HAITI: A HISTORY OF EXPLOITATION, OPPRESSION, & RESISTANCE
Alongside thousands of other Canadians, we stand in solidarity with the people of Haiti at this time of great suffering and tragedy.
We call on the Canadian government to do the same when making plans for what Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon calls Haiti’s “long-term stabilization and reconstruction.”
Canada has taken the lead in coordinating the global response to the disaster in Haiti, having already hosted an international conference to discuss Haiti’s reconstruction. If we really want to assist this devastated country, Canada, along with other wealthy nations, must act in the interest of the people of Haiti and not out of self-interest.
Media and government reports of the disaster regularly describe Haiti as “the poorest nation in the western hemisphere.” These reports, however, almost never explain how Haiti came to be so poor. They also rarely mention the role wealthy western nations– those same countries currently planning Haiti’s reconstruction–have played in Haiti’s impoverishment.
WHY IS HAITI SO POOR?
Haiti’s poverty is the direct legacy of a long history of extreme exploitation, brutal oppression, and heroic resistance that continues to the present day.
HAITI 1700-1803: France’s richest colony
In the 18th century, Haiti was France’s richest colony, its economic success a product of slave labour. In 1791, inspired by the French Revolution, Haitian slaves, under the leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture, rose up against their oppression, demanding “liberty and equality” to reign in Haiti.
Worried that the slave revolution might spread to their colonies, the British and the Spanish sent expeditionary forces to crush it and reinstitute slavery. Napoleon also sent troops to re-conquer France’s colony and restore slavery.
HAITI 1804-1838: First and only successful slave revolution
In 1804, having overcome slavery by defeating the military forces of three European empires, the freed slaves declared Haiti independent. It was the first and only successful slave revolution in history.
Again seeing Haiti as a dangerous precedent, France, along with England, Spain, and the United States, refused to recognize the new government and placed a ban on trade with Haiti, thus devastating the Haitian economy.
Under embargo and the threat of a French invasion, in 1838 Haiti was forced to agree to pay France reparations of 90 million francs for loss of property, namely slaves. Reparation payments bankrupted the Haitian treasury and mortgaged Haiti’s future to French and US banks providing high-interest loans for installment payments.
By 1900, Haiti was spending 80% of its national budget on repayments. In 1947, it finally paid off the original reparations plus interest. Doing so left Haiti destitute.
HAITI: 1915-1934: US occupation
In the early 1900s, popular uprisings in Haiti made it seem likely that a nationalist government–one serving, not foreign, but majority Haitian interests–would soon come to power and cancel debt repayment to US and French banks, nationalize Haiti’s financial institutions, and forbid foreign ownership and investment. In 1915, the US occupied Haiti in order to protect its own economic interests.
Resistance to the occupation began immediately. In the first 5 years, 2,250 Haitians were killed by US troops. 16 US soldiers died over the same period.
The US occupied Haiti until 1934, ruling the country through a puppet Haitian government. It left behind a Haitian army trained to suppress any opposition to the status quo: the oppression and exploitation of the Haitian majority by a Haitian ruling elite and its foreign backers.
HAITI 1957-1986: US-backed dictators
Haitians endured three decades of brutal treatment under the repressive and dictatorial rule of the Duvaliers, Papa Doc and Baby Doc. Thousands of Haitians were murdered by death squads and many more fled the country to escape the violence and intimidation.
The US backed both dictators to satisfy its Cold War goal of preventing Haiti from falling under the influence of the Soviet Union or nearby Cuba.
The US also saw the Duvaliers as an opportunity to impose its neo-conservative, free-trade agenda on Haiti. By 1986, 30% of arable land in Haiti had been shifted from food for local consumption to export cash crops. This, combined with the dumping of surplus, subsidized US rice on the Haitian market, drove Haitian farmers out of the countryside and into urban slums where they could be exploited by industry. It also drove them into substandard, earthquake-vulnerable housing.
Until the mid 1970s, Haiti produced enough rice to feed its own people. Today 75% of the rice eaten in Haiti is imported from the US. Destroying a country’s food self-sufficiency can have very dire consequences. During the 2009 global food crisis, there were reports of Haitians eating mud because of hunger. It was, however, a very good deal for the US. In 2008, the value of US rice exports to Haiti was $197 million.
HAITI 1990-PRESENT: The Canadian connection
Haiti’s response to this neo-conservative program was to elect a government with an anti-neo-conservative vision. In 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his Fanmi Lavalas party won the election, with Aristide soundly defeating the US-backed candidate, a World Bank official, with 67% of the vote. A Catholic priest inspired by liberation theology, Aristide wanted economic and social justice for Haiti’s impoverished majority.
Since 1990, the international community, with the support of Haiti’s elite, has been trying to force Aristide’s government and the Haitian majority to accept the neo-conservative plan. The measures taken include two US-backed coups against Aristide, the first in 1991 and the second in 2004. The 2004 coup took place shortly after Aristide called on France to pay Haiti reparations of $21.7 billion, the equivalent in today’s money of the 90 million francs Haiti was coerced into paying France for its freedom.
In recent years, Canada has played a very active role in undermining Haitian democracy. After Aristide’s re-election in 2000 with an even larger majority, Canada, acting in lockstep with US policy, suspended aid to Haiti and began to funnel money to groups working to destabilize Aristide’s government. In 2004, Canada sent troops to Haiti to help the US remove Aristide from power. Canadian troops have remained in Haiti ever since, part of a UN occupation army quelling opposition to the change in government forced on Haiti.
78% of Haitians live on less than $2.00 a day. Haiti is the second largest recipient of Canadian aid, after Afghanistan. Much of Canadian aid money goes to support Canada’s military presence in Haiti. In response to the earthquake, the Canadian government has sent more troops to Haiti.
RECONSTRUCTION IN THE INTEREST OF HAITI’S PEOPLE
- Withdrawal of foreign troops from Haiti
- Respect for Haitian sovereignty
- Reconstruction under Haitian direction, employing Haitian workers
- No for-profit reconstruction
- Investment in public, not private, facilities and services
- Payment by France of $21.7 billion in reparations
- Cancellation of all Haiti’s foreign debt
- Aid in the form of grants, not loans
- No tied aid benefitting donor countries
- Food independence and self-sufficiency for Haiti
Three good books on Haiti:
Canada in Haiti: Waging War on the Poor Majority, by Yves Engler and Anthony Fenton (available at Regina Public Library)
Damning the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment, by Peter Hallward
The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, by CLR James
An informative website:
Canada Haiti Action Network: http://canadahaitiaction.ca/
A movie coming soon to a theatre near you:
Toussaint, starring Danny Glover as Toussaint L’Ouverture, Haiti’s revolutionary leader
MAKING PEACE VIGIL January 28 2010