Haiti – a history of oppression

In Haiti we see in microcosm the forces that threaten the species with destruction. Not the natural forces that inflicted the earthquake but the social and political forces that magnified its impact and which brought Haiti to ruin long before the fault line ruptured: the forces of capitalism, colonialism and imperialism.

When Christopher Columbus and a band of Spanish gold seekers landed on Haiti’s north coast in 1492 there were perhaps 500,000 Taino Arawak people on the island of Hispaniola. By 1548 there were fewer than 500. The Spanish colonialists enslaved them, forced them to work in gold mines and supply food. Those who refused were hunted down by dogs, mutilated, raped and killed. Others died from influenza, smallpox and typhus.

From the 1520s slaves were imported from Africa. French and English forces preyed upon the island. By the end of the seventeenth century France was in control of Saint-Domingue, now Haiti. Saint-Domingue was described as ‘a mill for crushing Negroes as much as for crushing sugar cane’. By 1789 Saint-Domingue supplied two-thirds of Europe’s tropical products; it was France’s most valuable colonial possession.

The slave revolt started in August 1791. Toussaint l’Ouverture joined the revolt, initially as a doctor then as military leader. A British invasion force landed in 1793. Despite calling up over 40,000 reinforcements they were expelled in 1798 by Toussaint’s forces. The revolt continued and Haiti declared independence on 1 January 1804. The name Haiti was chosen by Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a leader of the revolt, and was a Taiwo name meaning mountainous land. At the declaration of independence Dessaline’s secretary is said to have commented, ‘We will write this act of independence using a white man’s skull for an inkwell, his skin for parchment, blood for ink and a bayonet as pen.’ The US and France refused to recognise Haiti’s independence.

George Washington’s government sent $400,000 to the white plantation owners. The revolt delivered a terrific blow against the slave system in the Americas. In 1825, under threat of invasion and restoration of slavery, Haiti’s ruling elite agreed to pay France an indemnity equivalent to $21 billion in today’s money to compensate for loss of land, equipment and human ‘property’. In exchange, France recognised Haiti. In 1914 US Marines seized the Haitian government’s gold deposits at gun point and deposited them in New York’s National City Bank (Citibank), following a dispute over debt repayments. After a series of coups the US occupied Haiti in July 1915. Haiti’s army was disbanded and replaced by a police force under US officers. Unpaid, compulsory labour was re-introduced to Haiti. US Marines repressed peasant resistance using aerial bombardment. They departed in 1934 but the National Bank remained a subsidiary of the US Export-Import Bank until 1947, when the final indemnity payment was made to France.

Mulattoes were elevated by US racists who saw it as natural that lighter skinned people should rule. US fruit companies were given concessions and mass evictions of peasant smallholders resulted.

The Duvaliers

Backed by the black middle class and medium-sized landowners, Francois Duvalier was elected president in 1957, defeating a candidate from the mulatto elite. ‘Papa Doc’ ruled with the Tontons Macoute, a secret police force that kidnapped, tortured and killed opponents. Duvalier closed down trade unions and the University of Haiti. He invited US Marines to train the Haitian army and offered the US government military bases and missile stations, presumably to target Cuba. When 19-year-old Jean-Claude Duvalier ‘Baby Doc’ was installed as president in 1971, two US warships anchored offshore. A counter-insurgency Leopard force was established, armed and trained by the US. Sustained by US imperialism, the Duvalier regimes turned the country into hell on earth: by 1980, 80% of people were unemployed, 40% homeless and 85% illiterate. Half the children did not live beyond four years. For every school in Haiti there were 35 prisons and for every teacher 189 soldiers. Malaria, pneumonia and tetanus were rife. 1985 foreign debt repayments were almost seven-times expenditure on education.

US multinationals developed a lucrative trade: the blood of surviving Haitians was rich in antibodies, much sought after by wealthy North Americans. Each month five tons of Haitian blood was shipped by Dow Chemicals, Armour Pharmaceutical and Laboratories Cutter to US markets.

Haitians fleeing this inferno were denied refuge in the US. US authorities imprisoned them in concentration camps in Florida, US-held Puerto Rico and later Guantanamo Bay in US-occupied Cuba. US and Bahamian ships sank refugees’ boats, drowning many. A camp was opened in upstate New York where temperatures drop below freezing. Black and progressive organisations in the US and Puerto Rico threatened to tear down the fences.

Some 50,000 people were killed by the Duvalier regimes before ‘Baby Doc’ fled to France in 1986 after mass protests and a general strike against his government. A military junta of six generals took over the government. Former head of the Duvaliers’ Presidential Guard Prosper Avril seized power in 1988 but was deposed two years later. Avril tortured political opponents, trade unionists and even a doctor attempting to practice community medicine.

Reform thwarted

On 16 December 1990 Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide won 67% of the vote to become Haiti’s president. The US saw Aristide as a ‘liberation theologian’; less Christian than Communist. Aristide calculated that France owed Haiti $21 billion that should be returned so that Haiti ‘can build primary schools, primary healthcare, water systems and roads’. He called for a minimum wage of $5 a day! The CIA funded paramilitaries which targeted Aristide supporters and were prominent in the 1991 coup that deposed him. For three years Haiti was ruled by a military junta until the US military intervened to restore Aristide, on the understanding that he would implement US-dictated privatisation and remove import tariffs. Avril planned an assassination campaign against Aristide supporters in the Fanmi Lavalas Party. When Haitian police went to arrest Avril at his home they were met by US soldiers attempting to stop the arrest. Avril fled to the Colombian ambassador’s residence and then to Israel. Aristide was re-elected president in November 2000. Avril returned to Haiti and was arrested to popular acclaim after US troops withdrew from Haiti in 2001.

Aristide continued to call for reparations for Haiti. In 2003 the country sent 90% of its foreign currency reserves to the US in debt repayments. The US again undermined the government, aiding opposition groups. In January 2004 opposition forces surrounded Port-au-Prince and Aristide was forced into exile, taken by the US military to Africa. Avril was in prison when Aristide was overthrown but released a few days later. UN troops were dispatched to Haiti. Rene Preval was elected president in 2006, while Aristide stayed in exile, where he remains to this day.

Trevor Rayne


Enforced poverty

Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. 40% of Haiti’s foreign debt, reaching $1.8 billion at its peak, was run up by the Duvaliers. In exchange for loans the International Monetary Fund and World Bank forced Haiti to accept food imports. 30 years ago Haiti did not import rice. Today it imports almost all its rice. Haiti was the world’s main sugar producer. Today it imports sugar. The US dumped subsidised rice and sugar on Haiti destroying much of its farming. The population of Port-au-Prince was 50,000 in the 1950s and 2-3 million today, swollen with people driven from the land. Prior to the earthquake the US Congress granted Haiti preferential treatment for garment imports. Port-au-Prince’s sweatshop workers earn less than China’s clothing workers. Remittances from Haitians who have fled abroad constitute a fifth of the economy.

Life expectancy in 2007 was 61 years. 55% of the people live on $1.25 a day or less and 72% on $2 or less a day. The average income for women is 37% that of men. The richest 10% of Haiti’s people have 48% of income and the poorest 10% have 0.9%! The infant mortality rate is 60 per 1,000 live births. About 40% of the people are illiterate and unemployment has varied between 50-70% for over a decade.

FRFI 213 February / March 2010


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