(As published in The Tribune newspaper by staff reporter Noelle Nicolls, on Monday, February 01, 2010)
THE transformative power of the spoken word has been proven throughout the centuries, but one wonders if declaring the Bahamas a Christian nation through constitutional declaration and use of the public pulpit is sufficient to make it actually so. The nation’s claim to Christian credentials is probably most questionable when sifting through the public perception of Haiti and Haitians.
The word “Haitian”, once a symbol of black liberation, has morphed into a derogatory insult in the Bahamian psyche, parallel only to the likes of racial epitaphs like “nigger” or “boy”.
Former Member of Parliament, Keod Smith, furiously refuted claims of his Haitian heritage probably as a strategy to preserve his political career. He could very well have manufactured signs reading: “Not a Haitian.”
Young Haitian-Bahamians go to great lengths to hide or subdue their Haitian heritage to increase their chances of gaining basic social acceptance.
Unfortunately, it is clear that public perception of Haiti is heavily influenced by what Sir Hilary Beckles, pro-vice chancellor of the University of the West Indies (UWI), calls “imperial propaganda”. It is no surprise that some people like Tony, a Bahamian with Haitian heritage, are rendered speechless by the “ignorance” of people.
Someone like Tony could wonder where the context, the perspective, the truth went in the debate about Haiti. It is telling how an American news reporter says with full self-assurance, “Haiti’s government was incompetent at best, even before the earthquake”, and some Bahamians believe this to be a fact. There seems to be no formulae to break the stranglehold on the Bahamian psyche from this lingering colonial mentality.
Haiti was battered by the 7.0 magnitude earthquake striking 10-miles off the coast of Port-au-Prince on January 12. The quake reduced the capital to rubble and dust. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives; almost as many lost their limbs in a wave of sweeping amputations, and even more lost their homes and livelihoods. Just two years ago, Haiti was battered by a series of four hurricanes in the space of two weeks. The damage was so severe that there was enough international goodwill for Haiti to secure $1.2 billion in debt relief from the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other creditors.
In the wake of the quake, the international community is pushing for total debt relief for Haiti. Most of the country’s remaining debt is owed to Taiwan and Venezuela.
Just last week, Venezuela President Hugo Chavez announced the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) plan for Haiti, including debt relief, a $20 million donation for the health sector and further investment funds.
“Haiti has no debt with Venezuela, just the opposite: Venezuela has a historical debt with that nation, with that people for whom we feel not pity but rather admiration, and we share their faith, their hope,” said Chavez after the meeting of ALBA foreign ministers.
The case of Haiti is far from black and white, although it is easy to apply labels such as ungodly, corrupt and backwards to account for its status as the most economically impoverished country in the western hemisphere.
Superficially, it would appear that Haiti is doomed, even cursed, but the natural disasters in Haiti’s history barely match the political, socio-economic earthquakes that have been engineered by external forces for centuries; those seeking to undermine Haiti’s ability to be a beacon of light for African people.
Napoleon Bonaparte, French Emperor during Haiti’s revolution, said of his colonial empire: “My decision to destroy the authority of the blacks in Saint Dominque (Haiti) is not so much based on considerations of commerce and money, as on the need to block forever the march of the blacks in the world.”
In the minds of some, this endeavour has been successful, but there are those who see through the disparity, into the hope that is Haiti.
“Wake up Bahamas! Ours is a country that has been built — for literally the last 30 years — on the strength, sweat and hard work of our Haitian brethren. Many of us are descended from immigrants, recent or old, from Haiti, even though we may neither know nor admit it,” said Dr Nicolette Bethel, COB lecturer and former Director of Culture.
Haitians may flee their country in search of better economic conditions, but their national pride is largely unshaken. Prosper Bazard has lived in the Bahamas for 28 years. The biggest thing that makes him proud to be a Haitian is the knowledge that his forefathers fought the heavily equipped French army with their bare-hands and won.
“Another thing that makes me feel proud is we are a nation that can fight for a living. We don’t have so much money but we can manage to find a way to live. Even if a Haitian is very poor, they will find a way to survive. He is not going to steal. We believe in hard work, we prefer to suffer and not steal,” said Mr Bazard.
Haiti is the second free republic in the western hemisphere following the United States, but the first black republic in the post-colonial world. This might appear to be an historical footnote, even ancient history, but on the contrary, all progress in the modern world, particularly for people of African descent, rests firmly on the back of the ten-year war waged by Haitian freedom fighters for self-rule from the French. The legacy of Haiti and the contribution of Haitians in shaping liberation consciousness in the modern world is more like a keystone, indispensable and perpetually relevant.
“Bahamians probably do not know much about Haitian history. I don’t think history is high on the list; neither is context. Haitian people have been demonized as beggars of the Caribbean and I think that is what is ingrained in our psyche,” said Fred Mitchell, opposition spokesperson on foreign affairs.
“It is nonsense, because first of all they bring their talents, expertise and skills as migrants to the country. They helped us to build our country,” he said.
Few Bahamians learn about the Haitian revolution, or the history of Haitian-Bahamian relations, because the standard Bahamian school curriculum does not feature Haiti. Not surprisingly, with its roots still grounded in the colonial world view, “Discovery Day” is still celebrated in the Bahamas after all. This is despite the fact that next to the United States, Haiti probably has the largest external influence on the Bahamas, for good and for bad.
Even Dr Gail Saunders, scholar in residence at the College of the Bahamas and former Director General of Heritage, said she was not well versed in Haitian history. She welcomed the opportunity created by this latest tragedy to spread awareness of Haitian issues and history. (Next week in Insight: an in depth look at the Bahamas and the world without Haiti).
“When Haiti became independent, no country on earth recognized Haiti, and they did so for practical reasons. Haiti was a slave economy and the slaves threw off the slave masters. Haiti’s present day economic woes began back in 1804. Haiti did not just become like it is now,” said Dr Eugene Newry, former Bahamas Ambassador to Haiti.
“They won their independence militarily. Psychologically it has a different effect than sitting around a table with someone coming back from London with some papers saying you are free,” he said.
The audacity of the Haitian revolution was an unbearable embarrassment to the French. It was threatening to the slave-based economy of the United States, which failed to live up to its promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all. In its first constitution, Haiti declared it would grant automatic citizenship to any person of African descent arriving on its shores. The world decided to starve the population with economic embargo and isolation instead of recognising its freedom.
“It was the most vicious example of national strangulation recorded in modern history. Haiti did not fail. It was destroyed by two of the most powerful nations on earth, both of which continue to have primary interest in its current condition. The sudden quake has come in the aftermath of summers of hate. In many ways the quake has been less destructive than the hate. Human life was snuffed out by the quake, while the hate has been a long and inhumane suffocation — a crime against humanity,” stated Sir Hilary Beckles, in an article widely published by Caribbean news agencies.
The UWI is currently convening a major conference on the theme “Rethinking and Rebuilding Haiti” to dig beneath the rubble of public perception.
In order to gain access to international trade, in 1825 Haiti agreed to pay France reparations of 150 million gold francs in exchange for recognition and an end to the embargo. French accountants and actuaries valued land, animals, former slaves, and other commercial properties and services. Haiti borrowed money from American Citibank to service this debt. It took more than 100 years to buy its recognition in the international community.
While the reparations debate for African descendants is scorned by the West, and avoided by the descendants themselves, France stands proudly having lived large off the modern equivalent of $21 billion in reparations for losing land and human property while enslaving Haitians.
“Haiti was crushed by this debt repayment. It descended into financial and social chaos. France was enriched and it took pleasure from the fact that having been defeated by Haitians on the battlefield, it had won on the field of finance,” said Sir Hilary Beckles.
At the 2001 United Nations Conference on Race in Durban, South Africa, the Caribbean made strong representation for France to repay Haiti. The Caribbean Community (Caricom) reaffirmed this call in 2007, during the anniversary celebrations for the two hundredth anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade.
Former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was a strong proponent of this initiative. His tenure was heralded as a return to order for Haiti, until he was finally escorted out of the country in 2004, under armed guard by American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officials. Haiti became a United Nations protectorate.
Thousands of government officials under the Aristide-government were removed from office during the questionable coup. The Americans claim they gave President Aristide a plane ride to the Central Africa Republic, where he now lives in exile. President Aristide maintains he was kidnapped. The new Haitian government, still in power, wasted little time to withdraw the request from France to repay the reparations money.
America pundits in the mainstream media rarely, if ever, talk about America’s involvement in Haiti, although America invaded the country in 1915 and occupied it for almost 20 years to secure its economic interests. Americans oversaw the introduction of foreign land ownership to the Haitian constitution, never present since independence. During their rule, foreign economic interests in the country grew, and racial stratification between blacks and mulattos became more ingrained, akin to segregated American states.
Under American rule, Haitian financial reserves were managed from Washington. Debt servicing accounted for 40 per cent of Haiti’s annual income, primarily to service American financial institutions. America’s grip on Haiti’s finances was so tight that they withheld the salaries of government officials on one occasion to coerce them to sign a bilateral agreement without modification, according to historians.
Even after the Americans left in 1934, they did not return control of the national treasury to Haiti until the 1940s. The only stable public institution they left was the US-trained Haitian military. A series of military coups followed for the next few decades, ending with the infamous Duvalier dynasty.
Former Haitian president François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, said to be born in the Bahamas to a father from Mayaguana and mother from Haiti, is blamed for many of Haiti’s current social and economic troubles. During his 14 year rule, he established the infamous secret police force, the Tonton Macoute, and crippled the Haitian national army.
He embezzled money and was responsible for political assassinations. His presidency was supported by the United States because of his anti-Communist views. He was succeeded by his 19-year-old son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, who was just as oppressive.
Much of Haiti’s debt, still being serviced today, was accumulated under the Duvalier regimes. Rather than being used for national development, much of the borrowed money was squandered and outright stolen.
Massive deforestation in Haiti was another source of instability, particularly for the natural environment. Most commentators attribute this to the “poor masses” cutting down trees to burn fire wood. Dr Newry said this is only half of the story. Haitian poverty has contributed to deforestation in modern days, but, he said, the problem began with the French, Spanish and other European countries, cutting down forests to grow coffee, sugar, tobacco and other products on a commercial scale.
In the 1940s, Haitians also endured the violent anti-Voodoo crusade of Catholic missionaries. During this period, called the Rejete massacre, they killed Voodoo priests, destroyed sacred temples and burned forests with centuries-old trees that were honoured by the Haitians.
Haiti’s history of triumph and tragedy is too complex to unravel in one article. External forces were at play at the same time destabilizing internal forces that were at play. The internal forces are not to be absolved. The hands of many Haitian nationals are no doubt stained with the tears of many in the starving masses, from corrupt practices, mismanagement, incompetence and warfare. These conditions appear to be ingrown defects of ancient and modern governmental systems, as many nations well know. But to take a simplistic look at Haiti, as many seem inclined to do, and pass judgment on the nation without understanding or perspective is to be blinded by ignorance.
As the international community convened in Canada late last month to begin forming a strategic plan for the reconstruction of Haiti, many in the Caribbean community were watching keenly with an eye on the past and an eye on the future. A major international conference is to be held in the spring to further the strategic planning agenda.
The heart of the matter is: Haiti is inextricably linked to the Bahamas, the Americas and the modern world. Those who know this to be true are watching closely as the world mobilizes behind the latest international fad that is Haiti. As donor fatigue will inevitably set in, those who know will be the ones still standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Haiti, embracing Haitians as their brothers and sisters, wondering if the rallying cry, “not without Haiti” will ever light a fire in the Bahamian psyche.