The pioneering labor organizer Mother Jones said, “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.”
That pretty much sums up the priorities for Haiti today.
The fighting has always been fierce in the nation that was once called the “pearl of the Antilles,” the wealthiest of all Caribbean colonies (the wealth derived from Africans slaves working for French colonialists). In the 1790s, the slaves began a rebellion that merged subterfuge on the plantations with guerrilla warfare by escapees from the plantations. In 1804 they won, thus creating the only successful slave revolution ever, the first black republic in the world, and the second independent republic in the Western Hemisphere.
Though liberated from France and from slavery, neither they nor their descendants ever really became free. Self-proclaimed emperors and presidents-for-life exploited the poor for their own behalf, as well as for the large landowners and commercial sector. State neglect of citizens’ needs, feudal agricultural practices, and violent security forces kept people trapped in vicious poverty and suppression of their rights. Concentration of land and resources has further devastated the vast majority of Haitians, 54 percent of whom today live on less than $1 a day.
Foreign governments have contributed to this state of affairs. The independent nation was born with a crippling debt to the French, equivalent to $21 billion today (France threatened to invade if Haiti didn’t compensate it for its loss of ‘property). As soon as Haiti became free, the U.S. slapped on a decades-long embargo to ensure that word of the revolution didn’t reach slaves back home.
The role of foreign powers in the twentieth century has been no kinder. It has included a 20-year U.S. occupation (1915-1934), during which the Marines killed many. The U.S. also created a vicious new security force, the precursor to the Tontons Macoutes. Later the U.S. strongly supported the brutal three-decade dictatorship of Papa and Baby Doc (1957-1986). More recently, the superpower helped oust the democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide not once, but twice (1991 and 2004).
Contemporary economic policies of the U.S., IMF, World Bank, and others have aggravated what Haitians call the ‘development of underdevelopment.’ Free trade has destroyed agricultural production, in turn contributing to a food crisis and growing a sweatshop economy with farmers forced to emigrate to Port-au-Prince to search for work. The original foreign debt to France has been replaced by a current $1.05 billion debt to the IMF and others. The international financial institutions will surely never get back the capital, but their creditor role does allow them to largely control the Haitian government’s economic policies.
Throughout the constant political and economic oppression has run another constant. It is a highly organized grassroots movement, which has never given up the battle its ancestors began more than 200 years ago. The movement is composed of organized women, peasants, clergy and laity, workers, and others. Its mobilization, protests, and advocacy have brought down dictators, staved off some of the worst of economic policies aimed at others’ profit, and kept themselves from ever fitting into anyone else’s plan. Haitian society has been able to keep alive a rich culture and a solidarity economy, in which neighbors and strangers care for each other’s needs.
The Haitian people may not yet have gained the rights and economic justice they deserve, but neither have they given up. Yolette Etienne, director of Oxfam Haiti, said years ago: “Bamboo symbolizes Haitian people to a T. Bamboo takes whatever adversity comes along, but afterwards it straightens itself back up.”
Already, after one of the worst natural disasters in world history, they are straightening themselves back up. Here are the priorities that nineteen people’s organizations articulated in a joint statement on January 27:
- To contribute to defending the main gains made by the popular and social movements, now threatened by the new situation;
- To respond to the urgent immediate needs of the people by setting up community service centers to respond with: food, primary health care, medical and psychological assistance;
- To take advantage of the presence of the international press in our country to present a different image to that disseminated by the imperialist forces; and
- To establish new ways of overcoming the isolation and separation which are among the key weaknesses of our organizations.
You go, Haitians. Fight like hell for the living.
As Mother Jones knew, we in the U.S. have much to learn from you.