Henry Lewis Gates Jr.: It Wasn't the Devil that Hurt Haiti





If there is a curse on Haiti, we don’t have to sully another person’s religious beliefs to find it. Perhaps curses, like charity, start at home. And the first two places to search for the source would be the White House and Congress, especially those historically dominated by Dixiecrats. Starting with Thomas Jefferson and continuing in a steady march that only really began to end when President Bill Clinton sent General Colin Powell to broker the deal for the generals to “retire” and restore Haiti’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a succession of American presidents and Congresses have systematically undermined the independence and integrity of the Haitian Republic. I thought about this ignoble, shameful history as President Obama proclaimed, for one of first times in the history of both republics, that “we stand in solidarity with our neighbors to the south,” they “who share our common humanity.” It was a noble sentiment, long overdue.

America’s ambivalence about a black republic of former slaves in this hemisphere manifested itself at the time the revolt broke out in 1791. St. Domingue (the indigenous people called it “Haiti”) was “the pearl of the Antilles;” trade with the island “accounted for a third of France’s external commerce,” as Donald Hickey argues. “When news of the slave revolt reached the United States,” Hickey writes, “the first impulse of the Federalist administration was to aid the white planters.” The government, led by George Washington, advanced the French planters $726,000, sold them arms and ammunition, American merchants sold them food, and some Americans even fought against the rebels. But “the official government aid, however, came to an end in 1793 when the planter regime in the colony collapses and the blacks established control over most of the island.” And in 1798, at Toussaint’s request, the Congress even authorized President John Adams to reopen trade with Haiti, a provision embraced by the Federalists, even southerners, and opposed by Republicans. All of that began to change when Thomas Jefferson became president.

By 1804, Jefferson told John Quincy Adams that he was determined to end trade with Haiti. Having helped the Haitians gain their freedom, he then sought to strangle the new-born nation. He sought to quarantine the island and opposed official trade because that would mean recognizing its independence. And that could inspire slave insurrections throughout the American South. The embargo on Haiti remained in force until the spring of 1810; trade fell from $6.7 million in 1806 to $1.5 million in 1808. Non-recognition of the republic remained official American policy until 1862....

The American occupation of Haiti lasted between July 28, 1915, and August 15, 1934. As James Weldon Johnson concluded as early as 1920, “If the United States should leave Haiti today, it would leave more than a thousand widows and orphans of its own making, more banditry than has existed for a century, resentment, hatred and despair in the heart of a whole people, to say nothing of the irreparable injury to its own tradition as the defender of the rights of man.” As W.E.B. Du Bois, ever the speaker of truth to power, put it in a debate over American foreign policy 1930, the United States invaded Haiti to protect the financial interests of the National City Bank. The audience demanded that he be “thrown out.”...


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