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A history of oppression and revolt in Haiti

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As demonstrations again see a revolt in Haiti causing a crisis for the country’s rulers Gabby Thorpe looks at its turbulent history
Issue 2675
Protesters in Haiti last month
Protesters in Haiti last month (Pic: @plministries/Twitter)

Mass ­protests against Haiti’s US-backed president Jovenel Moise have rocked the Caribbean country in recent weeks. They are part of a long and bloody history of imperial plunder—and of ordinary people’s resistance to it.

Moise’s government is the latest iteration of a system of exploitation that has blighted people’s lives in Haiti—and its roots stretch back hundreds of years.

French colonists grabbed the western half of the island of Hispaniola from Spain in the 1620s.

Under their control Haiti—then known as Saint-Domingue—grew into one of the world’s most profitable and brutal slave colonies.

By 1780 Saint-Domingue’s slaves produced 60 percent of coffee and 40 percent of sugar imported into Europe. Alongside the plantation’s produce, vast wealth flowed back to France and financed the beginnings of capitalist industry.

This was all built on ­barbaric conditions.

The colonial regime saw around 40,000 white colonists ruling over more than 450,000 slaves.

From 1685 a racist “Negro Code” had been used to justify the oppression. One French governor summed up colonists’ attitude, saying, “I have reached the stage of believing firmly that one must treat the Negroes as one treats beasts.”

The colonists got a rude awakening when slaves rose up in the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804. The world’s most profitable slave colony made history as the world’s first black republic.

Paul Foot on Toussaint LOuverture and the great Haitian slave revolt
Paul Foot on Toussaint L’Ouverture and the great Haitian slave revolt
  Read More

Led by black revolutionaries Toussaint L’Ouverture and Jean Jacques Dessalines, the uprising ended slavery on the island and drove back invading French and British armies determined to restore colonial power.

Haiti defeated its enemies but its struggles were far from over. European powers feared slave revolts would spread to other colonies.

So they punished Haiti with trade sanctions until the new republic agreed to pay reparations to French slave owners for their loss of earnings.

Haiti was ordered to pay the equivalent of £12 million—which took until 1947 to pay off.

This injustice led to a ­crippling foreign debt and domination that still shapes the country today.

The island was forced to borrow from US banks—and the US invaded in 1915, in order to ensure that their money would be repaid.

They justified their occupation saying they wanted to restore order after Haitian ­dictator Vilbrun Guillaume Sam was assassinated. He was killed in response to the murder of some 167 political prisoners.

The US occupied Haiti until 1934, when the country was left under the military rule.

The Haitian army used its power to repress all resistance and gave support to US-backed dictatorships in the region.

A tiny minority grew spectacularly rich through their alliance with US imperialism, but the rest of society was kept down.

In 1957 the military helped Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier became dictator.

Before the election Duvalier used radical ideas to win over the new black middle classes, who wanted to see the country’s economy develop.

He claimed to support trade unions and working class demands.

Once in power Duvalier formed the Tonton Macoute, a militia that repressed and ­murdered his opposition.

Despite Duvalier’s initial rhetoric, life for Haitians ­continued to be bleak with more of the same old poverty and foreign plunder.

And declining soil fertility meant that Haitian peasants were running out of food fast.

In 1959 US marines invaded to keep Duvalier in power. Two years later Duvalier held on to power in an election that saw him win 1,320,748 votes to zero. It was one most ­fraudulent elections in history.

In April 1964, Duvalier’s power was so absolute that he proclaimed himself “president for life”.

He ruled until his death in 1971, when power was handed over to his son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier.

It seemed that Baby Doc would continue his father’s reign of terror unopposed. But growing economic ­problems in Haiti meant that his grip was far more tenuous.

Revolt in Haiti grows against shortages, corruption and US
Revolt in Haiti grows against shortages, corruption and US
  Read More

The infertility of Haitian countryside led to mass immigration to the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince.

The population of the city grew by some 550,000 over 20 years. In order to cope with the crisis, more US aid was required.

In return the US demanded control of how aid was used—and for Haiti to open up its economy more to foreign investment.

Baby Doc began losing allies in the ruling group and the middle class base that his father had cultivated.

The crisis opened up the ­possibility of revolt from below.

The forced move to the cities had also seen the working class grow.

In 1985 riots and demonstrations at food distribution centres spread across Haiti. The growing unrest led the US to back Baby Doc’s removal.


He was overthrown in February 1986. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) loaned more money to Haiti, ­stipulating that it must agree to “structural adjustment ­programmes” of austerity and free market reforms.

Reforms favoured US goods over the needs of Haitian ­farmers. This led to Haiti importing 75 percent of its food.

Before 1950, Haiti had grown 80 percent of its own produce.

Reliance on imported goods meant that food prices soared. And the poorest in society were forced to live in horrific ­conditions in urban slums.

In 1990 left winger Jean-Bertrand Astride was elected. He opposed the rule of the US and the IMF and the old military and elites that had benefited under the Duvaliers. But hopes of overcoming poverty were crushed when he was overthrown by a violent military coup in 1991.

When it looked like the military wouldn’t uphold US interests, Democrat president Bill Clinton ordered an invasion.

Meanwhile, Astride went into exile before returning to office in 2000, when he won the presidential elections in 2000 by a landslide.


And his social democratic party Fanmi Lavalas won 90 ­percent of the seats in parliament.

The ruling classes responded by launching another US-backed coup in 2004, and suspending all international aid to Haiti.

Astride was replaced by US stooge Gerard Latortue.

The United Nations was sent in to replace US troops, and make the coup more palatable. Its effects were still felt harshly by Haitians.

Even before the devastating ­earthquake that struck in 2010, hunger forced many to eat cakes made out of clay. And the World Health Organisation estimated that some 2.4 million Haitians couldn’t afford food.

Oxfam scandal—another Western crime against Haiti
Oxfam scandal—another Western crime against Haiti
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The amount of money being sent to people by relations living abroad was greater than the gross domestic product of the whole country. But even this additional income was not enough to provide the means necessary for survival.

The earthquake made the ­situation significantly worse. The US invaded again. And Haiti’s debt to the IMF meant that any aid given in the ­aftermath was unable to undo the damage.

The economic devastation wrought by the earthquake cleared the way for Jovenel Moise to come to power. He gained support by promising education and healthcare reforms, and promoting ­environmentally?friendly agriculture as a means to kick start the Haitian economy.

But exit polls in the 2016 election suggested the Moise won only 6 percent of the vote. The official result awarded him 55 percent of the vote.

Despite obvious fraud and demonstrations leading to a second election, Moise became president in 2017.

Moise pocketed Venezuelan aid money under the PetroCaribe programme, ­leading to mass protests ­calling for his resignation. He responded by repressing the demonstrations and using police to kill protesters.

This has not stopped the movement.

Armed protesters continue to take to the streets demanding an end to the reign of Moise, and attacking US president Donald Trump for propping him up.

The removal of Moise and the US from Haiti could be a new beginning.

Protesters can draw inspiration from the country’s long history of struggle against imperialism to rise up and create a mass movement which demands real change.

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