Haiti is a nation familiar with adversity. It was founded by blacks who won freedom from slavery by force of arms, then was ostracized by world powers that resented its very existence. In the 21st century, the country has endured disaster and deprivation — the latter of which might be poised to worsen.
About 50,000 Haitians could be forced to return to their homeland in 2020 if the Trump administration is successful in ending a special immigration status granted following the catastrophic 2010 earthquake in the capital, Port-au-Prince, that killed 200,000. The administration previously sought to end the temporary protected status by mid-2019 before being blocked by a California court late last year.
Haitians living and working legally in the USA since the earthquake could have to go back to a country that is the most impoverished and environmentally degraded in the Western Hemisphere.
Advocates who favor extending Temporary Protected Status for Haitians point out that a series of disasters since 2010 — a cholera outbreak and a cycle of hurricanes and drought — have intensified the humanitarian crisis. Water, food and medicine remain in short supply.
Sending tens of thousands of Haitians back would strain the small country’s limited resources, endanger the lives of those returning and sever a financial pipeline from Haitians working in the USA that is helping keep their family members alive in Haiti.
As the only Western nation to emerge from a successful slave rebellion, Haiti’s history and survival are remarkable.
The island of Hispaniola, shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, was once the richest colony of the New World. The western third of the island — today’s Haiti — was known as Saint-Domingue and was a major destination of the transatlantic slave trade. At the height of Saint-Domingue’s prosperity, colonial power France had brought in some 800,000 enslaved Africans from what is now Senegal, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
Slaves provided the muscle for an economy that during the 1780s produced 60% of the coffee and 40% of the sugar consumed in Europe, as well as indigo and cotton. The crops earned the colony the nickname “Pearl of the Antilles.”
The French drove their sugar cane–cutting slaves especially hard. From the plantations came a former slave, Toussaint Louverture, skilled in veterinary medicine and a self-taught military strategist. He would become a leader in the Haitian Revolution, which began with a slave rebellion in 1791 and ended with the nation’s independence in 1804.
The revolution influenced events across the Americas. The French emperor Napoleon gave up on the New World, selling the vast Louisiana Territory to the U.S. In the Caribbean, Jamaica was poised for the next revolution, which many historians say the British would not have been able to stop. The U.S. ended the international slave trade in 1808 (although slavery remained legal).
Ever since, Western policies have been punishing Haiti for winning its independence.
“The problem was not politics or commerce. The central issue was … the specter of blacks ruling themselves,” said Barrymore Bogues, professor of Africana Studies and director of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice at Brown University. “The fragile example of ex-slaves ruling themselves — the Western powers had to make sure it failed.”
After its independence, Haiti was a fledgling country trying to find its place in an hemisphere dominated by slavery. “Their question was, ‘Are we going to be able to survive?’” Bogues said.
The answer: Barely. In 1825, Haiti started to pay France reparations — the equivalent today of $21 billion — to compensate the French slaveholders it had fought to overthrow.
The United States, fearing slaves in the South would get ideas about staging their own revolution, refused to trade with Haiti and didn’t recognize its independence until 1862. U.S. troops invaded Haiti in 1915 and didn’t leave until 1934.
“Haiti has been ruthlessly exploited by Western powers many times in its 200 years of independence,” said Madison Smartt Bell, an English professor at Goucher College in Towson, Md., and author of a trilogy of novels about Louverture and the slave revolt.
Bogues also pointed to the Western powers history of propping up of ineffective and corrupt Haitian governments, including U.S. support for dictators Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, who ruled Haiti from 1957 through 1986. Continue reading