Anyone who has ever done humanitarian work in a poor country quickly realizes that their efforts are of little benefit unless there are political and economic changes. I lived in Haiti for a year in 1983 as a volunteer physician and was no exception. I met a Baptist minister who had lived there for two decades and opined to him that there could be little progress unless the corrupt Duvalier dynasty was overthrown. He responded “And replace it with what?”
He was correct. Baby Doc Duvalier was sent packing in 1986 but the Haitians have been unable to establish a stable government since. This was highlighted by the recent assassination of President Jovenel Moise. Haiti is now spinning into anarchy with various bailiwicks controlled by violent gangs carrying automatic weapons.
Most Americans are unaware that the Republic of Haiti was established in 1804 after the only successful slave revolt in history. Many of the imported slaves were from fierce warrior tribes in central Africa, especially the Kongolese. They overthrew their white overlords, slaughtering many of them. Haitian revolutionaries made the BLM (Black Lives Matter) protestors look like the Vienna Boys’ Choir.
Napoleon sent an armada of 50,000 troops to quash this revolt. The Haitian generals had little chance of defeating these soldiers, so they burned their towns and retreated, waiting for the rainy season. They knew this would bring the onslaught of malaria which would decimate this Caucasian army. Haitians and Blacks in general, have a stronger immunity to malaria as it has been rife in Africa for millennia.
Their strategy worked. The French soldiers died and the Haitians killed most of the remaining whites. While this massacre is considered barbaric by today’s standards, the alternative for the Haitians was to allow the whites to live and risk being re-enslaved. General Jean Jacques Dessalines grabbed the French flag – a red, white and blue tricolor – and ripped the white out. Today, the Haitian flag is only red and blue.
Wiping out the French army was crucial to American expansionism. That army was supposed to reestablish slavery in Haiti and then land in New Orleans and protect the Louisiana Territory. President Thomas Jefferson was then able to purchase it from France for a cheap price, $15 million. But the ungrateful United States never recognized Haiti as its political leaders feared the slave revolt would spread to American shores.
Haiti became an international pariah and was unable to establish democratic institutions. That legacy continues to this day. Haiti is mired in poverty, with the average wage less than $3 a day. Infant mortality rates remain high.
Yet Haitians who make it to the United States are immediately successful. The mean income is $53,000 for a Haitian family, slightly lower than the average white family. This is truly remarkable given that the majority of these immigrants have little to no education, and speak a language few non-Haitians speak – Haitian Creole. Furthermore, Haitians suffered brutal discrimination because the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) inaccurately classified them as vectors for AIDS. In actuality, AIDS was brought to Haiti by American sex tourists.
Anyone who has lived in Haiti finds them to be the kindest politest people on the planet. But history and politics have given them the shaft. What can be done to help?
Haiti should have a referendum giving the American government permission to intervene until democratic institutions become established. But this referendum should require a supermajority, at least 65% consent. Furthermore, Haitians should have the option of an immediate referendum in which they would ask America to leave. This would require only 40% consent. In this way, the proud Haitians would control their destiny while ending centuries of grinding poverty and political instability.
This referendum should name a specific individual who would oversee this transition – and that man should be President Barack Obama. The former president has the stature, charisma, popularity and the political skills to navigate this volatile situation.
With Haiti stabilized and safe, many Americans would flock to Haiti to help. Foreign investment would be huge. Within several decades, it would be a paradise with a well-nourished population, improved health care, nascent industries and booming tourism. Other Caribbean islands except for communist Cuba are thriving. Haiti should join them.
Joe Bentivegna MD is an ophthalmologist in Rocky Hill.