What Haiti Teaches Us About Struggle
By Jeanette Charles(Solidarity Correspondent, Witness for Peace, Chiapas Support Committee)
The Haitian people’s history tells a story of steadfast struggle, solidarity and abolition. In 2015 and 2016, hundreds of thousands of Haitians organized massive protests chanting “Nou Pap Obeyi” meaning “We Do Not Obey” in Haitian Kreyol and carrying signs that read “Black Lives Matter” as they called for free and fair democratic elections.
Despite Fanmi Lavalas’ popular movement presidential campaign with candidate Dr. Maryse Narcisse 1, a long time grassroots organizer and doctor, Jovenel Moises, a U.S. supported politician, businessman and protégé of former president Michel Martelly was named president on Jan. 3, 2017. Haitians have denounced these elections as dishonest and imposed by international powers including the U.S., Canada, France and the United Nations 2.
Largely international movements have remained uninformed and inactive on what can only be understood as a U.S., Canadian and French led international occupation of Haiti that has established an apartheid state. Dr. Narcisse echoed this sentiment at a solidarity event in Oakland, California this past April stating, “Haiti is two countries in one. The one percent that rules the country and the [poor Black] majority living in abject poverty…I am not trying to sell you poverty. Neither am I saying that Haiti is a failed country. The people of Haiti are fighting and they want a powerful force serving the interests of the people.”
Today’s Haiti faces an onslaught of challenges: U.S. backed dictatorship, U.N. occupation, rising costs for basic goods, poisoned waterways and disparate access to resources such as education, healthcare and housing. These conditions aren’t autochthonous; rather, global powers have intentionally underdeveloped the island nation and punished it for achieving Black-led independence and demanding Black liberation.
Haiti’s Revolutionary Roots and the Counter-Revolutionary Repercussions
“When, morning, noon and night, the slaves cried: ‘Haitii, Haitii,’ the message was clear: their greatest dream was not to lessen the brutality and savagery of the colonists, but rather to end slavery, seize their freedom so that they could live.” Jean Bertrand Aristide, Haiti-Haitii: Philosophical Reflections for Mental Decolonization 3.
The Haitian people’s vision has always been committed to human development, popular democracy and Black liberation. The Haitian revolutionary process was the only successful campaign of formerly enslaved Africans defeating European colonial powers in the Western Hemisphere. Haitians set the tone for anti-colonial resistance. Thus, understanding their triumphs and the counter-revolutionary backlash is critical for anyone trying to comprehend the current state of emergency in Haiti.
In 1791, Cecile Fatiman and Dutty Boukman organized a vodoun ceremony calling for guidance and protection from their ancestors and spirits as well as to discuss political strategy for taking down the French Empire. Many Haitians consider this a critical movement that set into motion a revolutionary process for generations of Haitians and revolutionaries worldwide.
Subsequently, Africans led unparalleled uprisings and maroon 4 strategies increased against French colonists and the global transatlantic slave trade economy on the island of Ayiti, also known as Quisqueya 5. Thousands of colonists were murdered, acres of plantations were scorched and many more shackles cast off. Ultimately, Africans defeated Napoleon’s imperial army through a strategic combination of direct combat in battle, African marronage and the French Revolution’s impact.
After Haiti was established as the first Black Republic of the Western Hemisphere on Jan. 1, 1804, it extended solidarity to defeating colonialism and slavery worldwide. Africans and then, Haitians, provided soldiers, printing presses, ships, weapons, supplies and strategic training to revolutionary forces. Black abolitionist movements in the United States to the Venezuelan independence movement under Simón Bolívar received Haiti’s pivotal assistance.
Because of Haiti’s revolutionary process which sought to transform conditions not only for Blacks in Haiti but oppressed peoples around the world, Haiti has faced a wave of counter-revolutionary consequences. The United States and France, along with support from Canada to international bodies such as the U.N. and global banking agencies, have underdeveloped Haiti through occupation, exploitation and extortion which continue today.
In 1825, the French Empire forced the newly founded republic to pay restitution for its loss in human property and revenue generated from its once lucrative sugarcane industry. The world’s colonial powers militarily surrounded the island threatening to destroy it. Thus making an example of this Black victory in an attempt to prevent other Africans from exercising their freedom in the Americas. Haiti paid the equivalent of $USD 21 billion namely in lumber, gold and other resources until 1947 6.
These actions and others alienated Haiti from other countries in the region: a target was placed on Haiti and all those who risked associating with the first free Black nation. In 1826, the Congress of Panama which sought to bring together newly founded Latin American and Caribbean Republics did not invite Haiti due to U.S. pressure 7. Furthermore, the United States refused to acknowledge Haiti as an independent state until 1862 perpetuating the world’s long-standing racist isolation of Haiti.
“Haitians refuse to obey those who do not respect human rights…The Haitian people are calling on your solidarity today.” Dr. Maryse Narcisse, April 23rd 2017 in Oakland, California.
Haitian resistance deserves volumes dedicated to its rich history. For the Haitian masses, their contemporary revolutionary forces are embodied in the grassroots movement and political organization: Fanmi Lavalas. Meaning the great flood in Haitian Kreyol, Fanmi Lavalas represents the Haitian people’s sustained call to “not obey” colonial rule. This mass movement was born of Haiti’s revolutionary legacy and its mobilization against U.S. backed dictatorship from 1957-1986.
U.S. occupation officially lasted in Haiti from 1915-1934, establishing sustained foreign military presence and plunder. During this time, the U.S. stole what was then an astounding $500,000 of the country’s gold reserve from the Haitian National Bank and instated Haitian presidential puppets 8. Haitian peasant farmers organized their resistance in the countryside but were met with brutal repression. Even after the official end of U.S. occupation, its residual effects continued to manifest under dictator Francois Duvalier’s reign from 1957-1971.
What Haiti Teaches Us About Struggle
Known as Papa Doc, Duvalier was often misrepresented as a Black nationalist and populist president internationally 9. The Duvalier dictatorship represented decades of U.S. backed domestic terrorism as his administration was notorious for the execution of thousands of poor Haitians with his death squad, the ton ton macoutes 10 disappeared, tortured and assassinated thousands of Haitians.
As a result, many Haitians fled the country, primarily to the U.S. and Canada. The poor majority, unable to escape so readily, endured brutal conditions both in state repression and lack of basic needs. Duvalier’s administration forcibly opened Haiti to foreign corporate interests that usurped and exploited human and natural resources.
Some of the earliest neoliberal economic reform in the Caribbean which ravaged the local and national economy were then introduced by his son Jean Claude known as Baby Doc after Francois’ death in 1971. This created an immigration crisis that took the lives of thousands at sea and saw the resettlement of thousands more abroad.
In 1986, the Haitian people ousted Baby Doc through a series of non-violent popular protests. This growing movement against Duvalier and in defense of Haitian self-determination and national sovereignty emerged as Fanmi Lavalas – the great flood. Famni Lavalas pushed out a dictatorship and advocated for life with dignity and humanity through a popular movement led democratic process.
The Great Flood Rises
When asked about the future of Haiti’s grassroots movement in Los Angeles on April 24th, Dr. Narcisse poignantly responded, “Haitians will rise up. I am not sure when or how, but the people will rise.” One of the ways Haitians have already begun their revolutionary resurrection is through rebuilding people’s power.
Before the revolutionary and left practices of governments like Chávez’s Venezuela and Evo Morales’ Bolivia, Haiti forged the path toward more recent decades of change in the Americas following the Cuban Revolution of 1959 with its grassroots movement Fanmi Lavalas.
Haitian grassroots leaders consider Fanmi Lavalas a political organization and a movement, not necessarily a political party in the traditional sense even though the movement has engaged in electoral processes. Haitians believe in Famni Lavalas’ power to unite the masses and build political power.
In 1990, Jean Bertrand Aristide, a Catholic priest and leader became Haiti’s first democratically elected president with 67 percent of the vote representing the Haitian people’s will and without foreign intervention or appointment. Under his administration, Fanmi Lavalas ushered in a grassroots led government implementing the most progressive policies in the country’s history. Aristide created a women’s ministry, recognized Haitian Kreyol and vodun 11as the national language and religion respectively, doubled the minimum wage and disbanded the Haitian armed forces responsible for countless atrocities under Duvalier. During 1994 and 2000, Fanmi Lavalas grassroots initiatives with Aristide as an independent leader as well as support from a subsequent Lavalas administration built more schools than it had in its country’s history since 1804 12.
Furthermore, as president, Aristide secured constitutional guarantees including state ownership of Haitian resources and the redistribution of land among Haitians. Lavalas’ vision directly defied transnational mega tourism projects, mining and oil companies interested in gold, petroleum and uranium extraction among other minerals. These projects sought to rob Haitian resources without redistributing the wealth with the Haitian masses.
In response to Fanmi Lavalas’ revolutionary actions under Aristide’s presidency, the U.S. and French governments with support from the Haitian white elite orchestrated a coup resulting in Aristide’s immediate exile and the persecution, imprisonment, disappearance and assassination of Lavalas leaders. Aristide returned in 1994 after several years in exile. Unable to run for office consecutively, he ran for president in 1999 and was re-elected with 92 percent.
On the bicentennial of the Haitian Revolution in 2004, Aristide launched Haiti’s reparations campaign demanding the return of $21 billion stolen after independence. This demand triggered another coup under the orders of the US, Canada and France, spiralling into what we witness today: Haiti under U.N. occupation, transnational intervention, an economically devastated nation and politically precarious situation for the grassroots.
“Do Not Obey”
Despite the destruction imposed on Haiti meant to break the people down, Haitians have persevered. Haitians do not obey white supremacy, do not obey capitalism and do not obey European colonialism and U.S. imperialism. Rather, Haitians fiercely defy the laws of movement gravity by getting up time and time again and fighting what many might understand as an almost mythical battle between akin to David and Goliath.
On Jan. 12, 2010, Haiti barely survived a calamitous earthquake resulting in the loss of at least 230,000 people according to Haitian government statistics. In its aftermath, Aristide published “Haiti-Haitii? Philosophical Reflections for Mental Decolonization” a retelling of Haitian resistance and resilience within the context of disaster one year after the earthquake.
Aristide learned Kiswahili in South Africa during his seven years in exile and clear connections emerged between the African continent’s historical struggle against imperialist pillage and Haiti’s resistance in the Western Hemisphere. One of the lessons Aristide realized during this time was that “In Swahili: Haitii, Which means: Do not obey…This is why we say: Haiti, Haitii, Haitii, Until we become free. Then truly, will our country’s name be HAITI.” This linguistic inference and historical affirmation of Haiti as an innately revolutionary nation captures the grassroots’ determination to resist against all odds. This is key, as many organizers around the world grapple with how to engage in this current political moment where existing hegemonies seem to be coming to an end and new, largely unknown global powers will surely emerge.
Fanmi Lavalas’ mantra believes, “Alone we are weak. Together we are strong. All together we are Lavalas”. If anything, Haiti’s mantra beyond its borders calls on all of us to collectively not obey the systems that seemingly dictate our conditions. Rather, the Haitian people have charged all of us to forge our own paths toward self-determination and like their great flood, unite and build another world.
- For information regarding Dr. Maryse Narcisse and the grassroots political platform in Haiti, please see Haiti Action Committee’s August 2016 newsletter: http://haitisolidarity.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/haiti-solidarity-august-2016.pdf
- The text, referenced throughout this article, frames Haitian history within a history of resistance and for non-Haitian readers calls on people to act in struggle with the Haitian people.
- Marronage refers to the process of Africans who were self-liberated from colonial enslavement and created autonomous societies and networks organizing their own political, economic, social and cultural practices in accordance to their African traditions. African maroons often co-existed with Indigenous peoples. Maroons were also known to have organized efforts to free other Africans from enslavement, attacked plantations as well as colonists among other strategies. For a more detailed understanding of Haitian revolutionary resistance please see Carolyn Fick’s “The Making of Haiti” and C.L.R. James “The Black Jacobins” amongst other critical texts.
- Ayiti is an indigenous word meaning ‘home or mother of the earth’ in Taino-Arawak as well as ‘sacred earth or homeland’ in Fon. Quisqueya means “mother of all lands” and refers to the entire island which today is Haiti and Dominican Republic. The term is often referenced between organizers with roots from either side of the island to encourage unity.
- Former Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide presented this estimate in 2004 part of the Haitian people’s reparations campaign demanding France return what they stole during this time.
- This moment is often criticized as Bolívar led the initiative and had himself received direct support from the Haitian Revolution. http://newsjunkiepost.com/2014/10/18/et-tu-brute-haitis-betrayal-by-latin-america/
- Duvalier publicly spoke in Haitian Kreyol and misleadingly referenced Black power. . This tradition of political camouflage is was most recently captured by President Michel Martelly with his use of empty left-leaning Latin American integrationist lingo which he used to disguise his Duvalierst tendencies.
- In Haitian folklore, the ton ton macoute refers to a fable of an uncle that carries away children in a sack and devouring them for breakfast. Often Haitians refer to this man as a boogeyman.
- Haitian vodoun is a religion based out of African Yoruba and Bantu belief systems.