Haiti! Haiti! Haiti! How many times did I call you? When one’s mother calls one that way, one automatically senses trouble brewing below the surface of things. The coded brevity of such reprimand is usually packed with understated displeasure, and, sometimes, grave disquiet. Now, a simple internet search on Haiti would reveal a cocktail of troubling and deeply unsettling issues ranging from gang violence, a new cholera outbreak and widespread shortages of food, water and petrol. President Jovenel Moise was assassinated recently and another deadly earthquake hit, throwing the nation into chaos and confusion. As briefly hinted above, violent gangs have overrun parts of the country, kidnapping citizens and foreigners alike and putting up blockades to stop the flow of critical supplies such as fresh water and food. And the United Nations estimates that nearly half of the nation’s population is going hungry. What is more, reports of routine massacres happening not just in the capital, Port-au-Prince, but also outside of Port-au-Prince. Armed gangs butcher people for the fun of it, without consequence. People generally live in fear. A two-month blockade to the country’s key oil terminal has completely crippled the country even as kidnapping continues apace. Welcome to Dante’s Inferno known as Haiti.
For decades, Haiti has been plagued by national disasters and political turmoil. The United States has tried to pull through two resolutions at the UN Security Council: one for sanctions and the other for outside force at the request of the Haitian authorities to come in and provide some assistance to the Haitian National Police. The possibility of a UN armed intervention force going to Haiti appears unlikely as the Western powers continue to stall and stonewall at the UN Security Council. There are no takers as things stand at the moment.
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere due in large part to foreign intervention, foreign debt and her own fraught history of endemic corruption, among others. Even if the UN decides to send in a UN peacekeeping force, Haitians would regard the force as an army of occupation, being as it is a sovereign nation. However dim in the mists of memory, the struggle for freedom and independence from French colonisation and the scars of history remain fresh. A group of House Democrats in the US are urging President Joe Biden to extend immigration, protected immigration status, to Haitians. It is an initiative known as TPS. Following the assassination of President Moise, the Biden administration extended Temporary Protected Status (TPS) which, basically, gave citizens of the countries that are so designated the right to live in the US temporarily but also to work illegally. But five weeks after the assassination of Moise, the earthquake hit, leading to the influx of Haitians into the US, especially the shores of Florida and Puerto Rico on boats. This development was the largest Haitian migration crisis in 18 years.
Why is Haiti always poor? An online source itemises the causes of Haiti’s poverty as follows: (1) the long history of political oppression; (2) soil erosion; (3) the lack of knowledge and literacy and (4) a large population in a small country (in other words, over-population or population density). But it is also believed that the question of causes for such poverty is complex. Haiti’s masses suffer horrendous and execrable misery, and, yet, this Biblical and Apocalyptic misery and immiseration is caused in the main by a tiny minority inside and outside Haiti who have the wealth and power to change things for the better. Furthermore, it’s alleged that the ultimate cause of Haiti’s poverty is the human factor – that is to say, human greed and power. A source puts it this way: “Both the international community and Haiti’s rulers have continuously assured the destruction of Haiti’s colonial wealth and the creation and continuance of her misery.”
As far as the international community’s role in Haiti’s poverty is concerned, it is instructive to stress the following factors, namely: (a) French colonisation of Haiti (b) the international boycott of the new nation in 1804 (c) the French debt of 1838 (d) the United States Occupation 1915-1934 (e) post World War II United States domination. A bit of context to shed light on the points raised above: after the revolution in 1804, Haiti became the first black republic. Since the US, England and France were still slave-owning countries, they regarded Haiti as a dangerous model or precedent for other colonised countries, hence the international community decided to boycott all Haiti goods and commerce. This move had plunged the Haitian economy into chaos. Regarding the French Debt of 1838, France had insisted that, until and unless Haiti paid indemnities and reparations for lands of former slave owners taken over after the revolution it would not recognize Haiti. In 1838, President Boyer of Haiti finally accepted a 150 million Franc debt to pay this indemnity (estimated at $21 billion today). This debt had plagued the economy of Haiti for over 80 years. It was finally paid off in 1922. Yet Haiti paid over 150 million franc in interest on this debt, which prevented it from developing its economy.
For its own part, the US Marines had occupied Haiti in 1915, thereby taking over control of the collection of revenues, the banks, and forced through a new Haitian Constitution which repealed the 1804 provision that foreigners could never own land in Haiti. Haiti’s rulers equally contributed to her poverty. Having inherited all the deleterious and egregious “table manners” of the erstwhile colonial master, these native comprador-bourgeois class had instituted slave-like labour systems in the early republics. They also protected their wealth, largely stolen, rapaciously forcing corruption to metastasize. Human rights violations as a tool of oppression were rife and rampant. Even the French language as the language of government business and medium of instruction in the education system became an oppressive instrument of class and status. Thus ignorance and illiteracy flourished across the land. To make matters worse, Haiti is also battling a perennial scourge of soil erosion, like the southeastern region of Nigeria. On top of it all is the lack of infrastructure (inadequate roads, water systems, sewage, medical and school). Haiti’s underdevelopment is, thus, exacerbated by unemployment and under-employment as well as negative Haitian collective self-image.
But the question is, has it always been like this? How did it all start and when and how did Haiti start going downhill? This is how an online source captures the Haiti backstory: Before European [s] arrived, pillaged and killed off the natives, Hispaniola was an island of splendid rain forests and fertile plains. Native Caribbeans inhabited and cultivated the island for centuries before Columbus arrived in 1492. The Spanish, and soon after, the French, saw a land of opportunity. Spain and France divided Hispaniola in 1697 where the western 1/3 of the island became Haiti, ruled by the French and the other side-ruled by Spain –present-day Dominican Republic. The native population was decimated through warfare, slave labour and European disease. Because the native population was largely killed, people were kidnapped by the hundreds of thousands from Africa and shipped to the island for slave labour […] Once called “the Jewel of the Antilles”, Haiti was the richest colony in the world. In the 1750s, Haiti provided as much as 50% of the GNP of France. The French imported sugar, coffee, cocoa, tobacco, cotton, indigo and other exotic goods from Haiti.
Interestingly, slavery did not die with French rule. It was passed on in the form of forced cheap labour to the emerging Haitian elite. Free slaves were mulattoes, the children of white masters and slave women. These “half-castes” or mulattoes were the middle ground, uncomfortable both to slaves and whites.
Did French rule end just like that? Certainly not. It took a lot of effort; much life was lost in the struggle for self-determination. Right in front of the vanguard, this determined phalanx for freedom was a lion-hearted black slave called Toussaint Louverture. Born 1743, Louverture led the Haitian independence movement during the French Revolution (1787-99). He emancipated the slaves and negotiated for the French colony on Hispaniola, Saint-Domingue (later Haiti), to be governed briefly by Black former slaves as a French protectorate.
Geographically, Haiti is surrounded by water, the Atlantic Ocean borders its northern shores, while the Caribbean Sea is to the west and south. The Windward Passage separates Haiti from Cuba, which lies about 80 kilometres to the northwest. Thus Haiti is located on the island of Hispaniola. Being mainly Black, what did the Haitian people bring from Mother Africa via the Middle Passage? Nigerian musician, Lagbaja (the Masked One) in one of his songs titled, “Africalyp-so”, lyricises that when Africans were forcibly transported on the Atlantic to the New World and the Americas, they had taken with them the Black Heritage of oral tradition such as songs and dances, proverbial lore, language-games, and, above all, the indomitable spirit of the African. Black Haitians also took from their ancestral provenance rites and rituals, festivals, verbal and paraverbal “signifyin” practises, a la Henry Louis Gates Jr. People have talked about the presence of the Igbo and other African ethnicities in today’s Haiti and, if this is true, we should be very interested in what goes on in Haiti today.
That said, there is also the talk of the practice of Voodoo in Haiti as being partly responsible for the country’s never-ending disasters and woe. Could this be true? Gates Jr. examines this in his book Blacks in Latin America. Voodoo or Vodou is an African diasporic religion that developed in Haiti between the 16th and 19th centuries. It arose through a process of syncretism between several traditional religions of West and Central Africa and Roman Catholicism. Vodou is said to be elusive and endangered, but remains the soul of Haitians. As the saying goes: “70% Catholic, 30% Protestant, and 100% Vodou”. Vodou or Voodoo infuses everything and everywhere in the Caribbean island nation, from medicine and agriculture to cosmology and arts. In spite of this, the contention is that the voodoo religion is a serious factor in causing the millennial misery of Haiti. Is this a myth or a fact? It is a moot point. But what is beyond dispute is the fact that Haiti holds immense wealth including quality gold, copper, gas and mineral deposits. It sits on a pool of wealth buried in the womb of the earth beneath their feet. And yet the nation is one of the world’s poorest. Besides this, Haiti lies in the path of thunder: always the epicentre of natural disasters such as Hurricanes and flooding. For instance, Hurricane Nicole hit between November 5-11, 2020; Lisa: October 27 to November 5, 2022; Ian: September 12-24, 2020; Humberto: September 12-20, 2019, Dorian: August 24 – September 5, 2019. But before all these Hurricanes devastated Haiti, Hurricane Matthew happened on October 4, 2016. This was a category 4 major Hurricane which had left in its wake a slag of ruins, sorrow, tears and blood. The question again is: Is there an undying curse on Haiti? Why is the unbroken cycle of crises bedevilling Haiti like the ouroborus? How come Haiti remains a basket-case; a temporal outpost of Hell? Long used to dystopia with its sundry dysfunctionalities, Haitians have now reconciled themselves to pain as a way of life. Haiti, like its homophonic cousin HATE, tends to arouse universal hate from its more illustrious and affluent neighbours and its distant kith and kin. What to do? Haiti must urgently build elite consensus to help engineer a holistic renaissance. The international community must stop playing footsie and rise to the occasion to arrest the ugly waves of gangsterism and mindless blood-fests. The US has got to do more than wringing her hands in anguished helplessness. She’s got to be her sister’s keeper. Haiti is in urgent need of political stability and economic recovery. The people are hurting both from the trauma of history and the antinomies of a bastardised modernity. “Africa Unite!”. Bob Marley urges from the grave! This is the time to reach out across the seas to rescue a drowning kinsman, Haiti. And, dear reader, if you can, please say a prayer for Haiti.
Chris Anyokwu, PhD, a dramatist, poet, fiction writer, speaker, rights activist and public intellectual, is a Professor of English at the University of Lagos, Nigeria.