Discover the Untold Story of Haiti

Haiti – a Paradise Lost

Here is the untold story of Haiti. For many, thinking of Haiti conjures up images of disasters (hurricanes, storms, unrest and earthquakes), poverty and political instability (a ruthless military-backed President, Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier and his son ‘Baby Doc’ that reigned with terror and rampant human right abuses (1957-1971); President Aristide overthrown in 2004; and now, the assassination of President Jovenel Moise in 2021). But what many do not know is that Haiti is an incredible Caribbean country with an amazing history.  Considered France’s richest colony in the eighteenth century, Haiti was known as “the pearl of the Antilles.”[1]

Haiti is a Caribbean sovereignty that shares the island of Hispañola with the Dominican Republic. Haiti possesses beautiful beaches, mountains, cascading waterfalls, meandering hiking trails, a rich culture and intriguing history. Haiti is the first nation in the world to shake off slavery and colonisation. Haiti is an interesting destination with a unique past.

One Island, Two Countries

The Dominican Republic and Haiti share one island and an intertwined history. The recorded history of Haiti began on December 5 1492, when the European navigator Christopher Columbus landed on a large island in the western Atlantic Ocean which he called Hispañola.

Over 200 years later, from 1697 on, the western one-third of the island was French and the eastern two-thirds was Spanish.  When Haitians took their independence in 1804, they changed their colonial name from Saint Domingue (the name given by the French) to its Taino name of Haiti or Ayiti in Kreyòl.

After the Haitian revolt started in 1791, many French planters eventually settled in Louisiana and many went on to set up sugar plantations in the still new and still virgin Trinidad and Tobago.  It is not surprising Louisiana’s Mardi Gras and Trinidad Carnival both have strong French influences, thanks to the Haitian Revolution.

Carnival, Down Town Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 2016

An Intriguing Past – Revolution and Economic Injustices

Did you know that Toussaint L’ Ouverture, also known as the ‘Black Napoleon’, was a former slave who led the revolution that overthrew the French Colonisers in the Haitian Revolution (August 21, 1791 – January 1, 1804).

Toussaint L’ Ouverture, also known as the ‘Black Napoleon’ lead the Haitian Revolution against the French

So how is it that today, Haiti is one of the Western Hemisphere’s poorest countries? Haiti was made poorer by a series of unfortunate events linking back to its revolt against its French colonisers. Haiti was one of the richest European colonies in the world at the start of the 1800s. Haiti’s source of poverty began soon after the slave revolution against the French that lead to Haiti’s independence from France in 1804.

The then President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, fearing that the revolution in Haiti would spread to the United States, imposed economic sanctions against Haiti. France, in turn, blocked Haiti from participating in the trans-Atlantic trade [2]. This global isolation plummeted Haiti into a downward economic spiral.

To make matters worse, under threat of war, Haiti was forced by France in 1825 to pay 150 million Francs, which was later reduced to 90 million Francs in 1838. This is the 2021 equivalent of US$30 billion (based on calculations by Leve Global and In2013Dollars). This payment was to compensate France for its loss of slaves and its slave colony [3]. In addition to the payment, France demanded that Haiti cut its export prices in half for commodities sold to them, making repayment more challenging for Haiti [4]. Haiti’s debt was finally paid off more than one hundred years later in 1947, and its economy is yet to recover from this devastating and debilitating blow.

Closer to home, in 1937, in the worst incident of longstanding rivalry with neighbouring Dominican Republic, thousands of Haitians in the border area were massacred by Dominican troops on the orders of dictator Trujillo.

Poverty and Inequality

Despite the sheer poverty of the majority of Haitians (in 2020, 60% of the Haitian population lived under the poverty line [5]), don’t forget that Haiti, like other impoverished countries, still has a thriving upper class.

 

According to the World Bank, Haiti is considered as the #1 country in Latin America and the Caribbean with the most uneven distribution of wealth. It has the largest disparity between the upper classes and the poorer echelons of society. In Haiti, the richest 20% owns 64% of its total wealth, while the poorest 20% barely owns 1%.

A Turbulent Political Past and Present

After abolishing slavery and becoming the First Free Black Republic in the Caribbean in 1804 and the second Independent country in the Western Hemisphere, there has never been a dull political moment in Haiti’s complex history – from corruption, to invasion, occupation, protests, revolts, military rule, mayhem, terror, human rights abuses, violence, massacres, resistance, resilience, state of emergencies, coups and assassinations, Haiti has had it all. 

 

Toussaint L’Overture was tricked, confined, imprisoned and died in 1803; former slave Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who also led the revolution was assassinated in 1806; Haiti was invaded by the USA in 1815 and occupied until 1943 but retained financial control and political influence; dictatorship from 1957-1986 by the Duvaliers; General Prosper Avril took over in a 1988 coup; former parish priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a left-wing champion of the poor, won Haiti’s first free election. He is removed in a coup in 1991; re-elected in a disputed election in 1999 and left the country in 2004 as a result of political unrest; Preval won the 2006 elections and Michel Martell in 2011; Jovenel Moise, a banana exporter turned politician, wins the 2016 presidential election and was assassinated Wednesday July 7th, 2021.

 

This free and fledgling country in the Caribbean was crippled before it could walk.

How US ‘AID’ Subsidises Poverty

In another cruel twist of fate, the US provides AID to Haiti by subsidising US rice farmers to supply rice to Haiti at prices that make local production impossible and totally unprofitable.  According to a OXFAM 2010 report, the $434m paid annually in domestic US rice subsidies is more than the total US aid to Haiti of $353m and subsidies paid to American farmers meant the rice they export to Haiti – known locally as Riz Miami or “Miami Rice” – is cheaper than locally produced rice [6].

Former US President Bill Clinton, one of the architects of the subsidies to US farmers, admitted  that the policy was “a mistake” and that “it may have been good for some farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked” and “I have to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people, because of what I did”. [7] 

And we are today wondering why Caribbean islands and countries cannot feed themselves., blaming everything – from laziness to lack of arable land – instead of considering our own inappropriate policies and actions. How can one atone for these decades of damage and so-called AID?  If the USA agreed to purchase (trade) one ton of rice produced by Haitians, this may have been more sustainable than the US$400+ million paid to US farmers to sell subsidized rice to Haiti, which completely destroyed local production. It shows that TRADE is more sustainable than AID.

Another Devastating Blow – Natural Disasters

As if the political and economic mayhem was not enough, an already poor country, Haiti was made even poorer after the devastating blow from a number of natural disasters. While there have been many storms and hurricanes crossing Haiti’s path, the 2008 hurricane season was the worst ever. Haiti was hit by 4 consecutive storms – Fay, Gustav, Hanna, and Ike. That year, Haiti lost 98% of its forest foliage and was covered in floods for extended periods. And just as Haiti was recovering from the storms, an earthquake of epic magnitude shook Haiti’s foundations in 2010, leaving the country in a state of desperation and 250,000 dead.

Then, as if fate was playing a cruel trick on Haiti, a cholera outbreak wreaked havoc on the nation in the wake of the earthquake, taking the lives of 500,000 more people. Haiti’s dead count exceeded the combined populations of Barbados, St. Lucia, Grenada and St. Vincent & the Grenadines.

American Troops in Haiti try to contain and ‘secure’ the island after the 2010, 7.0 magnitude Earthquake

The Light at the End of the Proverbial Tunnel – Hope on the Horizon

Despite its traumatic past and complexity of it politics, economy and society, there is still hope on the horizon.  Necessity is definitely the mother of invention and creativity. Consider that some of the most critical art in the Caribbean have historically emanated from countries such as Cuba and Haiti.  Struggles and Poverty breed a hunger for artistic expression and creativity, much like the Degenerate Art in Germany under Hitler.  And, as you can imagine, there is lots of oppression, poverty AND Art in Haiti.

Fine Art and Fashion

Haitian art is founded on a complex mixture of African roots, strong Indigenous influences and western background, namely American and European aesthetic as well as other religious influences. Most Haitian art comes from a place of struggle and pain. It is an important representation of Haitian culture and history. (Source: https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-12-artists-caribbean-diaspora-shaping-contemporary-art)

Video and installation Hatian artist Maksaens Denis, for example, is a leading figure of Caribbean new media art. His work is concerned with the intersection of performance, spirituality, queerness, and politics, and is influenced by classical and experimental music. Denis’s work is also informed by Vodun veves, or religious symbols, and incorporates recycled materials—a common thread among artists from Haiti and the Caribbean more broadly.

Book Cover: Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937

A Rich Culture and Fascinating Heritage

Haiti’s culture is an eclectic menagerie of Taino Indians (the first peoples of the island), African and European influences. As a former colony of France, Haiti has borrowed a number of cultural elements of the French – its language is an obvious one. The mixture of French and African also influenced religion, art, dance and music.

The Voodoo Experience

Haiti is known for its rich folklore traditions. The country has many magical tales that are part of the Haitian Voodoo tradition. Voodoo is a representation of historical pain and need for relief. It is a turning from the religion of the slave masters and a yearning for Africa and the ancestors. Voodoo is a religious expression connected to nature, spirits and ancestors.

Even, the Haitian dictator Papa Doc was a strong believer in the country’s folklore and used elements of it to cement his brutal rule of the country.

What lessons Can we Learn from Haiti?  And What Can be Done?

  1. AID needs to ‘come clean’ and ensure that policies do not create more POVERTY and DEPENDENCY -the very things they are trying to alleviate. It is important, further, to deliver AID that is SUSTAINABLE. We need to find of ‘out of the box’ solutions– we should focus on AID Plus Trade.
  1. Own up! – Countries need to own up to the problems that they have historically created. France and the USA have played major roles in the current state of dysfunctionality of Haiti. And just as Germany has had to ATONE for the destruction, damage and decimation of the Jews, it is critical that other countries ‘own up’ and play a more critical role in Haiti’s recovery, reconstruction and resilience.
  1. Open your Eyes – The 10% of Haitians that are doing well and doing very, very well. How can they sleep at night when the rest of Haiti is hurting? Haiti will not do well until everyone does well. True development needs to take place starting from the local business and professional sectors.
  1. Don’t Let History Repeat Itself – Is Afghanistan another Haiti in the making? What is happening to Haiti is no different to what continues to transpire the world over, where international powers colonise countries or invade them ‘to put them straight’ and then leave them ‘high and dry’. Will Haiti’s fate await Afghanistan?
  1. The Colossal Costs of Our Patrimony. In appreciating Haiti’s critical art and artists and the legacy that they have left the world (black slaves bold-faced enough to fight for their freedom against France, a major colonial power, AND win; in appreciating the French planters that fled to the USA and joined the war effort and to set up plantations and Trinidad; in appreciating the Mardi Gras in New Orleans and the amazing Trinidad Carnival; we should not forget whose backs (Haitians) and the great costs that these were ‘won’.
  1. Long Live Democracy? Why is it so difficult for leaders to leave office when their terms are up?  Even in small, poor and seemingly hopeless countries like Haiti, the battle for power is never-ending. Why are people so keen to fight for, and hold on, to very, very hard and stressful service jobs?  Or are we missing something?

Some food for thought as it appears that history is continuing to repeat itself.

Here’s a Different Perspective on Haiti

[1] https://haitianstudies.ku.edu/haiti-history

[2] Colonialism and Science: Saint Domingue and the Old Regime

[3] “Impoverished Haiti Pins Hopes for Future on a Very Old Debt”. The Wall Street Journal. ISSN 0099-9660. Retrieved 2021-02-20.

[4] “Haiti: The Pearl of the Antilles”. The Nation. ISSN 0027-8378

[5] World Bank

[6] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-11472874

[7] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-11472874

Authors:

Dr. Auliana Poon

auliana poon

Dr. Auliana Poon is the founder and Managing Director of Leve Global and Exceptional Caribbean.

Auliana loves the Caribbean and believes in its people. Her personal mission is to change the world; to transform our societies. And this is precisely why she has spearheaded Exceptional Caribbean – a continuing mission to elevate tourism, trade and lives.

Kevon Wilson

kevon wilson

Kevon Wilson, is a premier researcher and strategist. He has more than 16 years’ experience in research and digital marketing.

He is co-author of many of Leve Global’s research publications such as Big Data – Delivering the Big Picture to Drive CompetitivenessEverything You Need to Know About Internet Marketing,  and The Top Ten Emerging Markets.

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4 thoughts on “Discover the Untold Story of Haiti”

  1. Olayinka Bandele

    So richly researched. I enjoyed the piece a great deal. I discovered new aspects of the Haiti revolution and more besides. Thank you for the time and effort to share knowledge on this important country. Haiti’s sacrifice is not well recognized .

    1. Thank you, Yinka, for your positive comments. There’s so much about the Caribbean that is not adequately told and celebrated. Haiti is a prime example. So you are correct in saying that “Hait’s sacrifice is not well recognized”. They are quietly suffering and very few people know their whole story. We just wanted to give a general overview to help people see Haiti in a new light. But there’s so much more to tell.

      Here’s another story that is not adequately told. The story of how Africa made the Caribbean: https://exceptionalcaribbean.com/2021/07/29/africans-have-made-the-caribbean-heres-why/

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