History for Haiti

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Today Foreign Ministers from the ‘Friends of Haiti Group’ are meeting with Jean-Max Bellerive, Haiti’s Prime Minister, and UN officials in Montreal to discuss both the current situation in Haiti and longer term plans for the country’s stabilization and reconstruction. As they discuss Haiti’s future, it is important for them to also consider Haiti’s past.

Over the past two weeks, some aspects of Haitian history have been addressed in the media. With the exception of Pat Robertson’s attempt to evangelize through fire and brimstone, many of these explanations of how Haiti came to be mired in poverty had merit. They range from harsh reparations to former French slaveholders after the successful Haitian Revolution, rampant deforestation, US occupation during the middle of the twentieth century, to the brutal dictatorships of Papa and Baby Doc Duvalier.

This history has been used to explain Haiti’s poverty and why it is important to help as the nation is rebuilt. Within these snapshots of history, however, Haiti is typically envisioned as heading in a downward direction; its exercises in self government depicted as failures.

Although some discussions of Haiti’s history have delved into the deeper roots of the country’s troubles, many have primarily focused on its governance. Both the BBC‘s and CBC’s web histories of Haiti, for example, devote half of their discussion to the Duvaliers and the ousting of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. With the exception of a much better contextualized article in the Guardian, few of these reports emphasize the role that the predecessors of the leaders meeting today played in bringing about Haitian instability and poverty (France and the United States are two principal ‘friends’).

If Haiti is going to change for the better after this disaster, international leaders need to pay attention to the role that foreign involvement in Haiti has played in bringing about the current situation, and work together with Haitians towards a sustainable form of involvement that does not replicate the mistakes or deliberate interventions of the past.

One way to do this is by focusing on histories of the past that actually discuss the Haitian people, and not just how they were affected by outside forces. There have been a handful of discussions since the earthquake that have balanced the challenges that Haitians have faced with their resilience in dealing with them. TV Ontario’s The Agenda featured a rich discussion which both contextualizes the current situation in Haiti and lays out a framework for reconstruction. Last Tuesday, CBC’s The Current interviewed Rebecca Solnit. Her recent book A Paradise Built in Hell profiles five disasters during the 20th century and how the people affected responded to them. Her argument, that when faced with disasters, people tend to work together for the common good while elites tend to work towards maintaining their own control, provides a critical lesson for Haiti’s leadership if that society is going to be built differently in the coming years. Karen Dubinsky, a historian at Queen’s University, was also interviewed by The Current. She uses her research on Operation Peter Pan, which removed children from Cuba in the early 1960s, to caution foreign governments and individuals from the temptation to adopt children out of disaster zones like Haiti. Most directly, Allen Wells, a historian of the Caribbean, has argued for a reshaping of Haiti’s history in order to focus more on the resilience of the people.

One group is already putting this into action. This past weekend a petition was created by the centre international de recherche sur les esclavages (CIRESC) in France and York University’s Harriet Tubman Institute. Highlighting past damage caused by foreign interests, the authors call for the participants at today’s ‘Friends of Haiti’ meeting to discuss the creation of an international plan, managed and directed by Haitians, for the development of the country’s education infrastructure.

There is already a model in place for building this type of infrastructure in Haiti. The work of Partners in Health takes a community focus to health care in Haiti. It is based on empowering Haitian community health workers to focus on the underlying causes of disease. At the organization’s core is the idea that sustainable health care begins with assessing the root cause of disease in a community, and taking holistic approaches to its eradication. This successful model of health care was started by Paul Farmer, an American doctor, who combined what he learned from medical school with his graduate training in anthropology.

Historians can do something similar to Partners in Health. Rather than writing histories that merely focuses on how the past shapes present conditions, historians can also focus on how individuals and communities shape and transform these conditions. Words from Jocelyn Létourneau’s History for the Future best encapsulate this idea: “historians must strive to open the future as wide as possible.”

The ‘friends of Haiti’ would be wise to focus on models like the CIRESC-Tubman proposal. Learning from the lessons of heavy foreign involvement and Haitian resilience, international comparisons, and the more recent successes of Partners in Health, can help to shape longer-term reconstruction programs that will help put Haiti on more stable footing.

Want to learn more about Haiti’s history? Here are three book suggestions:

Matthew Smith, Red and Black in Haiti: Radicalism, Conflict, and Political Change, 1934-1957, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

Cécile Accilien, Jessica Adams and Elmide Méléance, (eds.), Revolutionary Freedoms: A History of Survival, Strength and Imagination in Haiti, (Coconut Creek, FL: Caribbean Studies Press, 2006).

Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, Haiti: The Breached Citadel, (Boulder: Westview Press, 1989).

Special thanks to Nadine Hunt, Dan Bullard and my colleagues at ActiveHistory.ca for their suggestions and feedback while drafting this post.

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6 thoughts on “History for Haiti

  1. Jim

    Bill Moyer ended last week’s show with a powerful discussion of Haitian history:


    Here is a quote from Moyer’s reflections:
    “Every president from Ronald Reagan forward has embraced the corporate search for cheap labor. That has meant rewards for Haiti’s upper class while ordinary people were pushed further and further into squalor. Haitian contractors producing Mickey Mouse and Pocahontas pajamas for American companies under license with the Walt Disney Company paid their sweat shop workers as little as one dollar a day, while women sewing dresses for K-Mart earned eleven cents an hour. A report by the National Labor Committee found Haitian women who had worked 50 days straight, up to 70 hours a week, without a day off. If that doesn’t impact the tradition of child rearing and lead to social distrust, I don’t know what will.
    So, once again, beware the terrible simplifiers and remember that through all its suffering Haiti is a country born of revolution, like our own, whose people sing of their forefathers breaking their shackles, proclaiming their right to equality, and shouting ‘Progress or Death.'”

  2. Adam Crymble

    This post should probably have been sent to the Globe and Mail or National Post rather than put here. It’s timely, written by an expert and concise. Dream bigger.

  3. Lisa

    Great post, Tom. I listened to an episode of the Current on Jan. 20 with Jean Saint-Vil – a Haitian Canadian activist, which was totally fascinating and as a social justice-ey historian it was refreshing/inspiring to listen to his historical analysis of Haiti, slavery, colonialism and so on. I don’t think it was in the same show you linked to there. It’s part 2 of the show linked below.


    The blurb on the website reads:

    “To discuss what role the United States and the international community should play in Haiti, we were joined by Thomas Donnelly. He’s the director of the Centre for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He was in Washington. In Oslo, Norway, Canadian Ilan Kelman studies in “disaster diplomacy.” He is the senior research fellow with the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research. And Jean Saint-Vil is a Haitian Canadian who is a social justice activist. He joined us from Ottawa.”

  4. Gregory Kennedy

    Good points, indeed. Having looked a little at the environmental damage caused during the colonial period, it is difficult to underestimate the consequences of the creation of an industrial landscape of sugar. The words deforestation, soil erosion and climate change fail to capture the depth of the destruction. Any viable solution for Haiti needs to consider a workable economic base for the country, because the environment is simply so degraded as to be unable to support traditional family based initiatives such as agriculture and fishing.

  5. Sean Kheraj

    Great post, Tom. I agree with Adam that this would have been terrific for the Globe & Mail. As I read about the “Friends of Haiti” meeting over the weekend, I was hoping someone would re-position the quotation marks: “‘Friends’ of Haiti”

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