Sir Hilary Beckles, Contributor
When the Americans defeated the British and declared national independence, it was done by way of advancing the emerging spirit of democracy. Thirty years later when the Haitians, following the Americans, defeated Napoleon's mighty army, repelled Spanish and British military invasions, and declared on January 1, 1804, the second nation state in the hemisphere, the new advocate of democracy was isolated and coldly strangled by forces acting in the interest of democracy.
The Americans built but half a democracy. They retained slavery as the core of their nation. The Haitians went all the way. They placed in the Independence Constitution that slavery and slave trading were crimes. Universal freedom was proclaimed. But that was not all. It stood up for blacks in every society by providing at Article 44 that any black person or indigenous native who arrived on the shores of Haiti would be immediately declared free and a citizen of the republic.
The Americans, British, French, Dutch, and Spanish, clinging to black and native slavery as the model of development, condemned the Haitians for this deep democratic constitutional stance. Haiti, in bold print and audacious policy, established itself as the centre of world democracy and the only nation in the western world where all inhabitants were invested with the status of legal freedom and constitutional citizenship. It became the only society where working-class people joined the privileged classes in running the government and shaping the framework of nation-building. Haiti gave the world this gift of universal freedom and democratic participation. The Americans and Europeans were talking about this in theory while the Haitians set out to craft it in reality.
"Crush the infamy and kill the infant" became the motto of Europe and America. Never before has a nation done so much good and in turn received so much evil. Never before in history have a people given so much liberty and freedom to the world, for which it should live in credit, but has been driven to dwell for decades in the deep despair of debt.
CRIME GREATER THAN SLAVERY
Never before in the history of civilisation has the political, constitutional and philosophical contribution of a people and nation been erased from the record with such persistent precision leaving subsequent generations to ponder their plight in pity. These are crimes greater than slavery. The theft of Haitian intellectual property as the source of modern democracy continues to be overlooked by academics schooled in the idea that ancient Rome and Greece, both slave societies, are the ancestral homes of the idea of democracy.
The Americans turned their back on Haiti, their kindred spirits in nation-building. Haiti's call for support and solidarity was rejected. The French were comforted by this, and on the 21st anniversary of its Independence, while children were dancing in the streets of Port-au-Prince, French gun boats pulled into the harbour, discreetly backed up at a distance by the Americans' navy. Independence celebrations took place against the background of a pending joint French-American invasion to "crush the infamy and kill the infant". This would not be the first time that the Americans would support the French in a military operation in Haiti. This is how president Aristide was kidnapped and removed from office in 2004.
French gun to his head, and American bayonets to his back, the brilliant distinguished President Boyer of Haiti signed the treaty to pay France 150 million gold francs in reparation for their freedom. Some 100,000 persons had died in the battle for freedom. The land of sugar ran in blood as slavery was overthrown. The payment of reparation on top of the death of 25 per cent of the population, women and children accounting for 40 per cent, was merciless to say the least. But the nation wished to join the community of nations. It was the death knell of the young, fledging nation. King Charles of France signed his 10th decree, and the blood money began to flow royally out of Port-au-Prince into Paris, and continued uninterrupted until 1922, then resumed again until 1947.
As the Haitian nation buckled under debt and threat of joint French-American military invasions, the consequences of a crippled country began to evolve into the world now wrecked by the quake. Nothing on Earth but a quake could focus the world's attention on a crime long committed and gone covered up, buried by the power of the 'West' to tell the world how to see and think.
Toussaint L'Ouverture led the Holy Grail of freedom. Betrayed by France as he offered to give diplomacy a chance, he was imprisoned in France, beheaded and buried in secret. Today, the nation of Haiti knows not where the head of its first head of state is buried. The French know and will not tell. The beheading of L'Ouverture and the hiding of his head was France's first step in beheading the young nation. "Kill the first born," a king once said. Haiti was the western world's first born.
Then came the quake; another example of nature unearthing that which has been concealed by man.
Economic strangulation led to financial chaos. It served to ignite and sustain the ethnic conflict between blacks and coloured that racked national politics and became a way of life. The coloureds believed the blacks were less fit to rule and the blacks did not trust their willingness to ally with France. The peasants, meanwhile, wanted their class independence from the state that insisted upon being an integral part of the world economy. Peasants fought to delink from global trade theelite oppressed them to deepen the link. The coup and assassination became common means by which governments changed. A culture of bloody political conflict ripped at the spine of the nation in much the same way, and for the same reasons, that France had executed its aristocracy, England beheaded its king, and Americans shot its greatest president at an earlier time.
As the nation collapsed into conflict, the distance between rich and poor, peasants and property holders grew wider. The elite borrowed to sustain the government as peasants intensified their preference for less exposure to the world economy. The weight of the national debt grew larger as the payment of reparations proved impossible to sustain. Port-au-Prince borrowed more from Paris to pay Paris, then Main Street added Wall Street to the list, which eventually led to the American invasion in 1915.
Debt and death
The Americans seized all financial and revenue sources, including the customs and all excise departments. It held on to these until 1947 when the well had been sucked dry. Popular rebellion against the Americans led to the rise of the Duvaliers - 'Papa Doc' and 'Baby Doc'. The Haitians jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. Debt and death danced to the sound of the scream that was once a dream. "Domesticate the hate" joined "crush the infamy" as the revised mantra; together they bore witness to the quake.
For 200 years, the debt had driven Haitian life under the rubble where, today, life survives as a miracle. The infant and the elderly were pulled to safety only to die before the world's eyes that had been closed without a care. The quake shook those eyes wide awake, but the debt remains.
The French know only too well of the crime committed. While, in spite, they succeeded in starving a young nation, the US$21 billion owed cannot be removed from its imperial balance sheet simply by removing President Aristide. Puppet Prime Minister Latortue, placed by France and America in the palace now lying ruin, might have withdrawn Aristide's demand upon the French, but the people of Haiti, and all freedom-loving citizens the world over, are resolved that France has no chance of turning this fact into fiction.
Only a Marshall Plan, European style, will do. The rebuilding of Haiti must begin with the digging up of the truth about a nation buried under 200 years of lies and hate. The West owes Haiti for standing up for freedom when all around was slavery and human denigration. Haiti pulled the modern world out of the pit into which it fell by its global embrace of slavery as an instrument of modernity. The debt to Haiti is more than the US$ 21 billion stolen by the French. After 1804, the boat people were dying to get into Port -au-Prince. Thousands fled from Jamaica, the Bahamas, down through Florida Keys, up through the islands from south into Central and South America. Haiti was the haven.
France will never be able to repay the Haitians for its crimes against them - nor the Americans for their complicity - but it must begin with acceptance and atonement. Great nations need humility. The Haitians have shown this to be true. It is now France's turn to turn the page of its sordid sojourn among the dying, and dig itself out from under the rubble in Port-au-Prince.
Sir Hilary Beckles, a historian, is pro-vice-chancellor and principal of the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus. Feedback may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org