Despite its game-changing role in Atlantic history, Haiti is too often seen as irrelevant. After the 2010 earthquake The Onion, known for satire that hits close to truth, published a piece titled Massive Earthquake Reveals Entire Civilization Called Haiti. When relevant nations turn their attention to Haiti, it’s to lament Haitian misfortune (poverty, political instability, cholera) as if it were a naturally occurring phenomena, eternal and mysterious as lunar cycles or the rain. The Haitian people are praised for their resilience in the face of so much trauma or else chided for creating it. Political corruption is cited as well as, more dubiously, vodoun. Rarely is it mentioned that Haiti fought to prove the worth of black lives at a time when America still owned slaves, defeating Napoleon and becoming the world’s first independent black nation in 1804.
Two decades later French warships arrived in Port-au-Prince, demanding Haitian president Jean-Pierre Boyer pay 150 million francs to former slave owners in exchange for recognition of Haiti’s independence. The Haitian government went into debt to service these reparations, a debt they paid down well into the twentieth century.
In May French president Francoise Hollande erected a slavery memorial in Guadeloupe and made an official state visit to Haiti, the first by a French president. He vowed to repay France’s “moral debt” to Haiti, while clarifying that this did not entail financial remuneration. When Hollande tripped on the stage mid-way to Haitian president Martelly, internet memes joked that the spirit of revolutionary general Dessalines had stuck out his foot. I have loved Haiti for many years, was here when the 2010 earthquake struck and recently relocated to Port-au-Prince. Discussing Hollande’s visit at a party, a friend of mine started singing Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money.” Not having kept up on the news I asked her what, if anything, Hollande had offered to do for Haiti.
“I don’t know.” She shrugged. “Send us a bunch of laptops or something?”
Thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent face deportation from the Dominican Republic since a Supreme Court ruling stripped them of their citizenship. The terrorist attack in Charleston has many wondering whether race relations in the U.S. have truly progressed since the Birmingham church bombing. Contrary to the protestations of white news commentators, anti-blackness is alive and well, in America, in the world.
A few summers ago a U.S. army intelligence officer told an acquaintance, also a white American, that she was wasting her life by dedicating it to Haiti.
“Haiti is hopeless,” he said, reclining poolside, Prestige beer in hand. “It’s a nation of children.”
The paternalist logic which sanctioned America’s 1915-1934 occupation of Haiti endures today. During this thirty-year period the Marine Corps removed $500,000 in gold reserves from the Haitian National Bank, gutted the Haitian constitution and abducted Haitian men to labor in chain gangs, effectively turning a proud black nation into an extension of the Jim Crow south. In his forthcoming film The Forgotten Occupation, Haitian documentarian Alain Martin links occupation-era U.S. agribusiness to the current crisis in the D.R., where Haitian-Dominicans have been subject to extreme violence, even lynching. Dispossessed by U.S. corporations in the 1920’s and ‘30s, Haitian farmers began seeking jobs cutting sugarcane across the border. To this day, Haitian workers in the D.R. are forcibly kept in company towns, called bateys, where their punishing labor is often paid with coupons redeemable at the company store.
The white Atlantic world began infantilizing Haiti because it could not accept Napoleon’s defeat at the hands of ex-slaves. We continued infantilizing Haiti to give robbery a more pleasant veneer. Now we infantilize Haiti out of ignorance, as part of common discourse. When Haitian protestors first suggested, in 2011, that the U.N. had caused the cholera epidemic by dumping raw sewage into the Artibonite River, op-ed pieces decried Haiti’s habit of blaming its problems on the outside world. Although the particular strain of cholera has since been traced to Nepalese peacekeepers, not deficient Haitian hygiene, the U.N. has yet to make any attempt at restitution.
Historian Laurent Dubois has written about the victim/ villain dichotomy that characterizes most popular and scholarly thought about Haiti. Certainly Haitians, particularly the Haitian elite, have at times acted as agents of their own destruction. But to attribute the failure of the Haitian state entirely to Haitians and not to racist plunder is to buy into white supremacist notions about the fitness of non-whites to govern. To view Haitian tragedy in a historical vacuum, to wonder why Haitians can’t catch a break when the reasons are so very obvious, is to propagate a system in which Haiti remains the recipient of useless pity and useless largesse.
Frederick Douglass wrote that the American people were “often disposed to be generous rather than just.” Americans sent millions of dollars to the Red Cross after the 2010 earthquake. We now know where all that money went: into overhead, shorthand for the comfortable lifestyles of Red Cross employees, who only built six houses for displaced Haitians. Six. So much for absolving ourselves of the responsibility to “do something” by texting ten dollars to charity.
In The Case for Reparations, The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates acknowledges practical difficulties. He concludes that while there may be no effective way to disburse reparations to African-Americans, the conversation itself is worth having for the truths it illuminates about America’s place in the world, a place it achieved via the systematic robbery and terrorization of black people. Because the Haitian government is famously venal, Hollande’s pledge to invest $145 million in development projects may be more feasible than paying reparations directly. (Although the Red Cross scandal demonstrates that NGOs are, if anything, less transparent and accountable.) The United States government will never return the money it stole from the Haitian National Bank, nor the revenues it gained by commandeering Haitian customs houses for several decades, chump change though it may be for a global superpower. French and U.S. policy toward Haiti will probably always be predicated on generosity rather than justice.
Liberationist educator Paolo Freire wrote that “the generosity of the oppressors is nourished by an unjust order, which must be maintained in order to justify that generosity.” Like most of the global south, Haiti requires the generosity of the global north because it produces so little. It produces so little in part because Bill Clinton, who likes to pose as Haiti’s savior, forced Haiti to drop tariffs on imported, subsidized U.S. rice in the nineties. Although Clinton has since publicly apologized for destroying Haitian rice farming and rendering Haiti unable to feed itself, he still champions a development strategy that focuses on building sweatshops at the expense of Haitian agriculture.
Since the ‘70s, World Bank and IMF policy has been to push a Haitian off-shore assembly manufacturing sector in the hopes of creating a Caribbean Taiwan. But rather than bolstering Haiti’s economy, garment factories have led to rapid urbanization. Bankrupted agriculturalists come to the cities in search of manufacturing jobs and end up unemployed, living in subhuman conditions, slapping up the cinderblock shanties that caused such a high death toll in 2010. If Clinton truly wanted justice for Haiti, he would invest in Haitian agriculture rather than in projects like the industrial park at Caracol, which is South Korean-owned and built over acres of Haiti’s most arable farmland. He would help Haiti to sustain itself rather than perpetuating Haitian need.
While the potential expatriation of thousands of Haitian-Dominicans, many of whom speak only Spanish, constitutes a human rights crisis, it’s easier for America to condemn Dominican colorism than to examine the origins of the bateys. My country will never pay back what it owes Haiti. But viewing Haiti’s poverty in the proper context- attributing it to its historical sources, rather than viewing Haiti as mysteriously and eternally benighted- might be a start. What the world owes Haiti is respect, is dignity, not condescension and generosity.