Haïti Can’t Breathe

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Translated by David F. Bell

I’m not particularly familiar with recent politics in Haiti. Nor, as it were, with the contemporary history of the country. In some sense, the difference between recent politics and contemporary history is rather delicate. History would be the most profound social, political, and economic points of contention behind the daily lives of a population under siege. Not simply those talked about while people travel in public transportation (Haitians talk a lot while in public transportation), but also the interpretive matrices mobilized to speak about these problems. As for current events, they are the province of newspaper headlines, those front pages and editorial pages most often read and shared, the public opinion machine.

Of course, a few snippets of news come to me: the rise of kidnapping, political instability, the opposition declaring that the presidential mandate has ended, a government sponsored referendum to change the constitution, upcoming elections. As I write this piece (summer 2021), armed banditry is rife in many working-class neighborhoods. There are victims by the dozens nearly every day.

As I was asking myself how best to express the bicentennial dyspnea of the Haitian people, I learned about the assassination of the president of the Republic in his private residence.

Haiti could not breathe. Now it is suffocating.

I recently published a novel entitled Combats (March 2021) in which the characters live in a nineteenth-century rural setting. They experience the full force of the first consequences provoked by the infamous independence debt, well understood by Haitians and analyzed by international specialists such as David Graeber and Thomas Piketty.

After its independence in 1804, Haiti was not accepted into the concert of nations. The country, founded by hordes of previously enslaved Blacks and by freed Mulattos, was a bad example, a model not to be emulated so geographically near a slave society, the United States, and the Antilles belonging to France. No economic power, that is, no white country defining itself as such, recognized the independence of the new Black, abolitionist, and egalitarian population. The isolation of Haiti thus began at the very moment of its foundation.

In a vain attempt to escape the embargo and to construct a collective destiny at the international level, Haiti accepted a colossal debt imposed on it by France. Charles X, king of France and Navarre, forced Jean-Pierre Boyer, supreme leader of the Haitian nation, to assume the responsibility for a ransom of 120 million francs. The economist Thomas Piketty calculates that this was equivalent to 28 billion euros in today’s currency. David Graeber, in his Debt: The First 500 Years, considers it to be the most egregious debt in history. In truth, for Haitians, this strange transaction consisted in buying lands they had already conquered in their independence struggle, having taken them from the previous colonial settlers representing the French state.

Since the previously emancipated ancestors were considered the colonial settlers’ property, Haitians, under threat from the French army, assumed the weight of this debt, which really consisted in purchasing—from their previous torturers—their very persons and those of their grandparents. In other words, after the war of independence, begun by Black Maroons as soon as they arrived on the island of Haiti, pursued by Toussaint Louverture against slavery, brought successfully to a conclusion by Jean Jacques Dessalines through victorious military battles (November 1803 at Vertières, for example), after this long road toward emancipation, France, supported by all the foreign powers of the period, extracted from Haiti recognition of the debt in 1826, that is, during the first half of the nineteenth century, at the very moment when the independent countries of the world were beginning to undergo a massive industrialization.

Haiti clearly missed out on this entrance into the industrial age of the steam engine. It remained an “essentially agricultural” country because every year it had to pay debt service—including interest—every year until the second half of the 20th century!

Like many others I saw the images of the white man, Derek Chauvin, resting his knee on George Floyd’s neck for eight long minutes. As a Haitian citizen, as a writer interested in Haitian history, I could imagine only too well, in pictorial detail of the coldest cruelty, the knee of white imperialism, more precisely, French imperialism, on the neck of the young Haitian nation for over a century. I could imagine just as easily a pump sucking the economy, the living energies, the hope out of the country, depositing its blood directly on the plates of the previous colonial settlers now in France, while the country is held to the ground by accomplices, led by the US, awaiting its turn. Not much for Western powers, twenty-eight billion euros represent fourteen times Haiti’s annual budget. It was only the beginning of the end.

More than a century later, the Haitian American Sugar Company, Hasco, promoted the monoculture of sugar cane in the western plains of  the country. Hasco, established in 1912, was rescued by American military forces in 1915, when they intervened during a moment of political turmoil that threatened the company’s commercial interests, among other things. If you will excuse these numerous dates, in 1957, François Duvalier came to power. Less than two years later, with the active and well documented complicity of the United States, he established one of the worst and most retrograde dictatorships in the whole of the Americas. During the decade of the 1960s, the excuse of the struggle against communism (an agenda and political vision resonant with the US, which maintained him in power) allowed François Duvalier to hijack and destroy all the commercial structures of the country.

Single political party, president for life and able to designate his son as his successor, closure of provincial ports, ousting of intellectuals, and assassination of political opponents: Duvalier furnished a new basis for the present catastrophe in the country. After the industrialization of the nineteenth century, during the 1960s Haiti missed out on the administrative, political, and social modernization of the twentieth century. But the tyrant eliminated real and imagined communists, and that is precisely what white America asked of him.

Our demons are numerous and rage on. Conflicts opposing Blacks and Mulattos, longstanding since the founding of Haiti, are a poison to which we constantly return. The real underlying social conflicts are well known and can be summarized by a single expression: the distribution of wealth. In raising legitimate questions about this distribution, Haiti had to deal with a very cumbersome neighbor. From the end of the twentieth century to the present, this neighbor no longer appears to me to be the USA as a whole. Haiti has been made to seem too small, too uninteresting, to imagine the American mastodon as a cumbersome neighbor.

Let us jump forward several decades when, in 1990, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was the victim of a military coup d’état. He was exiled to North America, then reintroduced into Haiti by the American military on the condition, so rumor had it, that he would radically lower the tariff barriers of the country. In fact—and not a rumor this time—import taxes went from approximately 30% down to 3%. A windfall when I was a child, since I was then able to drink small containers of imported milk, and I had a pair of basketball shoes. Of course, I couldn’t see that small agricultural producers could no longer sell their milk, which suddenly became too expensive. Nor could I understand why the shoemaker in my neighborhood changed from a respectable man into a poor guy who was nearly a beggar.

From the autumn of 1994, from the moment Haiti was opened to the economic competition imposed by North American big banks, the country became formally, with no written agreement, an overseas province of Florida. We buy their rice. We drink their milk. We wear their jeans. They are much less expensive than if we produced them ourselves. The balance of trade has gone completely haywire, and as a result, any hope for a healthy life in one’s own country dissipates.

Industrially produced milk is not as good as that produced by Haitian dairy farmers, which was organic well before that was fashionable. Rice from the Artibonite plain is of a better quality and more refined taste than American Tchako rice. But I would gladly take, I would ingurgitate, I would swallow unreservedly Miami peas or other canned vegetables: Long live importing, down with economic peace, trade stability, health, or a dignified life in one’s own country, if only the Florida exporters had not at a certain moment had the idea, with the active complicity of criminal importers in Haiti, of turning the country into a trading post for the selling of lethal guns and ammunition. That is literally impossible to swallow.

I don’t know the contemporary history of Haiti. Moreover, my knowledge of past history, as the true specialists might have noticed, exhibits some lacunae. I have lived in France for nearly ten years now, and a substantial part of the news does not reach me. Except when there is a terrible hurricane, or when journalists and activists whom I have personally known are killed, such as Antoinette Duclaire, alias Netty, or when the president of the Republic is assassinated in his private residence. I have been almost disconnected from my country, especially during the worldwide coronavirus crisis. This saddens me, reaches down into the depths of my most elementary and basic personhood. In my body and my smell. My breath, my sweat, my respiration. I must go to Haiti, and I have a plane ticket already awaiting me.

But knowing that I’m going to a country where ten times more arms are in circulation than there are square kilometers, knowing that bullets are a product like any other for indifferent exporters and corrupt importers…

Florida is there, right next door, very near Port-au-Prince (an hour-and-a-half by plane). And over there, weapons are a market like any other.

The arms dealers are there, controlled in their own country by a well-equipped police force in a quasi-military state.

Haiti does not produce weapons but buys them, consumes them. Civil society, innocent society is their sole destination, in a country with no known military conflicts. To buy arms, bandits organize a profitable kidnapping industry, and to kidnap even more people, they buy even more ammunition. Endless spiral, guaranteed morbidity. Haiti can no longer breathe. Under the heavy foot of a pitiless elephant, Haiti is suffocating.

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