Cry, the Beloved Country: Haiti between Slavery and Imperialism[1]

The long history that ‘binds’ the US and Haiti together!


Bülent Gökay[2]


Tens of thousands of people in the Haitian capital city of Port-au-Prince are dead and hundreds of thousands more wounded or homeless after the earthquake that tore through the country on 13 January 2010.  The 7.0 magnitude quake, the biggest recorded in this part of the Caribbean, left over 3 million people, who live on hillside slums made of wood, tin and cheap concrete, hurt or left homeless.


In his statement on the Haitian earthquake, US President Barack Obama said: ‘With just a few hundred miles of ocean between us and a long history that binds us together, Haitians are our neighbours in the Americas and here at home’.[3] Neither he nor the US media, however, have shown any inclination to explore the history of US-Haiti relations and its bearing on present tragedy confronting the Haitian people.


In the Western media, the backwardness and poverty that have played a substantial role in driving the death toll into the hundreds of thousands are presented as a natural state of affairs, if not the fault of the Haitians themselves. The United States is described as a selfless benefactor, willing to come to the aid of Haitians with donations, rescue teams, warships and marines.





(Haiti, And Surrounding Area[4])


The Haiti earthquake, like the Asian Tsunami of 2004, was an almost unimaginable disaster, particularly for those in the Western World who have never experienced destruction on this scale.  Such disasters have always been with us, but our view of them is strongly influenced by our own social and economic environment. With the current state of scientific and technical development such disasters represent a terrible menace not because they can be prevented, but because the basic means that exist for simple protection against and warning about them are unevenly and unjustly distributed throughout the world. The ability of the people to minimise damage from natural disasters is closely tied to their ability to respond quickly and effectively when one strikes, which itself relies to a large degree on the resources generally available and the form of social organisation to societies in specific countries and places around the world.


In the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, numerous articles appeared in the media attempting to explain the geological causes of the disaster. While it was useful information, none of it attempted to explain the social and political factors that lead to such a horrific loss of life. The earthquake occurred near Léogâne, approximately 25 kilometres west of Port-au-Prince, the devastating effect that it had on large number of Haitians were, however, not wholly caused by this natural disaster. In reality, most of the human cost was primarily due to the widespread poverty that continues to plague this post-colonial country. The homes that were destroyed and the lives lost were those mainly of the poor. Their homes were flimsy constructions that would be more recognizable as shanties that could withstand neither flood nor storms of a smaller scale, let alone the monster that was this massive earthquake.  This is how an earthquake becomes a man-made disaster.


There is nothing natural about the scale of the humanitarian disaster in Haiti. The cataclysm of death and human misery has been caused by the poverty and appalling housing and lack of civil infrastructure. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and has a history of destructive natural disasters due to extremely poor conditions of housing and civil infrastructure. A series of hurricanes and tropical storms in 2008 left over 800 people dead and caused $1bn worth of damage.  Those same storms struck nearby Cuba and hit just as hard, but only four people died in the entire country. Why? Cuba hadn’t been subjected to arguably the most brutal system of colonial exploitation in history, like Haiti, followed by decades of postcolonial oppression, and in the recent decades years of economic exploitation disguised as “reform,” and the Cuban government has the independent capacity that Haiti lacks to protect its people from calamity.


While earthquakes are natural disasters, the decision to spend billions of dollars on wars of conquest while ignoring simple measures that can save human lives is not. The devastation caused by the Haiti earthquake is a powerful demonstration of the irrational and inhuman nature of the global economic system. It was entirely within the bounds of modern technology to prevent the vast majority of the suffering and death has occurred, and if the earthquake had taken place in the developed part of the world, rather than in poverty-ridden Haiti, the results would have been very different.



Resources required to avoid a deepening of income poverty (% of GDP, international price shock)[5]


Why are there so many Haitians living in and around Port-au-Prince and why so many of them are forced to survive on so little?  The record of US interventions in Haiti, and indeed the region, is anything but helpful for the Haiti poor.  After decades of corrupt and often brutal rule, and imperialist meddling, around 75% of the population lives on less than $2 per day, and 56% – four and a half million people – live on less than $1 per day. Nearly half its 8 million people are illiterate, half its children are malnourished, and one in 10 children works as a domestic servant in conditions that human rights groups liken to slavery.  Over 70% of the population is unemployed.  Sixty percent of the housing in Port-au-Prince was sub-standard.  Going by their abysmal records, the US ruling elite and that of other global powers will not provide the necessary aid and rescue required urgently by the Haitian masses after this devastating earthquake, let alone the major resources needed to rebuild and to massively develop the country.  It is this poverty and powerlessness that account for the full scale of the horror in Port-au-Prince today, which is the legacy of 200-year long colonial and imperial meddling.


Together with the neighbouring Dominican Republic, Haiti constitutes the island of Hispaniola ‘discovered’ by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Two days after he ‘discovered’ America, Columbus wrote in his journal that with 50 men he could force ‘the entire population be taken to Castile, or held captive.’ He was amazed and marveled at their naiveté, writing in his journal ‘they are very meek and without knowledge of evil nor do they kill others or steal … and they are without weapons and so timid that one of our people can put a hundred of them to flight.’[6] On his second voyage, in December 1494, Columbus captured 1500 Tainos on the island of Hispaniola and herded them to Isabela, where 550 of ‘the best males and females’ were forced aboard ships bound for the slave markets of Seville.[7] Under Columbus’s leadership, the Spanish attacked the Taino, sparing neither men, women nor children. Warfare, forced labour, starvation and disease reduced Hispaniola’s Taino population (estimated at one million to two million in 1492) to extinction within 30 years.[8]



Christopher Columbus


Saint-Domingue, as Haiti was called until 1804, was known informally as the Pearl of the Antilles, and was the richest French colony in the entire world. During the 18th Century, the island, divided between the Spanish and French, was a major source of the world’s sugar.  French colonists planted sugar cane in the well-suited warm, wet climate, and developed large, labour-intensive plantations. Throughout the 1700s, France imported thousands of African slaves to Haiti each year such that there were half a million working in sugar plantations in 1789. During the colonial period, Haiti’s population was seven times larger than the Dominican Republic’s. Haiti exported tens of thousands of tons of sugar and most of the lumber from its forests back to France. It was estimated that in the 1750s Haiti provided as much as 50% of the Gross National Product of France. The French imported sugar, coffee, cocoa, tobacco, cotton, the dye indigo and other exotic products. In France they were refined, packaged and sold all over Europe. Incredible fortunes were made from this tiny colony on the island of Hispaniola.  How did ‘The Pearl of the Antilles’ become the Caribbean’s hell-hole?


The Wall Street Journal celebrates the fact that the US military will play the leading role in Washington’s reply to the earthquake as “a fresh reminder that the reach of America’s power coincides with the reach of its goodness.”  The message is clear:  The Haitians have only themselves to blame for the hundreds of thousands of dead and injured, because they failed to create sufficient wealth and lacked respect for law and order![9]


What is deliberately obscured by this comparison is the real relationship, which has evolved over more than a century, between “wealth generation” in the United States and poverty in Haiti. It is a relationship which has been built on the use of force to pursue US geopolitical interests in a historically oppressed poor country.  Obama administration’s plans to deploy a Marine expeditionary force in Haiti will mark the fourth time in the past 95 years that the US armed forces have occupied the impoverished island.[10]


The roots of this relationship go back to the birth of Haiti as the second free country in the Western World (after the United States), and the first black republic, in 1804, the product of a successful slave revolution led by Toussaint Louverture, and the subsequent defeat of a French army sent by Napoleon.  It was the only successful slave revolt in the history of mankind.  After its independence, Haiti was forced by military threats to pay compensation to France of 150 million francs (the equivalent of $25 billion today) – this debt plagued the economy of Haiti for over 80 years which it did not finally finish paying until 1922.  As much as 80% of Haiti’s budget went to pay these reparations, driving Haiti into significant debt.[11]


The colonial and imperial powers were vengefully determined that the ‘black republic’ would be seen to fail and embarked on a series of interventions and endless meddling. It was subjected to a worldwide embargo that was led by the United States.   President Thomas Jefferson feared the revolution on his country’s doorstep would inspire a similar slave revolt in the American South.  The international boycott of Haitian products at this time was devastating for Haiti’s long-term economic development.  It was only with southern secession and the outbreak of the Civil War that the North recognized Haiti, 60 years after its independence.  Even today, when the tragic news about the recent earthquake was reported, Pat Robertson, an American Christian evangelist broadcaster, stooped to new depths of racism:  he declared that Haitians were cursed because they made a pact with the devil to liberate themselves from their French slave masters in the Haitian revolution two centuries ago.[12]


Since its independence in 1804, Washington has continually imposed sanctions, debt repayments and military intervention in an attempt to crush the first successful slave revolution in history. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson took control of the Haitian National Bank by sending in marines, who removed $500,000 of its reserves “for safe-keeping” in New York.  The National City Bank of New York was the principle U.S. investor in Haiti. It was claimed that the US Bank’s interests were threatened by the Haitian government’s issuance of inflationary currency. The bank was supported by the U.S. Department of State which wished for customs duties collected by the Haitian government to be paid over to the debt owed the bank.  As a result, the U.S. directly occupied the country from 1915 to 1934 and again in the last 20 years.[13] Perhaps this was the most serious blow Haiti ever had to her independence and self-image. The US marines took over control of the collection of revenues, the banks, and forced through a new constitution which repealed the 1804 provision that foreigners could never own land in Haiti. The U.S. decided who would and would not be government servants.  The US occupation finally ended in 1934, but the U.S. presence in both the economy and all aspects of Haitian politics had already been firmly established, and since then, the US, through the power of its aid packages and its linkage with local power elite, has always played a central role in Haitian politics.


The notorious regime of ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier, continued by his son, Baby Doc, from the late 1950s to the mid-1980s, was finished off by a mass struggle of workers and students. ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier enjoyed U.S. backing because he was seen by the US administration as a reliable anti-Communist.  In the 1970s and 1980s, Baby Doc and the United States government and business community worked together to transform Haiti into the “Taiwan of the Caribbean.”  As a result of “free market” economic philosophies championed by the United States, this small, poor country situated conveniently close to the United States was instructed to abandon its agricultural past and develop a robust, export-oriented manufacturing sector.  Haiti was once an agriculturally self-sustaining nation.  But all these ‘neoliberal’ structural changes in the countryside forced Haitian peasants to migrate to the cities, especially Port-au-Prince where the new manufacturing jobs were supposed to be.[14] However, when they got there they found there weren’t nearly enough manufacturing jobs go around.  The city became more and more crowded.  Slum areas expanded.  And to meet the housing needs of the displaced peasants, quickly and cheaply constructed housing was put up, sometimes placing houses right ‘on top of each other.’[15]


A series of highly unstable and short-lived regimes followed.  The US always considered the murderous dictatorship as a bulwark against communism and revolution in the Caribbean.  Since the mass upheavals that brought down the Duvaliers in 1986, successive US governments, Democratic and Republican alike, have sought to reconstruct a reliable client state capable of defending the investments of US firms attracted by starvation wages, as well as the property and wealth of the Haitian ruling elite. This entails preventing any challenge to a socio-economic order that keeps 80 percent of the population in dire poverty.[16]


Washington has backed two coups and sent US troops back into Haiti twice in the past 20 years. Both coups were organized to overthrow Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a popular priest working in the slum areas of Port-au-Prince, who won the 1990 presidential elections by promising to tackle poverty and to bring social justice.  He was the first Haitian president to be elected by popular vote and without Washington’s approval. Aristide refused to implement all the IMF’s demands for IMF-imposed privatisation and keeping wages to a minimum.  Together, the coups of 1991 and 2004, aiming to make the place much less risky for business, claimed the lives of at least 13,000 more Haitians. In the 2004 overthrow, the massively popular president Aristide was forcibly transported out of the country by US operatives.  Since then, living standards have collapsed, and the reforms of President Aristide aimed to help the poor have been reversed.


Despite Aristide’s capitulation to the demands of the International Monetary Fund and his willingness to compromise with Washington, the mass support he attracted with his anti-imperialist rhetoric made him anathema to the ruling elites in both Washington and Port-au-Prince. On the orders of the Obama administration, he is barred from returning to Haiti and his political party, Fanmi Lavalas, remains effectively banned.  The Fanmi Lavalas party is a major party with huge support from the capital’s urban poor.[17]


This is the real and continuing history that, as Obama put it, binds Haiti to US system of global hegemony, which bears overwhelming responsibility for the massive disaster we are seeing unfold on our television screens.


There are no first-responders–police, firemen, medical rescue workers or otherwise–in Haiti because the national infrastructure had already been gutted by powers far more devastating than the earthquake. The country has been servicing an unbearable and wrongful debt for centuries, at the expense of its own people.

That aid comes with strings attached is an old story, but when we are complicit in creating the conditions that make aid a survival necessity, and then cut off every other alternative–what have we done but reinstated slavery?’[18]




[1] A shorter version of this article is on (January 2010)

[2] Bulent Gokay is a Professor of International Relations, Keele University, England.

[3] BBC News, 16 January 2010,, accessed in January 2010.

[5] Inter-American Development Bank, August 2008,, accessed in January 2010.

[6] Today the Arawak community of peoples, those "innocents" of Father Las Casas, who once inhabited
in such numbers the larger islands of the Caribbean and who welcomed the white men to the New
World, has vanished from the West Indies.

[7] To ensure cooperation, Columbus used punishment by example. When a local committed even a minor of

fense, the Columbus’ men cut off his ears or nose. Disfigured, the person was sent back to his village as living

evidence of the brutality the Spaniards were capable of.

[8] Today Columbus is glorified in history books as a great adventurer and explorer who expanded Western
civilization into a new continent rich in resources and potential. The story of Columbus in the Americas has
been laundered so that the tales of his conquest of the Americas could be told as a heroic legend.
The genocide of the peaceful Arawaks of the Caribbean islands is well documented in  Columbus' own
letters and journals and in the pages of his most ardent admirer, Father Bartolome de Las Casas,
the great contemporary historian of the West Indies who believed Columbus had been divinely inspired
to make the Discovery.( John W. Cowart, ‘THE ADMIRAL OF MOSQUITOES’,, accessed in January 2010;
Edward T. Stone, ‘Columbus and Genocide’, American Heritage, Vol. XXVI, No. 6, October 1975,
pp. 4-7,76-79;, accessed in January
2010; 'Hidden History Columbus & the colonial legacy', New Internationalist,issue 226, December 1991,, accessed in January 2010.)

[9] The Wall Street Journal, 14 January 2010,, accessed

in January 2010.

[10] In his weekly television address, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez accused the U.S. of ‘occupying Haiti

in an undercover manner.’

[11] Hallward, P. (2004) Option Zero in Haiti. New Left Review, 27, pp.23-47.

[13] When Haiti refused to declare war on Germany after the United States did, the US forces

dissolved the Haitian legislature. Then the US supervised a pseudo-referendum to approve a new Haitian
constitution, less democratic than the constitution it replaced.

[14] In 1986, IMF provided Haiti a $24.6 million loan under its Structural Adjustment Facility program.

As a condition, Haiti was expected to cut public spending, close ‘inefficient public enterprises’, and

‘liberalize’ its trade policy.  Haiti was obliged to lower tariffs on rice and put an end to support for

domestic rice farmers. This had the effect of putting much of Haiti’s rice farmers out of business.

[15] When the Duvalier regime was overthrown in Haiti, demonstrators, descended from African slaves,

tossed the great statue of Columbus into the bay.

[16] Today the environmental crisis in Haiti is extremely serious: deforestation, land erosion, water

shortages, lack of urban cleanliness, loss of biodiversity, urbanisation, growing shantytowns, and

demographic pressure – all of these factors serve to increase the vulnerability of the Haitian population.

(, accessed in

January 2010)

[17] (accessed in January 2010).

[18] Joslyn Barnes, Haiti: The Pearl of the Antilles, The Nation, 19 January 2010,, accessed in January 2010.


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