Feb 15, 2021
Translated from Combat Ouvrier (Workers’ Combat), the newspaper of the revolutionary workers’ group active on the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique in the West Indies.
On January 1, 1804, the independence of the Caribbean island nation of Saint-Domingue was proclaimed. The new government gave it the name of Ayiti or Haiti in the Carib language—“Island of High Mountains.” And so Haiti became the first black republic in the world, the first country where a population of former slaves managed to defeat a more highly trained colonial army and retain their recently and hard-won freedom.
The former slaves had won their freedom and their nation’s independence, but they found themselves in a ruined country. The old plantations were devastated, and there was no question of returning to work on them, even with new masters. The former export crops would have had no market anyway. France, the former colonial power, had instituted a blockade prohibiting trade with Haiti [the U.S. agreed to the blockade]. An intense fear of the contagion of slave revolts was noticeable among settlers on other islands. Since the black people of Haiti could not be defeated, they had to be suffocated.
So the country found itself isolated. Slavery had been re-established on the island of Guadeloupe despite the resistance and struggle by black troops. And slavery had not been abolished on the other islands under English or Spanish rule.
After independence was acquired, Dessalines imposed his power. This general had taken control of the black army after the capture of Toussaint Louverture. He proclaimed himself emperor and took the name of Jacques I. His dictatorship paved the way for the rise of a wealthy elite. Ownership of land deserted by settlers was given as a reward to military leaders and to civilian officials who supported his regime. Forced labor was put in place for the former slaves. This led to revolts. Dessalines was assassinated in 1806. Afterwards Haiti was divided into two governments ruled by former military leaders. In the north, Henri Christophe proclaimed himself king and had several sumptuous palaces built. In the south, Pétion was elected president in 1811 and continued giving land to army veterans. After their deaths Haiti was reunited.
The policies pursued by successor governments only reinforced the yawning chasm between a political—and propertied—elite, and the mass of poor farmers. The resumption of forced labor led to other revolts, which led to President Boyer being exiled in 1843. The rising bourgeoisie leaned on these revolts to proclaim the independence of the eastern part of the island in 1844. That became known as Santo Domingo.
Under Boyer’s presidency in 1825, France’s King Charles X demanded that Haiti pay a huge indemnity of 180 million gold francs in exchange for recognition of Haiti’s independence. He supported his demand with the threat of armed force. Paying this debt with interest contributed vastly to Haiti’s ruin. Interest on the debt was due until the middle of the 1900s.
After Boyer, a succession of heads of state further impoverished the country through their brutality and by opening the country up to big trading companies and foreign banks.
The poor population kept rebelling. During the second half of the 1800s, the first peasant revolts of the “Cacos” began. They threatened government power and frightened the urban owning class. These peasants in rebellion were called Piquets in the south. Around 1915, they surfaced again and opposed an American military occupation. In the north, they were led by Charlemagne Péralte. He was captured and murdered by the U.S. military, which publicly displayed what remained of his body.
By 1910, the United States had seized control of the failing national bank. American imperialism’s goal was to extend its domination over all the islands in its vicinity. The U.S. military occupied Haiti in 1915. Its first step was to manage the economy by controlling tariffs. In 1918, the constitution was amended to give foreigners the right to acquire real estate. From then on, American companies were able to take possession of land which was vacant, deforested, or from which the peasants had been driven. Corvée was re-imposed on the farmers: unpaid, forced labor on the land of big landowners. Haiti remained under de facto occupation until 1934, but even afterwards American interests remained in place.
The American administration organized the exodus of tens of thousands of young people—on average 20,000 per year for 20 years—to Cuba and Santo Domingo, occupied by the U.S. since 1905. These young people constituted a cheap labor force for American sugar companies.
A succession of presidents were installed by the occupier. This strengthened the power of the mixed-race elite as opposed to the poor black masses. At least, until the election of François Duvalier in 1957. He declared himself president of the black people, but established a fierce dictatorship. He was tolerated by the U.S. for his ability to maintain bourgeois order in the face of the impoverished masses. He was replaced by his son Jean Claude, who encouraged the resumption of foreign investment while maintaining the dictatorship. He was overthrown by a mass uprising in 1986.
Haiti’s recent history is based on the same social structure. The local owning class is partly feudal and partly bourgeois. It is few in number but linked to imperialist interests, and it drains the resources of the country in agreement with those foreign interests and with the support of government power. Men in power have pursued the same policies of supporting the exploiters, with the support of the army or of armed militias. The sole objective of this bourgeoisie is to continue its plundering, while the population is thrown into poverty and subjected to terror by armed gangs.
The Haitian people continue to show great courage. Throughout their history they have proven their ability to revolt. Today, super-exploited workers do not hesitate to brave all the dangers of repression to demand a better life. They can find inside themselves the strength to rid themselves of today’s oppressors, just as their ancestors got rid of yesterday’s oppressors.