repayments and protect US companies. It left behind a Haitian army which was determined to retain control by an elite, frustrate any movements for change from Haiti’s people and to support US-backed brutal dictatorships. In 1957, with army backing, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier became president. He formed a murderous militia, the Tonton Macoutes, that was used to terrorise and slaughter opponents.
Prior to his election, Duvalier used radical rhetoric to win support among Haitian workers. In power, he worked with the head of the army to round up anyone who supported any of his political rivals and carefully destroyed all potential opposition.
In 1959 US Marines intervened to keep Duvalier in power and in 1961 he won one of the most fraudulent elections ever held. The official tally to have his term of office extended to 1967 was 1,320,748 votes to zero.
In 1971, just before his death, “Papa Doc” handed over to his son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. But the brutality of the regimes, combined with the imposition of neoliberal economic policies, led to growing problems for Duvalier.
Outside interference didn’t only take the form of direct intervention in Haiti’s government. It was also economic. The US in particular pursued a strategy of forcing Haiti to open its economy – with devastating effects.
In 1986 a massive uprising overthrew “Baby Doc”. The revolt began in 1985, when demonstrations and raids on food distribution warehouses swept through the city of Gonaives. By the end of January 1986 protests and riots had spread to several other cities – and the US began to see him as a liability who had to be removed. He left the country in February. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) granted loans to Haiti on the condition that it agreed to structural adjustment programmes.
One agreement instructed Haiti to scrap a law mandating increases in the minimum wage when inflation exceeded 10 percent, further impoverishing Haitian workers.
The agreements prohibited subsidies to Haitian farmers – which would be “intervening” in the free market – while forcing Haiti to open its economy to highly-subsidised US imports. Haitians became dependent on the global food market. Before 1950 Haiti produced more than 80 percent of its own food and also exported food. Today it imports 75 percent of its food.
The horrific consequences of this were seen in 2007 and 2008, when the global price of rice soared and ordinary Haitians found themselves priced out of eating. Riots over food price rises forced out the prime minister, Jacques Edouard Alexis, in April 2008.
The US did very well out of the policies. Between 1986 and 1989 the value of US agricultural exports to Haiti more than doubled from $44 million to $95 million. Meanwhile the poorest in Haiti were driven from the land into miserable urban slums.
Growing hunger in the countryside sparked a wave of emigration to the cities. The population in the capital Port-au-Prince grew from 250,000 to nearly a million in 20 years. More emigrated abroad.
US president Barack Obama has sent troops into Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake. This “aid” has been sold as a measure to help ordinary people. But the history of US involvement in the country tells a different story.
Troops have gone into Haiti under the cover of humanitarianism time and time again – the outcome has been disastrous for ordinary Haitians. Just as in many other countries – such as Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan – Western intervention has not solved the poverty and instability that blights the lives of ordinary people. It has entrenched it.
The imperial powers have no benevolent interest in aiding the Haitian people. Their only thought is to continue their control of regions and resources.
Further reading and resources
- The Black Jacobins by CLR James
- The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery by Robin Blackburn
- Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment by Peter Hallward
- London Review of Books Peter Hallward interview with Aristide » www.lrb.co.uk/v29/n04/peter-hallward/ an-interview-with-jean-bertrand-aristide
- Chris Harman on Haiti » www.marxists.org/archive/harman/ 1986/03/haiti.html
- Recording of Yunus Bakhsh talk on Toussaint L'Ouverture » www.radio-rouge.org/Users/ resistancemp3/2007e/ toussaint-louverture-yunus-bakhsh.mp3
- Toussaint L’ouverture: The Haitian Slave Revolt of 1791, a talk by Paul Foot is available on CD from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848.