On January 12, a major earthquake struck Haiti. The number of people killed in the earthquake is between 50,000 and 100,000. However, the earthquake was not the beginning of Haiti’s problems. Today 70 percent of Haiti’s nine million people live on less than two dollars per day. Half of Haitian children do not attend school and half of them have no health care whatsoever. The life expectancy is 20 years less than in the U.S. Most Haitians live in slums and work in buildings with no safety – the reason for the huge death toll in the earthquake. Why are people living in such poverty? In fact, Haiti has been the victim of the vicious imperial policies of Europe and the U.S. for hundreds of years starting with its colonization in the 17th century.
France’s Slave Plantation
Haiti was seized by the French West Indies Company in 1664, and became a major source of sugar. Slaves were worked to death in sugar fields for French plantation owners. By the 18th century Haiti was France’s richest colony. The price of these riches was the misery and violence inflicted on thousands of African slaves brought to work the plantations.
The First Slave Revolution
In 1804, the slaves of Haiti led the world’s first successful slave revolt. The slaves took over the island, abolished slavery and seized the plantations from the French. The world, run by commercial empires based on slavery, was forced to accept a free republic led by ex-slaves.
Punished for Winning Freedom
The Haitian Revolution has never been forgiven by the elite of Europe and the United States. Even today, right-wing preacher Pat Robertson accuses the Haitians of “making a pact with the devil” to win their revolution. The French, supported by the U.S., used their power to force Haiti to pay 150 million francs, the equivalent today of $21 billion, for taking their freedom. Haiti was independent but squeezed from all sides by imperialism.
Cheap Labor by Force
The U.S. began a military occupation of Haiti in 1915, lasting until 1934. The occupation left corrupt dictatorships in place which have always protected the needs of U.S. corporations. From 1957 to 1986 the U.S. supported the regime of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, military rulers who held the gun while the U.S. collected the wealth created by Haitian labor. Under their rule Haiti’s debt increased 17.5 times over. This debt, owed to the World Bank and various investment firms, keeps Haiti chained hand and foot to economic policies dictated by the U.S. and foreign corporations.
Aristide – Too Popular to Rule for the U.S.
In 1986, the Duvalier regime was overthrown in a wave of popular protest. By 1990, a popular leader named Jean Bertrand Aristide was elected. He was a priest who spoke up against the poverty forced on Haiti by the Duvalier regime and the U.S. Aristide began reforms in education, health care and infrastructure. His regime was barely tolerated and forced to accept the same exploitation as the previous regimes. Finally, in 2004, Aristide was overthrown in a CIA coup. Since then Haiti has been occupied by 9,000 U.N. troops headed by the U.S.
The misery inflicted on the Haitian people continues, made so much worse by the earthquake. The Obama administration has sent 16,000 troops to Haiti, militarizing the airport and keeping the country locked down. The troops aren’t there to help people. In fact, international aid organizations like Doctors Without Borders have been turned away.
The only reason the disaster is so brutal is the poverty of the people. The 1989 earthquake in San Francisco was the same magnitude as the January 12 earthquake in Haiti, but only 63 people died. To the U.S. corporations who have exploited them, the disaster is meaningless. They’ve already made their profits. The deaths of so many thousands of people are on their hands.