Haiti is the result of the first successful slave uprising that resulted in an independent state in 1804. Prior to the revolt, the island that is modern Haiti was known as Saint-Domingue. Then a sugar island, the French largely depended on it for economic growth. But on the night of August 22 and 23, 1791, enslaved people rose against their French enslavers and they began the biggest and bloodiest slave revolt in history.
In what is now the African diaspora’s oldest country, Haiti is in political crisis again, with protesters demanding new democratic elections and the resignation of current President Jovenel Moïse following years of corruption claims. For about half a century, the Caribbean nation has struggled to overcome the problems of poverty and inequality. It is a country that has also seen the worst of brutal dictatorships in the hands of the Duvalier family. The country has also suffered both natural and Western-ensured tragedies.
To fully analyze Haiti’s situation today, it would be appropriate to look at its relationship with its close neighbor to the South — the United States – both now and all through history.
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When Haiti declared its independence from France on January 1, 1804, after a 13-year campaign led by military leader General Toussaint Louverture, it became the “first modern state to abolish slavery, the first state in the world to be formed from a successful revolt of the lower classes (in this case slaves), and the second republic in the Western Hemisphere, only twenty-eight years behind the United States,” according to an account.
Indeed, the Haitian Revolution was a significant event in the history of the Caribbean, Western Hemisphere, and world. But the country would suffer greatly because of this feat as European powers, as well as the United States, immediately took steps to marginalize Haiti. The United States refused to formally recognize Haiti as a nation. It saw the Haitian Revolution as a threat to its economic interests. Southern plantation owners feared that the revolution would spread to the United States and did all they could to prevent their slaves from keeping abreast of the situation in Haiti. The U.S. government was pressured by these Southern plantation owners to not recognize Haiti’s independence. It did as it was told until 1862 when it extended formal diplomatic recognition after the Southern states had seceded from the Union.
In other words, it was after the U.S. Civil War that President Abraham Lincoln took steps to finally recognize Haiti in 1862. For some historians, it took that long for Americans to acknowledge Haiti because they just couldn’t fathom how a group of enslaved men and women could overthrow their owners and rule themselves. And even though the U.S. refused to diplomatically recognize Haiti, it is documented that it continued to trade with the new nation, on terms that were unfavorable to the latter. To make matters worse, France demanded that Haiti pay them 150 million francs (about $21 billion today) to compensate former slaveholders for their loss of property during the Haitian Revolution. It would take the first independent Black country 122 years to pay the amount.
After the Civil War, the United States’ attention to Haiti largely centered on trade until 1915 when Haiti was plunged into a political crisis and the country’s president was assassinated. President Woodrow Wilson sent U.S. Marines into Haiti to restore calm and protect American interests while helping form the Haitian army. At the same time, the U.S. strengthened its economic ties with the country. The U.S. Marine Corps remained in Haiti until 1934 when the U.S. began a “good neighbor policy” toward Haiti and all of Latin America, according to a report.
Haiti would subsequently suffer under the dictatorial leadership of the Duvalier family, who ruled from 1956-71 and then into the 1980s, during which the U.S. would criticize the Haitian government for human rights abuses. In the 1990s, Jean-Bertrand Aristide would be Haiti’s first democratically elected president but would be overthrown as a leader and exiled twice by pro-US local elites because the US feared “his influence might initiate a regional domino effect,” an article by The Guardian noted. In fact, some historians have attributed Haiti’s woes more to the actions of the U.S. than even the country’s deadly 2010 earthquake.
Today, Haiti is one of the world’s poorest with one of four people unable to afford $1.25 a day. It continues to be neglected by the world amid mounting violence and political turmoil. This week, a social media rallying cry has emerged — #FreeHaiti — following a botched raid on a gang stronghold in a slum at Port-au-Prince that left at least four Haitian police officers dead. Celebrities like Cardi B, Bobby Shmurda, and Noname have since voiced their support to the #FreeHaiti Movement as the country’s citizens continue to plead for peace.