This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday April 28 2013
After independence, Haiti’s leaders were desperate for recognition. In 1825, under threat of another French invasion and the restoration of slavery, Haitian officials signed a document agreeing to pay an indemnity of 150 million Francs (comparable to US$12.7 billion as of 2009) in return for France recognising Haiti’s independence.
Victor Schoelcher published many articles between 1833 and 1847 about the evils of slavery. He was the first European abolitionist to visit Haiti. Schoelcher argued: “Imposing an indemnity on the victorious slaves was equivalent to making them pay with money that which they had already paid with their blood”.
The impact of the debt repayments – which continued until after World War Two – was devastating. Haitian anthropologist Jean Price-Mars wrote: “the incompetence and frivolity of its leaders had turned a country whose revenues and outflows had been balanced up to then into a nation burdened with debt and trapped in financial obligations that could never be satisfied.” This may be unfair, as the demand was allegedly delivered to the country by twelve French warships armed with 500 cannons.
By the late 19th century, the USA had eclipsed France in Haiti. A US military occupation (1915-34) brought back the corvée (state-imposed forced labour). The Haitian army, which never fought a non-Haitian enemy, was created by an act of the US Congress. The Americans abolished the clause in the Haitian constitution barring foreigners from owning property, took over the National Bank, reorganized the economy to ensure more reliable payments of foreign debt and expropriated land to create their own plantations.
Canadian political philosopher Peter Hallward wrote: “The United States installed several puppet presidents favourably disposed to American corporate interests. But eventually, Haiti stopped being worth the trouble. Strongman regimes made a mockery of democratic governance; millions migrated from the countryside to a capital unready for such a vast population influx. Haiti’s problems were so systemic, its infrastructure so rotten, that when interested foreigners got together to discuss them, the solutions always came down to one of two things: a bulldozer or a bomb.”
François Duvalier was president from 1957 until his death in 1971. He was called Papa Doc because he started out as a simple country doctor, fighting disease among the poor (sponsored by the US). He opposed a military coup in 1950, and was elected president in 1957. He used the Tonton Macoutes (bogeymen) to extend and bolster support for the regime in the countryside. The Macoutes had twice the numbers of the regular army. An estimated 30,000 Haitians died as a result of Papa Doc’s tyranny.
He was succeeded by his son, Jean-Claude, nicknamed “Baby Doc”. After assuming power, Baby introduced cosmetic changes, but thousands of Haitians were killed or tortured, and hundreds of thousands fled the country, further sapping the economy and creating a diaspora. His lavish lifestyle was funded with millions from involvement in the drug trade and from selling body parts from dead Haitians.
Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide (Titid – Creole for Le petit Aristide) was a proponent of liberation theology. In September 1988, he was saying mass when the church was set on fire by a gang paid by the mayor of Port-au-Prince. Twelve people died. Aristide rose from being a slum priest to be president of Haiti. He was focal point for the pro-democracy movement first under Baby Doc and then under the military transition regime which followed. His party FL (Fanmi Lavalas – “Waterfall Family”, referring to the Biblical flood) claimed to support a policy of “growth with equity” based on Caribbean and Western European social democratic principles. FL’s policy was to invest in education and healthcare and refused IMF austerity measures. In the presidential election on December 16, 1990, Aristide got 67% of the vote in a field of twelve. No run-off was required.
Aristide came under fire from those wanting compliance with the US and IMF and was overthrown in a military coup in September 1991. General Raoul Cedras, led an oppressive regime marked by numerous human rights violations. For the next three years Haiti was run by military-civilian juntas as ruthless as the Duvaliers. According Gayle Smith, a member of the National Security Council staff under Bill Clinton, “Most people around the world believe that Aristide’s departure was at best facilitated, at worst coerced by the US and France”.
In October 1994, under Bill Clinton, the US military intervened and restored Aristide to power, with a little over a year of his term left to run. Although authorised by the UN, the restoration was basically a US operation. In November 2000, Aristide was again elected by a landslide. The US cut off aid and ignored pleas from the Aristide government for an international peacekeeping force as anti-Aristide death squads overran more than half the country. US marines stationed in Haiti made no effort to disarm these rebels. Under disputed circumstances, Aristide was flown out of the country by the US on February 28, 2004. Aristide has accused the U S of kidnapping and deposing him.