By Ardain Isma
“United We Stand” is the emblematic symbol of the Haitian nation—symbol planted right into the heart of the Haitian flag as a vivid reminder to all Haitians that their country’s independence was built out of tremendous sacrifices of which only our forefathers wholeheartedly united under a just cause could usher to bear. For one hundred years, this creed was deeply rooted in the hearts and souls of all Haitians—rich or poor—who used it whenever it deemed necessary. Of course, having to beat the world’s mightiest army to break the chain of slavery and set free—at last—more than a million slaves, Haiti wrapped under its belt a record that still stands, two hundred years later.
In the aftermath of a thirteen-year war with the French which produced independence in 1804, the country emerged to some extent as a regional power, inspiring freedom across the continent, from Alaska to Patagonia. For a while, Haiti’s glory seemed everlasting. It shone and rose over the highest mountains, and it crossed over the deepest and choppiest waters to knock and shake the souls of millions still in bondage to finally break their fear so they could make the last stand against the odds. Indeed, Haiti was an oasis that everyone fleeing the horror of slavery wanted to run into.
A safe haven it truly was, for the new country stood in the middle of a hostile environment. Colonial powers did everything they could to undermine the first black independent country in the Americas. The United States refused to recognize Haitian independence for the consensus in Washington was that it was too dangerous to allow black diplomats in the nation’s capital. It could infuriate southern legislators, who saw Haiti as the quintessential threat to slavery—the best machine for agricultural development in the South. Spain and England vehemently opposed the new Haitian nation that they considered as the ultimate menace to their colonies.
So, praying for the country’s demise and acting to achieve that dream occupied front and center in foreign policy initiatives of European colonial powers. And they had “good” reasons to feel that way. Simon Bolivar, the South American great liberator, could not have achieved independence for his fellow South Americans if weren’t for Haitian military and other logistical assistance. Alexandre Pétion, then Haitian president, asked nothing in return for Haitian assistance but a promise to free all blacks in liberated territories. As in the United States and contrary to Haiti, the quest for independence in Latin America was not being led by revolted slave leaders. The sons of slave holders led it to their own strategic interests, and freeing slaves, to many of the generals who themselves owned slaves, was detrimental to their aspirations—politically, socially and economically. Ignoring this request from Haitian leaders was the first political backstabbing Haiti had to endure in its foreign policy matters. However, in 1825, at the first Ibero-American summit in Panama—then a Colombian province—Bolivar admitted that independence could have still been an elusive dream if it weren’t for “our brothers in Haiti.”
The threat from within
If at the turn of the 19th century Haiti was the head of Pan-Africanism and a Mecca of the Caribbean for all oppressed people, Haitian leaders have misunderstood their historical mission. Past glory is not sustainable unless it is maintained by contemporary achievements. Obviously, those who were at the driver seat in Haiti did not seem to have grand ambitions for the country they had just liberated, believing they could dwell forever on the semi-feudalism and archaic mercantilism that marked the 18th century Saint-Domingue (name of Haiti’s colonial era) as the world’s richest colony.
It looked like the martyrdom attitude and the genuine revolutionary sentiment that catapulted the former slaves to the reign of freedom quickly unraveled as soon as it became clear that the French settlers were gone. Modernizing a country out of the ashes of war devastation and in the midst of hostile neighbors required more than just skillful military strategies. It required intellectual planning, honesty in public affairs, democratic governance under the direct guidance of unyielding patriotism—indispensable elements in the struggle to develop and industrialized the country. But the biggest hindrance to this end was that Haitian leaders shortly after independence entered in a holy alliance with a de facto bourgeoisie—the former enfranchised population which was a mixture of the old free blacks and the mulattoes, people who never indorsed the independence project.
So, for over one hundred years, the dinosaurs (wealthy landowners) and the compradors (seaside merchants) in a strategic pact with the state bureaucracy against the disenfranchised masses led Haiti into a virtual dead end. It was an impasse that many Haitian statesmen like Anténor Firmin and others, who wanted to reverse the trend, found it impossible to overcome. And despite internal malaises and the shaky equilibrium that sometimes proved extremely difficult to keep under wrap, the vexing continuum held on until its outright explosion, which produced American military intervention in 1915.
US occupation and Haiti’s downfall
If the Haitian masses were kept in the dark for over a century by people who were Haitians in name only, it was, to a large extent, its subjugation by the United States in 1915 that ultimately gave the fatal blow to all that was left in the Haitian pride. Nineteen years of US military occupation have exacerbated the suffering among the masses, installed at the top end of the state bureaucracy only those whose strategic interests were at odds with that Haiti’s in general. And when they finally left in 1934, in order to make sure Haiti remained under US sphere of influence, they had put in place a national guard of which its only role was to safeguard its interests and that of the recalcitrant upper class.
Notwithstanding the Haitian elite total disregard for Haiti and with all intellectual probity, it is fair to say that much of Haiti’s deplorable conditions, its entrenched poverty, are the direct results of a protracted relationship between Haiti and the United States, which, since US occupation, has treated the country as a de-facto colonial protectorate. This was evident in its tight control over who ruled Haiti since its departure and its subsequent backing of three-decade-long dictatorship of the Duvaliers. During the 1980s and 1990s, in an attempt to transform the country into a little Taiwan in the tropics, Washington spearheaded a series of free market policies designed to eliminate any safeguards for Haitian agriculture and the privatization of government enterprises and services, resulting into mass migration of deprived peasants toward already saturated shantytowns around Port-au-Prince.
Today, as Haiti lies in ruin and its future uncertain and as the whole world is extending a hand, there may be a chance to tackle what was missed in 1804. However dazzling the worldwide support could be, only Haitians can ultimately work to prevent further catastrophes such as this latest earthquake from striking the country with such apocalyptic fury. One can only hope this latest tragedy inspires a new wave of thinking in the months and years to come.