The United States supported repressive reactionaries in Haiti even before its independence in 1804. The first foreign aid granted by the U.S. — $750,000, a tremendous sum then — was sent to French slave masters in Haiti to put down the rebellion. This was done during slave-owning George Washington’s administration, under the direction of slave-owning Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.
This aid did not derail the noble, bold, tenacious and ultimately successful liberation struggle of the Haitian people. Even though the army that France sent to Haiti committed genocide, killing an estimated half of the Haitian people, the roots of the struggle were too deep to be crushed. They went deep into Africa, since more than half of the members of Jean-Jacques Desslines’ army were born in Africa. Dessalines declared Haiti independent in 1804.
Ricardo Seitenfus, a Brazilian diplomat with the Organization of American States, says, “The original sin of Haiti was its liberation. In 1804, the Western world was colonialist, slave-owning, racist, basing its wealth on conquered lands. The revolutionary model of Haiti created fear in all the big powers.” (Le Temps, Dec. 20, 2010)
U.S. blockade damaged Haitian economy
The U.S., fearing that the example of Haiti would spark slave revolts at home, imposed a blockade in 1806 that lasted until 1863. U.S. ships could trade with Haiti, profitably but unofficially. Yet, the crew of any Haitian ship coming to the U.S. would have been enslaved, and the ship and its cargo seized.
The Haitian government was desperate to remove the threat of a French attempt to reconquer the country and was menaced by a naval blockade led by Adm. Jurien de la Gravière, an admiral who began his career by transporting slaves to Port-au-Prince. So in 1825, Haiti agreed to pay 150 million gold francs in “reparations” to the slave owners who lost their “property” during the Haitian revolution. The Haitian people were forced to pay gold for the liberty they won with their blood.
While France demanded this extortion from Haiti for so-called “reparations,” that government charged the U.S. only 80 million gold francs for the entire Louisiana Territory.
Since Haiti couldn’t come up this vast sum — more than 10 years worth of its gross domestic product — the government took out high-interest loans from French, U.S. and German banks. These loans were not paid off until 1947. Economists hired by twice popularly elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide estimate that this extortion cost Haiti more than $22 billion. While France should repay most of it, U.S. banks should, too.
The U.S. occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934 should be seen along with its earlier and current occupation of Puerto Rico; its occupation of Cuba in 1898; U.S. banks’ purchase of the National Bank of Haiti from the French bank that owned it in 1908; and the Panama Canal’s completion in 1914.
U.S. Marines that occupied Haiti operated in a brutal, racist way and seized upon the corvée — an institution to compel labor that hadn’t been used since the 1830s — to build roads, bridges and dams as well as their barracks.
The U.S. imposed a constitution that opened up Haiti to large-scale, export-oriented agriculture and let foreigners own land. The U.S. also controlled customs, collected taxes and ran most of the government.
Billions of dollars in profits from Haitian workers’ labor, resources and money were siphoned out of Haiti.
Charlemagne Péralte, an ex-army officer impressed into a corvée, and Benoît Batraville, led a revolt of armed peasants, called Cacos, against the Marines, which ended when the Marines assassinated Péralte. The horrific picture of Peralte’s body, which was taken by a Marine photographer to try to discredit this hero, is one of the most iconic pictures in Haitian history.
Haitians call the day in 1934 when the Marines left — under pressure of a vast mass movement — the day of their Second Independence.
Brutal Duvaliers supported by U.S.
The Duvaliers, beginning with François (“Papa Doc”) in 1957, and ending with Jean-Claude (“Baby Doc”), got U.S. support, no matter how many thousands of people they killed and disappeared — because they did what the U.S. wanted them to do internationally and were ferociously anti-communist. They and their cronies ran up hundreds of millions of dollars worth of debt — wealth some of which they kept — with more winding up in U.S. and French banks. It is estimated that 40 percent of Haiti’s foreign debt of around $1.3 billion is due to the Duvaliers.
In the chaos that followed the uprooting of the Duvaliers in 1986, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank used their might and dollars to force Haiti to open wide its markets to foreign goods. After Haiti reduced its import duties from 50 percent to 3 percent, U.S.-subsidized “Miami” rice flooded the market; it now makes up 80 percent of Haiti’s rice consumption. Haiti is deemed a small, poor country, but it is still the fifth-largest export market for U.S. rice.
Sugar followed a similar trajectory. Haiti, which used to be self-sufficient, today imports most of the sugar it uses. As economically devastated as Haiti is, U.S. agribusiness still wants its markets and profits.
In 2002, the U.S, refused to allow the Inter-American Development Bank to disburse a loan of $500 million — half of Haiti’s gross domestic product — because an election didn’t turn out favorably to the U.S. But the IADB still required Haiti to pay the interest on the loan it hadn’t received.
Haiti has been occupied by a United Nations force called Minustah ever since June 2004, when the U.N. relieved the U.S.-French-Canadian forces that occupied the country after the coup-kidnapping of President Aristide in February 2004.
Under U.N. occupation, the agency’s economic policy aims to create factories to exploit Haiti’s workers, who toil at a minimum wage of $4.55 for an 8-hour day. This is another way of siphoning Haiti’s wealth and profits from Haitians’ labor power into the maws of U.S. big business.
Minustah brought cholera to Haiti in 2010, which has caused more than 8,000 deaths and 500,000 serious illnesses. All this pain and suffering not only weakened Haiti’s society, it meant that a half million people couldn’t work for extended periods.
The Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince led to a huge outpouring of sympathy and financial donations for Haiti. The economically powerful countries that donated the most money arranged it so that most of the funds stayed in their own countries and nongovernmental organizations.
This summary of Haiti’s history is intended to make the point that U.S. reparations to Haiti for the massive harm this government has done for 200 years are justified.
For more information, see “Haiti: A Slave Revolution” (New York: International Action Center, 2010) and “Damming the Flood: Haiti and the Politics of Containment,” by Peter Hallward (London: Verso, 2010).