Haiti: What Sovereignty?

In this series commissioned by Marlene L. Daut, scholars reveal what 220 years of Haitian independence means for how we tell the story of abolition and the development of human rights around the world.
After winning independence, the West rushed to teach Haiti a lesson so that their revolutionary experience would not recur on the continent. Haiti suffers the repercussions of such attacks to this day.

In November 1803, in Saint-Domingue, the Armée indigène, or Indigenous Army, defeated Napoléon’s expeditionary troops and founded the world’s first Black nation in the Americas. On the ashes of this former French colony, General-in-Chief Jean-Jacques Dessalines’s generals took possession of the territory and returned to it the original Amerindian name: Haiti. In his proclamation on January 1, 1804, Haitian Independence Day, Dessalines reminded the people: “We have dared to be free, let us dare to be free by ourselves and for ourselves.”1 Since that time, the world has had other ideas.

 

 

Alone among the Wolves (1804–25)

Breaking away from the French colonial grip was not without peril. It was an anomaly, even in a hemisphere where the enslavement of Afro-descendants, colonialism, and racism structured every society across the Americas. And Haitians’ liberation terrified colonial enslavers. North Americans, in particular, felt that whatever the cost, they had to teach the Haitian people a lesson, so that their revolutionary experience would not recur on the continent.

As a result, although Haiti supported the Latin American independence movements, it found itself largely isolated from the standpoint of slavery on the hemispheric American political stage. At first, Latin American elites had no immediate plans to abolish slavery. More than anything, they wanted Haitian help to put an end to Spanish colonization in South America, but the Haitian government predicated their assistance on abolition, forcing their hand.

In 1825, despite the famous Monroe Doctrine,2 a French fleet led by a diplomat named Baron de Mackau came to Haiti to demand that the government pay reparatory compensation to the former colonists in exchange for recognition of Haitian sovereignty and independence.3 The government, under President Jean-Pierre Boyer, bowed to pressure and signed the promissory note; this in effect bankrupted Haiti’s national economy.

With few means available to pay the enormous sum of 150 million francs, Boyer saw little choice but to go into debt to French banks. This stifled the Haitian peasantry, or agricultural class, largely living in rural communities, to the point that the Haitian government became its main predator. As the Haitian scholar Michel Hector has remarked, the government tried to keep the plantation economy alive, even without slavery. To do so, they adopted measures inspired by the colonial regime in the hopes of dominating the peasantry.4

It was against this backdrop that in 1826 the Haitian government passed a Rural Code whose legal principle rested on reinforcing “obligatory agricultural labor and tying the laborer, in the feudalist manner, to the land.”5 These laws, in effect, required all Haitians living in the countryside to engage in the work of farming, the majority of the proceeds from which would be relegated by law to the Haitian government. Although the Haitian people no longer had to fear an offensive attack from the French, Haiti entered a new phase in its struggle to preserve its political sovereignty—one where their own indigenous government, unjustly indebted to France as the result of a neocolonial arrangement, undermined Haitian liberation.

 

 

The Illusion of Full Sovereignty (1825–1915)

As France reasserted colonial control over Haiti through this predatory economic manipulation global and racialized hostilities against Haiti intensified. In the 19th century, racism was a structuring element in international relations. At a time when nascent anthropologists proclaimed the inequality of human races and the supremacy of the “white type,” foreign powers set about colonizing Africa, with the aim of “civilizing” and educating its peoples. Operating within this flagrantly white supremacist framework, Western ethnographers and foreign diplomats generally presented Haiti as a land of barbarians marked by political instability, putative African paganism, and cannibalism.6 These “detractors of the black race” saw Haiti as a perfect example of the inability of “Negroes” to take their destiny into their own hands.

Such a paradigmatic discourse of global anti-Blackness served to justify the “civilizing mission” of the Roman Catholic Church, whose clergy, essentially made up of French missionaries until the 1960s, orchestrated campaigns to uproot Vodou and weaken Protestantism in Haitian society.7 Catholic clergy played an important role in feeding the racist Francolatry of a fringe Haitian elite, who believed that Haiti is—or should be—a spiritual, cultural, and intellectual province of France.8

The United States refused to recognize Haiti’s independence until 1862. Indeed, how could they accept the accreditation of a Black diplomat in the United States of America without angering supporters of white supremacism and the slave system? It was only after the US Civil War that, having recognized Haitian independence in 1862, the State Department appointed the first African American ambassador to Haiti. Ebenezer Bassett remained in Port-au-Prince from 1869 to 1877.9

From the second half of the 19th century onward, the foreign claims industry drained the Haitian state’s coffers with lawsuits. At the same time, foreign warships repeatedly violated Haitian territorial waters at the request of their nationals seeking compensation from the government for specific cases. The Batsch (Spain), Lüders, and Rubalcava (Germany) lawsuits are the most poignant examples of how the US, despite the Monroe Doctrine, looked away when Europeans violated Haitian maritime territory, which resulted in the further weakening of Haitian sovereignty while continuing to extract capital from Haiti’s poorest citizens.

In this light, it was not solely the 1825 indemnity that put pressure on Haiti’s economy to the point of destroying it. Despite the Monroe Doctrine, the Haitian state was, in effect, held hostage through gunboat diplomacy by various foreign powers who, in order to back the claims of one of their fellow citizens or support a political camp in place, did not hesitate to make threats to invade.

Haitian-American relations are marked by such coercive interactions. In 1857, the US government took possession of Navassa Island despite Haiti’s longstanding claim to the small island off the coast of Haiti.10 In the early 1890s, the US also unsuccessfully lobbied Haitian authorities to set up a military base on the island of Môle Saint-Nicolas because of its strategic position. The project for an anti–Latin American confederation—launched in the 1880s by Anténor Firmin and his Caribbean allies (Ramón Emeterio Betances, José Martí, etc.)—could not slow down the imperialist pretensions of the American giant and its desire to control the Caribbean archipelago.11

 

 

Haitian Sovereignty in the 20th Century (1915–94)

During the 1910s, the US Army intervened in various ways in the American hemisphere (Nicaragua, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti) to defend its financial and strategic interests. The Caribbean Sea and the Panama Canal have become mare nostrum for extending the United States’s hegemony in Central America.

In the specific case of Haiti, Washington expressed concern for the country’s economic and political instability. Government officials in the US wanted to ensure that if a foreign power was to take advantage of the situation, it would be the Americans. The National City Bank of New York acted first, desiring to oust the influence of French and German businessmen in Haiti. On December 17, 1914, a unit of US forces landed at the Banque Nationale de la République d’Haïti and emerged with an estimated $500,000 in gold stores, which were deposited in a Wall Street vault.12 This move came at a time when bank officials in the United States believed that the Haitian state was bankrupt13 and that Haitian customs had to be taken over in order to ensure US financial interests. On the same day, the Haitian Minister of Finance declared to the Chamber of Deputies: “Our treasury is empty; the public debt, which has increased considerably, is a heavy burden to bear; tax yields are decreasing daily; commerce languishes and struggles convulsively against the evil that embraces it; misery (…) has taken up residence in our homes.”14 This economic crisis accentuated Haiti’s downward spiral and intensified political unrest.

On July 28, 1915, taking advantage of political unrest, after the assassination of Haiti’s president Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, the United States Army landed in Haiti. This occupation considerably weakened French and German cultural and political influence in the country.15 The Americans took control of Haiti’s finances and economy. The US dismantled Haiti’s regular army and replaced it with a gendarmerie trained and equipped by US soldiers. Dispossessed of their land, bands of Haitian peasants led resistance movements until 1920, and nationalist intellectuals and politicians, supported by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), advocated for American deoccupation. But American troops stayed until 1934!

The end of the occupation ushered in an era of illusion—that is, Haiti’s possibility for regaining national sovereignty. In reality, US influence on internal affairs remained stronger than ever before. After 1934, the new Haitian army played an important role on the political scene. They briefly took power in 1946 and 1950. From 1950 to 1956, Colonel Paul E. Magloire occupied the presidential chair. To neutralize the influence of the military and facilitate the repression of opponents, President François Duvalier created the Volontaires de la Sécurité Nationale or tonton makout corps (1957–71). The United States supported the violent dictatorship of François Duvalier for the simple reason that he was anti-Communist.

In the Duvalier era, various foreign actors, including the United States, continued to virtually strip Haiti of its sovereignty by bankrupting its finances and making everyday life worse for Haitian people. Indeed, the post-occupation period coincided with the arrival of international aid as a new form of neocolonial control. As early as the late 1940s, Haiti had lobbied the UN for technical and financial assistance aimed at so-called underdeveloped countries. Over the following decade, to cope with the damage caused by natural disasters, the Haitian state accepted international aid. The first NGOs came to the country under the guise of supporting populations in distress.

After years of exploitation, colonial interference, and dispossession, by the 1970s, Haiti had become increasingly dependent on international aid. Christian churches and NGOs made their support essential for the poor to subsist. The Duvalerist dictatorial regime was riddled with corruption and was unable to achieve the economic miracle promised by Jean-Claude Duvalier, son of François Duvalier, when he became president-for-life in 1971. Political repression continued, raising concerns in Washington, which belatedly made its financial aid conditional on Haiti’s respect for human rights.

Despite the Monroe Doctrine, the Haitian state was, in effect, held hostage through gunboat diplomacy by various foreign powers who did not hesitate to make threats to invade.

The fall of the Duvalier regime in 1986 failed to bring about a competitive revival of the national economy. The demands of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank brought no significant improvement in the fight against poverty and social exclusion. These institutions demanded financial and trade liberalization from the Haitian government. Under the structural adjustment plan, customs barriers were lowered to facilitate the invasion of imported products. The Haitian rice market became one of the first victims. While industrialized countries, principally the United States, continued to subsidize their agricultural products for foreign export to Haiti, Haiti’s rice farmers could not compete with the lower prices offered by Arkansas and Miami rice and essentially went out of business.

The Haitian state was unable to respond effectively to the problem of employment and agricultural production, or to curb population growth.16 In 1950, the population was estimated at around 3 million. This figure rose to almost 4.33 million in 1971 and just under 5.1 million in 1982.17 In 2003, some 8.8 million Haitians were registered, and projections for 2021 put this figure at 12 million inhabitants.18 This made Haiti an ideal breeding ground for a morass of NGOs which, along with the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Core Group, embody a “parallel transnational government.”19

These NGOs saw themselves as offering lessons for revitalizing the economy and modernizing the administration. Imposing themselves as models of development, these entities benefited from both the right to interfere, which they bequeathed to themselves, and a neocolonialist rhetoric of disempowerment constructed by governing elites. Decades later, the results are disturbing. The international community’s prescriptions have pushed Haiti to the brink of an unprecedented and entirely human-made crisis.

 

 

The International Community’s Unspeakable Failure (1994 to the Present)

In December 1990, Haiti elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide as president. This former Catholic priest and promoter of liberation theology was known for his charisma, anti-imperialist rhetoric, and commitment to the poor. On September 30, 1991,  the Haitian army ousted Aristide—elected by popular vote—from power. Three years later, he returned, escorted by some 20,000 US troops, to take back the presidential chair. Those who opposed his return cited foreign military presence in Haiti as a violation of article 263.1 of the 1987 constitution, insisting that this foreign solution jeopardized national sovereignty. One of Aristide’s first acts, nevertheless, was to demobilize the army and set up a national police force, trained and equipped in particular by the United States. At the same time, he changed his tone and attitude to cooperate with the neoliberal agenda.

Faced with political clashes and the proliferation of gangs,20 this new repressive apparatus remained unable to assert the authority of the state. The economic crisis and the effects of the two earthquakes of 2010 and 2021 worsened the living conditions of the population, which, to this day, relies largely on the good graces of its sizeable and growing diaspora in the United States, Canada, and France.

In today’s Haiti, hotbeds of insecurity are growing, while the forces of law and order are underequipped and unable to cope with urban guerrilla warfare. Despite disarmament programs launched in 1994, gangs still manage to import weapons from the United States and the Dominican Republic, with the support of certain political leaders and elite businessmen. The international community must absolutely be held coresponsible for the Haitian crisis.21

As just one example, Ricardo Seitenfus, former special representative of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Haiti between 2009 and 2011, has revealed the level of interference by OAS, the United States of America, and MINUSTAH in the 2010 elections.22 Michel Joseph Martelly, a popular singer with no political experience, was selected for the second round of the presidential elections. He went on to become president, despite the fact that his rivals had already contested the first round.

Through social networks, many Haitians feel that they are the victims of pressure fuelled by a contingent of the international community, in particular the “imperial trident” (France, Canada, and the United States),23 who want to take control of the country’s mineral resources and the tourist potential of its coastal towns. Others believe that the situation in Haiti is the result of a hardening of the position of the old Western powers in the face of the efforts of pan-African networks to combat neocolonialism.

Social disenchantment is such that the conditions are ripe for a foreign solution to be viewed by some of the public in Haiti as the only conceivable option. Over the past 30 years, many foreign political actors have repeatedly supported the idea of placing Haiti under international trusteeship.24 They cling to the thesis of a failed state racked by a systemic crisis affecting vital sectors of national life. And yet from 1990 to 2017, Haiti underwent multiple costly US and UN peacekeeping missions, to no avail.25 At the end of the day, these missions merely delayed the worsening of Haiti’s security problem, which remains the justification for both humanitarian interference and repeated calls for foreign military intervention to restore political stability.

Calls for inter-Haitian dialogue seem doomed to fail, as the posture of international players has fostered a dual crisis of the state and civil society alike. Those with any semblance of political power in Haiti are unable to think for themselves and by themselves, because directives normally come from organizations outside the country, capable of reversing or anihilating their decisions, and of disqualifying for office local, regional, and national political actors, according to their own interests.

The solution to Haiti’s crisis lies in recovering its right to self-determination, constitutional patriotism, and the restoration of state authority throughout the country. But international players and global capitalists also need to redefine their interests in Haiti. The current plan to which they are clinging—yet another international “intervention”—will only result once more in the suffocation of the national population, the annihilation of the Haitian state, and a migration crisis for neighboring states. icon

This article is part of a series commissioned by Marlene L. Daut
on the 220th anniversary of Haitian independence.

  1. Thomas Madiou fils, Histoire d’Haiti (History of Haiti), vol. 3 (Imprimerie de Jh. Courtois, 1848), p. 116.
  2. The doctrine that is widely viewed as having inspired the United States’s 19th-century foreign policy. It is named after US president James Monroe (1817–25), who, in a speech to the US Congress on December 2, 1823, condemned and warned against all European intervention or incursions in the affairs of states on the American continents.
  3. This ransom is estimated by the Haitian government at over $21 billion in 2003. The demand for restitution of this sum was a major factor in the overthrow of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004. On this file, see: Catherine Porter, Constant Méheut, Matt Apuzzo, and Selam Gebrekidan, “The Ransom: The Root of Haiti’s Misery: Reparations to Enslavers,” New York Times, May 20, 2022; andMarcel Dorigny, Jean Marie Théodat, Gusti-Klara Gaillard, and Jean Claude Bruffaert, Haïti-France Les Chaînes De La Dette: Le Rapport Mackau (Haiti-France. The chains of debt. The Mackau Report), (Les Éditions du CIDIHCA / Hémisphères Éditions, 2022).
  4. Michel Hector, “Problèmes du passage à la société postesclavagiste et postcoloniale (1791–1793 / 1820–1826)” in Genèse de l’État haïtien (1804–1859), edited by Michel Hector and Laënnec Hurbon (Éditions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme), pp. 93–117.
  5. R. Lepelletier de Saint-Rémy, Saint-Domingue. Étude et solution nouvelle de la question haītienne (Saint-Domingue. Study and new solution to the Haitian question), volume 2 (Arthus Bertrand, 1846), p. 175.
  6. Such a reading is amply shared by British diplomat Spenser Saint-John in Hayti or the Black Republic (Smith, Elder, & Co.), 1884.
  7. Kate Ramsey, The Spirits and the Law: Vodou and Power in Haiti (University of Chicago Press, 2011). Lewis A. Clorméus, “À propos de la seconde campagne antisuperstitieuse en Haïti (1911–1912)” (About the second anti-superstitious campaign in Haiti (1911–1912). Contribution to a historiography), Histoire monde et cultures religieuses (History, World and Religious Cultures), no. 24, 2012, pp. 105–130; Lewis A. Clorméus, “Les Stratégies de lutte contre la ‘superstition’ en Haïti au XIXe siècle” (“Strategies for combating ‘superstition’ in 19th-century Haiti,” Journal of Haitian Studies, vol. 20, no. 2 (2014), pp. 104–125; Lewis A. Clorméus, “À propos de la première campagne anti-superstitieuse (1896–1900)” (“About the first anti-superstitious campaign (1896–1900)),” Chemins Critiques (Critical Paths), vol. 6, no. 2 (2019), pp. 89–114.
  8. Lewis A. Clorméus, “Haïti et le conflit des deux ‘France’” (“Haiti and the ‘two French’ conflict’”), Chrétiens et sociétés (Christians and Societies), no. 20 (2014), pp. 63–84.
  9. Christopher Teal, “Ebenezer Bassett: The Legacy of America’s First African-American Diplomat,” Foreign Service Journal (June 2018).
  10. This unresolved issue between the two parties arises from the famous Guano Islands Act passed by the United States Congress in 1856, authorizing any US citizen to take possession of an island containing guano deposits as long as it is uninhabited. See: Wien Weibert Arthus, Les grandes dates de l’histoire diplomatique d’Haïti: De la période fondatrice à nos jours (Key dates in Haiti’s diplomatic history, from the founding period to the present day) (Éditions L’Harmattan, 2017), pp. 49–51.
  11. Anténor Firmin, Lettres de Saint-Thomas. Études sociologiques, historiques et littéraires (Letters from Saint Thomas. Sociological, historical and literary studies) (V. Giard & E. Brière, 1910), pp. 109–130. Anne Eller, We Dream Together: Dominican Independence, Haiti, and the Fight for Caribbean Freedom (Duke University Press, 2016).
  12. Selam Gebrekidan, Matt Apuzzo, Catherine Porter, and Constant Méheut, “The Ransom: Invade Haiti, Wall Street Urged. The U.S. Obliged,” New York Times, May 20, 2022.
  13. Monitor supplement, no. 79 (November 10, 1915), p. 582.
  14. Le Matin, no. 2331 (December 19, 1914), p. 1.
  15. Leslie F. Manigat, “La substitution de la prépondérance américaine à la prépondérance française en Haïti au début du XXe siècle : la conjoncture de 1910–1911” (The substitution of American preponderance for French preponderance in Haiti at the beginning of the 20th century: the 1910–1911 conjuncture), Revue d’Histoire Moderne & Contemporaine (Review of modern and contemporary history) vol. 14 (October–December 1967), pp. 321–55.
  16. For a genealogy of the moral economy of poverty in Haiti, see Roberson Édouard, “Discours sur la pauvreté en Haïti : Origine d’un dispositif global de pouvoir” (Discourses on poverty in Haiti: The origins of a global power apparatus), Chemins critiques (Critical paths), vol. 6, no. 2 (2019), pp. 45–87.
  17. Institut Haïtien de Statistique et d’Informatique (Haitian Institute of Statistics and Computing), “Le recensement haïtien de 1982” (The 1982 census), Population, vol. 38, no. 6 (November–December 1983), pp. 1055–59; Department of International Economic and Social Affairs, Haiti. Monographs on Population Policies (United Nations, 1990), p. 17.
  18. Institut Haïtien de Statistique et d’Informatique (Haitian Institute of Statistics and Computing), “Estimations de la population” (Population estimates).
  19. Lukinson Jean, “Haïti: État en faillite ou État en retrait?” (Haïti: State bankruptcy or state retreat?), The Conversation, November 24, 2022.
  20. On gangs, see Djems Olivier, “The Political Anatomy of Haiti’s Armed Gangs,” NACLA Report on the Americas, vol. 53, no. 1 (April 2021), pp. 83–87.
  21. A first step was taken with the position of the Organization of American States on the Haitian crisis: “Statement of the OAS General Secretariat on Haiti” (August 8, 2022).
  22. Ricardo Seitenfus, L’Échec de l`aide internationale à Haiti: Dilemmes et égarements (The failure of international aid to Haiti: Dilemmas and Misdirections) (CIDIHCA / Éditions de l’Université d’État d’Haïti, 2015); Ricardo Seitenfus, “Hillary Clinton and Electoral Coup in Haiti,” Common Dreams, April 11, 2016; John Marion, “Haiti: What the Clinton e-mails reveal about US election-rigging,” World Socialist Web Site (August 24, 2016).
  23. Djems Olivier, “Territoires de la violence, territoires des ONG : Quelle (in)cohérence ?” (Territories of violence, territories of NGOs: What (in)coherence?) (PhD diss., Université Paris VIII Vincennes–Saint-Denis, 2020), p. 151.
  24. Michael T. Ward, “L’utilité de placer Haïti sous tutelle international” (The utility of Pptting Haiti under international guardianship), Revue Militaire Canadienne (The Canadian Military Review), vol. 7, no. 3 (2006); Michel Vastel, “Il faut renverser Aristide” (Aristide must be overthrown), L’actualité, March 1, 2003; United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “Le secrétaire général de l’OEA n’écarte pas l’éventualité d’une mise sous tutelle d’Haïti, à cause de sa défaillance générale” (The OAS Secretary General has not ruled out the possibility of Haiti being placed under trusteeship, due to its general failure), ReliefWeb, August 11, 2005. For a critical analysis of this idea, see Roberson Édouard and Fritz Calixte, Le devoir d’insoumission: regards croisés sur l’occupation américaine d’Haïti (1915–1934) (The duty of insubordination: Crossed perspectives on the American occupation of Haiti (1915–1934) (Presses de l’Université Laval, 2016).
  25. The International Civilian Mission in Haiti (MICIVIH) was set up in 1993 to find a solution to the political crisis.
Featured image: USAID/Haiti engineer Mario Nicoleau (from left) briefs former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on USAID-funded housing near the Caracol Industrial Park on Oct. 22, 2012 Photo by Kendra Helmer/USAID, via Wikimedia.