Haiti: Culture and History
The Republic of Haiti is contained in the western one-third of Hispaniola. It is a country of almost eleven thousand square miles with a population of about seven million people. The population consists about 95% African descent and 5% mulatto and European descent. The majority of people, about 80% are Catholic, 16% Protestant (an estimated 50% of Haitians also practice voodoo).
Unfortunately, Haiti has the lowest standard of living in the Western Hemisphere. This is due in large measure to the political instability of the country. This has resulted in a brain drain as well an economic drain from the country. This in turn has led to foreign governments issuing warnings to their citizens, about the potential dangers of traveling in the major cities like Port-au-Prince, Cap Haitien and the northwestern province. The major industries in the country are sugar refining, cement, textiles and tourism.
Haiti has the unique distinction of being the first black-led republic in the world. The national dance of Haiti is the meringue even though you can see people doing the Juba and Crabienne. Haitian music has been influenced by Cuban styles and American jazz. There is also the Caribbean influence in the music in the form of reggae, soca and calypso. The French music influence comes in the form of zouk.
Voodoo is a religious culture that was brought from West Africa and hidden among the Catholic rituals of European missionaries. Voodoo is a pantheistic African religion similar to the Nigerian Yoruba faith. This culture was synchronized with Catholicism and missionaries forced slaves to convert to Christianity and as voodoo melded very well with Catholicism, it was not a difficult transition. Haiti's cuisines are an interesting mix of Caribbean ingredients that were prepared by using French methods.
Rituals commemorating the Iwa (spirits), lucky events, births and deaths involve dancing and drumming. Ceremonies are also commemorated to gain certain Iwa's favour, to heal diseases or end a run of bad luck. This may include offerings of food, toys or animals, usually goats or chickens for sacrifice. The music, drumming and dancing associated with Voodoo rituals have become an important part of Haitian pop culture.
The country has produced a number of great painters and writers among whom are Hector Hyppolite, Prefette Duffaut, La Fortune, Rene Depestre, Jean Price-Mars and Philippe-Thoby Marcelin. Some of these writers have chosen to use Creole as their form of writing, rather than French to which they have been exposed.
There is a great rift between the mulattos and the blacks as the mulattos get a higher standard of education, exposure to the military and the government. Most mulattos speak French, the language of higher education and it is the language requested by most job opportunities. On the other hand, the majority of the blacks speak Creole. This two-tiered social system is the main culprit that is preventing a united, stable and successful Caribbean nation.
The French were expelled from St. Kitts and took up residence with the same runaway slaves in the northwest coast of Hispaniola. Settlers kept moving to that Northwest Territory and the French West India Company was established in 1664 to direct the expected commerce between France and the colony. The French made Cap Haitien their major settlement and the western part was referred to as Saint-Domingue. This name became its official name after Spain relinquished the area to France in 1697 in the Treaty of Ryswick.
The French relied on the slaves to turn Saint-Domingue into one of its richest colonies. It produced nearly 60% of the world's coffee and about 40% of France's sugar imports. These two products along with cotton and indigo accounted for about 40% of France's foreign trade.
Haiti's history has never been shaped internally by the people and government but was shaped by its colonial masters, first Spain, then France and now the United States. The Taino/Arawak Indians were the first to settle there for many years before Christopher Columbus arrived at Hispaniola in 1492. The Spanish used their brute forces, diseases, greed, inhuman forced labours and intolerance to wipe out the Indians within sixty years. The Spaniards then brought forced black labour from West Africa to take over the role that the Indians were carrying out. Spain did not find gold there so they deemed it to be economically deprived and move on to Mexico (New Spain) and the rich Incan kingdom of Peru in South America. They nevertheless left a presence in Hispaniola because it was a strategically important gateway to the Caribbean, through which many riches were shipped to Europe.
The French were driven out of St. Christopher (St. Kitts) and settled on Tortuga Island. They then encroached on the northwest part of Hispaniola and established the French West India Company in 1664. They made Cap Haitien their first major settlement on Hispaniola and called that area Saint-Domingue, (later called Haiti) after Spain relinquished the area to France in 1697 in the Treaty of Ryswick. France imported over a half a million slaves from Africa on account of the number of slaves that died.
The French colonialist had a number of black slaves as their concubines. This resulted in a number of mulattos' births and this resulted into three different classes. They were the whites to which they were no restrictions. Then they were the mulattos who were not allowed to marry whites, practicing certain professions and socializing with whites, but were allowed to buy land lend money, and thereby accumulate wealth. Then, at the bottom of the ladder were the black slaves whom all, who are a majority of the people, oppressed. Even though they are a majority, they had no rights.
There was a slave rebellion in 1791, which was led by Georges Biassou and his assistant Toussaint L'Ouverture that set the country on its way to independence. The mulattos under the leadership of Alexandre Petion decided to fight the white colonialists masters, but not against the whites of the new French Republic, because the whites of the new French Republic, favoured enfranchisement. Blacks were badly split as they fought against both the white colonialist, and the white and mulattos.
Toussaint L'Ouverture aligned himself at first with Spain but after a tropical disease had decimated the European troops, he switched his allegiance to France. Toussaint rescued the French commander from mulattos seeking to overthrow him and was rewarded by being named Lieutenant Governor of Saint-Domingue. L'Ouverture was in command of all Hispaniola by 1800. He abolished slavery but was forced to reinstate the plantations to ensure economic survival and stability. This caused great resentment among the slaves and he became a military dictator.
He did not formally declare independence from France, which irked the European countries that had slave holdings. France sent troops to overthrow him in 1802, and when he was captured, the French promised to allow him to retire quietly, but they reneged and sent him to prison in France where he died. The French forces were spread too thinly, fighting against the Haitians in the West and the British in Europe. Britain and Spain saw a weakness in the French control and sought to intervene. Haiti became the first free black republic in the world on January 1, 1804. Jean-Jacques Dessalines who was a military figure became the first ruler of Haiti.
France extracted so large a sum of money from Haiti for payment of its "independence debt" that laid bare the treasury, and placed the country in debt from which it has never recovered. After the revolution and Independence, the collaboration between the blacks and mulattos soured and conflict was created. Haiti was a divided country having the elite living in the towns, controlling the military, trade and using the French language for government commercial affairs and education. The peasants on the other hand, lived in the country-side, spoke patois also called Creole and because government was unable and perhaps unwilling to help them, their plight continued as their economic situation deteriorated. The majority peasant populations are outside the socio-economic, political and education sphere of influence and have always been.
United States saw the instability in Haiti's economical and political situation, decided to invade the country in 1915 and occupied it for almost twenty years. It gave as its excuse that it wanted to keep out of the hemisphere. The United States has sent in U.S. marines into countries that had outstanding loans against them, and, even though 80% of Haiti's national budget went into debt payment, Haiti has never defaulted on a debt. The United States used its propaganda to raise the fear that Germany would build a military base in Haiti to open the Panama Canal.
The United States established figureheads in Haiti, yet still it had a veto power over all government decisions, and had the marines serve as administrators in the province. The United States declared martial law, took control of Haiti's finances and passed legislation permitting foreigners to own land in Haiti. It also established Haiti's first professional military force, which "Papa Doc" Duvalier subsequently harnessed to become a repressive regime. All blacks and mulattos were excluded from real positions of power in the government and the new U.S. trained military force.
When the United States withdrew from Haiti in 1934, the level of poverty and illiteracy remained unchanged. They had built some roads and the left behind a well-trained military force, which every head of government has had to curry favour in order to rule. Nevertheless, this resulted in a series of leaders who came and left, all under the control of the veto power of the U.S. trained military force.
Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier was a doctor was a black man from the countryside was elected president in1957. He was perceived to be an honest and humanitarian public health expert and a proponent on black power, became the most despicable person to rule Haiti. He changed the constitution and solidified his power and created the elite Presidential Guard with people who held loyalty to him. He created the tonton macouts in the rural areas and these people terrified and petrified the population by brutal tactics and attacks. There was the flight of the elite, hence the brain drain from the country, nd he declared himself President-for-Life.
"Papa Doc" Duvalier died in 1971 and his successor was his nineteen year old son "Baby Doc" Duvalier. This young dumb son continued to imprison, torture and eliminate perceived threats to him and his presidency. Decent people became angered because of the abject poverty around them that was not addressed. The churches became involved and people took to the streets to register their protests. The United States government arranged for young Duvalier to step down and he named National Council of Government, which comprised of former military supporters to rule as he fled to Switzerland in 1986.
Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a parish priest from the slums emerged and became president in 1990. He was harassed and his church was burnt to the ground, but he captured the mood of the country as he preached the cleansing of the country from corruption. He tried to make changes but those controlling the purse strings made no secret of not relinquishing their power. There was an army led insurrection in 1991, which forced Aristide into exile.
The United States foreign policy forced further pain and suffering on the poor as all trade embargos cause a shortfall of food. The poor are unable to buy any large supplies, nor can they shop like the elite in places like Miami or Puerto Rico. Thus when there is a shortage of food, it affects adversely the poor first. They, the United States negotiated a settlement with the military leadership to step down and allow Aristide to return. The military leadership went into exile in 1994, and Aristide returned to power. Since his return to power, there have been several attempted coups, which have so far been parried.