ON JAN. 1, 1804, the victorious Gen. Jean-Jacques Dessalines proclaimed Haiti’s independence. As he did so, he called upon his countrymen to avenge their slaughtered dead by destroying the French citizens who remained on the island.
He warned his followers that failure would cost them, for when it was their turn to descend into their tombs, their bones would be rejected by the unappeased spirits of their ancestors. Dessalines later justified the massacre of whites as a necessary act of purification meant to banish the terror of slavery forever from the island. “We have paid back these true cannibals -- crime for crime, war for war, outrage for outrage,” he declared. “I have avenged America.”
As Haiti prepares for an election Tuesday -- the 20th anniversary of the overthrow of the brutal and corrupt dictatorship of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier -- it is clear that the past still weighs heavily on the nation. Looking back on two centuries of Haitian history, it sometimes seems as if the country’s post-independence story is just an endless series of courageous but ultimately failed attempts to create something better, an unstoppable cycle of hope followed by political violence and disappointment.
It is natural to look to the past to understand what has gone wrong with Haiti, to search for the roots of the contemporary crisis in earlier moments of upheaval and violence. But it also may be useful to tell a different kind of story -- one that seeks in Haiti’s history sources of hope, examples of triumph and democracy -- if only in order to confront the present with something other than resignation.
Cries for democracy resonate throughout Haiti’s history. In 1791, the enslaved men and women in what was then the world’s most profitable colony executed a brilliantly planned uprising and won their freedom under the leadership of the former slave Toussaint Louverture, among others.
Together with some local whites who supported emancipation, they elected delegates to represent the colony in revolutionary Paris. Among the delegates was Jean-Baptiste Belley, a survivor of the Middle Passage from Africa to the New World. In a famous 1797 portrait, Belley wears the uniform of a French deputy and gazes upward, presumably envisioning the future of a world no longer dominated by chattel slavery. His remarkable journey is just one part of the epic through which Caribbean slaves dramatically expanded the possibilities of democracy in the modern world.
Many radical revolutionaries in France supported the destruction of slavery, but, in 1801, Napoleon Bonaparte decided to reverse emancipation. He sent tens of thousands of troops to re-enslave the people of Haiti. Among his troops were Polish soldiers who had allied with the French in the hopes that it would help them create their own nation in Europe. But once in Haiti, some Poles realized they were on the wrong side of the war and defected to Dessalines’ army. In the wake of independence, these Poles, along with some other whites who were considered allies, were embraced as citizens of Haiti. When, in his Constitution, Dessalines declared that all Haitians would henceforth be known as black, he greeted these whites into the black race.
Since 1804, Haiti has repeatedly produced democratic movements. There were 19th century peasant movements against corrupt rulers who threatened the independence of small farmers. The U.S. occupation of 1915-'34, aimed at protecting U.S. financial and strategic interests, generated widespread resistance on the part of peasants who were drafted into forced labor details, as well as students and intellectuals appalled by the racism of their occupiers.
In 1986, students began an uprising that ended the 30-year dictatorship of the Duvalier family. During the following years, the grass-roots movement called Lavalas ultimately secured the democratic election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1990, though the victory was short-lived. Throughout Haiti’s history -- though these moments are usually overlooked -- there have been some governments that have sought and sometimes succeeded in assuring relative political stability, especially at certain points in the 19th century and in the decades after the U.S. occupation.
Why, then, despite all the hope and effort, have Haiti’s political institutions repeatedly failed to sustain democracy over the long term?
Beginning with Louverture, leaders have faced extraordinary challenges. Politically isolated by all the major powers of the day, including the U.S., and aware that former colonists were still clamoring for re-enslavement, the nation’s leaders agreed in 1825 to pay an indemnity to France, starting a devastating course into the now all-too-familiar problems associated with massive foreign debt.
Meanwhile, in a landscape scarred by a plantation economy that had consumed hundreds of thousands of slaves and created long-term problems of deforestation and soil erosion that would only worsen over the years, many Haitians struggled to construct a new order based on independent farming. But their efforts to secure autonomy and dignity were often undermined by local elites and, later, foreign corporations.
Throughout the 19th century, foreign merchants repeatedly intervened in Haitian politics in pursuit of economic advantage. In the 20th century, the U.S. government supported the Duvalier regimes as a counterweight to Fidel Castro’s government in nearby Cuba. With some important exceptions -- notably the 1994 invasion that reinstated Aristide -- external pressures and interventions have generally sapped the strength of truly democratic movements within Haiti.
Haiti can still have a democratic future. It won’t get there, however, unless there are big changes in the way the international community, and particularly the U.S., deal with the country. Haiti’s poverty has historically been worsened rather than improved by national and international financial policies. Years of dictatorship and turmoil have created a large diaspora whose future is tightly bound to that of Haiti. While much needs to change inside the nation, it also is vital for foreign governments and international institutions to develop policies based on comprehension of and respect for Haiti, both of which have been lacking over the last two centuries.
Is there hope for Haiti? When I feel most pessimistic about the answer to this question, I remind myself that on that island 200 years ago, men and women trapped in one of the most brutal and oppressive social systems in history rose up in pursuit of freedom, and won.