In the fracas that is Christmas, the anniversary of one of the Caribbean’s most important historical events often goes widely unreported and unnoticed. 200 years ago, Haitian slaves rose up, and in one of the bloodiest coups in Caribbean history, wrested control of Haiti from the white oligarchy that the French Revolution supposedly equalised with the ordinary man.
Despite the penchant for the average young person to not care about political events, (particularly in the Caribbean where it often boils down to puffed up chests and overblown egos arguing about nothing in particular) this is one that should stick in your brain.
The Haitian Revolution created, for the first time, a voice for African peoples living enslaved across the planet, shouting: “It’s time to reckon with us!” and “Enough is enough!” Not only did they succeed in overthrowing the white planter oligarchy, where virtually no other slave rebellion/revolution had before, but it very quickly became plainly obvious not only to France, but to England and America that the African Haitians fully intended to set up shop, run the country, produce sugar etc.
Revolution has a tendency to spawn revolution. The powers that were in 1804 absolutely blanched at the thought of having to deal with these “slaves” as both a political and economic force. Of course, no one is having it. Haiti was far too valuable to France economically to give it up so easily. “These “slaves” have to be taught a lesson, and while we’re at it, let’s make sure that all the other “slaves” get the picture.” they must have muttered over dinners and in dark corners.
A plot hatched and executed. For sixty-two years, the United States—probably terrified with dissent right on it’s shores as it were—enforced a trade embargo, much like the one they currently stick to like glue with Cuba. France, goaded on by the U.S. and other European interests, demand millions of dollars in reparation for the loss of land and slave property. Combined, this double-blow against the young republic kept it in quasi-slavery as the rebels were now at the mercy of the ‘kindness’ of their former oppressors simply for food.
It is very simplistic to assume that the Haitian Africans, right in their cause, and rising up to free themselves from the ‘shackles of slavery’ (a phrase I myself am tiring of, but is quite appropriate) would have 1) shamed the whites into giving them their freedom with no strings attached 2) have garnered for themselves some respect for their audacity and the cleverness and compassion of Toussaint’s guidance to the Afro-Haitian army, and thus protected themselves from the onslaught of demoralising strictures on what their independence should have been. However, as history records, that was not the way it worked out.
Instead Haiti was held up by the opponents to the abolition of slavery as every reason why freedom could not be granted to the slaves.
The U.S. finally invaded Haiti in 1915 and occupied it for twenty years. It was more than enough time to sow the seeds of dictatorship and to play on the Haitian society’s free-coloureds dislike and distrust of the Negro population. The US-backed, Duvalier ‘Papa and Baby Doc’ regimes took over and with it came a US-trained, brutal military and security forces as well as the Ton Ton Macoute, the secret police.
With revolution in their blood, part of who they are, Haitians have repeatedly revelled against their oppression, but stripped of their resources they have remained one of the world’s poorest nations, plagued by violence, poverty and AIDS.
We in the Caribbean owe Haiti a great debt. Their revolution helped to lay groundwork for the abolition of slavery. With the addition of the Demerara Revolt and other similar skirmishes across the Caribbean, (including Barbados), they were the harbingers of the end for slave-labour dependent economies.
We should be far more committed to helping Haiti to develop economic and political stability, yet we are afraid of going against America’s continued interference and indifference (an odd attitude, but nonetheless this is exactly their behaviour) and their two hundred-year-old status-quo. It’s almost as if, with the continued subjugation of Haiti, the rest of the Caribbean will never truly be independent from external forces who only wish to plunder and control.
Jean Betrand Aristide the populist priest cum-political dissident (who funnily was the first democratically elected President of Haiti in the 20th Century), was one of the only Haitian leaders in the last hundred or so years that tried to change things: Increasing minimum the wage, taxing the rich to pay for social programmes, redistributing the wealth of Haiti more evenly. Needless to say Aristide was ousted by yet another CIA-backed coup and created the dreaded FRAPH, an organization set up to destroy the Lavalas movement.
Aristide took to the international democratic corps to press his case to be reinstated into Haiti. And while he succeeded in the long run, he like Toussaint before him, was left at the mercy of the US’ (read: Powers that be) demands. President Aristide was compelled to agree a to neo-liberal structural adjustment program (shadings of the IMF etc.) which continue to conscript Haiti as a neo-colony of the U.S..
Today Haiti continues to suffer as a consequence of the invasive tampering by covert US policies and actions, hence the task of building democracy in Haiti is very much a work in progress with the U.S. placing barriers and stumbling blocks in the way at every turn. It has been very easy for West Indians to marginalise Haiti and the seriousness of the issues— to not stand neck to neck to help this country develop into a self-sustenance, but we turn away constantly.
Unless the masses come together to fight the injustices committed against one of us, then all of us will perish. So don’t skin up your nose and say, “Who cares about Haiti!?” We owe it to them to help them finish their revolution—one that has been stuck on pause for nearly two hundred years, but which helped to free us all.
sungoddess thinks West Indians need to learn about who they really are, before they mask it with paint from the state-run store. We’ve always been fighters against injustice.
First Published Feb 26, 2000
I keep telling all who will listen that Haiti’s problems are complex. They simply cannot be explained away by blanket statements. I get so disappointed with people who surely should know better but keep on enlightening
@brownsugarwoman This piece was heavily edited, I can still see the chop marks… was printed in a local magazine a decade ago. It’s missing soooo much stuff.
“Despite the penchant for the average young person to not care about political events, (particularly in the Caribbean where it often boils down to puffed up chests and overblown egos arguing about nothing in particular)”
A wonderful post, marred by this nightmarishly false, bigoted excerpt. I would love to share this post– the rest of it is brilliant– but I will not expose others to this bigotry.
I don’t know whether you really do hate your own people this much, or whether you’re just excessively careless with words; but the claim that political commentary in the Caribbean is more marked by egotistical posturing than the equivalent in Italy, America, or England, is a claim that seems stained by cultural bigotry if not racism.
Check yourself before you wreck yourself. If you’re truly writing for the edification of your people, try not to wound with false condemnation while you do so.
I always garner my own criticisms for being harshly critical about aspects of our cultural & political landscape here in the Caribbean. I agree that the comment could have been softened some, I will give you that. I’ll also add that this article was written by a hot-headed ten-years-younger version of myself.
So while I understand your comments as a 36 year old looking back at the 25 year old who wrote this piece, I still defend the comment made then. Although a decade has certainly tempered my view… The thought that I ‘hate’ my own people, is actually erroneous. Do you hate your brother because he’s being an asshole and you tell him, “Dude you’re being a jerk!”? Is spanking a child abuse? Is BSDM exploitative rape?
I love being truly Caribbean in my skin, bones, upbringing and experiences. I love human beings where-ever they are found. Yet, I feel as though if you are too harsh in your comments around these parts, people tell you you’re painting too harsh a picture. I dunno… I wrote this piece like I write so much in my life… for myself. They’re all pieces of me released into the wild… I know I can be very critical about things that happen in the Caribbean, but it’s only because I love my countries, my people so and I know they are capable of more than the mediocrity that is the status quo. I am NOT misrepresenting, this is what it is. I’m just a lot less likely to sweeten my words when I am annoyed about someone’s cavalier ignorant comments about Haiti, which this article was actually PROMPTED by. So forgive my youthful hothead… had I written it now, it would have been less likely to offend anyone, but hopefully shared so info.