H is for Haiti

A couple weeks ago, during my church’s Black History Month celebration, we had a speaker talk about Haiti. He was a scholar on the topic and spoke for nearly 40 minutes, so I can’t bring you all that he shared. But I thought these points were particularly interesting.

Haitians fought in the American Revolutionary War on the side of the colonies. This became a source of great pride among the Haitian people. And the success of the the American example, and that of France c. 1789, was pivotal in the Haitians’ successful revolution (1791-1804).

Yet the United States was cool to the revolt on the island of Hispanola. “Could it be that…the specter of a revolution of slaves against white masters a revolution led by a former slave, Toussaint Louverture, who claimed for the former slaves a universal human right to freedom and citizenship made Americans cool to revolution?

“Thomas Jefferson, who readily accepted violence as the price of freedom in France, was not so relaxed about the black revolutionaries in Saint-Domingue as Haiti was called until its formal independence in 1804.

“Timothy Pickering, the irascible Federalist who served in the cabinets of both George Washington and John Adams…demanded of Jefferson, could he praise the French Revolution and refuse support for the rebels on Saint-Domingue because they were ‘guilty’ of having a ‘skin not colored like our own’?”

And fear of slave uprisings in the United States being inspired by the Haitian revolution was not entirely unfounded.

But it was the Haitian revolution which made Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana purchase in 1803 possible. The United States, who were only looking for access to the port of New Orleans got to nearly double its land. The French, who’d only reacquired the territory from the Spanish a few years earlier, got needed money and got to tweak Spain at the same time.

So why has Haiti been so poor for so long. Certainly a pair of reasons happened early on: boycott and reparations.

In 1806, fearful that the Haitian Revolution might inspire enslaved Africans in other parts of the Western hemisphere to rebel, the U.S. Congress banned trade with Haiti, joining French, Spanish and Portuguese boycotts. Global shipping originating in or by Haiti was banned from trading with or entering American and European ports of trade. This coordinated embargo effectively crippled Haiti’s export-driven economy and its development as a once prosperous Caribbean port… The embargo was accompanied by a threat of re-colonization and re-enslavement by the American-European alliance if Haiti failed to compensate France for losses incurred when French plantation owners, as a result of the Haitian Revolution, lost Haiti’s lucrative sugar, coffee and tobacco fortunes supported by slave labor…. Haiti spent the next 111 years, until 1922, paying 70% of its national revenues in reparations to France – a ransom enforced by the American-European trade alliance as the price for Haiti’s independence.

Many of these same points are discussed in this recent Daily Kos story.

I’m inclined to believe that rebuilding Haiti is not a moral imperative, it is economic justice that, if done correctly, could pay dividends for all concerned.

ABC Wednesday