Saving Haiti yet again

Stability: Restoring order is the easy part, but will world powers stay long enough to finally make a difference?

March 07, 2004|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

On New Year's Day, the nation of Haiti celebrated 200 years of independence, vaunting its heritage as the world's first black republic, the product of an heroic revolt of African slaves against their French masters.

This year also marks the 89th anniversary of the first time U.S. Marines landed in Haiti. They stayed 17 years. They came back in 1994 for a shorter stay. A decade later, they are back again.

It is not clear how long the Marines will stay this time, or even what the mission is. But many think that if Haiti is going to make it as a viable country in the globalized world economy, it will need a serious commitment from the United States and other countries.

"Haiti has basically been at least a borderline failed state throughout its history," says Monty Marshall, of the Center for International Development and Conflict Management at the University of Maryland, College Park. "It is not that Haiti can't stabilize, but it can't do so on its own. If the United States wants to stabilize Haiti, the United States knows what it needs to do."

After the ouster of former president Jean Bertrand Aristide, two types of stabilization are in play - short term and long term. With various groups of rebels - some no more than thuggish gangs - roaming the country, a former power broker claiming to be head of a re-formed army and looting and lawlessness rampant, short-term stability is clearly the first goal.

A few thousand international soldiers can probably accomplish that, but long-term stability is another matter. That has always been elusive for Haiti, hampered by problems inflicted from within and without. Many fear that such a long-term solution will again elude the Western Hemisphere's poorest country.

"I am not entirely pessimistic, but I am not hopeful" says Franklin Knight, a historian of the Caribbean region at the Johns Hopkins University. "It is just that when you are an historian and you see no example of success in 200 years, you wonder why it would happen this time?"

Haiti was formed by colonial powers drawing lines on maps of their conquered lands. Spain had claimed the island of Hispaniola - where Christopher Columbus landed in 1492 - but the French established outposts on the western end. In 1697, the two nations divided France's Haiti from Spain's Dominican Republic. Warfare and diseases wiped out hundreds of thousands of indigenous Arawak Indians. With workers needed for coffee and sugar plantations, the importation of millions of slaves from Africa began. Haiti was a cash cow for France, once considered the richest and most productive colony in the New World.

The fight of those workers against the French was the only successful African slave rebellion. Its military leader was Toussaint L'Ouverture who was tricked and imprisoned and died in France before the republic was declared. Toussaint's ally Jean-Jacques Dessalines became free Haiti's first president, but the new nation came into being with the types of problems that have beset it ever since.

"There were two really difficult hurdles the new republic had to overcome that had longstanding repercussions," Knight says. "There was this enormous indemnity it had to pay off to France [in return for recognition in 1838]. It took half a century to pay it off.

"And then, as a form of self-defense, the new government had essentially destroyed the country - the big estates, the water works, all the public works projects - to make it unattractive to the French for re-conquest," he says.

A potential economic ally, the United States, refused to recognize Haiti until 1862, fearing the spread of slave rebellions.

Trouble within

But Haiti was not doing itself many favors. Dessalines' assassination in 1806 foreshadowed much of Haitian politics. Much like the rulers of another state founded by freed slaves - Liberia in Africa - those in charge in Haiti showed that they had learned their lessons all too well from their former masters.

"I think it is fair to say that from the very beginning a tiny elite always monopolized economic and political power," says Alex Dupuy, a sociologist at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. "Both sectors of the elite emerged from the slave regime. There was the light-skinned elite, descendants of the offspring of, usually, African slave mothers and colonial French fathers. The other sector emerged from the Haitian revolution from leaders of that army who acquired a great deal of property that, when the French fled, came into their control or possession. So a new Haitian elite was born."

Dupuy says this elite kept control of Haiti for most of its history. "It has always been closely tied with military dictatorships and resisted strongly the growth of democratic movements."

Franklin agrees that these divisions have persisted throughout Haitian history, though he would add an intellectual elite, mainly black-skinned, that has produced Haitian music, art and literature.

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