Jesus announces the purpose of his ministry in Luke 4:18 to proclaim good news for the poor and others. As disciples of Christ, we respond to the good news by sharing our wealth with the poor and bringing them into community with us.
Haiti is the poorest nation in our hemisphere. We must try to understand why Haiti is so poor. We have only heard about Haiti’s history from an American perspective. We must avoid assuming that American culture is somehow superior to Haitian culture and that Haiti’s poverty results from a backward culture. We must try to understand the history of Haiti from the perspective of the Haitians.
Christopher Columbus landed in Haiti in 1492 and named the island Hispaniola. Haiti shares the island with the Dominican Republic; Haiti is located on the western third of the island.
When Columbus landed, there were 1-3 million Arawak Indians living on the island, and they were friendly and welcoming. Columbus wrote in his journal that the Indians greeted them with food, water and gifts and offered to share everything with them.
Columbus returned the hospitality with violence and brutality. When he returned in 1495, he brought 17 ships and 1,200 men. Columbus’ army subdued the Indians, and Columbus forced them to work in mines in a vain search for gold. He took 500 Indians back with him to Spain to be sold into slavery. Columbus wrote, “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity, go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.”
Within 60 years, the population of Haiti was reduced to only 500 Indians. The sword of the Spaniards, the slave trade and the importation of smallpox from Europe killed 1-3 million Indians. The 500 survivors took to the hills to hide.
The Spanish and French fought over Haiti for the next century. In 1697, they divided the island, with the Spanish taking what is now the Dominican Republic; the French took Haiti.
Thirty thousand French colonists emigrated to Haiti in the 1700s, about half as many French people as were in all of Canada. The French imported hundreds of thousands of slaves from Africa. The great cash crops were sugar, coffee and indigo. Conditions were harsh for the slaves. Slaves died young and had few children. More than one-third of them died within a few years.
The slaves revolted and won their independence in 1804. They defeated the army of Napoleon, the greatest military power on earth. They created the Haitian flag by tearing the white middle from the French tricolor flag. Historians have estimated that 100,000 blacks and 24,000 of the 40,000 white colonists died in battle.
Haiti was the second republic to declare its independence in the Western Hemisphere. At the time, the United States refused to recognize Haiti. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote that all men are created equal, responded to the fears of Southern plantation owners who were afraid that the slave revolt would spread. The United States did not recognize Haiti’s independence until 1862.
In 1825, Emperor Napoleon III of France sent 14 ships and thousands of troops to reconquer Haiti. They forced Haiti to sign a treaty that required them to pay 150 million francs in reparations for profits lost from the slave trade. The U.S. and other colonial powers imposed an embargo on Haiti to force it to pay the reparations. Haiti had no markets for its crops.
Haiti was crushed by the burden of a devastating war and the harsh reparations for more than a century.
The United States invaded Haiti in 1915 to enforce the payment of reparations, and occupied the island for 20 years, allowing American commercial interests to establish a foothold.
Haiti also has been plagued by economic inequality and corrupt governments. The richest 1 percent in Haiti own 50 percent of the nation’s wealth. They are modern-day slave owners. Haiti’s political system mirrored the slave-holding regimes that it replaced. This often happens: The oppressed imitate their oppressors.
Foreign companies made contracts with the wealthy elite in Haiti to provide cheap labor to produce goods. The elite paid workers 11 cents an hour to produce clothing for American large transnational companies, keeping the profits for themselves.
Furthermore, Haiti has suffered from a “brain drain.” Nearly half of its people are illiterate. Many of its college-educated youth leave the country to seek economic opportunities elsewhere, just as rural America is being depopulated. Many of them went to Africa to become professors and medical doctors.
Politically, Haiti has had a succession of brutal dictators who have murdered thousands of their own people and stolen hundreds of millions from the state treasury. The United States has supported the dictators to protect the commercial interests of its transnational corporations.
It’s a grim history. Haiti’s suffering and oppression reminds us of the oppression Israel suffered during centuries of exile. Puritan theologians described America as the New Israel, but Haiti’s history is more similar to Israel’s than ours.
Where is the good news for the poor, for the people of Haiti?
The problems of Haiti only can be solved by the people of Haiti. It is not their culture that needs to be replaced. It is a corrupt economic system. Hopefully, Haiti will receive massive foreign aid during the next few years. We will only add to the problem if we give money to the government and to the economic elite. We need to ensure that the money we contribute to rebuild Haiti goes to the people of Haiti, that construction workers get good wages to rebuild their country. That will help shift power away from the elite and into the hands of the people.
We also can acknowledge our own complicity in Haiti’s suffering. We cannot hold Columbus to contemporary standards of morality, but we can stop glorifying Columbus with a national holiday. We can imagine how different Haiti’s history would have been if our democratic republic had welcomed Haiti as a sister republic that, like us, had freed itself from European colonialism and we had opened our markets to Haiti’s crops instead of imposing an embargo.
How different would Haiti’s future have been if Democratic and Republican administrations had refrained from meddling in Haiti’s politics in the 20th century to support our own transnational corporations and subsidize Haiti’s economic elite at the expense of the Haitian people?
This is not white guilt. It is historically responsible confession of sins. It is acknowledging our own role in contributing to the poverty of our neighbor. It is the “Rich Man” taking notice of Lazarus licking his sores at the Rich Man’s gates. The good news for Haiti will be that its northern neighbor is more understanding and cooperative and less self-interested.
DON HEATH is pastor at Edmond’s Trinity Christian Church. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.