More Thoughts on Haiti


I spent some time today reading and watching a few videos about events in Haiti.   Of course, this is the time in the crisis where the human interest type stories come out about heroic measures to save people and the stories of survivors.  Even in some of this, it seems that the focus is on Americans who got out and it seems that some private rescue teams were sent to specific sites where American citizens were known to be so they could be evacuated.  Even in the horror of this event,  there’s an economic based triage that places preferences on which lives to save.  

I’ve been aware of Haiti’s history as the first free black republic in the Western hemisphere owing to their uprising against the French under the leadership of Toussaint L’ouverture.  Haiti as a nation was born out of a slave revolt and this is certain to reside in the recesses of every Haitian’s memory notwithstanding the string of crises that nation has encountered over the years ending with this most recent tragedy. 

Frederick Douglass was once appointed minister to Haiti and had a number of observations about that nation that were the subject of a lecture given at the World’s Fair in 1893 in Chicago.  I’ve excerpted some portions of the speech below.  (You can read the full speech here):

My subject is Haiti, the Black Republic; the only self-made Black Republic in the world. I am to speak to you of her character, her history, her importance and her struggle from slavery to freedom and to statehood. I am to speak to you of her progress in the line of civilization; of her relation with the United States; of her past and present; of her probable destiny; and of the bearing of her example as a free and independent Republic, upon what may be the destiny of the African race in our own country and elsewhere.

…….NO OTHER LAND HAS BRIGHTER SKIES. No other land has purer water, richer soil, or a more happily diversified climate. She has all the natural conditions essential to a noble, prosperous and happy country. [Applause.] Yet, there she is, torn and rent by revolutions, by clamorous factions and anarchies; floundering her life away from year in a labyrinth of social misery. Every little while we find her convulsed by civil war, engaged in the terrible work of death; frantically shedding her own blood and driving her best mental material into hopeless exile. Port au Prince, a city of sixty thousand souls, and capable of being made one of the healthiest, happiest and one of the most beautiful cities of the West Indies, has been destroyed by fire once in each twenty-five years of its history. The explanation is this: Haiti is a country of revolutions. They break forth without warning and without excuse…. .. The common people of Haiti are peaceful enough. They have no taste for revolutions. The fault is not with the ignorant many, but with the educated and ambitious few. Too proud to work, and not disposed to go into commerce, they make politics a business of their country. Governed neither by love nor mercy for their country, they care not into what depths she may be plunged. No president, however virtuous, wise and patriotic, ever suits them when they themselves happen to be out of power.

I wish I could say that these are the only conspirators against the peace of Haiti, but I cannot. They have allies in the United States……. It so happens that we have men in this country who, to accomplish their personal and selfish ends, will fan the flame of passion between the factions in Haiti and will otherwise assist in setting revolutions afoot. To their shame be it spoken, men in high American quarters have boasted to me of their ability to start a revolution in Haiti at pleasure. They have only to raise sufficient money, they say, with which to arm and otherwise equip the malcontents, of either faction, to effect their object……  Others of a speculative turn of mind and who have money to lend at high rates of interest are glad to conspire with revolutionary chiefs of either faction, to enable them to start a bloody insurrection. To them, the welfare of Haiti is nothing; the shedding of human blood is nothing; the success of free institutions is nothing, and the ruin of neighboring country is nothing. They are sharks, pirates and Shylocks, greedy for money, no matter at what cost of life and misery to mankind….

Manifestly, this revolutionary spirit of Haiti is her curse, her crime, her greatest calamity and the explanation of the limited condition of her civilization……..”

So, it appears that Haiti has gone through many of the same difficulties now as it did in Douglass’ day.  It also seems that the external influences that exist today also existed then in support of  fanning the flames of internal dissent.   There have been a great many coups and revolts in Haiti and many have been proxy battles for the interests of these external influences. There have also been those who pursue coups as a way of positioning themselves to abscond with that nation’s treasury.

Ultimately, true revolutionaries must be able to govern but that’s a function of two things—competence and political stability; two things that have been in short supply in Haiti.  By this measure, perhaps the only true revolutionary was L’ouveture and he was cut short by imprisonment and death in France.

Political stability is greatly facilitated if external influences can be kept at bay.  I find it interesting that Douglass noted that this was even a problem back in his day as economic interests sought to stir the pot as part of some grand economic strategy.

Unfortunately, it’s very easy to purchase men and armies when they’re impoverished with few options.  That can only be resisted with a strong sense of nationalism among the populace that overrides the inclination to be bought on the cheap by those seeking to encourage strife.   Getting that to flourish takes committed leadership and a true commitment to a purpose larger than oneself.

Since Douglass’ 1893 lecture, what has actually happened in Haiti?  It’s been a continuation of the same thing:

  • From 1915 to 1934, the US occupied Haiti under the guise of re-establishing peace and stability, but in reality  invaded at the behest of banking interests to whom Haiti was indebted.  A secondary objective was to counter the growing influence of a contingent of Germans who were interfering by financing numerous revolts. 
  • For the following 50 years after occupation, a series of US backed military dictatorships ruled the country ending with the rule of the Duvalier family. For the most part, the Duvaliers presided over a reign of terror 
  • The year 1990 saw the first democratically elected leader, Jean Bertrand Aristide, an extremely popular reformist Catholic priest and a long time critic of US foreign policy in Haiti.  He was deposed after only 8 months in office.   Aristide’s sin was his desire to get some much needed social services to the poor and raise the minimum wage above subsistence levels.
  • The CIA sponsors a paramilitary group known as FRAPH (Front of Advancement and Progress of Haiti) to balance, spy on and otherwise terrorize Aristide’s followers.  As part of a dual strategy, the Clinton administration negotiates with Aristide his return to power.  Most the negotiations center on Aristide toning down his “leftist” agenda and convincing him to implement the “structural reforms” demanded by the IMF.
  • The IMF structural reforms called for, among other things, a drastic reduction of state involvement in the economy, privatization of public services and the lifting of trade barriers.  The practical effect of all this was the destabilization of its agriculture, the lowering of wages, little or no state services and a devaluation of  Haiti’s currency, the gourde, which set off a wave of price inflation and accusations that Aristide was mismanaging the economy.
  • In 2004, an armed rebellion starts up against Aristide again.  The folks in the rebellion are basically remnants of the CIA supported FRAPH and the Haitian Army.  Aristide is forced into exile amid accusations that the US government orchestrated a coup against him.   The US and the UN troops were not inserted to keep the peace but to quell boiling resentment at the second forced exile of Aristide.
  • Haiti began as a nation mired in debt when France demanded that it reimburse it for the loss of its colony.  Much of Haiti’s current foreign debt was incurred during the Duvalier regime, the benefit of which wound up in that family’s pocket.  Debt service takes up 35% of Haiti’s GDP and that squeezes out things like education , health care or basic infrastructure.
  • Haiti has become a major transshipment point for cocaine coming into the US. This is one of the few sources for it to generate foreign exchange.  Somehow, even with our involvement and with UN troops on the ground, this trade was flourished rather than declined.

So, we can see that not much has changed from Douglass’ day.  Haiti, although she fought for and earned her freedom, had basically been enslaved again and the latest tragedy just adds insult to injury.

There’s talk of forgiving her debt and that’s all well and good, but the real talk needs to revolve around just leaving her alone after giving her a hand up from this tragedy.  Our nation, in particular, has had a very checkered record when it comes to Haiti and one wonders just how the Haitians will react to our stepped up involvement with them now especially since its common knowledge we’ve supported many of the coups and tyrannical dictators since 1915.  I can’t imagine them seeing us as an honest broker or even someone to be trusted and at some point that will come to the surface.   Given that most Americans are blissfully unaware of our history with Haiti, if things do come to a boil, most will not be able to put it in context. 

But beyond that, is the question of the drug trade.  Surely, the earthquake has destroyed enough of the infrastructure so that the trade would find it difficult to re-establish itself.  The US military is now in control of  the airport and will have outright defacto political control, so let’s see if that means an end to the drug trade or whether rebuilding Haiti allows it to re-establish itself. 

The world’s greatest sin against Haiti has been the desire to do something with her, rather than let her find her own way.  Unfortunately, this tragedy will result in more of that. 


2 Responses to “More Thoughts on Haiti”
  1. Great information with the details on Fredrick Douglass. I did not know his interactions with Haiti.

    • Greg L says:


      I’m a great admirer of Frederick Douglass. In the annals of American oratorical address, he knew few equals and many of his writings and speeches have been lost to history. A book I highly recommend is his autobiography as it’s a history book and a literary work combined.

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