(September 4, 2023)
Six months ago, after the Angelus, the Pope invited those listening to collect news about Haiti: “Look for news about this country!” he said.
In recent months, we followed the Pope’s suggestion and therefore collected a conspicuous documentation.
This allows us to better understand the situation of this country which is, from our opinion, the “sick of America”: bad governance, widespread corruption, violence, aggravate the effects of epidemics and natural disasters that periodically strike it.
Let’s try then, with the tool of historical reconstruction, to understand something more about Haiti.
The Republic of Haiti is a Caribbean state: it occupies the western part of the island of Hispaniola, the second largest of the Greater Antilles. It borders the Dominican Republic to the east.
Two main mountain ranges are arranged according to an east-west axis, outlining the two peninsulas of the north and south. In between, hills and river basins form the center. The mountains rising to the north and east protect the lowlands from the humid trade winds. Coffee is the main export commodities. The exploitation of copper ceased in 1976 and the bauxite deposits are almost exhausted. The northern coast receives the most rainfall and is the most developed in the country, but its lands are subject to severe erosion.
Less than 2% of the territory is covered by forests.
The name it bears was given to it by Jean-Jacques Dessalines, its first head of state, in deference to the Arauachi population, the natives people, extinct in the 16th century: they called it Ayiti, or “harsh”, referring to the harsh nature of the land.
The surface is equal to 27,750 km² and the population amounts to 10.9 million people: the capital is Port-au-Prince.
98% of Haitians are descendants of black slaves imported from Africa between the 17th and 18th centuries; the official language is French, but the most widely spoken is Haitian Creole (kreyòl ayisyen), a language that blends Old French terms with expressions deriving from African languages as well as from Spanish and English.
The most widespread religion is Catholicism, however 20% adhere to Protestant denominations.
Voudou is widespread, a rite of African descent that is mixed with Catholic beliefs.
Thousands of Haitians have left their country to emigrate to Colombia, Venezuela, the US and Canada: their remittances help sustain an otherwise faltering economy.
The island of Haiti, or Quisqueya, as the Arawaks (aruachi) and Tainos called it, was “discovered” by Christopher Columbus in December 1492, during his first trip to America.
The sailors, landing there, will spread diseases that will soon make the native populations disappear, so it’ll be mandatory to import labor from other places: Spain, however, will soon lose interest in this place because it’s scarcely supplied with gold and silver.
Thus, pirates and adventurers of French, Dutch and English origin will land there.
In particular, it’s precisely the French who are very interested in Santo Domingo, as the island was renamed by the Dominican missionaries, to grow sugar cane and cocoa.
In the 18th century in Europe there was a great demand for these products and many hoped to get rich easily.
Thus, with the Treaty of Ryswick (1697), Madrid ceded the western part of Hispaniola, another name given to the island, to France, while retaining the eastern part for itself.
The settlers implement an iron control of the slave labour, made up above all of Africans: every hint of rebellion is repressed mercilessly, even with heinous methods.
slave ships carry no less than 20,000 people a year from Africa. The mestizo population is also growing, which will later become the ruling elite.
In a short time, sugar became the main export product, to the point that Haiti was the most important French possession in the entire American continent.
When the French Revolution broke out in 1789, there were about half a million black slaves, 60,000 free mulattoes and black men, and 20,000 whites.
THE REBELLION OF L’OUVERTURE
Influenced by the revolutionary movement that started in the metropolis, the Haitians, led by the former slave Toussaint L’Ouverture, wage a revolutionary war that will last a total of 12 years (1791-1803).
The fight can be divided into several moments:
In the first, large landowners, slaves, traders and poor whites – called petits blancs – are in solidarity with the revolutionary movement that arose in Paris: they form a local assembly, which demands the end of the colonial regime.
In the second, free mulattoes begin to support the revolution, believing in this way to get full equality in rights with free men from the white residents of the colony, regardless of skin color. However, in 1790 landowners of European origin ferociously repressed the claims of the “freedmen”.
They, therefore, understood that they had no choice: the following year they allied themselves with the rebel slaves called marrons.
At this point, L’Ouverture creates the conditions for a broader coalition: thus, having as its claim “general freedom for all”, the different movements become a strong and disciplined army.
On February 4, 1794, the leader gets the abolition of slavery from the National Convention and his appointment as general.
After the coup of 18 Brumaire 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte however wants to re-establish French control over the distant island, so he sends a colossal naval expedition overseas with the task of eliminating L’Ouverture’s rebellion. He responds with a generalized insurrection, but is betrayed, handed over to the invaders, deported to Haute-Savoie where he dies in 1803. However, whoever succeeds him doesn.t accept the threat of the re-establishment of colonization and slavery: Jean-Jacques Dessalines, assisted by Henri Christophe and the mulatto Alexandre Pétion, take command of the army, keeping its unity intact. After a series of victorious battles, France capitulated on November 28, 1803.
Once independence was achieve, personal rivalries soon broke out between the three leaders of the anti-French struggle: Dessalines, Governor of Haiti and later emperor under the name of Jacques I, gave his government a strong nationalist imprint, but at the same time tried to concentrate in his own hands all the power.
in 1806 he is killed during a revolt.
Christophe and Pétion found two personal states which endured until their death.
In 1820, Jean Pierre Boyer became president of the Republic and under his mandate Haiti reconquered the east of the island which, however, would get its definitive independence under the name of the Dominican Republic in 1844.
After a new monarchical period, under the reign of Faustin I (1849-1859), Haiti will be torn apart by continuous conflicts in the ruling elite which will cause wars, coups, fragile transitional regimes, up to the American occupation in 1915.
THE DOUBLE DEBT
Under Boyer’s presidency, the “double debt” took shape, effectively blocking Haiti’s development prospects right from the beginning.
As the New York Times recently revealed in a very long investigation, a major mortgage immediately weighed on the Caribbean nation.
While withdrawing, Paris didn’t recognize the new state and in 1825 King Charles X, having just ascended the throne, ordered a French flotilla to sail towards the rebellious island.
Landing on July 3, 1825, in the port of the capital, the Baron of Mackau threatened the authorities with bombarding the city if the government didn’t pay 150 million francs by way of compensation for the properties lost by the colonists following independence.
(It should be noted that France sold Louisiana in 1803, a vast territory with uncertain borders to the United States government for 90 million).
Boyer, fearing a war with France, pays what he can and sends three diplomats to Paris with the task of negotiating a loan of 30 million which will soon bear very onerous interest.
Hence the “double debt”: on the one hand there is the money claimed by France, on the other the loans requested from the banks with the relative interest: thus the infernal mechanism is set in motion which will subsequently become universally known when in the 80s the problem of the indebtedness of Third World countries will emerge.
Overall, Haiti is believed to have paid over $21 billion, according to Jean Bertrand Aristide, confirmed by the New York Times.
THE AMERICAN EMPLOYMENT
In 1915, therefore, the US Marines landed in Haiti (the following year they did the same in Santo Domingo), deposed the government in charge, set up a puppet regime there and appropriated the assets held in the central bank: the country will a US possession until 1934, when President Sténio Vincent got the withdrawal of american troops.
THE DUVALIER TYRANNY
In Latin American literature there is the myth of the caudillo, of the despot who takes possession of a state and for a very long time does with it what he wants.
In the years of the “cold war”, the United States, instead of encouraging democracy, for fear that, as Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations, Jane Kirkpatrick, would later say, “the elections will also be won by the communists”, argued to the bitter end various tyrants in Central America and the Caribbean.
Nicaragua, for example, was under the Somoza dynasty for decades, Santo Domingo controlled by Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, Haiti is owned by the Duvalier family.
For thirty years François, known as “papa doc” and Jean-claude, “baby doc”, respectively father and son, did of Haiti what they want.
Becoming President after regular elections, François Duvalier concentrates growing power in his hands, until proclaimed himself head of state for life (1964): when he died (April 22, 1971), power passes to his son who holds it until 1986.
To guarantee the obedience of people, the Tonton Macoutes militia was created, a secret police who kidnap real or presumed opponents and, after terrible tortures, make them disappear.
In the Duvalier years, everything belongs to them.
The system of power began to crumble when John Paul II visited in 1983. Starting from Haiti, the Pope says: “things here must change!”
This starts the movement that within three years ends the tyranny.
THE ’86’S REVOLUTION
In 1984, a social movement gradually took shape which, from protest to protest, paying a very high price in terms of arrests, torture and killings, led to the fall of the regime. The movement grows, until it’s clear that the regime is no longer able to cope. Furthermore, the whole area of Central America and the Caribbean is in full swing.
After the Cuban revolution of 1959, in 1979 the decades-long dictatorship of the Somozas fell in Nicaragua, civil war flared up in El Salvador… in 1983 the United States intervened militarily on the island of Grenada where a openly communist party came to power.
Ronald Reagan declares in a speech that all these anti-American insurrections must be put down.
In this context, the Duvalier regime was left to its fate in order to avoid the advent of communism in Port-au-Prince.
Thus, on February 7, 1986, Jean-Claude Duvalier and his family leave Haiti aboard a US military plane. Subsequently, they’ll be hosted in France in a golden exile.
Power was assumed by a transitional National Council, chaired by General Henri Nanphy: the more radical wing of the revolutionary movement, however, believes that this solution favors the re-emergence of the oligarchy which has always been a supporter of the despot.
In this way begins a struggle between the different factions which sees at different times a succession of weak civilian-led governments and military juntas.
In 1990, with 67% of the votes, a former Salesian priest, Jean Bertrand Aristide, famous for having worked extensively in poor neighborhoods, was elected to the Presidency of the Republic.
A supporter of “liberation theology”, he wants to fight corruption and drug trafficking, literate the population; to lift slum dwellers out of poverty.
With the bloody coup d’état of 30 September 1991, the elite showed that they wanted to block the implementation of the projects announced by the President in the bud.
General Raoul Cedras, a strongman of the dictatorship, imposes a regime of terror very similar to that of the Duvaliers.
Three years later, on October 15th 1994, after the coup plotters went into exile, Aristide returns to the presidency to complete his mandate, but he’s a weak leader because before returning to Port-au-Prince he signed agreements with the coup plotters and the Clinton administration that scale back the radical nature of its original program.
Moreover, the International Monetary Fund, to grant a badly needed loan Haiti, imposes severe measures, such as cuts to education, health care and social assistance, which mainly affect those who live in shanty towns.
Meanwhile, for Haiti, the military dictatorship has entailed enormous costs: the sanctions adopted against the junta haven’t harmed the elite, but the population who often tried to emigrate abroad to escape the death squads: it’s estimated that no less than 40,000 Haitians tried by any means during those years to escape the terror, often driven back by the US Coast Guard.
In December 1995, René Préval, close to Aristide, was elected to the presidency of the Republic, but during the five years term of his administration the violence didn’t cease, despite the presence of a multinational force which had the task of re-establishing legality.
In 2001 Aristide returned to power, but on 29 February 2004 a new coup deposed him forcing him into exile: shortly before being overthrown, the President demanded in no uncertain terms that the French and American banks return the money illegally extorted during the era of “double debt”. In a subsequent interview, the French ambassador in Port-au-Prince admits that the coup was inspired by France and the US, which don’t in any way want the story of the insane debt imposed on Haiti between the 19th and 20th centuries to come to the surface.
Also in 2004, a terrible hurricane devastated the country, causing death and destruction.
On January 12, 2010, the earth trembled in Port-au-Prince: it was a magnitude 7 earthquake, followed by many other magnitude 5 tremors.
The victims are very numerous, perhaps half a million: the devastation is just as serious.
the four hospitals of the city, the National Palace, the parliament building, the cathedral, the headquarters of the United Nations mission are destroyed or seriously damaged.
A few months later, cholera claims many victims: in addition to this, HIV is rampant, partly favored by the attendance of brothels by the UN peacekeepers.
Today Haiti is a state completely in disarray: without a president, a parliament, a judiciary, a police: 80% of Port-au-Prince is controlled by criminal gangs that do good and bad weather.
Since July 7, 2021, the day of the death of the last President, Jovenel Moïse, killed durign the night in his own home by a commando of hitmen, probably in the pay of Colombian drug traffickers, things have only gotten worse.
The incumbent prime minister, Ariel Henry, appointed by Moïse two days before his death, is barricaded together with his ministers in the presidential palace, without powers.
Out of there, it’s anarchy and not a day goes by That doesn’t happen new deaths and new misfortunes: according to the UN, more than 1,000 people are kidnapped by bandits to get a ransom and almost 2,500 are killed. In recent weeks, groups of organized people opposed armed gangs indifferent parts of Port-au-Prince: the churches, both Catholic and Protestant, are behind this movement.
This has led to the brutal reaction of organized crime which has tried to impose the law of terror.
In any case, the site ayibopost.org denounces in one of its latest articles the enormous diffusion of arms throughout the capital.
Thousands of Haitians are trying in every way to escape abroad, but the neighbors are closing their doors: indeed, in Santo Domingo, where the presidential elections will take place next year, some argue that there are too many Haitians in the country and others enter illegally mainly during the night.
The United States, reveals aljazeera.com, have started a repatriation program for migrants from this country, organizing flights from Louisiana and Texas.
All the countries of the Antilles are worried about the turn that events are taking in Haiti, where, among other things, it seems that there is a lack of food, especially rice, a staple food especially for the poor, as alterpresse.org documents.
For weeks, international discussions have been taking place, also on the initiative of UN Secretary General António Gutérres, on sending a multinational force to restore order and prepare for the restoration of legality: Kenya has said it is willing to send 10,000 soldiers, now it seems that on September 15 the United Nations Security Council will discuss a resolution that could kick off the operation, which could also join Caribbean countries.
(it should be remembered that in the Security Council five countries have a veto right on the proposed resolutions: among them Russia which has so far been rather skeptical about sending blue helmets to that country).
Here, for now, ends our sad journey to Haiti, one of the unhappiest places on earth, where both lay and religious volunteers have been working for years alongside the poor and dispossessed of Cité Soleil and the other shantytowns.
Who knows if there will ever come a day in this nation where we don’t mourn a person killed by injustice and oppression, while instead celebrating the reopening of a school or a hospital.
The story of Haiti, the first state born from the rebellion of black slaves in America, is however the paradigm of the oppression carried out without scruple by the more developed countries towards others which, if placed in the right conditions, could have developed.
Haiti had the possibilities two hundred years ago, but the ignorance of a greedy and easily corruptible ruling class and the arrogance of the overthrown masters have impoverished it up to the present day with the consequences that are before our eyes.
PIER LUIGI GIACOMONI