Haiti first came to European notice when Christopher Columbus established a base there in 1492. From this strategic position he led and sent expeditions to explore the mainland of South America. The island, located near Cuba in the Caribbean Sea, had originally been named Haiti by the Arawak Indians, but Columbus renamed it Hispaniola.
The French and English set up pirate bases on the small island of Tortuga, located in the bay at the western end of Hispaniola. By 1625, Tortuga had become legendary as a haven for Caribbean pirates. The purpose of the island changed when Louis XIV of France gave Tortuga and western Hispaniola to the French West Indies Company. Settlers turned from piracy to plantations and named their portion of the island, Saint Domingue. The plantations of sugar cane and coffee were very profitable.
The French settlers of Hispaniola were left alone as turmoil mounted in eighteenth century France. When the Revolution began in 1789, the island settlers were encouraged to become part of the new government. The Revolutionary government abolished slavery in the colonies, yet would not recognize the political rights of the mulatto representatives to be included in the governmental process. Haitian mulattoes had historically been a separate class, considered distinct both from their white fathers and their black mothers. Neither of the parent groups had ever truly accepted or trusted the growing offspring mulatto group, even though some mulattoes were wealthy property owners. Some even owned slaves themselves.
Following the example set by the new homeland government, the white settlers refused to acknowledge the mulatto right to participate in the colonial government. The incensed mulattoes, led by Vincente Ogé, rebelled and were crushed by the whites, but the spirit of revolution persisted. The black former slaves were now willing to join the mulattoes in rebellion. This did not last very long, due to historical differences, and the two groups eventually separated. Distrust ran high. Blacks began to hate whites intensely, and to mistrust the mulattoes, whose loyalties, they felt, where suspect. (We will recall that from time to time, mulattoes had assimilated into mainstream French society; Josephine de Beauharnais, wife of Napolean Bonaparte, Alexandre Dumas, author of
The Three Musketeers
, and Jeanne Duval, mistress of the poet Baudelaire, were a few well known mulattoes.)
After the two rebellious groups separated, the blacks became ascendant, largely because of their advantage in numbers and their strength from hard, physical labor. The frightened mulattoes joined with the few remaining whites to stage a counter revolution. The counter attack failed leaving the black leaders in complete control. The revolution belonged to the largest, most oppressed group, under the leadership of FranCois Toussaint-L’ouverture, Henri Christophe and Michel Dessalines.
Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul of France, attempted to stem the tide of the colonial rebellion by sending his brother-in-law with 70 ships and 25,000 men to the island. The result was the surrender and eventual death in a French prison, of Toussaint-L’ouverture. The revolution did not end there. The French finally gave up Hispaniola due to problems with Napoleon’s European war effort. (We will recall that it was at this time that Napoleon sold Louisiana to the new United States, under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson.)
In 1804, Dessalines became emperor of the newly renamed Haiti. He remained dictator until his assassination in 1806. His successors, Alexandre Petion in the south, and Henri Christiphe in the north, struggled for control of the island. Each man considered himself an eternal dictator. Christophe had himself declared emperor and Petion was named president for life. In 1818 Petion died, followed two years later by Christophe’s suicide.
Haiti’s political history from 1820 until 1915 was one of internal turmoil and external warfare. The Spanish side of the island was briefly united with the French side. After twenty-two years the Spanish side established their independence and called themselves Santo Domingo. The two island neighbors continued to harass each other into the twentieth century.
The Haitian government needed to borrow heavily from foreign sources, especially the United States. As their agricultural and manufacturing productivity sank lower, they found themselves unable to repay loans. As the government struggled with overbearing egos and financial distress, they feared an invasion from their former father land. To prevent such happening Haitian president Boyer agreed to pay the descendants of French colonists for the land they had lost during the Revolution. Succumbing to such pressure was seriously improvident of President Boyer. The Haitian government was forced to default on a loan made through the National Bank of Haiti, a subsidiary of the National City Bank of New York. The American bank demanded payment and asked the United States military to aid in collection of the debt. In 1915 the U.S. Marines landed in Port Au Prince, under the aegis of the Monroe Doctrine of 1820. Haiti was in turmoil due to financial stress as well as the recent assassination of their dictator, Guillaume Sam.
American advisors were able to stabilize the economy and to write a Haitian constitution, but they also imposed a strict caste system based on skin color and economics. Through puppet mulatto government, the United States was able to successfully control Haiti. This situation lasted for nineteen years, until the Americans departed in 1934. The socio-economic and political conditions began to worsen from that time on.
In 1941 Dumarsais Estimé became the first totally black man elected president since just before the U.S. occupation. He attempted social reforms, even trying to unionize the factories. He was unsuccessful. Racism was at the heart of his failures. He, a black man with the concern about the plight of the common blacks, was defeated by a country which had come to respect only mulatto leadership. He made many enemies because of the pervasive bigotry.
In 1949 the university students staged a rebellion demanding economic and political reforms. The government was forced to capitulate. Paul Magloire was elected president. He instituted an oppressive military rule. When he resigned in 1956, he was replaced by a physician, Dr. FranCois Duvalier, affectionately known as Papa Doc. Duvalier had held a position in the government of D. Estimé. He, too, established an oppressive military regime complete with secret police, which held sway over the country until his son was deposed in 1986. During the Duvalier years, of both father and son, there was a mass exodus of skilled and non-skilled workers seeking political and economic asylum in other countries. The primary geographic goal of the emigrants was the United States, although many went to other Caribbean islands. They were especially drawn to the United States territories and protectorates.
With so many of the better educated citizens leaving, the economy, education and mental and physical health of the tiny island nation began to deteriorate rapidly. They were ripe for exploitation by ambitious and sometimes unscrupulous businessmen. One scheme involved paid blood donations. For $3.00 and a can of juice, desperately poor Haitians would donate a pint of blood, which sold in the U.S. for $125.00 a liter. This program was very profitable for the American whose idea it was. The business was very strong until the current AISDSepidemic which originally targeted Haitians as a high risk group of people. Panic made Haitian blood donors undesirable.
The reasons for mass migration, as I have said, have been two fold; economic and political oppression. The United States Immigration and Naturalization Service attempts to dichotomize the two reasons, but they are really inextricably linked in that country. They are two symptoms of the same fatal disease. Many who were poor were also at the mercy of the ruling class and their military control forces. Those who criticized the Duvaliers were denied property, liberty , and even life, thereby impoverishing their families. Even a simple desire to seek economic opportunity outside the island was construed as treasonable activity, punishable by indefinite incarceration.
How had this oppression come about? Both Duvaliers had begun their terms of office with a freshness and hope that invigorated the down trodden populace. This hope was short lived. It wasn’t long before power corrupted the good intentions of first FranCois, then Jean-Claude.’ They felt compelled to transform the military into a personal police force. A group of waterfront thugs was incorporated into the militia and christened the Tonton Macoute (boogie man). These “hit men” carried out the secret orders of the Duvaliers. Not even close relatives of the “President for Life” could escape their machinations. Denise Duvalier, daughter of Papa Doc, and her husband, a high ranking military official, were forced to leave the country when they ran afoul of her brother, Jean-Claude. His attitudes and policies so resembled his father’s that he became known as “Baby Doc”.
Haitian politics became increasingly oppressive throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s, after the death of Papa Doc, in 1971. Jean-Claude antagonized the populace even more than his father had, until, in 1986, he and his family were forced to flee the island and seek political asylum in France. The ensuing struggle for power was bloody and confusing. A military junta, formed by former Duvalier supporters, assumed governmental control. They were actively supported by the United States. Eliot Abrams, assistant secretary of state for international affairs,was sent to Haiti as an advisor to upgrade their internal security. The people chose the Tonton Macoute as a target of their revenge; an apt symbol of nearly thirty years of a hated, dictatorial dynasty. The people craved free, public elections, yet the U.S. advisors, reflecting Reagan policy, did not support this idea. They desired a stable government over the essential American ideal of democracy.
It appears that the Haitians are no longer the docile, compliant people of the past 180 years. They have caught the spirit of 1804 again and are not content to be used by their own, or foreign governments. They know that they have political power in the use of strikes and by simply not holding so tenaciously to the life they have. They are now willing to take risks in order to make progress. They are ready for liberty.
The political history of Haiti has been superficially a struggle between factions working for personal aggrandizement and not for the good of the country. The people have been the ultimate victims of this travesty. Most of the elected presidents soon established regimes of terror and dictatorship. Their drives for personal security caused them to limit their energies on behalf of education economic improvement, health care and foreign relations. Instead, they sought out “courtiers” similar to the worst of European aristocracy, to legislate and execute their slightest whims.
The advisors themselves often used their positions for personal enrichment. One of Jean-Claude’s leading advisors held an interest in every profitable venture on the island. In the U.S. this would be a breach of ethics; in Haiti it is acceptable and expected.
Such a government—where people subsist and the government has no longterm philosophical goal—cannot be a comfortable place to live. The common person soon feels frustrated by the utter powerlessness of his situation. That frustration leads to emigration or revolution. Haiti has been the perpetrator and victim of both.