As a Haitian-American, I am deeply grateful to start each year celebrating my ethnic roots on Haitian Independence Day, or for many of you, January 1. It's important to me for many reasons, namely because my ties to the world's first Black republic reminds me that I must choose faith over fear in order to reach freedom.
This particular January is also an important time of reflection for me as a Haitian-American as it marks the 10 year anniversary of the devastating 7.0M earthquake that ripped through Haiti and the hearts of Haitians worldwide. The devastation of the earthquake was in a lot of ways similar to the 9/11 aftermath. Although this was a natural disaster and not a manmade structured attack, I remember days of news coverage and updates crashing through my household via American television and Haitian radio. I also remember the telephone chains of conversations between my parents and grandmother trying to locate loved ones across the country.
I am part of a generation of Haitian-Americans who are physically and often emotionally removed from facing the difficult realities of life in Haiti. My parents immigrated in the 90s, as did most of their siblings. By the time my siblings and I were born, all but one of my aunts and uncles were out of Haiti. My cousins and I were mostly raised between New Jersey, Maryland, and Montreal QC. I know this sounds silly, but my family could never afford to go back. I grew up in a household of six, that later became eight. Trying to calculate the cost of flights alone, not even mentioning food and lodging, it was just not a financial reality for my family.
So Haiti became a place where I traveled through my parents' and grandmother's memories and my own imagination. For most of my life, Haiti has been framed as a helpless, destitute country in need of Western intervention. That's only been a fraction of the story. Here are some of the things I had to learn in order to get the fuller picture:
1. France owes Haiti A LOT of money.
On August 14, 1791, a voudou ceremony led by Dutty Boukman and Cécile Fatiman at Bwa Kayiman launched the start of a 12-year battle between enslaved Africans and French soldiers. On January 1, 1804, Haiti became the first free Black republic in the world; the first set of enslaved to overthrow slavery and colonialism.
Independence, however, came at a cost. In 1825, France hit Haiti with a fee for what they called "theft of slaves" and essentially demanded reparations. Many scholars see this move by France as a message to enslaved communities around the world to weaken attempts of rebellion. A huge part of Haiti's financial instability is in part due to this large strain on the country's economy. It took Haiti 122 years to pay France back 150 million Francs, or a smooth 21 billion dollars. The last payment was made in 1947. My grandmothers were both in elementary school.
When news outlets report that Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, they are not wrong. But they fail to explain why.
2. While the United States formally didn't recognize Haiti's independence, it exploited the country with unfavorable conditions.
The successful overthrow of colonial rule became a major threat to countries dependent upon slave labor. Consequently, Haiti became shut out of industries and relationships with other countries. Ann Crawford-Roberts writes that Southern plantation owners, in particular, urged the United States not to acknowledge Haiti's sovereignty and that it wasn't until 1862 when the South had succeeded that the country was formally acknowledged.
Crawford-Roberts also writes that although Haiti was not formally recognized by the United States, it was still business as usual. In fact, the United States continued to export goods to Haiti at rates higher than any other country in Latin America at unfair prices. In other words, not only was Haiti paying a "debt" to France for independence, the country was also reliant upon goods imported from the United States.
But wait, there's more! In the early 1900s, the United States established a twenty-year-long occupation of Haiti under the direction of President Woodrow Wilson. Citing political unrest and unstable government, the U.S. entered a treaty that led to militaristic and financial control of Haiti. Are you noticing the pattern here? The United States withdrew from Haiti in 1934, but retained power over economic affairs until 1937.
3. In addition to France and the United States holding power and influence over Haiti politically, and economically, other "foreign aid" continued to exploit Haiti under the guise of humanitarian relief.
In 2010, the North American Congress on Latin America reported that Haiti has the highest rate of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) per capita than anywhere else in the world. These NGOs, however, are largely funded by state departments with a smaller portion of their funds coming from corporate or individual sponsors.
At the regional level, NGOs have been criticized for not working in concert with town leaders. Instead, power remains concentrated in nonHaitian interventionists. This is not only disenfranchising and disempowering, but it also makes for the continuation of vulnerability and exploitation.
The American Red Cross has also been accused of misappropriating donations and failing to redevelop Haiti following the 2010 earthquake. There's an unaccounted 500 million dollars if you're wondering.
On an intergovernmental level, the United Nations has also played a part in destruction. Haiti is also the site of the longest standing UN peacekeeping initiative, the reestablishment of Project MINUSTAH in 2004 until the end of the project in 2017. Peacekeepers are a mix of everyday civilians and state representatives, be it police or military members from around the world. At their sites in Haiti, they were soldiers charged with keeping order. Yet, that's far from what they did.
Roughly 10,000 Haitians died due to a cholera outbreak brought through peacekeepers that the United Nations failed to acknowledge until recently. Poor environmental practices led to tainting the main water sources used.
Women and children have been exceptionally vulnerable to In 2017, a research collective from the Conversation discovered that roughly 10% of women and girls living in host communities where UN peace ambassadors operated have had a child fathered by these UN workers between 2004 and 2017. Of this percentage, most of these children born were products of rape and sexual abuse. The men involved are from all over the world, which in some ways has complicated any form of judicial punishment, but truthfully the legal aspect is outside of my scope.
There is a consistent thread here if you made it this far. Whether it is a country or an organization, there is a total lack of accountability for theft, exploitation, and violence that occurs at the expense of Haiti's development and Haitian lives.
The often uncertainty of the fate of TPS recipients and the ongoing fight for improving the quality of life are things that I do not experientially understand but am empathetically connected to through relatives. It is my responsibility to uplift these conversations and keep myself critically engaged with the way we talk about Haiti. The next time you hear someone reference Haiti's poverty and political instability, I hope you feel a bit more informed to shift accountability to where it belongs.