Haiti, Trapped between France and the United States

Did Haitians fall victim to a premature belief in the ideals of the French Revolution? In 1791, they revolted against colonization and slavery. In 1801, Toussaint Louverture declared the island’s autonomy and, three years later, Jean-Jacques Dessalines instated an independent republic. Napoleon and his successors never forgave them, and demanded reparations. In the wake of this treatment by the French, the American government forcibly imposed an economic model based on the exploitation of the poorest. This long history helps to explain the poverty in Haiti today, where the only escape is emigration to the United States. France-Amérique spoke with Laurent Dubois, a professor at the University of Virginia and the author of Haiti: The Aftershocks of History.
© Hervé Pinel

France-Amérique: Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world, yet no one understands why. An investigation published by The New York Times in May 2022 pointed the finger at France. The government of Charles X demanded that Haiti compensate the colonizers, who had been dispossessed during the slave revolt, in exchange for recognition of the country’s independence. The newspaper says that this is the reason for the island’s poverty. Is this claim justified?

Laurent Dubois: The 1825 indemnity [150 million francs, more than 20 billion in today’s dollars] did have a profound impact on the Haitian economy, and the New York Times article explains this very well. At a crucial, early moment in the country’s post-independence history, state resources that could have gone to a variety of infrastructural investments were pulled away to pay former French slave owners. The “double debt” that the Haitian state took on to pay the indemnity created an enduring cycle of debt. It is also important to note that the country had a successful export economy, focused on coffee and dyewood, in the 19th century, and attracted migrants from Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas. Many of the economic and environmental problems we see in Haiti today are actually the result of processes that unfolded in the 20th century, through the U.S. occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934, the actions of the Duvalier dictatorship, and a broad set of environmental problems that have worsened since the 1970s.

The United States has had a longstanding involvement in Haiti, and even sent in the military in 1915 and 1991. Are the Americans also guilty of destabilizing the country?

The United States became increasingly active in Haiti in the late 19th century as it pursued an imperial expansion in the Caribbean. U.S. banks became particularly involved in the country, in part by taking on the debts owed to French banks because of the indemnity, so in that sense the two stories are connected. But the U.S. occupation of 1915-1934 ultimately had a transformative, and largely negative, impact in Haiti. The U.S. used forced labor to build roads in the countryside, inciting an insurrection that was repressed through violence. And the creation of a new centralized army, initially to suppress the insurrection, also had long-term consequences on the island. In fact, the U.S. and Haiti have been interconnected since the 18th century: The plantation economy of Saint-Domingue propelled economic expansion in ports such as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia; soldiers of African descent from Saint-Domingue made up the majority of French troops sent to support the American Revolution at the Battle of Savannah in 1779; the Haitian Revolution was the direct cause of the sale of Louisiana by Napoleon, and 10,000 refugees from Saint-Domingue transformed New Orleans in the early 19th century; and the example of Haiti inspired leaders of anti-slavery revolts including Nat Turner and John Brown.

Many look for external causes to explain Haiti’s difficulties. But what are the endogenous causes of the island’s political instability and economic stagnation?

From the beginning of the Haitian Revolution in 1791, there have been profound and conflicting visions of what freedom should look like in the wake of slavery. The majority of the insurgents who won freedom for themselves in 1793 wanted to overthrow the plantation system and put something very different in its place. In time, they were able to do so, creating a “counter-plantation system.” That was based on gaining access to land to create family compounds where food was grown for the family and for local and sometimes international markets. The idea of this system, which is also connected to the religious practices of Haitian Vodou and the Kreyòl language, is to sustain autonomy and dignity through an independent economic life, and also to be able to resist new attempts to enslave or control the population. But many of the leaders of the revolution, and later the Haitian state, saw the plantation as the only good option for the economy, and wanted to find ways to continue plantation production for export to foreign markets. To do so, they were willing to use the law and sometimes repression to force the formerly enslaved to work as low-wage plantation laborers. This was also the model promulgated by the U.S. during the occupation. These two visions have been in unending conflict in Haiti over the last centuries.

Laurent Dubois. © Jeneene Chatowsky/University of Virginia

Haiti is also one the countries that receives the most aid. Should we conclude that this aid is either pointless or insufficient?

There are many different kinds of aid that flow into Haiti, and the largest one is actually money sent home by emigrants abroad, which is the most useful form of aid as it goes directly to families and pays for education, housing, and food. Then there are many smaller organizations, a number of them supported and run by members of the Haitian diaspora, that work closely with particular communities and carry out different projects with a range of impacts, but in a number of cases those do have some positive effects. However, the largest international aid projects have tended to flounder in Haiti, largely because they tend to follow the economic logic that sees Haiti as primarily a source of cheap labor for foreign factories.

How should we judge France’s role in this part of the world? Each former colony seems to have followed a distinct path, including Haiti, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Saint Martin… But what do they collectively owe France, in both positive and negative terms?

We need to think about the history of modern France as having been an Atlantic history from the beginning. The French developed links to Brazil starting in the early 1500s, and then the colonization of Canada and later Louisiana played a central role in the development of France’s culture and economy. But it was the colonies in the Caribbean that ultimately had the largest impact, because the plantation system focused on the production of sugar and coffee generated huge profits for France, but at a tremendous human cost. These were colonies built on the most intensive and large-scale slave system that has existed in human history. In each of these societies, the history of how slavery ended and what has happened since has created different trajectories. The most important, of course, is that while Haiti became independent in 1804, Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guiana, along with a few other islands attached administratively to them, all remained part of the French empire, and then in 1946 became formal départements of France. So their destiny is now tied up directly with the future of France and the European Union. Guadeloupe is a particularly interesting case, because it shares with Haiti a history of emancipation in the 1790s and then of a war against the re-establishment of slavery by Napoleon in 1802. In Guadeloupe, however, the French troops won and re-enslaved the population, killing and deporting as many as 10,000 in the process.

Considerable numbers of Haitians emigrate to American cities. This must contribute economically and culturally to the United States. But does Haiti also benefit?

There has been, especially starting in the 1960s, a very large-scale migration of Haitians to the United States. This has progressed, despite the fact that the U.S. has long had particularly harsh immigration policies directed towards Haitians. The Haitian Interdiction Program, created in 1981, was one of the first attempts by a nation to stop migration by capturing boats at sea. Nevertheless, the Haitian community in the U.S. today is large and thriving, in Miami, New York, and Boston, but also in many other parts of the country, including smaller towns like Mount Olive, North Carolina. They contribute a great deal to the life of the United States, and also to Haiti, since money sent back home by emigrants is the largest and most useful form of aid from abroad that the country receives. Actually, the most immediate and helpful thing that the U.S. could do right now to help Haiti economically would be to pursue a more open immigration policy towards Haitians.

French literature is currently being shaken up and enriched by authors from the French Caribbean and Haiti. Is this the revenge of the former colonies?

Caribbean literature is, and has long been, remarkably rich. There was a tradition of local plays, some of them written in Kreyòl, by the middle of the 18th century. Going back to the 19th century, Haiti notably has produced a large number of works of literature and theater, and in the 20th century there have been some tremendously important literary movements – notably Spiralism – that have emerged there. This literature has also thrived in the diaspora, and now Haitian literature is written in English, French, and Kreyòl.

Haiti: The Aftershocks of History
by Laurent Dubois, Picador, 2013.

Interview published in the March 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.