Haiti is Not an Accident: Current Affairs through A Historical Lens
by Nathan Bean (One Hundred For Haiti board member)
What is happening in Haiti today is not an accident. The events which transpired this week are part of a long, and very complicated history. Context is everything. Take for example and understand that the Haitian language does not have the letter “H”. Many of us refer to the country as “Haiti”, while the people who have lived there for generations call it Ayiti. We force our language on the land itself. This says everything by saying very little. The Haitian people have been forced upon for generations.
The Taíno were an Arawak people indigenous to the Caribbean and Florida. They settled in what is now called Haiti in 250 BC, almost a thousand years before European contact. The Taino people were the principal inhabitants of most of Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, and the northern Lesser Antilles. This also included an island they referred to as Quisqueya, which would later be renamed Isla Espanola, then shortened to Hispaniola. This is the modern-day Dominican Republic and Haiti.
After centuries of theft, rape, and murder, European colonialists successfully wiped out the Taino people. Enslaved people were brought to Hispaniola in the 18th century from their homes on the African continent and a new people populated the Caribbean. The enslaved people of what is now Haiti were under French rule on the west side of the island.
On Jan. 1, 1804, following a lengthy slave revolt and war of independence against Napoleon’ Army, Jean-Jacques Dessalines proclaimed the independence of Saint-Domingue, renaming it Haiti after its original Arawak name. Led by Toussaint-Louverture, a former slave, Haiti became the world’s first Black-led republic and the second independent republic in the Americas after the United States. News of this revolt reached the shores of the United States and inspired similar revolts by Gabriel Prosser, Nat Turner, and others. The idea of liberated slaves, quite obviously, was not popular amidst slaveowners and racist politicians in the United States at the time for it threatened their profitable status quo.
Superpower countries like France, Britain, and the United States would not trade with the Haitians, while also keeping the country in debt, a trend that would continue for generations. The immense debt Haiti faced originated in 1825 with a demand from the French that Haiti pay 150 million French francs to reimburse France for lost income due to the slaves freeing themselves and liberating the country. It took 122 years for Haiti to finally pay off the debt.
On July 28, 1915, the assassination of Haiti’s president prompted US President Woodrow Wilson to send in Marines to Haiti. The stated position of the United States was to help stabilize the political structure. In reality, the military presence was to help secure US interests, a potential naval port, and to control the bank of Haiti. The occupation would last until August 1934. This was destabilizing and socially disruptive for a country trying to find its own way which instead spent the better part of two decades dealing with an occupying force.
In 1957, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier was inaugurated as president. While he promoted an Afro-centric perspective of the population, his dictatorship and use of a nationalized army were destructive and controversial at best. His son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” assumed power in 1971 and continued much of the economic corruption and social oppression generated by his father. A series of turbulent political years succeeded the Duvalier’s and Haiti’s government remained in a constant state of turmoil for many years after. Presidents such as Jean-Bertrand Aristide (overthrown in a coup laden with conspiracy), and Prosper Avril (a former Duvalier compatriot) did little to solidify Haiti’s political and economic base. The Haitian people bore the brunt of these political struggles.
As an explosion in wealth gripped much of the Western Hemisphere during the 20th century, charity, nonprofit, and global aid became major business ventures in cash-poor countries. By the 1990s, Haiti, often referred to as one of the “poorest countries in the world” was overrun with nonprofits and aid groups who promised the building of major infrastructure and other charitable help. “Helping” Haiti became a multi-billion-dollar industry for these corporate level organizations. Then in 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake devastated Haiti, killing hundreds of thousands within the span of minutes and prompting massive promises of aid. In the weeks after the earthquake, it is estimated that there were 10,000 aid groups of every possible size in Haiti. That’s one for every one hundred Haitians. Most of these aid groups, in spite of their grandiose promises, did not last longer than the first year after the quake.
Haiti was not aided by the billions of dollars which poured into the country, essentially into the salaries of major aid organizations. In addition at the time, the country experienced a cholera outbreak brought to the country by a reckless aid-worker from the United Nations. Cholera had never existed in Haiti before, and the outbreak killed thousands. It still resonates in terms of its psychological impact. Indeed, Covid-19 response has been hindered because many citizens fear even the suggestion that they might be symptomatic with anything, after the demonization of cholera victims years ago.
In 2011, Michel Martelly, a former pop star with close ties to the military junta that first toppled President Aristide, became the elected president. Martelly was popular, yet he led a charge to bring back and reinstate the Haitian Army, which was a frightening prospect for the general population given how that army had been utilized for suppression during the Duvalier regime.
In 2017, businessman Jovenel Moïse, Martelly’s hand-picked candidate, became president following a second election, the first having been annulled by fraud. Moïse was another in a long line of controversial political figures and was killed in his home after years of mounting unrest and allegations of corruption.
Obviously, this only scratches the surface of Haiti’s history. Foreign involvement has defined the country in the eyes of much of the world and that continues today with reports of Haitian officials calling for US involvement to stabilize the country in the wake of assassination. Will Biden act as Wilson did and occupy Haiti? Perhaps there is a better way.
Perhaps what is needed is a return back in time to the Taino people. A return to Quisqueya. A reparation for the debt and stifled development. New ways of thinking based in the needs of the people rather than the upholding of power. Perhaps aid that actually helps. To get it right, we must be willing to try some of what has felt wrong. This means letting go of what foreign involvement has looked like in the past and forging something new. In partnership? Maybe.
Perhaps it means just checking what involvement looks like, and engaging instead by way of listening rather than demanding, standing alongside rather than trying to lead the way.
We need something more mindful. Something more Ayiatian.