- Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series on the
(what else?) ongoing political troubles of Haiti. Part II, a romp
through Haiti’s short and twisted history, will hopefully explain why
this place is so messed up. If you haven’t yet read Part I,
would be a good time.
Haiti, positioned a little southeast of Cuba and sharing a sizable hunk of rock with its eastern neighbor, the Dominican Republic, has all the ingredients of paradise: tropical climate, huge stretches of beach and soaring mountainscapes. Celebrated American author Washington Irving deemed Haiti “one of the most beautiful islands in the world. …”
So, was he on drugs?
Nowadays, Haiti comes to mind as a synonym for paradise about as often as Burundi or Bangladesh. With all of its Elysian wonders, Haiti is such a beautiful place to live that anybody with a 2×4 tries to sail to America instead.
The Haiti of today is a fairly moth-eaten and rotten sort of place, packed to the bunghole with disease, civil strife and a population decidedly poorer than most state-college students. What’s more, Haiti suffers far beyond the recommended-daily allowance of shaky democracy, political chicanery and government repression — even worse than Philadelphia.
But Haiti wasn’t always a synonym for disaster in most people’s lexicons. When in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue, one of the places he visited was the region he called Espanola — of which Haiti is a part. At the time he remarked in his diaries that “these people are so amiable and friendly that even the King took a pride in calling me his brother,” later writing that “I did not find, as some of us had expected, any cannibals amongst them, but on the contrary men of great deference and kindness.” Of course, that’s before the French got there.
Boatloads of Gallic aventuriers hit the golden shores of Espanola and promptly won rights to the western third of the island from the Spanish, the region that is now Haiti, in 1697, then called Saint Domingue. Under French rule (with Spaniards assuredly kicking themselves over the fact) Saint Domingue became the richest colony in the Western Hemisphere, exporting sugar to the sweet teeth of the world — nearly 89,000 tons per year of European dental visits.
The only hitch is that raising sugar cane in tropic climes is grueling work — not even Irish immigrants want the job. So the French imported slaves — some calculations put the number at 3 million — to work the cane crops. In his book, “Conquests and Cultures,” Thomas Sowell notes that, because of the shorter distance from Africa, slaves imported by Haiti were cheaper to purchase than those imported by the U.S.; thus, while slaves weren’t treated the best in America, they were much closer to “disposable” in Haiti. So, while the universal rights of man were being affirmed in France, the French were busy denying them to blacks in Haiti.
Having it to the gills with the French, the Haitian slaves revolted in 1791, led by a voodoo priest named Boukman. After a hundred years of cutting cane, the slaves decided to raise some instead.
A number of revolts broke out after Boukman’s, eventually leading to the liberation of Haiti in 1804.
Not that it helped.
After doffing its daffy French overlords and declaring independence, Haiti set about establishing a government which was different in every conceivable way but one: it was just as daffy.
During the reign of Jean Jacques Dessalines — a very humble man who declared himself emperor of Haiti for life in 1805 — whites got a bit of a rough break. As a former field slave, Dessalines wasn’t too thrilled with his paler neighbors, and those who weren’t quick enough to rub some burnt cork on their cheeks were slaughtered en masse.
“For our declaration of independence,” explained Dessalines lackey, Boisrond-Tonnerre, “we should have the skin of a white man for parchment, his skull for an inkwell, his blood for ink, and a bayonet for a pen!” Ouch. While the sentiment is entirely understandable, considering that whites had been abusing them for a hundred-plus years in Haiti, I still think it’s a tad inappropriate. Just a tad.
The trouble with Dessalines, though, was that he didn’t treat blacks much better. While reinstating the plantation slave system to keep the sugar crop coming in, Dessalines’ ship of state floundered on shoals of corruption so jagged and pronounced that even Bill Clinton might wink with embarrassment. Couple this with his massive land-grab schemes and the fact that he ignored one of the cardinal rules of politics — never rob guys with guns — by filching the military payroll, and it was clear that something had to be done with Haiti’s erstwhile emperor.
Not given to show-trial impeachment, as are their North American neighbors, the Haitians — often confusing the meanings of “deposing a leader” with “disposing a leader” — took a more direct route. An assassination squad shot Dessalines and hacked his body to pieces.
Dessalines successor, Henri Christophe, who also helped to plot his assassination, assumed the robes of power and declared himself King Henri I. He ruled from 1806 till 1820, when, as tradition has it, he committed suicide with a silver bullet.
And so it went, self-styled emperors rising and falling (usually unpleasantly on both accounts), until the doughboys landed in 1915, after Gen. Sam’s messy dismemberment. Considering the length of the stay, the first U.S. military Haiti occupation makes our peacekeeping missions in Somalia and the Balkans look like weekend retreats. The Marines stayed until 1934.
President Franklin Roosevelt summed it up in a 1928 issue of Foreign Affairs:
- Here again we cleaned house, restored order, built public works and put governmental operation on a sound and honest basis. We are still there. It is true, however, that in … Haiti we seem to have paid too little attention to making the citizens of these states more capable of reassuming the control of their own governments. But we have done a fine piece of material work, and the world ought to thank us.
Well, nobody thanked us, and Haiti still stank.
The U.S. intervention in Haiti had about as much effect as an AA intervention into the life of a determined drunk. Haiti kicked the tyranny habit for a while, but the lessons learned from the occupation were not enough to keep the Duvaliers from taking over in 1957. Papa Doc Duvalier ran the country like a prison and thought of himself as something more than a mere warden. Declaring himself president for life, Papa Doc secured his rule with his paramilitary enforcers, the Tontons Macoutes (which, interestingly, translates as “Uncle Boogeyman”).
Demonstrating his self-importance, Papa Doc actually revised the Lord’s Prayer to refer to himself:
- Our Doc, who art in the National Palace for life, hallowed be Thy name by present and future generations. Thy will be done in Port-au-Prince as it is in the provinces. Give us this day our new Haiti and forgive not the trespasses of those anti-patriots who daily spit upon our country. …
Does that qualify as an ego trip? His son, Baby Doc, whose reign lasted clear till 1986 (and with an ironic twist of history received asylum in France), ruled with only slightly less corruption than his father and suffered a similar ego trip — leaving most of Haiti’s residents wishing for another type of trip — anywhere off the island.
Given a record of political stability rivaling that of Nero’s Rome, it’s no mystery that Haiti is a place which people are thrilled to be from. After seeing the myriad failed attempts at reforming the nation socially and politically from both inside and out — trading one tyranny for another — many Haitians have become acutely aware that the best way to deal with their homeland is to leave it. So while Haiti is busily going to hell in a hand basket, its citizens are hoping those baskets can float.
Desperate to leave, they hit the waves in slouching sloops, rickety rafts, and little wooden things composed of more holes than boat. Earlier this year, two boatloads bound for the United States turned up missing, leading rescuers to fear at least 40 Haitians drowned in an attempt to reach U.S. soil. During the 1992 presidential race, Haitian immigration was a major issue — it still is. With a country as bad off as Haiti, and a nation as rich as ours, why keep those who want to slough off the rags of oppression from living here? The closed-border mentality is a face-slap to people who forsake their home for freedom.
If you noticed the ellipsis in the Washington Irving quote at the beginning of the column, you might have wondered what I left off — something rather sad, to be honest. While Haiti may be “one of the most beautiful islands in the world” it is also, according to Irving, “doomed to be one of the most unfortunate.”
“Doomed” is a heavy word, but, of course, the gravity of things in Haiti comes close to begging for it.
FDR had it part-right: “We seem to have paid too little attention to making the citizens of these states more capable of reassuming the control of their own governments.” Haitians have very little experience with decent government, real self-rule, or anything approximating political liberty. The U.S. can’t make people know or experience these things — as most of our foreign interventions have proven to be gospel truth. If Haiti is ever to recover, its people will have to develop these things on their own. Some semblance of a rule of law — if even overly strict at first — economic liberty and property rights would be nice. But I’m sure Haitians might be satisfied with almost anything close to stability for a change.
Read Part I of
Going to Haiti in a hand