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The Caribbean seen through the pillaging of the first black republic: the Haitian experience
“Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather”
(Matthew 24, 28).
Many Caribbean people would be outraged at the very idea of being compared to the Haitians. This is due to such absurdities as racism (the Haitian population is the “darkest” in the Caribbean in proportion to the total population), the rejection of persons living under poor conditions (those Haitian migrants, saddled with contemptuous nicknames, who can be found throughout the region from the Bahamas to Greater Paramaribo and Cayenne), and the collective hysteria generated by the set of syncretic beliefs and practices grouped together under the all-encompassing label of “voodoo”, among others. Yet, things can be seen from a different perspective. “Haiti”, says Aimé Césaire1, “where negritude stood up for the first time (...). It was their conquest. Their conquest was also for all of us. If only we were worthy of it!” Haiti, by far the poorest country in the Americas, today represents a caricature of the Caribbean situation. In other words, the characteristics that are found elsewhere are here accentuated to the extreme. Haiti thus appears as a key to interpreting the Caribbean space.
A space of resistance
At the dawn of the 19th century, Haiti, the first nation to have removed the white from its flag, provided a “racial” response to an equally “racial” problem posed by the French colons. This response was both the impetus for the heroic Haitian Revolution and, much later, paradoxically, one of the forces in the drift toward the scourge of “François Duvalier’s “totalitarian negritude”2. Haiti is the legacy of a fierce marronage against both colonial oppression and the Government of the ambiguous figure of Toussaint-Louverture, an independence hero, but also a black planter (Bell 2007). Haiti is primarily the home of a resistant population. Resistant to the white colon, resistant to the reorganisation of the plantations during the Louverture/Dessalines revolutionary interlude, resistant to colonisation by the United States at the beginning of the 21st century, resistant to the large land planters, the military, as well as the predatory elite mulattoes (Averill 1997); a population that would hurl the statue of Christopher Columbus into the port of the capital during the first big déchoukaj (upheaval) of its history.
A plundered space
Plundering is an inseparable counterpart of the Haitian resistance. It all begins here with the colonial jewel seized by pirates that would contribute to making France an immensely rich country. In 1825, France and the Haitian Government of J.-P. Boyer signed a shocking agreement: the independence that was won, arms in hand, would be recognised by France in exchange for the promise to pay “compensation” amounting to 150 million gold francs, i.e. 15 billion Euros today! The colonial plundering gave way to the scheme of debt. This rapidly increased with the incessant racket of European warships, followed by the American occupation, which reorganised the national economy to benefit the American firms, at the expense of the Haitian taxpayers (Farmer 2005).
A complete encyclopaedia could be written on the plundering of Haiti. In highlighting the main events mention must be made of the tacit agreement entered into between the United States and the Duvalier family in 1971, ratifying the “referendum”(2,391,916 votes for and none against!), which enabled the young Jean-Claude, aged 19, to fill the seat vacated by the death of his father. In exchange, the period of “Jean-Claudism” would be marked by the neo-liberalisation of the national economy, largely for the benefit of the United States. A population of subsistence farmers was driven toward the squalid slums of Port-au-Prince, for a modern slavery (2US$ per day of work) in the duty free assembly plants, fulfilling the “American dream”. In 1986, Jean-Claude Duvalier was protected from the popular revolt by the United States army and escorted to a golden retirement on the French Riviera. He took with him 900 million dollars from the State’s coffers, the equivalent of 120% of his country’s debt3. “Baby Doc” symbolises the link between foreign interests and the comprador bourgeoisie. This period cannot be dissociated from the massive arrival of international “aid” to Haiti. This is summarised by one of its disillusioned participants as the compassion of the poor classes in rich countries, whose donations fund Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) assisting subsidised agriculture in those same countries, to dispose of their cereal surplus there. This occurred to the detriment of local agriculture, thereby enriching the local bourgeoisie (Schwartz 2010).
A trampled sovereignty
Today, the 45th President of the Independent Republic of Haiti over a period of two centuries, i.e. an average presidential term of approximately 2 years, is being installed in a Haiti that is still controlled by a foreign armed force, dominated by the countries of the North Atlantic, the MINUSTAH. Only seven presidents actually completed their term of office. Eight died while in power, three were assassinated, one committed suicide and twenty-five were victims of a coup d’état.
The first elections worthy of that name took place in Haiti in 1990, when the United States Government decided that a democratic façade was required. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a priest from the branch of theology of liberation, was then elected in the first round with 67% of the votes. The results were confirmed by the United Nations and the Organisation of American States (OAS) but were disputed by the Government of George H.W. Bush in the United States. They were seeking above all a façade democracy that would not challenge the organisation of a neo-liberal economy favourable to foreign investors, but which proved catastrophic to the Haitian farmers and workers. Thus, on two occasions, the CIA organised to overthrow Aristide, with the support of the Haitian bourgeoisie and some elements of the army, as well as former Duvalier Makouts. The Dominican Republic, another dependency /free zone of the United States in the region since its colonisation (1916-1924), served as a stepping stone (Cruse 2011).
A place from which to flee
Today, in the words of Haitian writer René Depestre, “the Haitian people are wading in the public dumping grounds of history, grappling with all the misfortunes of the world”: 80% of the inhabitants live below the poverty line and more than 2/3 of the working population has no formal employment. Almost 2% of Haitians have contracted the AIDS virus. Half of the wealth of the country is concentrated in the hands of the richest one-tenth, living in the exuberant luxury of villas in the suburbs of Pétionville4 or Miami. The country has also become a hub for Colombian cocaine and arms trafficking from Venezuela. Violence exploded with the emergence of urban gangs known locally as chimè, rivalling the monopoly of Colombian traffickers as well as the local army in the cocaine import/export sector. These gangs now find parallel funding in rackets, kidnappings, “hits”, etc.
In two decades (1970-1991), 20% of Haitians have emigrated, legally, or more often illegally, by plane or makeshift boats, primarily to the United States, Canada, France, or, for the less well-off, the Dominican Republic. 8.3 Haitians out of every 1,000 still emigrate each year, making Haiti one of the 15 countries with the highest emigration levels, comparable to countries like St. Vincent (10.92), and Guyana (14.3, the 41st highest in the world!), Trinidad (6.9), or even Jamaica (5.34) and Dominica (5.43). All these Caribbean territories belong to the group of 25 countries having the highest emigration levels in the world.
As indicated in the introduction, although the characteristics are magnified here, the specific case of Haiti is nevertheless representative of the Caribbean situation. What is important to note is that the plundering of these territories has not ceased; far from it, with the wave of “independent nations” beginning with Haiti, long in advance, as early as 1804 (independence from France), then 1934 (end of the United States military occupation). This nightmare of history, from which we are not likely to awake in the near future, has seen the emergence of an artistic explosion, which is also a characteristic of Haiti and the wider Caribbean. Here, one can find the symbol of limbo that is so dear to Guyanese writer Wilson Harris (1995), and the art of popular resistance and resilience, which is portrayed through literature, music, etc.
4. Note the irony of a place named after Alexandre Pétion, leader of the resistance of the mulatto faction against the armies of Toussaint Louverture during the War of Knives (1799).
Catégorie : What is the Caribbean ?
Pour citer l'article : (2013). "The Caribbean seen through the pillaging of the first black republic: the Haitian experience" in Cruse & Rhiney (Eds.), Caribbean Atlas, http://www.caribbean-atlas.com/en/themes/what-is-the-caribbean/the-caribbean-seen-through-the-pillaging-of-the-first-black-republic-the-haitian-experience.html.
Bell M.S. (2007). Toussaint Louverture, a biography, New York, Pantheon Books.
Cruse R. (2011). Haïti, les réfugiés (géo)politiques. Presses Universitaires des Antilles et de la Guyane (PUAG).
Farmer P. (2005). The Uses of Haiti, Monroe, Common Courage Press
Gage A. (1997). A day for the hunter. A day for the prey. Popular music and power in Haiti. University of Chicago Press.
Harris W. (1995). History, fables and myth in the Caribbean and the Guianas, Calaloux Publications
Schwartz T.T. (2010). Travesty in Haiti, A true account of christian missions, orphanages, food aid, fraud and drug trafficking, Lexington.