Year 501 Copyright © 1993 by Noam Chomsky. Published by South End Press.
Previous segment | Next segment | Contents | Overview | Archive | ZNet

Chapter Eight

The Tragedy of Haiti

1. "The First Free Nation of Free Men"

"Haiti was more than the New World's second oldest republic," anthropologist Ira Lowenthal observed, "more than even the first black republic of the modern world. Haiti was the first free nation of free men to arise within, and in resistance to, the emerging constellation of Western European empire." The interaction of the New World's two oldest republics for 200 years again illustrates the persistence of basic themes of policy, their institutional roots and cultural concomitants.

The Republic of Haiti was established on January 1, 1804, after a slave revolt expelled the French colonial rulers and their allies. The revolutionary chiefs discarded the French "Saint-Domingue" in favor of the name used by the people who had greeted Columbus in 1492, as he arrived to establish his first settlement in Europe's New World. The descendants of the original inhabitants could not celebrate the liberation. They had been reduced to a few hundred within 50 years from a pre-Colombian population estimated variously from hundreds of thousands to 8 million, with none remaining at all, according to contemporary French scholars, when France took the western third of Hispaniola, now Haiti, from Spain in 1697. The leader of the revolt, Toussaint L'Ouverture, could not celebrate the victory either. He had been captured by deceit and sent to a French prison to die a "slow death from cold and misery," in the words of a 19th century French historian. Medical anthropologist Paul Farmer observes that Haitian schoolchildren to this day know by heart his final words as he was led to prison: "In overthrowing me, you have cut down in Saint-Domingue only the tree of liberty. It will spring up again by the roots for they are numerous and deep."1

The tree of liberty broke through the soil again in 1985, as the population revolted against the murderous Duvalier dictatorship. After many bitter struggles, the popular revolution led to the overwhelming victory of Haiti's first freely elected president, the populist priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Seven months after his February 1991 inauguration he was driven from office by the military and commercial elite who had ruled for 200 years, and would not tolerate loss of their traditional rights of terror and exploitation.

"As soon as the last Duvalier had fled Haiti," Puerto Rican ethnohistorian Jalil Sued-Badillo recounts, "an angry crowd toppled the statue of Christopher Columbus in Port-au-Prince and threw it in the sea," protesting "the ravages of colonialism" under "a long line of despots" from Columbus to Duvalier, and on to today's rulers, who have reinstated Duvalier savagery. There were similar scenes in the neighboring Dominican Republic, subjected to a US-imposed terror regime after another Marine invasion in 1965 and a victim of IMF Fundamentalism from the early 1980s. In February 1992, President Balaguer "unleashed his security forces to beat peaceful demonstrators who were protesting the exorbitant expenditures shelled out for the 500-year celebration while the average Dominican starves," the Council on Hemispheric Affairs reported. Its centerpiece is a multi-million-dollar 100-foot-high half-mile-long recumbent cross with powerful searchlights that "rises above a slum of rat-infested shacks where malnourished, illiterate children slosh through the fetid water that washes through the streets during tropical rainstorms," the news services reported. Slums were cleared to accommodate its sprawling terraced gardens, and a stone wall conceals "the desperate poverty that its beams will soon illuminate." The huge expenses "coincide with one of the worst economic crises since the '30s," the former president of the Central Bank pointed out. After ten years of structural adjustment, health care and education have radically declined, electricity cutoffs up to 24 hours are used to ration power, unemployment exceeds 25 percent, and poverty is rampant. "The big fish eat the little ones," one old women says in the nearby slum.2

Columbus described the people he found as "lovable, tractable, peaceable, gentle, decorous," and their land as rich and bountiful. Hispaniola was "perhaps the most densely populated place in the world," Las Casas wrote, "a beehive of people," who "of all the infinite universe of humanity, ...are the most guileless, the most devoid of wickedness and duplicity." Driven by "insatiable greed and ambition," the Spanish fell upon them "like ravening wild beasts, ... killing, terrorizing, afflicting, torturing, and destroying the native peoples" with "the strangest and most varied new methods of cruelty, never seen or heard of before, and to such a degree" that the population is barely 200 persons, he wrote in 1552, "from my own knowledge of the acts I witnessed." "It was a general rule among Spaniards to be cruel," he wrote: "not just cruel, but extraordinarily cruel so that harsh and bitter treatment would prevent Indians from daring to think of themselves as human beings." "As they saw themselves each day perishing by the cruel and inhuman treatment of the Spaniards, crushed to the earth by the horses, cut in pieces by swords, eaten and torn by dogs, many buried alive and suffering all kinds of exquisite tortures, ...[they] decided to abandon themselves to their unhappy fate with no further struggles, placing themselves in the hands of their enemies that they might do with them as they liked."

As the propaganda mills ground away, the picture was revised to provide retrospective justification for what had been done. By 1776, the story was that Columbus found "nothing but a country quite covered with wood, uncultivated, and inhabited only by some tribes of naked and miserable savages" (Adam Smith). As noted earlier, it was not until the 1960s that the truth began to break through, eliciting scorn and protest from outraged loyalists.3

The Spanish effort to plunder the island's riches by enslaving its gentle people were unsuccessful; they died too quickly, if not killed by the "wild beasts" or in mass suicide. African slaves were sent from the early 1500s, later in a flood as the plantation economy was established. "Saint Domingue was the wealthiest European colonial possession in the Americas," Hans Schmidt writes, producing three-quarters of the world's sugar by 1789, also leading the world in production of coffee, cotton, indigo, and rum. The slave masters provided France with enormous wealth from the labor of their 450,000 slaves, much as in the British West Indian colonies. The white population, including poor overseers and artisans, numbered 40,000. Some 30,000 mulattoes and free Negroes enjoyed economic privileges but not social and political equality, the origins of the class difference that led to harsh repression after independence, with renewed violence today.

Cubans may have seemed "of dubious whiteness," but the rebels who overthrew colonial rule did not approach that status. The slave revolt, which had reached serious proportions by the end of 1791, appalled Europe, as well as the European outpost that had just declared its own independence. Britain invaded in 1793; victory would offer "a monopoly of sugar, indigo, cotton and coffee" from an island which "for ages, would give such aid and force to industry as would be most happily felt in every part of the empire," a British military officer wrote to Prime Minister Pitt. The United States, which had lively commerce with the French colony, sent its French rulers $750,000 in military aid as well as some troops to help quell the revolt. France dispatched a huge army, including Polish, Dutch, German, and Swiss troops. Its commander finally wrote Napoleon that it would be necessary to wipe out virtually the entire black population to impose French rule. His campaign failed, and Haiti became the only case in history "of an enslaved people breaking its own chains and using military might to beat back a powerful colonial power" (Farmer).

The rebellion had broad consequences. It established British dominance of the Caribbean, and impelled its former colonies a long step further on their westward course as Napoleon, abandoning his hopes for an empire in the New World, sold the Louisiana territory to the United States. The rebel victory came at tremendous cost. Much of the agricultural wealth of the country was destroyed, along with perhaps a third of the population. The victory horrified Haiti's slave-holding neighbors, who backed France's claims for huge reparations, finally accepted in 1825 by Haiti's ruling elite, who recognized them to be a precondition for entry into the global market. The result was "decades of French domination of Haitian finance" with "a catastrophic effect on the new nation's delicate economy," Farmer observes. France then recognized Haiti, as did Britain in 1833. Simon Bolívar, whose struggles against Spanish rule were aided by the Haitian Republic on condition that he free slaves, refused to establish diplomatic relations with Haiti on becoming President of Greater Colombia, claiming that Haiti was "fomenting racial conflict" -- a refusal "typical of Haiti's welcome in a monolithically racist world," Farmer comments. Haitian elites continued to be haunted by fear of conquest and a renewal of slavery, a factor in their costly and destructive invasions of the Dominican Republic in the 1850s.

The US was the last major power to insist that Haiti be ostracized, recognizing it only in 1862. With the American Civil War underway, Haiti's liberation of slaves no longer posed a barrier to recognition; on the contrary, President Lincoln and others saw Haiti as a place that might absorb blacks induced to leave the United States (Liberia was recognized in the same year, in part for the same reason). Haitian ports were used for Union operations against the rebels. Haiti's strategic role in control of the Caribbean became increasingly important in US planning in later years, as Haiti became a plaything among the competing imperial powers. Meanwhile its ruling elite monopolized trade, while the peasant producers in the interior remained isolated from the outside world.

Go to the next segment.

1 Lowenthal, Reviews in Anthropology, 1976, cited in Farmer, AIDS and Accusation, the source for much of which follows along with Schmidt, US Occupation. The classic account of the revolution is C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins. The high population estimates are from Sherburne Cook and Woodrow Borah, Essays in Population History: Mexico and the Caribbean (California, 1971) (see Farmer, Stannard, American Holocaust).

2 Sued-Badillo, Monthly Review, July/August 1992. COHA press release, Feb. 18; Anne-Marie O'Connor, Cox News Service, April 12, 1992. On the IMF programs, see McAfee, Storm Signals; DD, 7.3.

3 Farmer, AIDS, 153; Las Casas, passages in Chicago Religious Task Force, Dangerous Memories, Stannard, American Holocaust, Sale, Conquest. See also Koning, Columbus. Smith, Wealth, Bk. IV, Ch. VII, Pt. I (ii, 70).