Two hundred years ago, following a slave uprising, Haiti threw off the yoke of bondage to become a free black state and a haven for escaped African slaves. This was a decisive moment in the eventual abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. The anniversary is marked this year, the International Year for the Commemoration of the Struggle Against Slavery. But Haiti enters its bicentennial as the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere.
Other Caribbean nations are being urged to look beyond Haiti’s current problems and give the nation its due for helping to liberate the region’s slaves. Its independence had a huge impact on black people and black national struggles. University of the West Indies Professor Verene Shepherd explains: ‘After the emancipation and independence in Haiti, Africans from Jamaica stowed away on boats, and once they reached Haiti they became free. The ideology unleashed through the Haitian revolution infected enslaved populations throughout the Caribbean, and free people from Haiti settled in other Caribbean countries and destabilized slavery.’
But the consequences of the Haitian revolution have been, in many ways, brutal for its own people. ‘To remain independent after 200 years has not been easy… Haiti had been isolated so we didn’t have much contact; the industrialized countries didn’t really assist us in any way whatsoever, so we did it by ourselves,’ says Jean-Gabriel Augustin, the Haitian Ambassador to Jamaica. Pride in Haiti’s heritage has been largely overshadowed by the economic, social and political problems that have plagued the country for decades.
In recent months anti-Government protests have rocked the island, as opponents of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide have called for his resignation. Ever since the disputed elections of 2000, opponents have protested against the worsening economic situation and lack of political dialogue. There is currently a deadlock over legislative elections due this year, and the opposition groups refuse to participate in new ballots unless Aristide resigns. Between 25 and 45 have died in the violence.
In a way, Haiti’s history is a factor in its present suffering. For example, Haiti was forced to pay reparations to France as compensation for the end of slavery, money that Aristide is now calling for France to return so as to help rebuild the country. In 2002, a Barbados conference decided to proceed with lawsuits against France, Britain, Germany and Belgium, in the first instance, to press for reparations for slavery.
Delegates said that France was being targeted because it forced Haiti to pay 150 million francs to declare itself a republic after slaves defeated French colonial forces in 1804. Haitian governments paid the money between 1825 and 1922, as compensation for French property destroyed during the slave uprising.
But the independent spirit remains, as Pat Ramsey of Jamaica’s University of Technology explains: ‘They’re having their problems, but every Haitian – this was my experience – was able to look you directly in the eye, regardless of what menial job they may hold. They look you directly in the eye with a sense of self-esteem that comes from deep.’