Haiti is back in the news due to a fuel shortage caused by a blockade led by Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier, who leads the G9 coalition of organized crime groups in the nation. They are demanding the resignation of Ariel Henry, who came to power and seems determined to hold on after the assassination of President Jovenel Moise in July. Political turmoil is nothing new for Haiti, occupied by the US from 1915-1934 and suffered through the brutal dictatorship of Francis “Papa Doc” Duvalier from 1957-1971. However, recently, Haiti has been in the headlines for yet another catastrophic earthquake, as well as for the images of Haitian migrants being whipped by US border patrol agents on horseback – a profound articulation of US imperialism, wrote Ashely Roach for MIP earlier this month. It is a nation in turmoil, one of the poorest in the world, that is repeatedly struck by devastating natural disasters. Yet Haiti remains a symbol of pride and hope because of its Black radical history.
We celebrate Haiti because the people threw off their shackles and liberated themselves from slavery. The Haitian revolution should forever be etched into the history books because it marks the only ever slave rebellion that ended with the masters roundly defeated. I never understood why people argue we should stop talking about slavery because the history is harmful to our collective self-esteem. I learned about it through figures like Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Cecile Fatiman, and Boukman Dutty, names and stories that should inspire us. The revolution is rightly seen as a source of pride for Black people around the globe, a reminder that we can and must resist. But in the Black history month imagination, Haiti has been frozen in 1804.
Since declaring the first Black republic, the nation has been brutally punished for claiming its freedom. Haiti was not just surrounded by European colonies; it even shared the island with one with what is now the Dominican Republic. Haiti was effectively cut off from the world and had poverty forced upon it after successfully claiming its freedom. To make matters worse, Haiti was forced to pay reparations to France in 1825 to ensure that the new nation was not be invaded by French or other foreign forces. The 125 million French Francs demanded was more than five times France’s national budget and crippled Haiti’s already struggling economy. The debt was so large it was only paid off in 1947, at which point they had paid more than twice the original amount after taking into account interest. The result of this debt repayment was to impoverish the nation and prevent programs like education and healthcare from being developed. Haiti is in the state it is today due to the punishment the West enacted because of the revolution. The nation is a reminder of our power and the scale of the problem we face. Racism is a global system, so there is no solution in one country. But it is a mistake we repeatedly make to confuse winning the battle with victory in the war.
Each time Haiti falls into another crisis, we will rally the collective voice of the diaspora and try to send money where it will not be shaved off by Western charities. But we will continue to miss the point if we imagine Haiti ever being free. No amount of foreign aid, good governance, or even reparations can solve the nation’s problems. The revolution was successful in large part because so many of the enslaved on the island were born free in Africa. Haitian’s connection to the continent has therefore remained culturally strong, free from the claws of European colonizers. It is in this connection to Africa that we can find our freedom when we remember that Haiti, or Jamaica, or Trinidad, or the US, or England are not and will never be our home. Islands like Haiti were our prison colonies. The revolution took control of the prison but did not end our oppression, which is why Haiti is where it is today. The rest of the Caribbean or even the so-called independent countries in Africa are no different. Haiti tells us that the revolution is not finished.
There is no freedom in Haiti or any other former prison colony. Earthquakes, hurricanes, and the rest of the damage caused by climate change will continue to devastate the Caribbean. The images of Haitian migrants being abused in the US is a warning that the migration, the one thing that has kept the region afloat, is coming to an end as the former mother countries and the US no longer wants Caribbean immigrants. Remittances (money sent back home or paid in pensions) are more important to Caribbean economies than the supposedly biggest industry of tourism, where most of the money disappears offshore almost immediately. Less migration out means the population will rise, and the income will drop in countries that are already poor. Haiti was a beacon for the revolutionary struggle in 1804, inspiring uprisings across the Americas. We must use Haiti as a lighthouse again. But this time, we must understand Haiti’s struggles are a sign that we cannot gain our freedom in the prison colonies. The next phase of the revolution has always been to reclaim Africa as home. Haiti doesn’t need foreign aid; it needs a large dose of Garveyism.