21 October 2022

Stand with Haiti: ‘to the next Insurrection’

We’re at it again, it seems. The Atlanticist empire is not content with the prospect of turning Eastern Europe into a blighted post-apocalyptic wasteland, with forty billion dollars of spending on weapons to the Ukraine (the profit of which will ultimately accrue to Silicon Valley and Acela-corridor defence contractors). Sleepy Joe and Shoe-Polish Justin are shipping out US and Canadian warplanes and armoured vehicles to Haiti in order to prop up the failing neoliberal government of Ariel Henry (installed after the assassination of President Jouvenel Moïse at the hands of US-backed Colombian mercenaries last year), and it seems the Haitian people are justifiably unhappy with the prospect of yet another US intervention. The following excerpt from the Life of Johnson gives us a strong impression of where our good scrivener of dictionaries and lover of language would stand on this particular issue:
Upon one occasion, when in company with some very grave men at Oxford, his toast was, “Here’s to the next insurrection of the negroes in the West Indies.” His violent prejudice against our West Indian and American settlers appeared whenever there was an opportunity. Towards the conclusion of his “Taxation no Tyranny,” he says, “how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” and in his conversation with Mr. Wilkes he asked, “Where did [Jamaica plantation owner William] Beckford and [Boston merchant Barlow] Trecothick learn English?”
Note that Haiti was founded in 1804 precisely by the ‘next insurrection in the West Indies’ which Dr Johnson toasted in front of that room full of stuffy Oxford dons in 1777. Haiti was the first country, at least in the Western world, to permanently ban slavery when it declared its independence from France. For the unforgivable sin of opposing colonialism and slavery, the French government has been extorting and impoverishing the Haitian people since 1825—to the tune of 150 million francs. The imposition of this horrific indemnity upon the newly independent nation, crippled Haiti’s ability to invest in its own people, infrastructure or education. Haiti’s government was only able to pay off the entire amount—including interest—in 1947.

But France’s partner in (as Samuel Johnson called it) robbery, the United States, invaded Haiti in 1915 and subjected it to a nineteen-year-long military occupation. Woodrow Wilson sent 330 US Marines to Haiti at the behest of the National City Bank of New York, where they proceeded to establish and then act as the enforcers for a military dictatorship that murdered over 15,000 Haitians. The US government stole $500,000 from the Haitian national bank and kept it in the City Bank in New York, thus rendering the Haitian government politically dependent on the US. In 1919, the Marines assassinated a Haitian freedom fighter named Charlemagne Pérault—and then stripped him naked and photographed him hanging from a tree in what was clearly a lynching. They then disseminated the photograph around the island in order to discourage any further resistance. However, the US literally rounded up Haitian villagers and used Haitians as forced labour in building schools and roads in the US. The American government very literally plundered Haiti’s labour and wealth, condemning it even further to poverty and inescapable debt. The occupation only ended in 1934 when Franklin Delano Roosevelt withdrew the last of the Marines, but he left in place a US-dominated gendarmerie that brutalised the Haitian populace until 1941.

Successive short-lived governments under Sténio Vincent and Elie Lescot attempted but failed to stabilise the society. There was a military-led revolution in 1946 that briefly established a populist, socially-minded government under Dumarsais Estimé: but Estimé was himself betrayed by the same elements of the military that had swept him into power. The military essentially imposed itself as a domestic dictatorship over Haiti until protests and street actions forced the military puppet president from office in 1956, paving the way for the Duvalier dictatorship: a right-wing government which used death-squad style paramilitaries, psychological and physical terror—including mutilation and rape—over the population in order to maintain power.

The United States had a rather two-faced relationship with the Duvaliers. On the one hand, François Duvalier himself was part of a US-based public health programme that combatted various tropical diseases—this is how he got the nickname ‘Papa Doc’. As an anti-communist (and friend to Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista), Duvalier was someone whom the US was keen to cultivate as a potential ally. When he made his initial bid for power, the US Marines directly provided the training for Duvalier’s rural paramilitary death squads, the Tonton Macoutes. The public revelation of American complicity in Duvalier’s reign of terror, however, caused a scandal, and the Kennedy Administration suspended aid to Duvalier in 1962 on the grounds of human rights abuses (of which it was probably already well aware).

After this, the relationship between Papa Doc and the United States turned sour. Papa Doc’s rhetoric became more and more heatedly anti-American, although his government retained a right-wing nationalist and anti-communist position. However, the US was keen to renew ties with François Duvalier, as well as his son and heir Jean-Claude Duvalier, aka ‘Baby Doc’. American military ‘aid’ for Haiti (actually aimed at repressing the Haitian population) resumed in secret in 1973, the US Marines went back to Haiti in order to train up a new generation of Baby Doc’s rape gangs and death squads. The Duvalier dictatorship ended with Baby Doc being overthrown in a popular uprising in 1986—though being notoriously corrupt, Baby Doc absconded with hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of Haiti’s wealth when he fled to France.

What was left in Haiti was a series of unstable governments that ended only when a former Catholic priest, liberation theologian and anti-Duvalierist named Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected president in a landslide in 1990, in the ‘first honest election’ of Haiti’s history. Aristide had campaigned on a platform of improving health care, education, infrastructure and low-cost housing; returning land to farmers; cracking down on sexual violence against Haitian women; and doubling the minimum wage. He also led a campaign to rein in the military with the constitution, and replace some of its functions with a publicly-accountable civilian police force.

The Haitian army, under the newly-elevated commander Raoul Cédras, overthrew Aristide in a bloody coup and instituted a three-year reign of terror over Haiti. The US actually tried to play both sides of this coup: on the one hand, they supported Aristide’s overthrow through covert channels like the CIA, who were advising the Haitian army in 1991. On the other hand, the US State Department offered Aristide a lifeboat through the embassies, and allowed him to flee to safety. When conditions in Haiti got so bad that a ‘humanitarian intervention’ was demanded, the Clinton Administration used American military force to re-install Aristide as President of Haiti—but with some conditions attached. Instead of running on the liberation-theology platform that had gotten him elected in 1990, the US forced Aristide to enact neoliberal policies on Haiti that ran it into even further debt and rendered it completely dependent on American food aid.

Aristide himself, however, realising how badly his people had been treated by American interests, ran for the presidency and won a second term in 2000. This time he pledged to fight for Haitian interests rather than American ones, and for his trouble he was again ousted in another bloody coup, in 2004, this time by George W Bush’s neocons. But the interests that drove that coup were the same corporate interests that drove American intervention in 1994. These are the same interests, bent upon keeping Haiti subservient, dependent and miserable, that are driving calls for another ‘intervention’ now.

As a follower of Samuel Johnson’s especially in this line of his thinking, I stand with Haiti. And I too will toast, against our equivalent of the ‘grave Oxford men’ of Johnson’s time, ‘the next insurrection in the West Indies’ that has human flourishing, rather than financial-military-corporate domination and slavery, as its end.