Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

The Land that Wouldn’t Lie

By Peter Hallward

New Statesman

The Haitian people overthrew slavery, uprooted dictators and foreign military rule, and elected a liberation theologian as president. The west has made them pay for their audacity

After weeks of intense media attention, some of the causes of Haiti’s glaring poverty are obvious: years of chronic underinvestment, disadvantageous terms of trade, deforestation, soil erosion. What is less well understood is that – natural disasters aside – the fundamental reasons for Haiti’s current destitution originate as responses to Haitian strength, rather than as the result of Haitian weakness, corruption or incompetence.Haiti is the only place in the world where colonial slavery was abolished by the slaves themselves, in the face of implacable violence. As historians of the revolution that began there in 1791 have often pointed out, there is good reason to consider it the most subversive event in modern history.
Independent Haiti was surrounded by slave colonies in the Caribbean and flanked by slave-owning economies in northern, central and southern America. The three great imperial powers of the day – France, Spain and Britain – sent all the troops at their disposal to try to crush the uprising; incredibly, Haitian armies led by Toussaint l’Ouverture and then Jean-Jacques Dessalines defeated them one after the other. By late 1803, to the astonishment of contemporary observers, Haitian armies had managed to break the chains of colonial slavery not at their weakest link, but at their strongest.

This extraordinary victory provoked an extraordinary backlash. The war killed a third of Haiti’s people and left its cities and plantations in ruins. When it was finally over, the imperial powers closed ranks and, appalled by what the French foreign minister called a “horrible spectacle for all white nations”, imposed a blockade designed to isolate and stifle this most troubling “threat of a good example”.

France re-established the trade and diplomatic relations essential to the new country’s survival only when Haiti agreed, 20 years after winning independence, to pay its old colonial master enormous amounts of “compensation” for the loss of its slaves and colonial property – an amount roughly equal to the annual French budget at the time.

With its economy shattered by the colonial wars, Haiti could repay this debt only by borrowing, at extortionate rates of interest, vast sums from French banks, which did not receive the last instalment until 1947. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s request that France pay back some of this money, in the run-up to the bicentennial celebration of independence in 2004, encouraged the former colonial power to help overthrow his government that year.

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