Thursday, January 21, 2010

OPINION: Haiti’s Agonies Are Not Self-Inflicted, Part One

The Pencil Warrior
By Dave Wheelock

Haiti. As Americans struggle, most for the first time, to understand how one island nation so close to our own shores could play host to so much tragedy - the storms, coups, and grinding poverty, and now, an apocalyptic earthquake - old attempts at whitewash are again trotted out in popular media: The land is barren and unfit to support a population of eight million. The people are lazy, violent, and incapable of self rule. For some of course, the fact that most Haitians are of black African descent accounts for a lot; what can you expect from the descendants of slaves?
In the view of ultraconservative Christian evangelist Pat Robertson, the people of Haiti bear the curse of crossing his (and by Christian definition, everyone else’s) god: “They were under the heel of the French, you know Napoleon the third and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said 'We will serve you if you will get us free from the prince.' The Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since they have been cursed by one thing after another.” Never mind the legend is a fiction, and a damned intolerant one at that.
Whenever rationalizations that trade on a people’s stupidity or unworthiness emerge, thinking people will suspect there’s another story, one that perhaps remains purposefully hidden. And in the case of Haiti, they’d be right. Now, with the spotlight on Haiti, the opportunity presents itself for us to look behind old stereotypes and managed history to see the policies our government has supported, and is likely to continue, in the cover afforded by disaster.
Randall Robinson is an African-American lawyer who campaigned effectively against South African apartheid. A longtime observer of Haitian history, he is the author of An Unbroken Agony: Haiti, from Revolution to the Kidnapping of a President. Says Robinson, “The American people know almost nothing about what happened in 2004, about the abduction of President Aristide, about the destruction of Haiti’s democracy as a result of the efforts of both the United States and the French government.
“And I think that the only way we can move ahead constructively with Haiti is to begin by telling the full story of our relationship with Haiti since 1804, what happened in the nineteenth century and what has happened in the twentieth century, so that Americans will understand at long last that Haiti’s misery is largely not of its own making. They will learn of a Haitian people who are quite different from those who have been described to them.”
Viewed in the light of the history of Haiti, Robinson’s assertions begin to take on the air of truth. Like all histories, Haiti’s is complex, yet the intact thread running throughout is the exploitation of a rich land and its people by outsiders.
First, we must not forget that history is written by the victors, in this case invading ones. Christopher Columbus’s first act upon making landfall on the island of Hispaniola in 1492 was to claim the “tierra nueva” for Spain and the Catholic Church. His second was to begin the systematic enslavement and butchery of the native Taino population, while the debate developed in Spain over whether these savages were human or not. In retrospect, not an auspicious start for the Europeans, and certainly a disastrous turn for the Tainos, who predictably enough disappear from most history books from this point.
France eventually pushed its way onto the island and to be rid of them Spain ceded the western third, to become what’s now known as Haiti. Thousands of slaves were brought to Haiti from Africa in the late 1600s, the second wave of dehumanization brought to her shores by a more advanced civilization.
The first (or is it second?) myth to retire is the poverty of the land itself, which surrendered more riches for her French captors than the 13 colonies in North America produced for Britain. Next on the chopping block is any libel about the spirit, courage, determination, or abilities of this collection of slaves. Drawing from their ranks an array of able leaders, notably Toussaint L'Ouverture, the Haitian slaves overcame forces from Spain, England, and France in an epic revolt between the years 1791 and 1803. In 1804 Haiti became the first republic ruled by African descendants and the only permanently successful rebellion by slaves in our hemisphere.
Which brings us to the Americans, who had good reason to be nervous about developments in Haiti. The Haitian rebellion had not occurred in a vacuum, and every slave state in the world had an unbearable share of their economies to lose if their working capital became emboldened by the success in Haiti. Thus France did not formally recognize Haiti as an independent nation until 1834, and the United States not until 1862.
In the second installment of our inspection of Haiti, we’ll have a look at more recent history, and how things could have gone so awry in paradise.

Dave Wheelock, a member of the Oneida Nation, holds a history degree from the University of New Mexico. Mr. Wheelock's views do not necessarily represent those of the Mountain Mail. Reach him at


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