Peace on the Hill – Echoes of a Colonial Legacy in Haiti

czehr_photoBy Charissa Zehr

Black History Month provides an important opportunity to remember and reflect upon the United States’ troubling role in post-slavery Haiti. This role is still all-too-apparent today in U.S. interventionism in the island nation’s ongoing electoral crisis.

In 1804, Haiti was remarkable for becoming the first nation to be birthed from a successful 13-year slave revolution that overthrew French colonial rule. For Haitians, this achievement is the pivotal moment in their history. A year from which all subsequent social movements—and in many instances, political instability—can be traced.

Ironically, Haiti’s freedom was not all that “free.” To avoid further fighting with European powers, the newly independent nation borrowed 150 million francs from French and American banks to pay France its demanded reparations for “property losses’’—literally paying for each liberated slave. This staggering amount is equivalent to more than U.S. $20 billion today.

While U.S. banks were content to collect interest and payments on this debt through 1947, the U.S. government refused to diplomatically recognize the country for 60 years after its independence. The fear of spillover from Haiti’s unprecedented revolution influenced early U.S. policy towards Haiti. Later developments would include U.S. military occupation of Haiti from 1915-1934 and financial and military support for a brutal dictatorial regime.

This history provides a critical backdrop to the political interventionism still happening today. Haiti has faced mounting electoral crises for several years. Constitutionally-required elections scheduled for 2011 and 2013 have still not been held. Since 2012, the Haitian Parliament has not had a quorum. They cannot pass resolutions or appoint the constitutional electoral council needed to facilitate elections, grinding the government to a halt.

Some blame this gridlock on a handful of senators who oppose President Michel Martelly. Others criticize the president for power-grabbing and not demonstrating the necessary political will to implement elections. With the U.S. leading the charge, many diplomatic players have called for fair but immediate elections. However the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), with whom Mennonite Central Committee has worked, cautions, “these elections must not repeat the errors of the past.”

Elections in 2010 were fraught with problems, including a corrupt electoral council, the exclusion of certain political parties, ballot fraud and a controversial recount. One month prior to the elections, members of Congress warned then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that supporting flawed elections would “come back to haunt” those meddling in such affairs.

Those words have proven true. All of these factors, including the U.S. role in the recount, set Haiti on a path toward the current political crisis. The U.S. government is used to having its way in Haiti, writes Fran Quigley, author of “How Human Rights Can Build Haiti.” Haiti’s debt gave its creditors leverage to dictate many policies, resulting in weak governance. When the U.S. Ambassador to Haiti was reported to be in the parliament building influencing late-night negotiations between the executive branch and opposition parties, it fueled Haitians’ resentment of U.S. interference in Haiti’s sovereign affairs.

Haitians want fair and inclusive elections, to have a voice in who leads their country. They want rule of law, a restored justice system, and a better functioning democracy. As IJDH explains, Haitian voters have tried to communicate their opposition to illegitimate elections and repeated intervention from outside actors, and they will keep trying until they feel their government and the international community listen.

As we reflect on the legacy of slavery and colonialism, we cannot ignore its echoes in U.S. foreign policy today. It is time to put the future of Haiti back into Haitian hands.

Charissa Zehr is a Legislative Associate for International Affairs at the MCC U.S. Washington Office and focuses on Latin America & Asia policy.

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