By Edwidge Danticat – 2010, 2011
A review by Steve Halpern
Several years ago I wrote a twenty-seven page history of the nation of Haiti. My paper only attempted to give a bit of the outline to Haiti’s history.
Edwidge Danticat lived in Haiti until she was twelve years old, and then became an immigrant in the United States. She has written an important book about what Haitian history has meant for the people who live in that country. In order to appreciate this history, I believe it is useful to look at a bit of background.
For hundreds of years, the production of sugar, using slave labor, was the most lucrative way of making money in the world. About thirty percent of the French income, in those days, came from sugar production. The French colony of San Domingue (former name of Haiti) was the most lucrative producer. In fact, during the revolution of the thirteen colonies, that became the United States, the kingdoms of both France and Britain viewed the Caribbean islands as more politically and economically important.
Then, hundreds of thousands of slaves in San Domingue carried out a revolution led by Toussaint L’ Overture. In order for this revolution to be successful, the slaves needed to defeat the armies of Spain, Britain, and France. This is how the nation of Haiti was born.
France lost over 60,000 soldiers because of their defeat in Haiti. Because of this defeat, France needed money and agreed to sell their colony in Louisiana to the United States at a bargain basement price. The 828,000 square miles of land in the Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the United States. However, the Native Americans who lived on this land did not agree to this transaction, and continued the war to defend against the invasion of their homeland.
Because Haiti was the only nation in the hemisphere, at that time, that freed all of it’s slaves, the surrounding nations declared sanctions against the new republic. Clearly, the slave owners from France, Britain, Portugal, and the United States didn’t want there to be any communication with a nation of slaves who won their freedom by means of revolution.
Because of the isolation of Haiti, the French government demanded reparations for the revolution that ended French rule of the island. The alternative to paying these insulting and exorbitant reparations would be further isolation and possible war against France. So, the Haitian economy was further crippled by a debt that no rational person would feel they had any obligation to pay.
Then, in the year 1915, the United States military invaded Haiti. The Haitian people led by Charlemagne Péralte resisted the U.S. occupation forces. The U.S. military captured Péralte and murdered him while he was in their custody. They then took a photo of Péralte on a cross with a Haitian flag draped on his head. The U.S. military made thousands of copies of this photo and distributed them throughout the island. This photo was clearly designed to intimidate the Haitian people.
The Haitian reality
Edwidge Danticat began her book with an execution that took place in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in 1964 of Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin. Numa and Drouin attempted to organize a guerilla insurrection against the hated regime of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier.
Towards the end of her book Danticat wrote about how thirteen-year-old Daniel Morel viewed that execution. He walked over to the corpses and picked up the blood soaked glasses of Louis Drouin. Someone almost immediately snatched those glasses from the hand of Morel.
At that moment, Daniel Morel decided that he wanted to be a photo journalist to document the reality of what was happening in his homeland. During the years of the Duvalier dictatorship, taking controversial photos might be punished with a death sentence. This is why Daniel Morel needed to leave Haiti in order to take photos that unmask the reality of the world.
In 1980 Morel retuned to Haiti and made a living by taking photos of weddings and other family events. He also took photos of the many corpses that had been left in the streets by the repressive forces known as the Tonton Macoutes.
Danticat interviewed one of the victims of the Tonton Macoutes by the name of Alérte Bélance. Bélance had escaped Haiti and Danticat interviewed her in Newark, New Jersey.
Members of the Tonton Macoute were looking for Bélance’s husband who opposed the repressive forces in Haiti. They could not find him, so they kidnapped Alérte Bélance. Then, they attempted to murder her with machetes. They cut off pieces of her face, amputated her hand, and left her for dead.
Miraculously Alérte Bélance was rescued and cared for by talented doctors at a Haitian hospital. The Tonton Macoute then looked for her in the hospital and the doctors hid her. The Macoute had a reputation of taking people out of the hospital and murdering them.
When we think of these horror stories, we might also consider that the 2010 earthquake that erupted in Haiti cost the lives of thousands as well as the destruction of much of Haiti’s infrastructure. This earthquake destroyed homes, churches, schools, bookstores, libraries, art galleries, museums, movie theaters, and government buildings.
Danticat’s chapter on this earthquake is titled “Our Guernica.” Guernica might be Pablo Picasso’s most famous painting. This depicted the effects of a Nazi bombing of a Spanish town. This bombing supported the repressive forces of Francisco Franco. I believe Danticat felt that this painting also began to portray the horror of the effects of the 2010 Haitian earthquake.
We might also consider that the destruction by earthquakes can be prevented. While earthquakes routinely destroy residential buildings, oftentimes, commercial skyscrapers survive. This is because buildings can be constructed to withstand earthquakes. Clearly this did not happen in Haiti, a nation that is one of the poorest in the world.
While the earthquake was, in part, a natural disaster, the so-called international relief effort can only be called criminal. A huge amount of money was allegedly donated to Haitian relief. $500 million of that money went directly to the military of the United States that allegedly participated in this so-called relief effort.
Another $300 million went into the Caracol Industrial Park. Before the earthquake Haiti became a center for the production of clothes, toys, and the baseballs used by the major leagues. The capitalists who contributed to Carocol believed that this industrial park would continue to generate profits for investors. However, while they claimed Carocol would aid in Haitian development, that never happened.
Former President William Jefferson Clinton supervised much of the so-called relief effort to Haiti. We might consider that Clinton’s home state of Arkansas was a part of the Louisiana Purchase. As I mentioned, this sale was made possible because of the Haitian Revolution.
One of Clinton’s first acts as President was to break one of his campaign promises. Clinton had promised to give Haitian refugees asylum in the United States. Then, he reversed this pledge and refused to give thousands of Haitians asylum. Capitalist investors found Clinton’s record with respect to Haiti acceptable to place him in charge of large amounts of money in the so-called Haitian relief effort.
The Cuban response
The Cuban government has made a priority of human needs over profits. While the capitalists of the world make investments in order to maximize profits, Cuba gives aid to nations throughout the world because there is a need.
Cuban doctors have been in Haiti for many years. Because of their contribution, Haitian health care made significant improvements. Cuba also trained about 500 Haitians to become doctors.
When we see the immense problems that Edwidge Danticat had documented in Haiti, we see how the problems we face have an international character. Human needs are more important than the drive to maximize profits. I believe that the history of Haiti gives us one more example of how we all need to promote a world without borders, that will make human needs our only priority.