The Social Historical Context of “Natural Disasters”: Haiti

Poor Mexico, so far away from God but so close to the United States.

— Porfirio Diaz

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

— Santayana

Just like we have learned earlier from the Katrina disaster, it is important, while we share our solidarity and our support for the tragedy being endured by the courageous people of Haiti, not to forget the historical and social context that frames this most recent disaster in the Haitian experience. After hearing the news and the self-congratulatory speech of President Obama about the “historical ties” of Haiti and the United States, I could not but recall a different narrative of “historical ties” than the one the media is conveying. This counter narrative is more congruent with a famous quote from former Mexican Dictator Porfirio Diaz which applies to the Haitian experience in an ominous way. Dictator Diaz in the last half of the 19th century opened Mexico to foreign capitalists, especially U.S. investors and created the precursor of today’s neo-liberal policies in that country. By the early part of the twentieth century half of Mexico’s wealth was in foreign hands. Today, Haiti is under the total control of the United States and its institutions. A country that used to produce its own rice, now imports it from the United States.

One aspect of these “historical ties” that are not told in United States’ high school history textbooks is that Haiti, by being the first independent country in the Americas, led by people of African descent, created fear in the white slave holding elites throughout the world. Haiti was the most prosperous European colony in the Americas and one that brought to France a significant amount of the wealth that catapulted it to the rank of a developed nation. But, France’s and the United States ascent to the developed world were rooted in the sentencing of Haiti to centuries of economic despair and political instability. This is the story we are asked to forget.

In 1804, Haiti declared its independence from France under the leadership of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who succeeded the brilliant military strategist and former slave Toussaint L’Ouverture. In the preceding years the Haitian army defeated the most powerful European army in Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte’s army of tens of thousands and at different times defeated smaller attempts by the British and the Spanish to subdue the Haitians.

Europe and the United States never forgave Haiti for becoming a model of freedom against the infamous system of slavery and after Haiti was in a state of political weakness because of internal strife imposed economic blockades (like in Cuba). Ironically, France collected “reparations” for its loss of “property” (slaves) during the Haitian war of liberation and Haiti was isolated (worse than Cuba is today). The United States waited sixty years before it granted recognition to the nascent republic. What today we call the global north, dominated by the United States created the conditions for perpetual Haitian underdevelopment. The example of an African nation which was prosperous in the Americas was too much to swallow for the slaveholders of the United States and Europe. In fact, President Jefferson initially supported the French efforts against Haiti until it discovered that Napoleon wanted to then expand the French empire beyond the Louisiana territory. After Napoleon’s defeat, it sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States dramatically expanding the United States’ empire. So thanks to Haiti’s victory, the United States began its modern phase of territorial expansion. We paid them with economic sanctions.

Unfortunately, Latin American nations in struggle for their own independence from Spain, also betrayed the nascent Haitian nation. Simon Bolivar, the liberator of the most of Latin America, received military support and weapons from the Haitian revolutionaries in 1816. Yet, in the end Bolivar denied support and recognition to Haiti when they needed it. Their own fear of a pardocracia (government of the people of color) instilled more fear in the Bolivarian revolutionaries than the Spanish or the United States imperialists. Brazil did not abolish slavery until 1888, being the last country in the world to do so.

The economic disaster created by United States and Europe policies of isolation, let to the creation of one of the first debtor states. Haiti, in what was latter debt peonage, was forced to endure a period of formal colonialism when the United States marines invaded Haiti in 1915. After 19 years, they left the country neatly re-organized to become a neo-colony of United States. In order to assure obedience and discipline to the imperial requirements, the United States military trained the Haitian National Guard (like in recent years the formerly called “School of the Americas” trained Latin America’s military) and left the military forces that would lead to the eventual dictatorship of Francois Duvalier in 1957, probably (together with another U.S. protégé in the other side of the island, the Dominican Republic’s dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo) one of the most cruelest and murderous in the Americas.

In recent decades, after the end of the Duvalier dynasty period of bloody control, the Haitian nation has attempted to stand on their own feet and establish a democratic and prosperous nation. Each time their efforts have been thwarted, this time again by the United States and the support of Europe. Father Bertrand Aristide, who despite his weaknesses, was by far a step in the right direction for Haiti. He was elected democratically by the Haitian people twice and twice removed by forces supported and directed by the United States. The last time, in 2004, President Bertrand Aristide, was overthrown by former military forces influenced by the Duvalierists and other forces allied to the light-skinned elites who have ruled Haiti for decades in alliance with the United States. Marx said that history repeats itself, the first as tragedy the second time as a farce. The first tragedy was that President Bertrand Aristide was kidnapped by United States agents, placed in a United States military plane and whisked away to the Central African Republic. Today he lives in exile in South Africa. Summer 2009, President Zelaya from Honduras was also overthrown and later kidnapped and exiled in a sequel that seems more like a farce. Today, he is still in exile.

Someone has said that “Americans are the people with the most access to information and the least informed.” As we watch the coverage of the Haitian tragedy and we hear President Obama’s words, the first African American president, let’s not forget white supremacy is alive and kicking in the United States. The main networks are in a self-congratulatory mood about how we are the first responders and celebrating the spirit of giving of the nation. The United States people are a generous people and they will respond but we should not forget the reasons why this disaster has been amplified. The government and the infrastructure of Haiti are so inefficient and non-existent that the coordination of efforts will be more difficult.

Ironically, corporate media in the United States, because they are monolingual and do not read Spanish or Creole, are cheerleading the arrival of Canadians and U.S. planes late on Wednesday, the fact is that the first responders came from Venezuela, which sent its air force with medics, food and equipment a few hours after the tragedy. Cuba, which already had 344 medical doctors on the ground, sent more teams with 151 more specialized medical doctors (including the Reed brigade that was offered to the Bush administration to help in New Orleans) that arrived (Cubans already had two tent hospitals serving 800 wounded), the Dominican Republic which sent a 20 member Urban Rescue team, and through which Puerto Rico attempted to coordinate and sent a team of three helicopters, dozens of urban rescuers (who had earlier served in New York during 9/11 attack) and 20 structural engineers. However, Puerto Rico was unable to send them as quickly as they wished; at least until last night (1/16/2010) teams of technicians with water purifying systems, communications and military police did not receive permission from the Southern Command. As a colony of the United States, they had to wait for approval from the U.S. Southern command. God forbid Puerto Ricans and Latinos upstaged the U.S. rescue efforts.

Victor M. Rodriguez is Professor and former Chair of the Department of Chicano and Latino Studies at California State University of Long Beach. Among his published works is Latino Politics in the United States: Race, Ethnicity, Class and Gender in the Mexican American and Puerto Rican Experience in the United States (Kendall-Hunt, 2012). He can be reached at: Read other articles by Victor, or visit Victor's website.