This great essay from Joslyn Barnes in the Nation on the history of Haiti has been passed around the internet, so you may have seen it already, but I thought it was so concise and well done that I wanted to repost it here as well. I was recently reading a comment thread at Open Salon where a woman asked rhetorically "How did Haiti get to be a hell on earth"? The complete ignorance of Haiti's colonial history is shocking but typical. It is the same story all over; South Asia, Africa, the Middle East etc. The West colonizes a place thereby crippling its infrastructure, sits back during its "postcolonial" phase while it falls to pieces and then clicks its tongue, saying "See? Those people cannot manage themselves"... which retroactively justifies colonial intervention in the first place.
Haiti: The Pearl of the Antilles
January 19, 2010
The three great revolutions of the time period: the US (1776), the French (1789-1799) and the Haitian (1792-1804) should be taught in our schools as a trilogy. Haiti under the visionary Toussaint Louverture sought to realize the ideals of the US Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man for all men--unlike their authors. Haiti contributed massively to liberation struggles elsewhere, perhaps most significantly in Venezuela, assisting Simón Bolívar twice in his quest to achieve independence from Spain. That the Haitian Revolution alone has been virtually erased from history impoverishes us all. We should know whose shoulders we are standing on.
The blockade of Haiti eventually brought the new nation to its knees. The price of lifting the blockade was the payment of some 150 million francs (equal to $21 billion today) in reparations to the French for lost "property"--some of which was in the form of enslaved human beings. France also required that Haiti discount its goods at 50 percent, making it even harder to pay this debt. Though France later lowered the payment to 90 million francs, the cycle of forcing Haiti to borrow from French banks to make the payments chained the nation to perpetual poverty. Haiti did not finish paying her "debt" until 1947.
In the interim, concerned by increasing German interests in Haiti, and fears that it might occupy the Panama Canal, the United States invaded and occupied the country from 1915-1934. The US Assistant Secretary of the Navy at the time--none other that Franklin D. Roosevelt--rewrote the country's constitution. Since then, and especially under the brutal Duvaliers supported by postcolonial interests--Haitians have endured one corrupt dictator after another. Only those receiving the bribes have been blamed, however. What of the postcolonial corporate interests who offered? Are they not to be held accountable too?
In 1990 the populace elected the leftist priest Jean-Bertrande Aristide. History eventually repeated itself: the same "former" colonial powers intervened and used indebtedness again as their controlling weapon of choice. Former US President Bill Clinton, now the US envoy to Haiti and in charge of leading the quake assistance brigade, championed the structural adjustment programs imposed that effectively privatized Haiti's infrastructure.
The massive disaster we are seeing unfold on our television screens is directly connected to this policy. There are no first-responders--police, firemen, medical rescue workers or otherwise--in Haiti because the national infrastructure had already been gutted by powers far more devastating than the earthquake. The country has been servicing an unbearable and wrongful debt for centuries, at the expense of its own people.
That aid comes with strings attached is an old story, but when we are complicit in creating the conditions that make aid a survival necessity, and then cut off every other alternative--what have we done but reinstated slavery?
We can stop this cycle now. We must prevent, at all costs, our government, any government, the IMF or the World Bank, commercial lending institutions or corporate interests from taking any actions whatsoever that will further indebt or privatize Haiti's resources. Haiti's debt should be canceled completely, and it is Haiti that should be the recipient of long-overdue reparations."
Joslyn Barnes is a writer, producer and co-founder of Louverture Films with Danny Glover. She is the author or co-author of numerous commissioned screenplays for feature films including the upcoming epic Toussaint.