Posted on May 24, 2007
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Notes for Haiti
by John Maxwell
As the Atlantic world celebrates the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade there is one country conspicuously missing from the celebration, the nation which first abolished modern slavery and began the inexorable destruction of the slave trade and slavery itself in the rest of the Western hemisphere.
When the Haitians overthrew French rule in Haiti in 1804, the Haitians became the first and only slaves in history to liberate themselves and abolish slavery. The Haitians went on to defeat a British expeditionary force and then defeated a French expeditionary army under Napoleon�s brother-in-law, killing some 60,000 Frenchmen in the process. Almost incidentally, the also defeated a Spanish army sent to try to restore slavery.
Before that the Haitians had fought alongside the American revolutionaries to help them throw the British out of the American colonies. Haitian help was crucial in at least two battles in which British power was broken – at Savannah, Georgia and at Yorktown.
The Haitians then declared and implemented, for the first time anywhere, a society in which every person, man, woman and child was free from birth and enjoyed, equally, all the civil rights available to any other human being. The American and the French Revolutions, which preceded the Haitian Revolution by a few years, were fought ostensibly to enshrine the Rights of Man. The Haitians however, were the only people to place universal human rights as the actual foundation stone of their revolution.
In the United States, blacks would not – for another century and a half – be entitled to exercise the civil rights for which Crispus Attucks and fellow American blacks and black Haitians described officially as French, had fought and died. Henri Christophe was one of those Haitians who fought for American freedom.
Clearly, the Haitians should be at the centre of any celebrations commemorating the end of the most brutal and unjust human institutions yet devised. Instead, they have been penalised for 200 years for their impertinence and temerity in precipitating the collapse of the institution on which western wealth, power and culture were founded.
The Americans were frightened by a liberated Haiti, threatening the slave socety of the United States by promising freedom to any slave who could reach Haiti. The Haitians also harboured and provisioned Bolivar and asked of him in return only that wherever his army triumphed, he should abolish slavery.
The Americans worked hard to contain the Haitian revolution, refusing to trade with Haiti unless the Haitians compensated the French for their loss of the richest colony in the world. The Haitian tribute to the French ruined them economically, consuming almost their entire national product for generations. When the Haitians could not maintain their payments the Americans offered to lend them the money. When the Haitians defaulted on that the Americans invaded.
The American 1915 intervention was explicitly and essentially racist and was perhaps best exemplified by the notorious remark of the American Secretary of State at the time, William Jennings Bryan. Upon discovering the ethnic character of Haiti he was appalled: �Imagine!� he expostulated, �Niggers speaking French!� encapsulating for a century white American incomprehension of the humanity of people who don�t look like them.
In 1915, the Americans were intervening in Haiti for the 27th time. The intervention destroyed the Haitian Constitution, split the Haitian society along the existing racial fault-lines and installing the fair-skinned elite in power, backed by an army modeled on the invading force of US Marines.
The Haitian Army, backed by the US, became the controlling factor in Haitian politics for half a century, until the election of Francois Duvalier who invented a new irregular force of official terrorists called the Tonton Macoute and a dictatorship which ruled Haiti for nearly three decades more.
When the Haitians rose up against Duvalier�s son and overthrew the dictatorship they had every reason to believe that at last, they were again free.
The army again seized power and were only persuaded to allow free elections after another US intervention. In the first free elections in Haitian history, they elected a President � Jean-Bertrand Aristide � by overwhelming popular vote. The army again intervened and Aristide was deposed. After international agitation Aristide was restored to serve out the final months of his presidency. He was unable to succeed himself and was succeeded by Ren� Pr�val, an ally.
In elections to succeed Pr�val, Aristide won again by a lopsided majority and was again deposed, seized by American troops and transported to Africa.
According to the North American pundits, the best interests of Haiti meant Aristide should sell off the few national productive assets and accepting the guidance the Elite, who unable to win power by fair means had hoped to convince Aristide to accept the American agenda. This mean accepting the dictates of the International Financial institutions (IFIs), the World bank, the IMF et al, to mortgage his poverty-stricken country to foreign usurers to build super-highways and other hard infrastructure when what Haiti wanted was the development of its people first so they could handle the work of re-inventing and rebuilding their nation.
A year ago, in new elections induced by international public opinion, the Haitian people again demonstrated that they wanted their president back.
Despite intimidation, the confusion, the bad faith and the UN peacekeeping forces, they made the election work. If ever there were a people deserving autonomy, it is the Haitians. They proved it 200 years ago, and they keep on proving it. But the world does not listen. The governments of the United States, France and Canada using the UN Security Council. And a so-called peacekeeping force, control the destinies of the Haitian people.
The powers know what Haiti needs, but while we celebrate the abolition of the slave trade, for which they are largely responsible, they are less free but not less proud, than they were 200 years ago.