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The Commons
Photo 1

Stephane Venne/Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Fishing off the coast of Haiti.

Voices / Viewpoint

The roots of Haiti's economic difficulties

We as a nation should be treating our struggling neighbors with respect for their history, recognizing their contributions and supporting their aspirations

Andy Davis is a teacher and performer of music.

Originally published in The Commons issue #444 (Wednesday, January 31, 2018). This story appeared on page C1.


Donald Trump’s racist remarks about African nations and Haiti display a profound level of historical ignorance. In preparation for an upcoming trip to Haiti, I have been reading Haitian history — especially the roots of its economic difficulties.

More people in this country should know that Haiti was the second nation in this hemisphere to throw off its colonial rulers. The United States gained independence from Britain in 1783, and in 1803 the slaves of Haiti overthrew their French masters. Our two countries have an intertwined history.

One of the direct results of the Haitian revolution was France abandoning its plans for a French empire in the Western Hemisphere. This decision led to the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, in which Thomas Jefferson “bought” from the French land that reached from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Our own nation building is connected to the aspirations of slaves fighting for their freedom in Haiti.

However, instead of supporting the new Haitian nation, Thomas Jefferson and other slave-holding politicians of that time refused to recognize or support a free Haiti because the success of the Haitian revolution might inspire similar yearnings among the slaves in the United States.

The Haitian slaves were motivated by the same human-rights ideals that we claim as the basis for our nation. The United States held off recognizing the Haitian government until 1863 — the year of the Emancipation Proclamation.

* * *

The Haitians lived under the specter of the French, who returned to reclaim their once-profitable slave-based economy and destroy the new independent nation.

The French demanded payment of reparations from the Haitians — roughly half of what we paid for the entire Louisiana Purchase! Haiti borrowed money from the U.S. to enable these payments to the French. One of these loans was not paid off until 1947.

During a good part of the 20th century, the Haitians have had to deal with economic embargoes and with military occupation by the U.S. and U.S.-backed dictators. Check out the history of making baseballs in Haiti if you want a glimpse at how Haitians have been exploited by their freedom-loving neighbors to the north — in this case, for the purpose of our “great American pastime.”

Another tragedy is the flooding of Haiti with subsidized rice from U.S. farmers, which undermined agriculture in that country and made the nation dependent upon foreign banks and governments.

* * *

Trump chose an unfortunate week to defame and insult the Haitians. Eight years ago, a devastating earthquake hit Haiti. We as a nation should be treating our struggling neighbors in the Caribbean with respect for their history, recognizing their contributions and supporting their aspirations.

The Haitians whom I have met are no different from you and me. I am looking forward to my trip. I hope to learn from this experience — and I will strive to leave the impression that not all Americans are crude and ignorant.

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