Haiti: The Meek and the Militant

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Haiti's current crisis is rooted in its history of colonialism.

Two hundred years ago a rag-tag army of slaves led by Toussaint L'Ouverture, himself a slave, defeated Europe's finest colonial armies and won independence for Haiti. This remarkable revolution is barely known outside Haiti, but the world's ruling powers have never forgiven the country and its people for their victory.

In the 1700s Haiti (then called San Domingo) was the richest colony in the world. The source of the wealth was the island's lush plantations and the brutal exploitation of half a million slaves captured from Africa.

Inspired by the ideas of the French Revolution, the slaves of San Domingo rose up in 1791. Over the next 12 years, armed only with farm instruments, they defeated all the armed forces the local slave-owners could rally, then a Spanish invasion, then a British force of 60,000 men (at one point winning seven battles in seven days), and finally a massive French expedition.

The revolution sent shockwaves across the slave colonies of the Americas, inspiring other slave revolts and abolitionists like John Brown.

Thomas Jefferson, the slave-owning US president, led the campaign to isolate Haiti. The victorious slaves were denigrated as cannibals. Trade with Haiti was boycotted and then manipulated to the benefit of US traders. Recognition of Haiti's independence was refused for 62 years.

Meanwhile, Haitians had been forced to pay for independence not just with their blood, but also in cash. France insisted on 150 million gold francs (around $21 billion today) in exchange for independence - money that was supposed to compensate slave-owners and their heirs. When the first instalment of 24 million francs was due, Haiti (under threat by the French navy) was forced to borrow the money from France, placing the economy in the hands of its former colonial masters.

France's financial grip on Haiti continued until the US invaded the island in 1915 to crush an uprising. What followed was 19 years of military occupation during which US marines butchered around 60,000 Haitians. US forces, in the name of 'democracy', installed a president and took control of the economy. They seized the customs houses, the National Bank and gold reserves; reinstituted the corvée (a system of forced labour) to construct roads and other projects; rewrote Haiti's constitution to allow foreigners to own land and extract the country's resources; and created and trained a new army that became notorious for its ruthless repression.

In 1956 François 'Papa Doc' Duvalier seized power in a US-backed military coup. With Washington supporting his regime as a counterweight to 'communist' Cuba, Duvalier established a dictatorship with the help of the Tontons Macoute militia. The Duvalier dictatorship, which was taken over by 'Baby Doc' in 1971 and lasted until 1986, massacred tens of thousands of Haitians and stole hundreds of millions of dollars from the national coffers.

In the late 1980s a Catholic priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, suddenly seemed to offer hope to the poor with his message of liberation theology delivered in the slums of Port-au-Prince. He was swept to power in the 1990 elections.

Aristide's efforts to introduce reforms were overwhelmed by interference from abroad. The currency lost half its value, unemployment increased and poverty deepened. Aristide, who was more afraid of the militant masses than of the US and international finance, begged people in true Christian style not to rebel but to remain meek (and poor).

Seven months after his election, Aristide was ousted by a military junta led by US-trained soldiers. Thousands of Haitians were killed and tortured. The UN helpfully responded with an embargo, further impoverishing the country.

Three years later, in September 1994, President Clinton proclaimed to the world that he was 'restoring democracy' in Haiti and sent 20,000 troops to ensure Aristide's return to power. The motives behind 'Operation Restore Democracy' were not quite as he claimed. First, Clinton was facing hostility at home to the thousands of Haitian 'boat people' arriving on US shores as refugees - a 'crisis' he had promised to solve if elected president. Second, the US had just been humiliated in Somalia and needed a military success. Third, US authorities feared that the army in Haiti would soon be overthrown by popular revolt.

The fourth and crucial factor was that Aristide had deteriorated into little more than a US pawn. In exchange for his return to power, Aristide agreed to cede control of the Haitian economy to international capital. In 1993 he accepted an IMF-dictated programme for maintaining low wages, privatising state enterprises and eliminating tariffs and other controls on imports. Donor aid was explicitly linked to Aristide's agreement to privatise nine crucial state entities.

These policies were pursued by Aristide's government with the inevitable increases in poverty and inequality.

Even this was not enough to satisfy the international wolves. In the May 2000 elections Aristide's Fanmi Lavalas party overwhelmingly beat Washington's favoured candidates. The opposition, backed by the Organisation of American States, cried foul, the government refused to back down, and Haitians were again punished by an international blockade of millions of dollars of aid. A few months ago Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere, was forced to pay US $30 million in arrears on loans.

All this explains the current crisis. Aristide's government, whose popularity has slumped because he failed to stand up for the people he promised to help, resorts to police violence to quell demonstrations. The US continues to undermine democracy by backing the opposition and strangling the economy. The revenge goes on.