Haitian Child

Haitian Child

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Book Review - Haiti The Aftershocks of History by Laurent Dubois

Professor Dubois is a Duke University Professor of History and his 2012 book is likely to be the standard academic reference on the history of Haiti for some time. I've read a lot about Haiti over the last decade, and this easy-to-read book brings it all together. This blog includes a small selection of the informative points that I culled from his book. Direct quotes from Dubois are in bold blue italics. My highlighted thoughts are in regular bold font.
A strong ocean current from Europe flows directly to Haiti, which explains how Columbus arrived in 1492. There is another strong set of currents from Africa straight to Haiti. Mother nature therefore placed Haiti at the intersection (in the cross hairs) of the European commercial interests and the African slavers.  

There were about 500,000 to 750,000 indigenous people on the island when the Spanish arrived, but within a century these aboriginals were almost completely eliminated by war, forced labor, and disease. These people called their land Ayiti - land of mountains.

At the time of the Haitian revolution, the French colony of Saint-Dominique was perhaps the most profitable bit of land in the world. Slave labor and sugar canes intersected in a commercial success story for the French.

Each year, between 5 and 10% of the slave population died due to overwork and disease and this necessitated a continuous influx of new slaves from Africa. This staggering statistic implies that the plantation owners did not expect slaves to live. Slaves were purchased with the full knowledge that the majority would die within a few years. The turnover in slaves was such that in 1791, the year of the slave revolt, only one third of the half million slaves in Haiti had been born in the country. The rest were born in Africa. About 10% of the slaves had arrived in the preceding year, and this group arrived with a unique skill set. Many were former soldiers from central Africa, and their experience played a role in the success of the revolution. 

Toussaint Louverture was one of principle leaders of the revolution. He was a slave who was given freedom as a young man and who briefly owned his own slave. At the beginning of the revolution he helped his former white masters to safety before joining the rebels. Throughout Haiti's history, the majority of the leaders have had a soft spot for the white or mulatto merchant elite in the country. 

Over the next two centuries, various leaders, including Toussaint, tried to maintain the plantation system with measures that kept the black population working on the land without ownership. The freed slaves were paid with a quarter of what was produced. Another quarter went to the state, and half to the owner. The state authorities and the owners were mostly light-skinned Haitians.

The black Haitians desired ownership of the land and pursued a quiet, non-violent revolt. Rather than work on the plantations, they chose to live and work on small communal plots in rural areas outside the easy scrutiny of the state. Regional markets developed to support these communities. This communal system, referred to as the lakou, continues to this day, although the shift in the population from rural to urban over the last century has diminished the role. One lakou tradition illustrates the powerful bond of the Haitians to their land. In the lakou, the umbilical cord of each newborn was buried in the yard and a fruit tree was planted over the cord. The fruit from the tree was used to purchase clothes for the child.

The rural communities did not become a source of taxation for early governments and instead, the state relied upon export and import taxation for revenue. Over time this created a very influential, and often non-Haitian and white mercantile class, who were uninterested in the fate of the nation.

Although Haitian independence was achieved with an armed revolution between 1791 and 1804, the new country was obliged under French military duress to "purchase" international recognition of their sovereignty. In an agreement in 1825, with French warships poised offshore, the Haitian government "agreed" to pay "damages" to the French government. By 1898, fully half of Haiti's government budget went to paying France and the French banks. By 1914, that proportion had climbed to 80%. As such, there was never any money for the state to spend on education, health, roads, or any of the other essentials for progress.  

United States did not recognize Haiti as a country until 1862. Americans, especially those with slaves, did not want to recognize a country of emancipated black slaves.
Recognition came as the international abolitionist movement gained momentum and during the American Civil War. The United States gained access to Haitian ports, which were important bases in the battle against the Confederacy. United States commercial and political influence grew, and by 1905, 71% of the imports to Haiti were from America. American influence culminated in the two decade US occupation of Haiti from 1914 to 1934. The Americans re-instituted slavery, in all but name, so that they could to complete a variety of public works projects. The American government forced changes in the constitution to allow foreign ownership. Prime land was sold to American corporations and existing Haitian owners were displaced.  

Duvalier was elected president in 1957 and ushered in three decades of violent repression of any opposition. After securing power Duvalier declared, I have conquered the country. I have conquered power. I am the new Haiti. To wish to destroy me is to wish to destroy Haiti itself. It is thanks to me that it breathes, thanks to me that it even exists. After changing the constitution so that he could be President for life, Duvalier declared, There will never again be an election to elect a chief of state on the soil of Haiti. I shall be lord and master. 

Over the last 25 years, the two major socio-political changes have been the influx of Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) to provide a method to stream humanitarian aid to Haiti but bypass the various corrupt governments, and the emigration of Haitians who fled the country to seek a better life elsewhere. 

Vodou, which has legitimate and traditional cultural values for Haitians, has been vilified over the years by the "civilized world" and continues to be used as an excuse to explain poor progress in Haiti. The day after the earthquake, televangelist Pat Robertson remarked to the world that Haitians were suffering because they had sold themselves to the devil.

Reading the Dubois book was a wrenching experience. The suffering experienced by the people of Haiti should never have happened in a civilized world at any time, much less in the last, more "enlightened" century. The racism and intolerance inflicted on these people is a ongoing tragedy.

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