The Haitian Revolution and Black History

Patrick Elie speaks for CKUT's Black History Month

Patrick Elie is a long-time poltical and human rights activist in Haiti. While he is a chemist by trade, he is also someone who is passionate about his people and their history.

We spoke with Patrick Elie in Port au Prince about Haiti's history and the slave revolt in the context of Black History Month. Elie asserts that the Haitian revolution was not only a momentous event for Haitians, but for people all over the world in demonstrating that freedom, not slavery, was the natural state of humankind.

Elie elloquently makes the links between Haiti's distant past, and the current political situation, as imperialist forces are once again meddling in the country's affairs. Just like in 1791, Haitians are today embroiled in a struggle against racist imperialism and colonization. The characters and terms have changed, but the game largely remains the same.

Interviewed by Aaron Lakoff and Leslie Bagg

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Q: Haiti's history is all too often ignored in terms of its importance and significance. Can you talk about this history and what it means to you as a Haitian person today?

A: You're right to point out that Haiti's history was a momentous event, and an event that has significance, not only for black people, but for all of humanity. When the slaves revolted on mass in 1791, and after a long struggle against the French army, were able to proclaim Haiti's independence and the end of slavery, it was the first time that a whole people extended the notion of freedom to everybody. Not only that, they also demonstrated that slavery is the unnatural state, and freedom is the natural state of man.

Besides, it was not only an anti-slavery struggle. It was also a struggle for self-determination against colonialism and imperialism. I always say that the Haitians went beyond what, for example, the Marxists envisioned that the proletariat, by freeing itself, would free everybody. It was not the proletariat this time – it was even lower. It was the slaves, who were considered as chattel. The chattel actually stood up and demonstrated their humanity and thus freed everybody. In that sense, the whole world has a debt towards Haiti and the Haitian revolution.

Very few people realize what it took for people who were slaves, kept ignorant, and 60% of whom at the time of the uprising had been born in Africa. They knew of this country here only as a kind of concentration camp. It was a foreign and hostile land to them. I always say that it is something that is almost beyond comprehension that such an incredible feat could have been achieved. For those who are so often very harsh towards Haiti and the Haitian people, saying, “how come after 200 years after independence Haiti is still poor?”. I say without even going to the hostility that the dominant powers at the time (France, Great Britain, the USA) exerted against the new republic, all those colonies who had slaves were horrified by the Haitian revolution, and they wanted to contain it as much as possible. Don't forget that in Haiti, the slaves liberated themselves in 1794. In the USA, it wasn't until 1865. In the French colonies it wasn't until 1848. In Cuba and Brazil, it was even later. So the Haitians were at least 50 years in advance of the so-called “enlightened” countries of Europe.

Also, one has to realize that the Haitians started from zero. It's not the same as the other colonies like Canada or the USA where the Europeans who came to dominate these countries simply cut the ties with the mother country. They came in with all the advances and political structures. Haitians had to invent or try to reinvent from zero. So, truly, for Haitians this is the 3rd century, not the 21st, because we had to start from scratch. I think although nobody could be satisfied with the state of Haiti today, one should never forget it's only been 200 years.

Q: One impression that we have gotten from being in Haiti for 3 weeks is the amount of public discourse and respect which is paid to some of the characters and leaders behind this slave revolt. Can you talk about some of these characters and their significance in Haiti then and today?

A: Yes, Toussaint (L'Ouverture) is often referred to as the forefather of Haiti's independence. He was this black general who took these bands of recent slaves and turned them into an army. When he succeeded in actually controlling the whole island, he enacted a constitution which abolished slavery. He also attempted something which was way ahead of its time. He tried to have blacks, whites, and mulattoes living all together in a rainbow nation. All of that of course was destroyed by the stubbornness and short-sightedness of Napoleon, who by trying to re-establish slavery, truly made it into a racial war. But the war was not racial – it was about freedom.

As you know, Toussaint was treacherously captured by the French and deported to one of the coldest parts of France. He was murdered, you could say, because he was left to die.

But, what happened was that after a period of disarray after the landing of Napoleon's expedition and the capturing of Toussaint, pretty soon some of the generals that had rallied to the French after Toussaint's exile came to realize that they had to come together and not simply have a liberation from slavery and autonomy, but true independence if they wanted to keep their freedom. That's how (Jean-Jaques) Dessalines, who was a black general, got together with (Alexandre) Petion, a mulatto general. Although they had been enemies a few years back in the fight for power, they decided to ally themselves so that the war of independence could be won. That's how the French were finally defeated on November 18, 1803, and all the French soldiers and planters left Haiti.

So we always tend to go back to these heroes, especially Toussaint, but also Dessalines and Petion, because they symbolize the Haitian flag and the Haitian motto, “l'Union fait la force” (“In union, there is strength”).

I think that today at this particular juncture in Haiti we should look more than ever to that example. This is a country which is deeply divided. It is divided mostly between an elite who has monopolized knowledge and the economy, and the vast majority of poor people who toil for less than two dollars per day. Such a divide is incompatible with a viable nation. I believe that more than ever it is important to look to the example of Dessalines and Petion, and try to reach a compromise between these elites and the masses. Otherwise this country is doomed.

Q: Throughout Haiti's history there has been racial stratification or racial hierarchy, even with mulattoes who had their freedom before blacks. The elite that we see in Haiti today, for example the Group of 184, is lead by people who aren't what we'd call black. We still have the mulatto elite. How is it that this racial hierarchy has been kept throughout the years?

A: As is often the case, when you have a society that is unjust, unbalanced, it tends to reproduce itself. It really takes a decision by a collectivity to stop that.

However, one should be very careful in describing the split in Haiti in colour or racial terms. For one thing, the divide is mostly between people who consider themselves Haitian, and people who consider that you only are civilized the less Haitian you are. They do not consider themselves Haitian, and that has nothing to do with colour. It has to do with a cultural bias. It has to do with the “présupposé” (French term). The basic hypothesis that these people have made is that we need to bring the Haitians to civilization, and in order to do that we need to make them into second-hand copies of the Europeans or the Americans.

Secondly, the reason why it is more complex is that the mulattoes no longer control this country's economy. You will find if you really do the research is that they have been mostly replaced by Haitians of middle-eastern origin. They tend to function like clans, inter-marry, etc. This is not conducive to a viable country. We have to find a way to integrate this community of middle-eastern origin into Haiti. There is resistance on their part, but there has not been what I'd call a true effort to integrate them. We need to do that or else we'll have a country which is divided, and that's a recipe for catastrophe.

The Haitian people have been depicted to the world as having a violent history. Look at how little violence there is when you consider the social divide, the distribution of wealth in this country. You look at Jamaica (compared to Haiti), and despite the incredible rise in violence in the last two years, we still have a murder rate which is half of Jamaica's. When you speak of Haitian history as being one of the most violent in the world, this is complete hogwash. First of all, this is a country which is only 200 years old, and every country has a rough beginning. You take the history of France during the time of the Kings preceding 1789, it's nothing but revolts here, poisonings there....things like this.

But also, what do you consider violence which is part of your history? Is it only the violence which has occurred on your soil, or is it also the violence which you bring to other countries? And in that sense, I'd say that England, the USA, and France have more violent histories than Haiti.

If we start the clock in 1804 and follow the histories of France, the USA, England, and Germany alongside that of Haiti, I think Haiti is going to finish dead last in terms of violence.

This (violent) way of describing Haiti is extremely prejudicial to the country and to the people because a lot of friends we could have in Canada, the USA, etc., are completely led astray by these descriptions of Haitian history. The violence in Haiti should be ten times what it is given the economic difficulties and the terrible social divide. You have 5% of the population controlling upwards of 70% of the wealth. And if you took that 5% and segmented it, you'd find that the top 1% controls about 50% of the country's wealth. In any other place in the world, if you found this data you'd have yourself a huge confrontation of Rwandan proportions, but you don't have that here.

Q: It seems that Haitian history also defines itself as being a history of struggle against white supremacy. One story we find interesting is the story of the creation of the Haitian flag. Can you share this story with us?

A: It has been said that before May 18, 1803, when really it was decided to go and fight for Haitian independence, the Haitians were fighting against the French flag. As you well know, this flag has red, white and blue. It is said that at the Congress of Unity in 1803, Dessalines ripped the white part from the French flag and united the blue and red, saying that the red symbolized the mulattoes, and the blue symbolized the blacks. Since Toussaint's project of a rainbow country had been rejected by the whites, they were taking the whites out of this.

But yet, it was not an anti-white, but rather an anti-French and anti-Napoleon gesture. Some whites, and especially a Polish regiment, actually sided with the Haitians in a war against Napoleon's army. They were made Haitians by Dessalines. Dessaline's constitution said no matter what the colour of your skin, you were considered a black person in Haiti. So, really it was mostly symbolic rather than racial.

The Haitian revolution was one which was very, very generous. For example, it stated that any slave or anyone of Indian (indigenous) descent who set foot in Haiti would automatically become free. This generosity again manifested itself when Bolivar and Miranda, Latin American revolutionaries who fought for the independence of countries in South America, came here for help. They were given money, weapons, and even Haitian volunteers went with them to help free Latin America from the Spanish yoke. They did that more than once on the condition that Bolivar would abolish slavery once he had declared independence.

Q: You had mentioned before that the world owes Haiti a debt for the examples it has set. However, in one of the cruel ironies of history, Haiti was forced to pay a debt to the French for property which was lost during the slave revolt. When Jean-Bertrand Aristide was in power centuries later, he made a very clear connection with history and he demanded slave-era reparations from the French. Can you talk about how this debt affected Haiti from its onset, and the more modern side in Aristide's demands for reparations?

A: I think that Aristide's demand for reparations was completely just, even if it had very little chance in succeeding in concrete terms. It was also a very dangerous demand from the French point of view. As we know, Haiti is not the only country that the French have devastated and looted. So the French would be facing the same demand from all their ex-colonies in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere.

In Haiti, this demand was doubly just. We were not asking for reparations from slavery itself, which France has (since) declared as a crime against humanity. We couldn't ask for reparations for slavery. We simply asked for reparations for the money which was forcefully extracted from Haiti to repay the slave-owners that Dessalines had kicked out. And this played a tremendous role in stunting Haiti's growth, because that debt took more than 100 years to pay. Imagine another country starting by having to pay something that represented more than the total Gross National Product at the time. It was paid as always by the Haitian peasant.

Q: How was that money forced from the Haitians, and why did they pay it?

A: It was done with what we call the “gunship diplomacy”, but I think also that one of the reasons that this debt was paid was because the Haitian leadership at the time was at odds with its own population. So rather than face the French and face their own population at the same time, I think they made a deal with France so that the French would not represent a threat to Haiti, and they could concentrate on trying to control their own population who were agitating for a better distribution of wealth in the country at the time. I don't think that at that time France could have truly retaken the island. I think it was a threat of violence, but also weakness and wickedness from the Haitian ruling elite.

Q: One of the reasons why Canada supported the coup d'etat against Aristide in 2004 is because we have a foreign policy objective called “Responsibility to Protect”. What R2P says is that Canada has a responsibility to protect and care for failed states. But it seems what you're trying to get at is that if we were to call Haiti a failed state, we would have to look at its history, and certainly these external factors. What has led Haiti to be a failed state?

A: It's a bit hasty to call Haiti a failed state. Or, if it is a failed state, it is a state that has been failed by a number of very powerful countries, amongst which France and the USA are the two worst examples. It is a country which was never allowed to evolve by itself and from forces within itself. The most recent example was the coup d'etat in the name of protection against President Aristide. I am not defending the policies of Aristide, because this is a moot point. What I am saying is that the man was twice elected freely by his people, and he had a mandate. So, how can you engineer his overthrow and actually participate in it in the name of the duty or the right to protect?

Anyways, you judge a tree by the fruit it bears. What they've done is unleashed violence in this country, unleashed political repression. President (George W) Bush is probably one of the worst presidents that the USA has had, but nobody has suggested that the Canadian army should go secure Andrew Airforce base, have (Bush) forcefully taken from the White House, and sent to Siberia.

If you took polls in other countries after the first Bush presidency, they would all be saying that this guy is very bad. Yet the whole world accepted that the American people re-elected him, and that was that. Why can't it be the same for us? I think it is deeply racist that some countries can decide that if we don't pick right, they have the duty to correct our choice. This is very, very dangerous, and deeply racist.

The reason why I say it is racist, for example when it comes to France, from the left to the right, the whole French political class is united on Haiti. Just today I heard that some ex-French socialist prime-minister came out and said that the Haitian people should vote for a certain candidate. Would they ever do that in an American, Italian, or Japanese election? No. They feel that in their paternalistic, racist way that they can tell the Haitian people who is the best president for them. Haitians are incapable of doing that, it seems.

Q: On January 1st, 2004, Haiti celebrated 200 years of independence with massive celebrations across the country. Then, not even two months later, a coup d'etat led by the USA, France, and Canada happened against the democratically-elected president of Haiti. It seems that the fact that this happened so close to the bicentennial is significant. Can you reflect on that?

A: Yes, I think it is no coincidence that it happened exactly in the year of our bicentennial. You see, the dominant powers can hold a grudge for very long. Haiti is still a hated symbol for people who want to dominate the world or dominate other people because of their race or their colour. It was important that Haiti be humiliated in the very year of its bicentennial.

Also, these two terrible years we have lived have shown something else which is worth taking note of. You have a people who are incredibly resilient and who know very well what they want, just like their ancestors back in 1791. And despite the economic and police repression, you see these people standing up again and demanding their rights.

In Haiti, you have a people that despite the fact that 50% of them cannot read or write, have a level of political consciousness which I have rarely seen in any other country. This is an asset, and given the chance can be turned into a real force for change.

But the Haitian people can't do it alone, because we have strong enemies – this has already been demonstrated. We need to be able to inform the international public opinion, especially in these countries which have interfered so grossly in our lives and our affairs. That's the important thing about the work that you do, and other people in the USA or Canada are doing in actually trying to tell the truth about Haiti, the Haitian people, and the current political situation.

[Aaron Lakoff and Leslie Bagg are two activists and independent journalists from Montreal who travelled to Haiti for the month of January, 2006. They can be reached at montrealtohaiti at resist dot ca.]