John Edmundson The Spark February 2010
The recent devastating earthquake in Haiti has put a rarely noticed country back in the headlines. Suddenly, it is the focus of everyone’s attention, from world leaders to celebrities. And that is hardly surprising – with a body count of over 150,000 in Port au Prince, the nation’s capital alone, the death toll in this one tiny and desperately poor country may come close to exceeding that of the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004. The capital was almost completely destroyed and the poor infrastructure meant that it was difficult to get aid to the survivors, or to organise the relief operation. The Haitian government was almost completely unable to act and threw itself on the mercy of the United States and other First World countries. Images of the disaster have been touching and, in the main, sensitive, but underlying the coverage of the quake has been the same lack of curiosity about the cause of the tragedy that typifies media stories about the Third World.
Earthquakes above magnitude 7 are undoubtedly powerful and potentially dangerous events, but such a natural disaster in a First World city would cause nothing like the damage and loss of life suffered by Haiti. The real reason for the massive loss of life is political. Haiti’s unique history has made it a particular target for US hostility and oppression. It is no exaggeration to say that the vast majority of the dead in the Haitian earthquake are indirect casualties of Western Imperialism.
Haiti has a remarkable history, one that should have made it one of the most celebrated nations on the planet. No other country in the world has been founded on the basis of a successful slave revolt against its masters. Yet that is the case for Haiti. One of the first places to be sighted by Christopher Columbus in 1492, the island of Hispaniola was rapidly depopulated of its original inhabitants. The Spanish subsequently took little interest in the island as gold and silver discoveries in Mexico and South America drew their attention elsewhere and the island was largely given over to pirate bases. In 1664, the French West India Company took control of the Western part of the island, renamed it Saint Domingue and set about converting it into a slave plantation, growing sugar and coffee. Saint Domingue became the wealthiest colony in the Caribbean, producing more sugar and coffee than all Britain’s West Indian colonies, the plantations being worked by slaves brought over from Africa. By the time of the French Revolution in 1789, the population of the colony included an estimated 500,000 slaves and approximately 32,000 white colonists.
Word of the revolution in France reached the West Indian colonies quickly and soon filtered to the slaves and runaways (Maroons) on Saint Domingue. The unintended result was that some non-white inhabitants of the colony took the notion of liberté, egalité and fraternité seriously. An intitial revolt by free Mulatoes (people of mixed race) failed when its leaders refused to question the institution of slavery or free their own slaves, but the issue did not end there. A slave revolt broke out on August 22, 1791 and that revolt led to the revolution that won the country its independence. In 1792, the French revolutionary government sent a representative, Léger-Félicité Sonthonax, to Saint Domingue to enforce the social equality of free “people of colour”. A year later he granted limited freedom to slaves in the colony and in 1794, the French Assembly extended that freedom to slaves in all French colonies. The white colonists fought back, supported by the British, but they soon found themselves facing the free black troops of François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, who had been in revolt in the north of the country. The ex-slaves gradually took control of the whole island, freeing the slaves in the Spanish territory also. The newly freed population had to face an invasion by a French army and the British, both of whom attempted to crush the revolution. The French government attempted to reinstate slavery, waging a brutal war involving the burning and torturing of black captives, and the burying alive of others. Despite the reign of terror, the French were defeated again by Louverture’s lieutenants, despite Louverture himself and his family being captured and taken to France, where he died. Independence was declared by Jean-Jacque Dessalines on January 1st, 1804, making Haiti the oldest black ruled republic in the world, and only the second country in the Western Hemisphere (after the USA) to gain its independence.
The implications of the successful slave revolt in Haiti, as the new country would come to be known, were far reaching. Saint Domingue had been the “pearl” in France’s West Indian colonial territory. Without it, the French lost interest in their American territories. This led directly to the completion of the Louisiana Purchase on much more favourable terms for the USA, approximately doubling the size of that country. The USA did not return the favour however. Afraid of a spread of ideas of liberation, Britain, France and the USA enforced a crippling embargo, which was only lifted in 1825 when Haiti agreed to pay the French government “compensation” for lost property in land, slaves etc, of 150,000 gold Francs (later reduced to 90,000 Francs) in exchange for recognition of its independence. This debt was not fully repaid until 1947, over one hundred years later.
Between 1849 and 1914, the US navy sent ships to Haiti no less than thirty times to enforce US interests and in 1915, US President Woodrow Wilson sent the Marines into Haiti in response to requests from US owned banks. The US occupation lasted until 1934 and was marked by rebellion and brutal repression by the Marines. US backed dictator François (Papa Doc) Duvalier seized power in a coup in 1957 and he and then his son Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) ruled the country in a corrupt and kleptocratic (rule by thieves) regime until protests forced Baby Doc to flee in 1986.
Left wing former priest Jean-Bertrande Aristide was elected with a massive majority (67%) in 1990 but his radical policies earned him the hatred of the elite and the USA and he was ousted in a coup in 1991. Three more years of brutal military rule were followed by a further US invasion of the country and a further electoral victory for Aristide and the Lavalas Party in 1994. A split in the Lavalas Party in 1996 resulted in Aristide forming a new Party, Fanmi Lavalas. Elections in 1997 saw the current President René Préval ensconced in power despite an election which should have reinstated Aristide yet again but he was re-elected in 2001. Opposition to his government, widely alleged to have been armed and supported from the USA, resulted in an insurgency based in the neighbouring Dominican Republic and Aristide was ejected from office in mysterious circumstances in February 2004. The official explanation is that he fled but he has insisted that he was kidnapped by US troops and exiled, initially to the Central African Republic and later to South Africa. Haiti is now led by René Préval but in effect, it is controlled by a United Nations army that has been accused of many human rights abuses, largely directed against supporters af Fanmi Lavalas.
The ongoing interference in Haiti’s affairs has guaranteed that the country has remained desperately poor. US imposed free market policies have destroyed the local farming sector as it has been unable to compete with US rice imports. Imperialist intervention in the country has resulted in virtual starvation for the Haitian people, with many forced to eat mud to survive. In such circumstances, it is simply not possible for the vast majority of the population to even feed themselves, never mind build earthquake resistant buildings. The vast majority of the deaths in the recent earthquake could have been prevented, had the country been allowed to develop instead of being used as a pawn of Imperialist interests. Within days of the quake, the USA halted humanitarian flights carrying the injured to US hospitals after the state governments raised questions over who would pay for their treatment. Warnings have been raised over the vulnerability of survivors, expecially children, to human traffickers, for both the sex trade and for their organs. The US is taking precautions to interdict boats carrying refugees heading to the US as they would arrive in defiance of US immigration rules. Even in their hour of greatest tragedy, Haiti and its people are still being oppressed by their Imperialist neighbour.