The news of violent street protests against Haiti’s President Jovenel Moise and of five American mercenaries being expelled after arriving on a “secret mission” should be no surprise.
Nor is it a surprise that President Donald Trump has stayed silent about Haiti, whether in the current crisis or otherwise, except when describing the poor black country with a crude word, as he focuses on the chaos in Venezuela. Especially in the last 50 years or so, Haiti has received little official attention from the United States, and certainly nothing commensurate with the fact that 500 free Haitians fought alongside the colonists in 1729 during the Revolutionary War — at a time when 13 colonies held 350,000 Africans in slavery.
Haitians liberated themselves from French occupation in 1804 and, for most of their history, they have been struggling for political and economic stability while being confronted by one hardship after another, one stigmatization after another.
After the Haitians won their freedom, the French demanded that they pay today’s equivalent of $21 billion in reparations to France and former slaveholders as the price for liberation, not dissimilar from the U.S. law that said a slave who fled was guilty of theft: Since a slave was “property,” the fugitive was, in effect, stealing himself, as Andrew Delbanco noted in his book “The War Before The War.” In liberating themselves, the Haitians were “stealing” French property and depriving their owners of their use. That act of extortion crippled the country, with economic consequences that are felt even today.
The United States showed gratitude for the help which Haitians gave to the Revolution by refusing to grant asylum to those who fled a new form of bondage under the 29-year dictatorship of Francois Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude and their Tonton Macoute terror squad. But Cubans fleeing communism were welcomed with open arms and allowed to become citizens. After the racist double standard faced sustained criticism, the Cuban Adjustment Act was re-interpreted to mean that Cubans would still be welcome but only those who made it to land – the “wet-foot, dry foot” policy.
Haitians, regardless of whether they arrived with feet wet or dry, were subjected to automatic deportation. Yet they have embarked on the dangerous voyage to America, hundreds, at least, dying in the attempt, and tens of thousands have been turned back at sea. Those who managed to make it to America have been facing slurs such as Haitians were responsible for the spread of AIDS. Long before Latinos had to face the racism of a United States president and Islamophobia became a currency of the xenophobic, Haitians have been living with the reality where, in schools, for example, the worst insult was “You Haitian.”
When the United Nations sent a mission to keep the peace, the peacekeepers contaminated the water with cholera that killed 5,000 Haitians. Some peacekeepers exploited the dire poverty of Haitian children, bartering for sex with boys and girls.
One girl said she had sex with 50 peacekeepers.
The Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, enacted laws that stripped at least 200,000 Haitian immigrants, including children born in the country, of all rights and deported thousands of them. That, after the massacre of between 20,000n and 30,000 Haitians in 1937 by Rafael Trujillo’s soldiers because, the story goes, they could not give the Spanish pronunciation of parsley.
Even efforts to stabilize the country through democratic elections failed. Jean Bertrand Aristide, a former Catholic priest who became the first elected president in 1990, was ousted twice from office.
Indeed, forces that have been arrayed against Haiti’s stability have also included power-hungry politicians, wannabe presidents, dictators, military leaders and mercenaries, including, most recently, the five who were deported earlier this month after, The Intercept reported, they arrived on a mission said to have been approved by Moise.
And, as if Nature itself is part of the conspiracy against the Haitian people, in addition to periodic destructive hurricanes an earthquake in February 2010 killed between 92,000 and 300,000 – the exact figure is not known – and left tens of thousands more with horrible injuries, destroyed 250,000 homes and making 1.3 million people homeless, of whom 550,000 are still in shelters, and 30,000 businesses. It may be tempting to believe that this nation of 11 million people packed into 10,714 square miles has so many woes that those who have been helping them – and they are many — are giving up because of compassion fatigue. But the international community, particularly France, can do more to help strengthen Haiti’s democracy to replace the mob rule that often breaks out, boost the economy and help the Haitian people rediscover the glory that was theirs when Toussaint Louverture and other national heroes founded the first black republic and the only nation created by a slave rebellion.
Until then, the instability and the cycle of poverty and despair will continue. And there must be a special place in hell for those responsible for creating it – and it must be filling up rapidly.