Home > Uncategorized > America’s debt to Haiti – posted 10/5/2021

America’s debt to Haiti – posted 10/5/2021

Has any country in the world suffered more than Haiti? It is the Job of nations. Earthquakes, tropical storms, gang violence, political assassinations, official corruption and extreme economic inequality are all part of the Haitian picture.

The 2010 7.0 magnitude earthquake alone killed 100,000 Haitians and left hundreds of thousands homeless. The international response exemplified what Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism”. The pursuit of profit by foreign contractors, greedy businesses, and NGOs’ took precedence over the survival needs of the Haitian people. Increasingly, Haiti is divided between a small elite class of the wealthy and impoverished masses.

Most recently we have observed the spectacle of horse-mounted Border Patrol agents wielding whips while rounding up Haitians who were crossing the border with Mexico to seek asylum in the United States. The Biden Administration is expelling and deporting many of these migrant families by flying them back to Haiti. Considering the arduous and dangerous journey, it must be a bitter pill to be returned to a place left because it was deemed impossible to stay.

I think it is fair to say that where Haitians are concerned, the image Americans typically get is one of desperation and absolute neediness. That image needs to be reconsidered by injecting a sense of historical perspective.

Americans owe a large and unacknowledged debt to the Haitian people. The Haitian revolution 1791-1804 played a critical role in early American history and in the abolition of slavery. It helped protect America from domination by both the French and the British who had imperial designs on our country. Both had expansionist empires.

The story is little known. The Haitian revolution followed on the heels of both the American and French revolutions, was inspired by both, and it stands as the only successful slave revolution in modern history. It was the largest slave revolt since Spartacus’ unsuccessful revolt against the Roman Republic 1900 years earlier.

The Haitian revolution shocked white supremacists and refuted notions of black inferiority. During the revolution, the Haitians defeated colonial militaries from Spain, Britain and France. The revolution was led by Toussaint Louverture, a former house servant, and Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Both were formidable military strategists.

Prior to the revolution, Haiti, known as Saint-Domingue, was a nation of 500,000 African slaves, 32,000 whites and 28,000 free Blacks. Saint-Domingue was the most profitable French colony and its wealth came primarily from sugar plantations worked by slaves. The French slavemasters were infamous for their extreme cruelty using whipping, castration, and burning to maintain iron discipline over the slaves.

The slaveholders worked slaves as hard as possible while providing a minimum of food and shelter. The life expectancy of slaves was very short. Fifty percent of the slaves in Haiti were dead within a year of arrival on the island. Many died from diseases like yellow fever. The slaves had no rights.

In 1802, when Napoleon sent his fleet to regain control of Haiti he wanted to re-establsih the French empire in the Caribbean. He ultimately desired to use Louisiana as a supply station for French colonies.

When the French were defeated by the Haitians, Napoleon had to give up his dream of empire. After losing a fortune in the conflict, Napoleon was desperate for money. Napoleon sold the Louisiana territory to the United States for 68 million francs, the equivalent today of $237 million. The Louisiana Purchase was a result of his defeat by the Haitians.

The Haitian revolution proved to be a roadblock to France, scuttling Napoleon’s expansionist dreams. The Haitians kept America free from French domination. Americans bought the right to contend with Native Americans in their pursuit of western expansion.

The Haitian revolution was also a major impetus for the abolition of slavery. In 1793, the Haitian revolutionary movement forced a decree abolishing slavery The decree was confirmed in Paris in 1794 by the National Convention which then ended slavery in the French empire. Thousands of white people fled Haiti for the U.S..

While it is difficult to attribute particular American slave revolts in the early nineteenth century to the Haitian revolution, there is no doubt that the revolution did act as inspiration for slaves. The Haitian revolution was widely reported. The ruling class in America saw Haiti as a dangerous example for U.S. slaves. Southern slaveholders actually worried that armed Haitians might land in the southern U.S. and launch attacks to free slaves.

The spectre of slave insurrections haunted the imagination of Southern slaveholders. And they had good reason to fear. Slave insurrections like the 1811 German Coast Uprising in Louisiana and Denmark Vesey’s aborted uprising in 1822 provoked Southern paranoia.

The British were also very concerned that the success of slave revolts would inspire insurrections in British Caribbean colonies.

As President, Thomas Jefferson, a Virginian and a slaveowner, refused diplomatic relations with Haiti’s new government and cut off trade with the country. He feared the Haitian revolution would spread to the United States. The United States did not extend diplomatic recognition to Haiti until 1862.

Before he died, Frederick Douglass described the Haitian revolution as “the original pioneer emancipator of the nineteenth century”. It posed a “threat to all slaveholders throughout the world” and “her very name was pronounced with a shudder”.

The Haitian revolution showed American abolitionists that a new world beyond slavery was possible. It was a tremendous shot in the arm for abolitionists everywhere. Part of the debt Americans owe Haiti is a moral one. Slavery is one of the two major stains on America’s conscience. Haiti showed by example that we did not have to live compromised by a moral atrocity.

When we see pictures of desperate Haitians now seeking asylum, maybe we should think about the history and what we owe the Haitian people. We should also consider that much of Haiti’s poverty was imposed by French colonialism. In 1825, the French forced Haiti to pay reparations (the equivalent of $21 billion) to the enslavers in exchange for recognition. The debt was crushing and contributed to long-term poverty for the Haitians.

We are still seeing the Haitian refugees through racist eyes. Rather than summary deportation, the Haitians deserve due process and a right to a hearing to make their asylum claim. Denying their right to seek asylum in the U.S. is in violation of both domestic and international law. Under the Refugee Act of 1980, those who arrive at the border are entitled to seek asylum if they can demonstrate a “well-founded fear of persecution” based on their race, religion, nationality political opinion or membership in a social group.

The Biden administration should not be following the Trump example. They have been expelling Haitians using Title 42, making the discredited claim Haitians are a threat to public health. This argument was crafted by Stephen Miller, who is a hatemonger and an anti-immigration kook.

Americans have been propagandized to hate and fear immigrants and refugees. Workers have every right to be angered about the degradation of their working and living conditions here but it is not immigrants who have caused that. Xenophobia and harsher restrictions on immigration are contrary to our needs as a nation.

Given our history, the Haitian refugees seeking asylum deserve so much better. America owes Haiti. Too many approach these extremely difficult circumstances with no historical perspective.

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