Haiti: paying the price for freedom since 1804

By LaKeshia N. Myers

Representative LaKeshia Myers

James Brown once said, “You have to pay the price to be the boss. A small Caribbean nation bordering the Dominican Republic; separated by the Dajabon River and hundreds of years of history, Haiti fought for independence from European control and has continued to pay the price ever since.

Prior to independence, Haiti was a French colony known as Saint-Domingue. Santo Domingo’s economy was built using the labor of African slaves who fueled the sugar and coffee industries, and by the 1760s it had become the most profitable colony in the Americas. With economic growth, however, came the increasing exploitation of African slaves who made up the bulk of the country’s population (US Department of State, 2021).

The French Revolution had a great impact on the colony. The white minority in Santo Domingo split into royalist and revolutionary factions, while the Métis population campaigned for civil rights. Seizing the opportunity, the slaves of northern Santo Domingo organized and planned a massive rebellion that began on August 22, 1791. Led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, the enslaved citizens of Santo Domingo negotiated with the French revolutionaries, who had expressed their desire to ban slavery. This led to a complex and multifaceted civil war in which the Spanish and French military fleets were involved (US Department of State, 2021).

According to State Department records, “the situation in Santo Domingo has placed the Democratic-Republican Party and its leader, Thomas Jefferson, in a sort of political dilemma. Jefferson was a firm believer in the French Revolution and the ideals it promoted, but as a Virginia slave owner popular among other Virginia slave owners, Jefferson also feared the specter of the slave revolt. Faced with the question of what the United States should do about the French colony of Santo Domingo, Jefferson preferred to offer limited help to quell the revolt, but also suggested that the slave owners aim for a compromise. similar to those Jamaican slave owners made. with escaped slave communities in 1739. Despite their many differences on other issues, Secretary of the Treasury and leader of the rival federalist party Alexander Hamilton largely agreed with Jefferson on Haitian politics ”(Department of ‘US State, 2021).

This is important, for Jefferson had long been a friend of the French, having spent many years there before the revolution; as well as his own personal juxtaposition as an American slave owner and author of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson’s response to the role of slaves in the revolution was particularly tempered, so as not to alienate the white ruling class in Santo Domingo or to stir up thoughts of rebellion among the slave population in the United States. As the white refugees fled Santo Domingo for the United States, they brought with them xenophobia, anxiety and radical rhetoric towards France. This led to the passage of the Aliens and Sedition Laws. John Adams, a staunch defender of the fight against slavery, chose to financially support Toussaint L’Ouverture, which ended with Jefferson’s accession to the presidency.

Under Jefferson’s tenure, the United States cut aid to L’Ouverture and instead pursued a policy of isolating Haiti, fearing that the Haitian revolution would spread to the United States. These concerns were in fact unfounded, as the fledgling Haitian state was more concerned with its own survival than with exporting the revolution. Nonetheless, Jefferson grew even more hostile after L’Ouverture’s successor, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, ordered the execution of the remaining whites after Napoleonic attempts to reclaim Santo Domingo and re-impose slavery (State Department American, 2021). Instead, Jefferson sided with Napoleon and acquired the Louisiana Territory in 1803. For the hefty sum of fifteen million dollars, or about $ 18 per square mile, the United States totaled 828,000. square miles (530,000,000 acres).

The US policy of political isolation of Haiti remained intact until 1862, although the revolution ended in 1804 and the country had become an independent nation in 1825. Over the years, Haiti continued to suffer because ‘they chose freedom from colonization. In exchange for freedom, the French demanded compensation of 100 million francs, or around 21 billion dollars (USD) today. It took over a century for Haitians to repay the debt owed to its former slave owners, most certainly underscoring its economic instability. This, combined with its vulnerability to natural disasters and internal corruption, has trapped Haiti in a conundrum of unforced errors.

Thinking of the fate of the Haitian people, I think of the policy of isolation that existed during the Jeffersonian era. America, for generations, has turned a blind eye to Haiti. When the country has been in need, our government intervenes as an ally at the perimeter level; donating funds through USAID or other nongovernmental organizations, but the impact has been difficult to measure and haphazard at best. But never fully immerse yourself in the workings of government to help establish stability. When we look at our other relations (Israel and Afghanistan come to mind), the answers have differed completely.

If we are to maintain (and in some cases regain) our international standing, America must understand the power, prowess and responsibility of fairness. As Haitian immigrants sleep in makeshift tents on the Texas border, we must examine our policies and consider our seemingly flawed notions of freedom and independence. God knows that Haiti has paid a high price to be free.