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Indybay FeatureRelated Categories: Haiti | International | Global Justice and Anti-Capitalism
Haiti: Crushed by U.S. power
A brief history of Haiti
LAST MONTH, U.S. Ambassador to Haiti James Foley issued a public statement decrying the ongoing political crisis in Haiti, which produced more violent confrontations at the beginning of the year. "On the eve of commemoration of the bicentennial of Haiti’s independence, an event which still resounds today as the symbol of victory over oppression, it is regrettable to note the deplorable state of human rights in Haiti," Foley said. What he didn’t say is that U.S. imperialism is now--and has always been--a major obstacle to the Haitians’ struggle for liberation. HELEN SCOTT tells this history.
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THE HISTORY of Haiti includes both brutal oppression and heroic resistance. The original Amerindian inhabitants were decimated by the murder, forced labor and disease accompanying European conquest in the 16th century.
By the end of the 17th century, the island--named Espanola by its "discoverer" Christopher Columbus--had been carved into a French colony in the West (Saint Domingue, now Haiti) and a Spanish one in the East (Santo Domingo, now the Dominican Republic).
Saint Domingue became an immensely profitable part of the global economic plantation system--in the words of socialist author CLR James, "a regime of calculated brutality and terrorism" based on the exploitation of African slave labor. As they did across the Americas, slaves fought for their freedom. In 1790, escaped slaves (the "maroons") and freed blacks (the "affranchis") organized a network of rebel cells.
Against impossible odds, the revolutionaries, led by towering figures such as Toussaint L’Ouverture (a figure brought to life in James’ brilliant The Black Jacobins), defeated the combined armies of France, Spain and Britain. On January 4, 1804, Haiti became the world’s first independent Black nation.
The European empires--as well as the newly independent United States--saw the new republic as a threat to their system and so refused to recognize Haiti’s sovereignty, doing everything in their power to undermine it. U.S. President Thomas Jefferson imposed sanctions that remained in place until 1862.
In 1825, France sent troops to demand 150 million francs as compensation for their lost "property." Haiti had no choice but to pay, and was saddled with a crippling debt. Haiti remained a besieged nation, its territorial waters invaded by European powers repeatedly throughout the 19th century.
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BY THE turn of the 20th century, the U.S. saw Haiti as a crucial part of a regional and global strategy for power. Disastrously for Haitians, their country would be subject for the next century to the shifting needs of U.S. imperialism.
Using Haiti’s constant political instability as an alibi, the U.S. invaded in 1915 and maintained a brutal military occupation for 19 years. In terms eerily similar to those used today about the U.S. military’s control over Iraq, the occupation of Haiti was justified as an exercise in nation building.
But then as now, the reality was of a racist military regime that violated every democratic principle and was driven by American economic and strategic interests. The occupying power installed a puppet president and rewrote Haiti’s constitution to ensure foreigners the right to own property.
The only development was geared towards the needs of American capitalism. Haitian peasants were rounded up, chained and forced to build the roads that connected the sugar mills and ports.
Rebel "cacos" developed into a mass movement against the occupation, and the U.S. was forced to withdraw in 1934. Haiti by now had a highly centralized state and an extensive military trained by the U.S. in suppressing domestic resistance. American corporations dominated its economy, and the already immense gap between the wealthy elite and the mass of impoverished peasants had grown even wider.
These conditions paved the way for the brutal dictatorship of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier. Duvalier came to power in 1957, using populist black power rhetoric against the predominantly light-skinned Haitian ruling class.
As president, he protected the interests of the very class he claimed to oppose and extended a regime of terror to control the impoverished population. He created the infamous "tonton macoutes," a plain-clothed army of thugs that terrorized the nation with indiscriminate violent attacks.
Duvalier proved himself a useful Cold War ally to U.S. imperialism, championing corporations and serving as an "anti-communist" counterweight to Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Similarly, his son and successor Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier carried out Corporate America’s agenda of "neoliberalism," opening up the economy and offering up Haiti’s poor as a cheap, heavily repressed labor force for foreign corporations.
Throughout the Duvaliers’ reign, the U.S. government refused to recognize Haitians fleeing state violence as political refugees and maintained a policy of forced repatriation--which meant certain torture and death.
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YET DESPITE poverty and repression, Haiti’s peasants and workers again rose up to fight for justice and liberty. In the 1980s, a mass movement known as "Lavalas"--meaning a cleansing wave or flood in Haitian Creole--toppled the hated Duvalier regime and embarked on a process of "dechoukaj" (uprooting) of the entrenched power structure.
In 1986, Baby Doc was forced to flee the country. In a telling departure from its usual policy towards genuine refugees, the U.S. government sent a military plane to collect their favorite dictator and take him--along with the money he stole from Haitians--to a safe refuge in France.
In a democratic election in 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide--a priest influenced by liberation theology--was elected president by a massive majority on promises of social reform. But just months later, a military coup--funded by the nation’s richest families and sponsored by the CIA--took down the democratically elected government and signaled a new reign of terror.
Mass arrests, assassinations, torture, beatings, rape and other atrocities became the reality for Haitians for the next three years. In 1991, 38,000 Haitians sought refuge in the U.S. But U.S. policy--under both George Bush Sr. and then Bill Clinton, who reversed his campaign promise on this as so much else--still refused to recognize Haitians as political refugees.
Less than 5 percent received asylum. The rest were repatriated, with hundreds being incarcerated at the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, which now houses victims of the U.S.-led "war on terror." U.S. officials even gave names and addresses of returned refugees to the coup authorities, guaranteeing arrest, torture and execution for unknown numbers.
In 1994, U.S. troops again invaded Haiti in "Operation Restore Democracy." This was sold as a great "humanitarian" intervention to remove a tyrannical coup regime and return a democratically elected president to power. Yet the U.S. had always been hostile to Aristide, and even while Clinton was publicly denouncing the coup leaders, the CIA was supporting the paramilitary organization FRAPH that terrorized the population during the coup years.
Many of the coup leaders received funding and support from the U.S., through the National Endowment for Democracy and the U.S. Agency of International Development, as well as the CIA. During the occupation, the U.S. cracked down on peasant and workers’ political organizations, while rehabilitating the thugs of the Duvalier and coup regimes.
The U.S. returned Aristide to power, but on the condition that he abandon his planned reforms, give coup leaders a role in the new regime and accept World Bank and IMF conditions. Aristide’s acceptance of these terms signified his degeneration from a champion of the people to a manager of the same old corrupt and unequal system.
Today, Aristide travels with his own armed thugs and champions export processing zones in the Dominican Republic, where Haitians will be low wage, non-union workers. In the years after the invasion, the U.S. government turned on Aristide, eventually putting an embargo on aid to Haiti when Washington’s handpicked successors were defeated by Lavalas.
Aristide responded by renewing his populist criticisms of U.S. neoliberal policies. Nevertheless, Aristide represents something very different than he once did.
As human rights lawyer Peter Dailey wrote last year, "The adult literacy campaigns, rural clinics, public works and land reform that for years Aristide had promised remain slogans rather than programs...[As early as 1999], it seemed to many Haitians that Aristide, who once personified Haitian aspirations for democracy, now represented Haitian democracy’s biggest obstacle."
Organized opposition to Aristide’s Family Lavalas comes from the Democratic Convergence, an unstable alliance of right- and left-wing forces, and the right-wing Group of 184. Independent left formations such as Ben Dupuy’s National Popular Party are few and small, partly as a result of the coup regime’s decimation of the left.
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BLEAK THOUGH this situation is, the history of Haiti’s 200-year struggle for independence has many lessons for us. One is that U.S. imperialism always claims to be for democracy and freedom--while violating sovereignty and seeking to install compliant regimes, no matter how brutal, which serve its interests.
Another is that democratic change comes not from foreign powers, but from a nation’s oppressed, which can and do rise up against intolerable conditions. Lastly, in order to assist those struggling in poor nations, we in the U.S. must do everything in our power to challenge the economic and military might exerted internationally by our own government.