In the fracas that is Christmas, the anniversary of one of the Caribbean’s most important historical events often goes widely unreported and unnoticed. 200 years ago, Haitian slaves rose up, and in one of the bloodiest coups in Caribbean history, wrested control of Haiti from the white oligarchy that the French Revolution supposedly equalised with the ordinary man.
Despite the penchant for the average young person to not care about political events, (particularly in the Caribbean where it often boils down to puffed up chests and overblown egos arguing about nothing in particular) this is one that should stick in your brain.
The Haitian Revolution created, for the first time, a voice for African peoples living enslaved across the planet, shouting: “It’s time to reckon with us!” and “Enough is enough!” Not only did they succeed in overthrowing the white planter oligarchy, where virtually no other slave rebellion/revolution had before, but it very quickly became plainly obvious not only to France, but to England and America that the African Haitians fully intended to set up shop, run the country, produce sugar etc.
Revolution has a tendency to spawn revolution. The powers that were in 1804 absolutely blanched at the thought of having to deal with these “slaves” as both a political and economic force. Of course, no one is having it. Haiti was far too valuable to France economically to give it up so easily. “These “slaves” have to be taught a lesson, and while we’re at it, let’s make sure that all the other “slaves” get the picture.” they must have muttered over dinners and in dark corners.
A plot hatched and executed. For sixty-two years, the United States—probably terrified with dissent right on it’s shores as it were—enforced a trade embargo, much like the one they currently stick to like glue with Cuba. France, goaded on by the U.S. and other European interests, demand millions of dollars in reparation for the loss of land and slave property. Combined, this double-blow against the young republic kept it in quasi-slavery as the rebels were now at the mercy of the ‘kindness’ of their former oppressors simply for food.
It is very simplistic to assume that the Haitian Africans, right in their cause, and rising up to free themselves from the ‘shackles of slavery’ (a phrase I myself am tiring of, but is quite appropriate) would have 1) shamed the whites into giving them their freedom with no strings attached 2) have garnered for themselves some respect for their audacity and the cleverness and compassion of Toussaint’s guidance to the Afro-Haitian army, and thus protected themselves from the onslaught of demoralising strictures on what their independence should have been. However, as history records, that was not the way it worked out.
Instead Haiti was held up by the opponents to the abolition of slavery as every reason why freedom could not be granted to the slaves.
The U.S. finally invaded Haiti in 1915 and occupied it for twenty years. It was more than enough time to sow the seeds of dictatorship and to play on the Haitian society’s free-coloureds dislike and distrust of the Negro population. The US-backed, Duvalier ‘Papa and Baby Doc’ regimes took over and with it came a US-trained, brutal military and security forces as well as the Ton Ton Macoute, the secret police.
With revolution in their blood, part of who they are, Haitians have repeatedly revelled against their oppression, but stripped of their resources they have remained one of the world’s poorest nations, plagued by violence, poverty and AIDS.
We in the Caribbean owe Haiti a great debt. Their revolution helped to lay groundwork for the abolition of slavery. With the addition of the Demerara Revolt and other similar skirmishes across the Caribbean, (including Barbados), they were the harbingers of the end for slave-labour dependent economies.
We should be far more committed to helping Haiti to develop economic and political stability, yet we are afraid of going against America’s continued interference and indifference (an odd attitude, but nonetheless this is exactly their behaviour) and their two hundred-year-old status-quo. It’s almost as if, with the continued subjugation of Haiti, the rest of the Caribbean will never truly be independent from external forces who only wish to plunder and control.
Jean Betrand Aristide the populist priest cum-political dissident (who funnily was the first democratically elected President of Haiti in the 20th Century), was one of the only Haitian leaders in the last hundred or so years that tried to change things: Increasing minimum the wage, taxing the rich to pay for social programmes, redistributing the wealth of Haiti more evenly. Needless to say Aristide was ousted by yet another CIA-backed coup and created the dreaded FRAPH, an organization set up to destroy the Lavalas movement.
Aristide took to the international democratic corps to press his case to be reinstated into Haiti. And while he succeeded in the long run, he like Toussaint before him, was left at the mercy of the US’ (read: Powers that be) demands. President Aristide was compelled to agree a to neo-liberal structural adjustment program (shadings of the IMF etc.) which continue to conscript Haiti as a neo-colony of the U.S..
Today Haiti continues to suffer as a consequence of the invasive tampering by covert US policies and actions, hence the task of building democracy in Haiti is very much a work in progress with the U.S. placing barriers and stumbling blocks in the way at every turn. It has been very easy for West Indians to marginalise Haiti and the seriousness of the issues— to not stand neck to neck to help this country develop into a self-sustenance, but we turn away constantly.
Unless the masses come together to fight the injustices committed against one of us, then all of us will perish. So don’t skin up your nose and say, “Who cares about Haiti!?” We owe it to them to help them finish their revolution—one that has been stuck on pause for nearly two hundred years, but which helped to free us all.
sungoddess thinks West Indians need to learn about who they really are, before they mask it with paint from the state-run store. We’ve always been fighters against injustice.
First Published Feb 26, 2000