Happy independence day, Haitians: a powerful act of emancipation for which you have been made to pay so dearly, and have never been allowed truly to savour.
In 1789, revolutionary France’s National Constituent Assembly declared the Rights of Man, but did not extend these great principles to the slaves of Saint-Domingue – producer of 40 percent of the world’s sugar, and the Caribbean ‘s most profitable colony.
By contrast, they were punished severely for daring to assume such sentiments might be universal, and years of conflict followed.
Haiti was consequently born of a revolution, a slave rebellion which threw off the planet’s most brutal system of oppression.
Its declaration of independence on January 1, 1804 made Haiti the second free country in the western hemisphere, and the world’s first black republic: an extraordinary achievement, testing the western world’s new spirit of enlightened people-powered government to the limit.
As it turned out, the ‘international community’ (of white people) was horrified, and put in place a global boycott of Haitian goods and commerce. It was a devastating start for the fledgling nation.
In July 1825, French ruler Charles X sent a fleet of fourteen vessels and troops to reconquer the island. In order to survive, Haiti was forced to pay 150 million francs in return for French recognition. (The amount was reduced to 90 million in 1838).
It was a crippling toll; and the debt plagued Haiti’s economy for decades. The French abolitionist Victor Schoelcher wrote at the time: “Imposing an indemnity on the victorious slaves was equivalent to making them pay with money that they had already paid with their blood.”
Tragically, ordinary Haitians were from the very beginning treated with equal disdain by their new black and mixed race leadership, who mimicked their former European oppressors in brutality. Venality and cruelty became the hallmarks of a new Haitian elite.
Dealing another blow to Haitian independence, the United States occupied the island from 1915-1934. Woodrow Wilson clearly did not believe that his vaunted principles of self-determination applied to Haitians.
After its departure, the US continued to meddle intensely in Haitian politics. Years of dictatorship and instability were to follow.
The most recent challenge to Haiti’s independence came in 2004, when it was placed under a Chapter VII UN peacekeeping mission. There are many good reasons why the mission should be here, but it has been controversial and the simple fact remains: Haiti today hosts more than 9000 international troops and police.
Even if they see it as the lesser of potential evils, no free-spirited independent people ever enjoys the presence of foreign security forces on their soil.
So, happy independence day, Haitians. Few ‘independent’ peoples have had less opportunity to enjoy that phrase. May a day come soon when you can truly call it so.
(Note – this is necessarily a very simplified history, and if you think I have made mistakes, please feel free to correct them.)
FYI This is what Hillary Clinton had to say this year about Haitian Independence Day)