The first unvarnished opinion this privileged “American” heard about Haiti came seven years ago during my pampered vacation in the Dominican Republic.
“Hey, you don’t want to go to Haiti,” a stranger said to me on the flight to the sunny Caribbean. “They are all criminals there.”
Everybody has heard about Haiti since a devastating earthquake hit the island country Tuesday. The news comes at the same time my thinking has been shaken about how Latin America has been exploited since Columbus arrived on the Haiti shores in the 1490s.
My recent revelations have come from author Eduardo Galeano’s “Open Veins of Latin America.” This tremendous book shows how for centuries indigenous people in Central and South American have been and still are exploited with colonialism and under capitalist vices.
“Three years after the discovery Columbus personally directed the military campaign against the natives of Haiti, which he called Espanola,” Galeano wrote. “A handful of cavalry, 200 foot soldiers, and a few specially trained dogs decimated the Indians. More than 500, shipped to Spain, were sold as slaves in Seville and died miserably.”
From slaughter and slavery to sugar swindle.
Galeano continues: “In the second half of the [eighteenth] century the world’s best sugar was being raised on the spongy coastal plains of Haiti, a French colony then known as Saint Domingue. Northern and western Haiti became a human antheap [read: scrap heap]. Sugar needed hands and more hands. In 1786, the colony brought in 27,000 slaves; in the following year 40,000.
Revolution broke out in the fall of 1791 and in one month, September, 200 sugar plantations went up in flames; fires and battles were continuous as the rebels slaves pushed France’s armies to the sea. Ships sailed containing even more Frenchmen and ever less sugar.
The war split rivers of blood, wrecked the plantations and paralyzed the country, and by the end of the century production had fallen to almost nothing. By November 1803 almost all of the once flourishing colony was in ashes and ruins.
The Haitian revolution had coincided — and not in time — with the French Revolution, and Haiti bore its share of the international coalition’s blockade against the French: England controlled the seas. Later, as its independence became inevitable, Haiti also had to suffer blockade by France. The U.S. Congress, yielding to French pressure, banned trade with Haiti in 1806. In 1825, France recognized its former colony’s independence, but only in exchange for a huge cash indemnity.
General Leclerc had written to his brother-in-law Napoleon in 1802, soon after taking prisoner the slave armies’ leader Toussiant L’Ouverture, “Here is my opinion about this country: all the blacks in the mountains, men and women, must be suppressed, keeping only the children under 12; half the blacks in the plains must be exterminated, and not a single mulatto with epaulets [a strap signifying army rank] must be left in the colony.”
The tropics took their revenge on Leclerc: “Gripped by the black vomit,” and despite the magical incantations of Pauline Bonaparte, he died without carrying out his plan.
But the cash indemity was a millstone around the necks of those independent Haitians who survived the bloodbaths of the successive military expeditions against them. The country was born in ruins and never recovered: today its the poorest in Latin America.”
I’m not sure if that man on the flight who called the Haitians seemed to be of French decent or not. It doesn’t matter. The exploitation continued into U.S. hands.
A tremendous ABC News special tonight showed that the U.S. supported a dictator for 20 years to protect its nation’s business interest. Good work.
The news special today shows the repercussions of not only a natural disaster but the strife that Haitians have to endure everyday: extreme poverty, rampant unemployment and squalid living conditions. In other words, a byproduct of colonialism at its ugliest.
ABC’s documentary had two visuals that stuck with me.
No. 1 is this:
The charcoal eyes of boys like this. The descendants of slaves. Dust from collapsing concrete covering him. What those charcoal eyes must have seen.
The second was Haitians residing in a tent city with toothpaste beneath their noses. Whiffs of mint were used to combat the stench of decaying corpses nearby.
Images and news of the Haitian earthquake must not only conjure up sympathy, but enlightenment to how these people have been exploited by developed, rich nations. This is an opportunity to expose the transgressions of us and our ancestors.