Friday, January 15, 2010

Day 187/365 A Deal With the Devil

History lover that I am, I plead massive ignorance to Caribbean issues. But even before Tuesday's earthquake, I was aware of the crippling poverty of Haiti, the AIDS epidemic, the orphanages full of children, the starvation and the general lack of pretty much everything.

Watching the news coverage of the rescue and relief effort, I started wondering: How come? How come Haiti ended up like this? Why isn't it a tropical paradise, with luxury hotels along it's beaches, and lines of white folks waiting to spend their dollars? What happened to Haiti?

Turns out it's a pretty interesting story.

Thanks to PBS for running a documentary last night (they knew I'd be looking for one): Égalité for All: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution, and then a little more research, and here's the short version of Haiti's story.

This is the Haitian flag. It use to have a white stripe and look an awful lot like the French flag. The Haitians removed the white stripe, saying it represented the white French colonists they rebelled against in the 1790s. They had good reason.

Starting with Columbus in 1492 (who claimed their island for Spain), they were occupied by one group after another, primarily the French, who managed to build the most prosperous plantations in the New World on the backs of the native Taino-Arawak tribes, as well as importing a half million west Africans.

By 1791, the indigenous peoples and the imported Africans had enough. A great slave rebellion rose up and by 1804, the island of Haiti or Ayiti (Creole) was a free black republic, although it was also a mulatto republic, a quadroon republic, and even a republic with some white citizens. There were (and are) so many shades of skin color on Haiti that a visiting scholar came up with a "chart" listing almost a thousand "levels of negro blood". Haiti was truly a racial melting pot.

Even the red stripe on their flag represents the black citizens, and the blue stripe represents their mulatto citizens. The motto says "Union Is Strength".

During the rebellion the slave armies were commanded by a former-slave-turned-plantation-owner, General Toussaint Louverture. His story is well-worth an in-depth read and I won't even attempt to sum it up here. He was truly a national hero to Haiti, every bit as much as George Washington is to America, or Martin Luther King to the Civil Rights Movement.

But here's the rub, and why Haiti ended up in so much misery.

They won the battle with France. The slave rebellion succeeded. They ran France out of their country (remember France was the occupying country, who enslaved the natives and bought in more slaves).

And then France asked for reparations.

On account of they lost the most productive avenue of income they had, i.e. the Haitian sugar plantations.

So they told the new Haitian government they wanted reparations. They wanted to be paid back for what they were no longer allowed to steal.

Hmmm. (In backwards world, the Haitians would have asked for reparations for all the natural resources France had stolen from them).

Of course, the fledgling government didn't have that kind of money. So guess who loaned Haiti the money to pay the French back? Uh huh. The United States. At a highly inflated interest rate.

They borrowed it from us in 1838. With the interest tacked on, they made the last payment in 1947. Each year, the loan repayment amounted to approximately 80% of their national budget.

In 1957, the infamous Papa Doc Duvalier seized control, and took out more high-interest loans, used primarily to support his affluent lifestyle. With the financial help of the United States and Cuba, Papa Doc killed tens of thousands of Haitians, until his son was overthrown in 1986. Haiti is still paying off the Duvalier family loans. Those countries refuse to forgive that debt.

Haiti never had a chance.

Pat Robertson says the Haitians are cursed because they made a deal with the devil. Crazy Pat just didn't say who the devil was.

As I said, this is the short version of the story. There is always more misery to go around in Haiti.

We need to give Haiti whatever its people need. I'm hoping for a long-term solution, versus the short-term sound bite solutions. Right after we get those folks antibiotics, clean water and some decent food, let's start on the infrastructure, the schools, and some safe housing.

Time for the devil to pay his due, as my grandmother would say.


  1. well done. I have Madison Smartt Bell's Toussaint Louverture bio if you want to read it. Ariel gave it to us for xmas last year.