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Situating Haiti’s Current Crisis Within a History of Imperial Abuse

The small Caribbean nation of Haiti is currently experiencing a crisis, the likes of which are difficult to comprehend. Having seen its president assassinated by foreign mercenaries two years ago, it currently has no elected government officials; the entire nation, but particularly the capital Port-au-Prince, is ravaged by gang violence, kidnappings, and murders; nearly half of its population is suffering from a severe lack of access to food and nutrition, while an outbreak of cholera is also sweeping the country; and the country has been devastated by two major earthquakes within the past 15 years. It is an understatement to say that Haiti is experiencing a catastrophe. But within the United States and the rest of the developed world, news relating to Haiti’s plunge into chaos is limited, and there are no indications that assistance will imminently arrive in the beleaguered nation. If we look at Haiti’s history, the reasons for its current crisis become clear. Haiti, since it declared its independence from France in 1804, has been systematically designed to be the failed state it is today by foreign, imperialist powers. From France, to the United States, to the United Nations, the West has mercilessly extracted resources and destroyed the country’s hopes of becoming a stable democracy. The crisis in Haiti is not an accident of history, but the inevitable product of centuries of imperialist and racist abuse perpetrated by some of the world’s foremost defenders of human rights.

Haiti’s History

Originally home to the now largely eliminated Taino people, Christopher Columbus’s 1492 expedition marked the first visit of European settlers to the island now known as Hispaniola. The Spanish soon after established plantations throughout the island and began the mass importation of West African slaves to grow sugar and coffee to be exported to Europe. By 1665, the Spanish presence diminished in the western part of Hispaniola, allowing the French to claim the territory, renaming it Saint Domingue. The colony was immensely profitable for the French, becoming known as the “The Pearl of the Antilles,” producing 60% of the coffee and 40% of the sugar exported to Europe by the 1780s. But this prosperity came at an immense human cost. Around the same time period, Saint Domingue alone accounted for more than one-third of the Atlantic slave trade and was home to absolutely atrocious conditions for enslaved persons who died at alarming rates. 

In 1791, two years after the revolution in France proclaimed the universal rights of man, a slave revolt began in Saint Domingue, led famously by former slave Toussaint Louverture. Louverture’s rebels struggled periodically against French forces for 13 years, before the nation finally declared its independence in 1804. But the newly-formed nation, now called Haiti, was immediately faced with immense obstacles. For one, it was a nation run by and composed of former slaves, who possessed little to nothing in material wealth. Additionally, Haiti was isolated by foreign powers, including the French, the British, and the United States. President Thomas Jefferson and many other American elites viewed an independent Haiti as an existential threat to the institution of slavery that was becoming even more profitable and crucial for the southern United States. Jefferson refused to provide aid to Haiti and sought to economically and diplomatically isolate the country.

As the new Haitian Republic continued to struggle to establish itself, in 1825, King Charles X of France sent several warships to surround Haiti and to demand that the nation pay 150 million francs in reparations to French slave owners who lost their property in the revolution—or face another war. Unable to defend itself against French naval supremacy, Haiti was forced to cave to the demand, despite having no ability to pay a sum of money that large. Over the course of the next 122 years, up until 1947, Haiti paid the modern equivalent of $20–$30 billion in reparations and interest on the highly extortionary loans it was forced to take out from banks in France, the U.S., and elsewhere in Europe. Roughly 80% of its national budget in 1900 was dedicated to loan repayments alone. Unsurprisingly, this massive extortionary project left an already impoverished nation entirely destitute.

But the French were not the only imperial force to extort immense sums of money from the Haitian people. In 1868, U.S. President Andrew Johnson contemplated annexing the island of Hispaniola, fearing that the unstable political climate in Haiti and the neighboring Dominican Republic was a strategic vulnerability for the United States’s dominance of the Caribbean and the Western Hemisphere. By the 1910s, Haiti’s political instability reached a fever pitch, with numerous presidents being assassinated. Meanwhile, the U.S. slowly increased its role, particularly in Haitian economic affairs. U.S. officials said they were determined to stabilize the country, but their actions made clear their intentions were fundamentally selfish. American officials feared that Haiti’s instability would provide a pretext for either the French—to whom Haiti still owed enormous debts—or the Germans—whose economic ties to the country were growing—to gain a strategic foothold in the Caribbean, just while the U.S. was finishing construction of the critical Panama Canal. Eventually, in pursuit of these strategic and economic goals, on July 28, 1915, shortly after Haitian President Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam was assassinated, Woodrow Wilson dispatched a force of U.S. Marines to occupy the country and to seize control of the country’s financial reserves. 

What ensued was 19 years of military occupation of Haiti by U.S. forces. American occupiers rewrote the country’s laws and constitution to give land-ownership rights to foreigners, including major U.S.-based agricultural corporations, silenced and brutalized dissenters, and abused and massacred civilians with impunity. By 1934, when the occupation ended, thousands of Haitians were killed, the country’s rural peasantry was left destitute, much of the country’s productive land was in foreign hands, and the United States maintained substantial influence over the country’s politicians and economic system. Ever since then, Haitian governments have struggled to balance the interests of their people with the demands of U.S. capitalists whose plantations and factories harvested the nation’s wealth and resources.

Just over 20 years following the end of the occupation, and only a decade after Haiti finished its reparations to France, Francois Duvalier was elected president, beginning almost 30 years of dynastic authoritarian rule and brutal state repression. Between 1957 and 1986, Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude (who took power in 1971 after his father’s death) created a brutal autocratic regime wherein any supposed opponents were subject to arbitrary arrests, detention in prison camps, torture, disappearances, and political killings. Tens of thousands of Haitians were killed as the Duvaliers embezzled countless funds and sold off capital to foreign manufacturers, only further deepening the nation’s endless economic instability. Importantly, the regime was consistently bankrolled by the U.S. government, which saw authoritarian Haiti as a counterweight to Fidel Castro’s communist Cuba. Sustained American aid kept the Duvaliers rich and allowed them to ignore the ongoing plight of their people as they siphoned off funds and invested in a costly repressive state apparatus.

The Current Crisis

All of this history brings us to the current crisis at hand. Potentially more than 85% of the population is experiencing poverty, and nearly 5 million of the country’s population of 11 million people are currently experiencing “acute hunger” according to the UN. An outbreak of cholera began sweeping the country early last year and has infected thousands, just years after a previous outbreak killed nearly 10,000. Inflation has risen to almost 50% over the past couple of years, as gangs, many of whom are associated with former politicians and government officials, have attempted to seize control of the nation’s resources, most significantly its fuel reserves. In 2022, more than 1,200 civilians were kidnapped by gangs, and more than 1,300 civilians were killed between January and August alone. Tens of thousands of Haitians are internally displaced, and tens of thousands more have left the country to seek refugee status elsewhere. However, to date, the U.S. has deported more than 26,000 migrants back to Haiti, though in December of last year, the Biden administration announced expanded legal protections for those fleeing the country. 

The current crisis has taken off ever since President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated by mercenaries linked to multiple Haitian-American men with political aspirations. His successor, Ariel Henry, was unable to establish her legitimacy and to counter the violence of criminal gangs, who have rendered it impossible for the country to hold new elections. As a result, in January, the terms of Haiti’s last 10 senators expired, leaving the country with no elected government whatsoever.

Facing the Reality

Though it was the site of the only successful slave rebellion in the Americas, Haiti has never truly gotten out of a state of servitude. One after another, Western powers have lined up to strip the nation of its resources and democratic prospects. From its inception, Haiti was shackled: it was a nation built by destitute freedmen that was viewed with suspicion and distrust by world powers consumed by imperial pursuits and the preservation of slavery. This inherent weakness gave the country no choice but to agree to pay reparations for the damage their freedom did to the pockets of French slaveholders. The country has thus been financially burdened ever since, as the greed of racist European capitalists perpetually foreclosed any hopes of economic prosperity. The damage done by the French set the stage for the United States to imperialize Haiti throughout the 20th Century, and to begin its own project of extracting capital from Haitian peasants for the sake of big American businesses.

Haiti’s status as a failed state is the intentional result of these actions. If Haiti had been a successful state in the 1800s, it would have been a danger to the racist world order of the era imposed by slavery and empire. And Haiti’s success further decades down the line would have been an obstacle to the extractive aims of foreign capitalists who exploited political instability to enrich themselves. Haiti demonstrates the destructive power of the interconnected ideologies of racism, capitalism, and imperialism. Around the world, millions of Black and brown people are living in squalor and conflict as a result of the extortive and racist actions of Western nations. States like Haiti are at the bottom of the global hierarchy because the current world order demands inequality, often along racial lines, to feed economic growth through the availability of cheap labor, land, and resources. 

Today, France shows almost no signs of regret for the reparations it forced Haiti to pay, and the United States is reluctant to assist in alleviating the nation’s current crisis. To be sure, rushing to intervene again in a country with such a horrific history of foreign influence does not seem a good idea, but something must be done. Millions of people are suffering in Haiti, and while there may be no clear solutions, the U.S. as a country, and the Western world as a whole, owes Haiti its help. Until we reach broad acceptance of this fact throughout the West, and until a concerted effort is dedicated to—literally—repaying the debts owed to the Haitian people, the Republic of Haiti may forever be a broken state.

Featured Image Source: Financial Times

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