For Suffering Haiti, The First Word...
Haiti is in pain. We had never seen a disaster so close and so terrifying as the earthquake of Tuesday, January 12. Never before had a Latin American country— and to top it all, the poorest country—suffered something so terrible. We don’t want to repeat news that’s already known and still emotionally moves us. What seems appropriate is to remember a bit of Haitian history that can better explain the magnitude of the tragedy, because Haiti’s pain began long before the earthquake.
US evangelical preacher Pat Robertson said the earthquake that hit Haiti—which is estimated to have left more than 150,000 dead, 200,000 injured and 2 million homeless—is the fault of Haitians themselves because they made a pact with the devil more than two hundred years ago to secure their independence.
Pat Robertson got it all wrong. There was no pact, and there has been more than one devil in Haiti’s history…
The first devil was called Spain. At the end of the 15th century, Spaniards invaded the Americas. The native Taino population on the island called Auiti was peace-loving. Christopher Columbus and his sailors, hungry for gold, were responsible for the first mass killings. The sword and forced labor devastated the population of this small Caribbean island. Smallpox and syphilis, to which those whose bodies had never been exposed had no resistance, did away with the rest. When the Spaniards arrived, Haiti had an indigenous population of 500,000. Twenty years later barely 30,000 remained, all of whom were working as slaves cleaning gold. Fifty years later not a single Taino was alive to tell the horrors of those white devils.
The second devil was called France. At the end of the 17th century, the French, as part of their wars of expansion and conquest, threw the Spaniards out of the western half of the island baptized Hispañola and took possession of Haiti. Cap-Français, the country’s first capital, was the seaport where the ships carrying Blacks from Africa arrived. Slaves had an average of five years of useful service working on the sugar plantations. They died by the thousands and were replaced by others. The France of liberty, equality and fraternity accepted with no repugnance the most terrible slavery in Haiti, the rich colony across the sea that supplied sugar to the European masses. The famous French freethinkers considered slaves simply animals for their service.
But the slaves rebelled against the French tyranny, led by François Dominique Toussaint Louverture. His ragged army beat the army of Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1804 Haitians proclaimed the first independence in Latin America. Haiti was the first country in the world to legally abolish slavery, to declare liberty for all human beings, not England or the United States, as history books claim. The flag of free Black men and women was raised above the ruins. The Haitian land, devastated by the mono-cropping of sugar, deforested by the exploitation of mahogany, laid waste by the war, had lost a third of its population in the battlefields. The devil called France never forgave either the humiliation or the loss of that colony, so rich and so exploited.
The third devil was called Europe. After its defeat, France blockaded the island and no nation recognized Haiti’s independence. The European powers could not allow the existence of a nation governed by former slaves. Haiti’s liberty put in question and threatened their own slave systems. Despite the international isolation, Haiti began to govern itself. Alexandre Pétion presided over the new republic and distributed land among the former slaves. Europe, however, white Christian Europe, supported France in its claim for mammoth compensation that the small new republic of Haiti would be obliged to pay in “war damages” for committing the crime of being free. France demanded 150 million gold francs, the equivalent of US$21.7 billion today. Haiti, strangled and abandoned by everyone, fell into the hands of rulers who were accomplices of Europe and used all the country’s resources to pay “the French debt.”
The fourth devil was called the United States. US bankers lent money to Haiti to build railroads and banana plantations. The loans—whose interest rates kept multiplying—became too much for the poor and isolated republic to pay. In 1915 President Woodrow Wilson dispatched the Marines to take control of Haiti. The first measures the invaders took were to occupy the customs house and tax collection office. They liquidated the National Bank, imposed forced labor on much of the population and prohibited Blacks from entering hotels and restaurants. With the pretext of protecting the Haitian gold reserves, they carried the gold off to strong boxes in New York.
After 19 years of occupation, the United States withdrew from the island, having accomplished its main objective: to cover the debts to City Bank. At the time, US Secretary of State Robert Lansing justified the long and vicious military occupation by explaining that the Negro race is incapable of governing itself since it has “an inherent tendency towards a savage lifestyle and an inability to be civilized.” The Marines’ “civilizing” mission ended in 1934, and as it did in Nicaragua the very same year, it left behind a fearsome national guard, trained by the Marines, to exterminate any possible outbreak of rebellion in Haiti.
The fifth devil was called François Duvalier, the infamous “Papa Doc.” In 1957, supported by the US army, this murderous doctor came to power and terrorized Haitians, mixing religion and politics. Inspired by the Italian fascist “black shirts,” Duvalier created a militia known as the “tonton macoute” which was responsible for killing 30,000 people and countless atrocities and tortures. Duvalier proclaimed himself “President for life.” Upon his death he was succeeded by his son, Jean Claude (“Baby Doc”), a leader as brutish as his father.
In 1986, after thirty years of one of the bloodiest dictatorships in Latin America, a popular uprising threw Jean Claude out of power. He sought asylum in France, whose “democratic” government offered him and his family a lavish exile. Finally, without the nightmares of the two Duvaliers, Haiti was able to hold democratic elections for the first time.
The sixth devil was called the Vatican. In 1991, Jean Bertrand Aristide, a very popular priest coming out of the base communities in Haiti, launched a campaign and won the presidency. Pope John Paul II, a staunch opponent of Liberation Theology, opposed Aristide’s candidacy from the start. The revolutionary priest lasted only a few months as President. The US government, which had no sympathy for Aristide’s timid social reforms, his proposals for bringing his people out of “extreme poverty into poverty with dignity,” helped overthrow him. Trained at the School of the Americas, Haitian General Raul Cedras led the coup against the government. The streets of Port-au-Prince filled with dead bodies. An accomplice in the coup, the Vatican immediately recognized the government of the new dictator.
US troops took Aristide to the United States where they had him undergo “treatment” to abandon his “extremist” ideas and, once retrained, they returned him to the Haitian presidency. To erase the evidence of US and Vatican participation in General Cedras’ organized slaughter, the Marines carried off 160,000 pages of secret Haitian archives.
The seventh devil was called the International Monetary Fund. In 1996 René Préval was elected president of Haiti. In fact, he wasn’t really the President at all because, since the time of the Duvaliers, the IMF and World Bank were the ones that controlled the Haitian economy. One of the few things Haiti produced was rice, a basic food for the people. Following the neoliberal recipes, the IMF made Haiti open itself to the “free market” and eliminate government support of national production. Haiti followed the directions of this lending organization without complaint. The peasant rice growers, who were the majority, became either beggars or boat people. Today, Haiti buys all its rice from the United States. It’s transgenic rice.
The eighth devil… What will its name be? Might it be crouching among those arriving with humanitarian aid and military presence? Might it be hidden among the avalanche of reconstruction projects? Will the Haitians find it in time? Will all of us in the rest of the world find it? Or will there finally be no more devils?
The earthquake that destroyed Haiti didn’t start on January 12 but more than 500 years ago. Will we finally be able to look at Haiti, the first free nation without slaves in the Americas, and see the dignity and respect it deserves?