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Americans Owe More to Haiti Than They Know

| January 15, 2010

Survival's shred. (Logan Abassi / The United Nations)

In 2004 Haitians rebelled and a coup ousted the corrupt Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was literally airlifted, if not kidnapped, from his home by U.S. Marines and briefly rendered to the Central African Republic. The events of 2004 highlighted the depth of Haiti’s chronic crises and poverty–crises that the January 13 earthquake exacerbated by untold magnitudes. The following column, originally written in 2004, is sadly as timely today as it was then, when the attention that focused on Haiti during the rebellion quickly

The shantytown of Haitian history looks like an impenetrable mess of poverty and violence. You look, you try to understand, you recoil, bewildered. Lebanon, the Balkans, Chechnya, the Israeli-Palestinian whatever: They’re all past and present shanties. Afghanistan became a shanty the size of Texas over the past 30 years. Iraq became one in the past decade. Haiti has never stopped being one.

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That few Americans care is part of Haiti ‘s problem. The place has no hold on the American imagination. More people are interested in knowing what rovers dig out of the Martian dust 35 million miles away than what happens to 8 million Haitians an hour’s flight from the Florida coast. By the usual measure of a nation’s use in American eyes, Haiti has nothing to offer American consumers other than coffee and mangoes. No oil, no metals, no cheap textiles, no cool vacation spots, not even a useful military base. Guantanamo Bay across the Windward Passage fills that role for the neighborhood.

Yet if payback were in order, Americans owe more to Haitians than they know.

What Louisiana Owes Haiti

March 2004 marked a momentous date: The 200th anniversary of France’s official transfer of the Louisiana Territory to the United States. The $15 million transaction doubled the size of the United States. Thomas Jefferson called the diplomatic coup “the noblest work of our lives.” By staving off European meddling to the nation’s west for good, the acquisition probably did more to save the young union than all its constitutional ideals put together. No Frenchman forgave Napoleon Bonaparte for the transfer. But it wouldn’t have happened, or at least wouldn’t have happened so smoothly, without the help of Haitians.

The story bears another look for a couple of reasons. It helps justify the right kind of American involvement in Haiti now (along the lines of a returned favor). But it also reveals a duplicity in America’s relationship with Haiti that echoes to this day.

American presidents speak a good game when it comes to liberty and democracy. President Bush did so to justify his variously hysteric wars and occupations. Jefferson did it in his day to proclaim the “empire of liberty.” But Haiti didn’t rate on Bush’s crusade for democracy today anymore than it did in Jefferson’s time. The story of Haitian hero Toussaint Louverture leading a slave revolt in 1801 makes all the history books for being the first successful mass revolt of its kind in the Americas. At the time, Haiti was a colony of 600,000 inhabitants – about the same number of Haitian exiles live in Florida today – 500,000 of whom were slaves.

How Haiti’s Revolt Freaked Out Jefferson

When even veteran reporters can’t hold it in.

But the revolt terrified Jefferson (a slave-owner to his death) and slave-owning Americans. They didn’t relish the prospect of a slave revolt in their midst. Jefferson denounced Toussaint Louverture and never recognized his government. It wasn’t just because he didn’t care for black self-rule. He loved the prospect of keeping Haiti violent for the French. The more French soldiers died in Hispaniola (the name of the island that now includes Haiti), the fewer French soldiers to deal with on the continent. In retrospect, the events played right into the hands of Jefferson’s designs on Louisiana, even if they had more to do with luck than strategy.

For Napoleon, those designs had to do with hubris and plain old racism. Napoleon never wanted to give up on Louisiana. He’d massed an armada of ships ready to set sail for encampments on the Mississippi. The revolt in Haiti changed the armada’s course. Napoleon thought teaching Louverture a lesson would be a temporary detour – a “cakewalk,” to borrow a term from the more recent Napoleonic design on Iraq. He never imagined a ragtag band of black farmhands capable of standing up to the Grande Armée.

The expedition turned out to be the undoing of Napoleon’s presence in the Americas. His troops prevailed, but in a Tet Offensive sort of way. They won the battle, lost the war and the will to fight on. Toussaint Louverture was captured and eventually died in a dungeon in the Jura mountains on the Swiss frontier. The rebellion wore on in spite of the bloody infighting that has become characteristic of Haitian self-rule, and Haiti won independence in 1804. Decimated in the Caribbean, his first Waterloo, Napoleon had nothing left for Louisiana. A real estate deal worth $15 million was the next best thing.

Two Centuries of Embargoes

Haiti ‘s misfortune would be America’s gain again. The disintegration of Haiti ‘s once bountiful sugar, coffee and timber industries after independence, thanks to endless trade embargoes by the United States, only helped shift commerce to New Orleans and cities upstream, further quickening the transformation of the Louisiana Purchase into an economic engine for the young republic. Endless trade embargoes haven’t helped. Jefferson imposed the first one in 1806. It lasted 60 years. The United Nations imposed the last one, in 1990, following a coup. The Bush administration and the European Union cut off aid in 2001, following the government’s rigging of legislative elections. The vicious cycle continued.

The United States has not been innocent in its neighbor’s misfortunes, and it has been astonishingly ungrateful for the role Haiti played in America’s great fortune. Blame it on “the United States of Amnesia,” as Gore Vidal calls it. The amnesia is selective, of course. The famous Corps of Discovery explored the newly acquired Louisiana territory between 1804 and 1806, so the bicentennial celebration of the Lewis and Clark expedition is just beginning, and will be remembered fondly and fawningly, for good reason. But the bicentennial wouldn’t be complete, or accurate, if it doesn’t include more than a nod to the role Haiti played in the story.

For all the recurrent hopelessness, the ongoing crisis in Haiti provides a timely opportunity: This year also marks the bicentennial of Haitian independence, such as it is. An American commitment to independence and democracy in Haiti would not be a favor, a gift or an indulgence. It would be the down payment of an incalculable debt long overdue.

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