As a journalist, a natural disaster – which is defined in the insurance industry as “an act of God” – is always something that catches you by surprise. Due to its unexpected nature, our emotional shield we so often call “objectivity” is momentarily dropped.
Our human condition is such a resilient, and yet fragile thing. Each time they occur, disasters remind me of the blessings we enjoy, and take so much for granted. Our world as we know it can disappear in the blink of an eye.
The events in Haiti have proved to be no exception. It was my first day back from leave, and next to a fatal shark attack, I had to face the news of a devastating 7, 0 Richter-scale earthquake. Relief agencies and rescue teams, their antennae fine-tuned to such things, were already scrambling for international flights.
My radar told me that this was a big story. Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, director of Gift of the Givers relief organisation and a disaster veteran, agreed. He told me that he’d had a “premonition” about a big event, and that – well – Haiti seemed to be it.
But as rescue teams scour the rubble of the capital Port-Au-Prince, I am beginning to realise that Haiti 2010 is much more than a natural disaster, and that the real tragedy of Haiti is a human one.
This is because Haiti (listed by the CIA as “the poorest country in the western hemisphere”) was before its deadly hurricanes and devastating earthquake already a failing, if not failed, state. With its slums described by the UN as the “most dangerous place on earth”, Haiti’s public image is one of brooding anarchy.
Add to this its rating as one of the most corrupt nations in the world, and the picture of despair deepens. This is a country that in 200 years has seen 30 coups and only six presidents completing their term of office.
Before the earthquake the country was reeling under the yoke of 80% poverty and 70% unemployment. A captive of the IMF and the World Bank, but with no significant industry other than agriculture, 30% of Haiti’s national budget has had to come from foreign aid.
Haiti’s fragile environment, steep and mountainous, is eroded and exhausted – a victim of its poverty. The countryside, once richly forested, is now almost bare. The Pan American Health Organisation estimates that each year 20, 000 tons of precious arable land (Haiti means “hilly” in indigenous Arawak) washes into the sea.
On the ground the World Health Organisation and other agencies paint a pessimistic picture: no Haitian city has a public sewage system and 90% of its children have, at one time or another, suffered from waterborne disease. AIDS related illnesses, such as TB, have become grim reapers with malaria and dengue also endemic.
Yet this Francophone-Caribbean country of 10 million vibrant people, a mirror of post-colonial Africa, could have been so different. Situated on the biggest island of the Greater Antilles group, modern Haiti shares an eastern border with the Dominican Republic. Its rugged western shoreline faces Guantanamo, Cuba and Jamaica – all a long way from Africa.
Nevertheless, 90% of Haiti’s population is of African slave origin. Its indigenous people, the Taino and Arawak Indians, were devastated by European viruses and the Spanish sword in the 16th century. Voodoo, for which Haiti is renowned, is an ancient African faith originating from Dahomey (modern-day Benin). Today Voodoo is frequently admixed with Roman Catholicism.
But how could Haiti, a struggling, under-developed country of African roots a few hours flight from Miami, have been “different” today?
Given its past history, the answer is clear: Haiti once stood on the brink of being a successful post-colonial nation. Space does not permit me to examine the litany of its failings, and the meddling of world powers, but we cannot ignore a critical piece of its chequered history – one that indicates why we as South Africans (the children of slaves and colonialists) have a moral imperative to empathise with Haiti.
Many historians claim that Haiti was “discovered” by Columbus in 1492, but the truth is that the Mandinka from the Mali Empire, the Vikings and the Chinese had all sailed Caribbean waters long before him. However, colonisation of Haiti – taken over from the Spanish by the French in 1697 after the Treaty of Ryswick – was particularly harsh.
Renaming Haiti “Saint Dominigue”, the country became one of France’s richest colonies. Its capital city, Cap Francais, was dubbed the “Paris” of the New World. But, this wealth (from coffee and sugar) did come at a price. It came at the expense of hundreds of thousands of African slaves, who were forced to be the engine room of France’s economy.
These slaves were cruelly kept in line by their masters through being flogged, buried alive, starved, crushed by heavy stones and thrown into vats of boiling sugar.
By 1791 (the year of the French Revolution) the slaves had had enough. Tutty Boukman, described by some sources as a Voodoo practioner and by revisionists as a Muslim, led a successful – if not bloody and vengeful revolt – as over 1, 000 plantations went up in smoke and 12,000 people died. By 1793 the French had abolished slavery in Haiti.
In 1796 a fractured territory was brought together under Toussaint L’Ouverture, a former slave, who realised that for the slave revolt to have any lasting impact, Haiti had to be united. L’Ouverture skilfully played the English and the Spanish against each other by entering into a diplomatic alliance with the French which gave him consulship, and France a nominal presence.
In 1801 Napoleon Bonaparte, smarting at L’Ouverture’s slave government having toppled one of France’s premier colonies, decided to dispatch General Leclerc and 20, 000 troops to unseat him. A year later after bitter attrition on the battlefield, L’Ouverture retired from public life. As soon he left office he was tricked into a meeting with Leclerc, who sent him to France in chains.
But Napoleon only served to inflame the Caribbean further when he restored slavery on the island of Martinique, and Haitians once again rose against the French.
L’Ouverture’s successor, Jean Jacques Dessalines, proved to be less conciliatory than his predecessor. General Leclerc was also a desperate man. If his troops weren’t fighting off incessant guerrilla attacks, they were falling victim to yellow fever. In one of the darkest chapters of French history, Leclerc decided to target unarmed civilians.
When Leclerc (the brother-in-law of Napoleon) left the island, his successor Jean-Baptiste Rochambeau carried on with the indiscriminate killing, which saw thousands of Haitians slaughtered. Dessalines responded by ordering the summary execution of all Europeans and “mulattos” on the island who disagreed with the revolution.
But by 1803 Rochambeau, lacking support from Napoleon (because of his conflict with Britain) was forced to surrender. And so Dessalines declared Haiti to be an independent republic, and symbolically removed the middle white band from the French tricolour.
Dessalines declaration caused panic in slave-owning communities, particularly in the United States, where fearful landowners even built “slave shelters”. Jamaican-born Royson James, a columnist and Caribbean commentator at the Toronto Star, reckons that were it not for Haiti’s “brave stand”, slavery could have blighted Africa for another century.
Indeed, Haiti’s pedigree in the struggle for human rights is a forgotten chapter in the heroics of class struggles, and deserves to be more widely recognised.
Haiti defeated Napoleon; Haiti was the first post-colonial independent American state after the United States; Haiti was the first post-colonial independent African-led nation; and Haiti is still the only nation whose independence was gained by a successful slave revolt.
And like Royson James, I don’t only see Haitians as a poor and desperate people – although that is their social reality. Rather, I would like to go beyond the imperial and egotistical misery visited upon Haiti by its rulers and world powers to see its real, beating heart.
As James writes:
“Through the tears, spirits soar as they stand against the blasts of man and nature. Though the earth quakes, and hurricanes devastate and dictators loot and colonialists plunder, Haiti’s freedom lantern refuses to extinguish….buffeted from without and within Haiti stands diminished but unbowed.”