The return of Baby Doc

Baby Doc as young playboy dictator

Haiti has enough problems to contend with. It has suffered from years of corruption, violence, misrule and natural disasters. It has also been subjected to neoliberal incursions from its wealthier neighbour, the United States. Haiti is the original pariah state. When the Haitians under the command of Toussaint L’Ouverture overthrew the slave-owners, they created the second republic in the Western Hemisphere. The rebellion set off alarm bells among slaveholders who feared that a similar rebellion might take place –  particularly  in the southern states and Jamaica, which is only 50 or so miles away.  In the years that followed the rebellion, Saint Domingue (Haiti) confirmed its allegiance to France and signed treaties with the US and Britain.  Haiti even had the support of Alexander Hamilton, himself born in the West Indies. During Thomas Jefferson’s first term as President, he made attempts to get Britain to join the US in a blockade of Haiti. He had more success in persuading the French to join in. Thomas Jefferson is often seen as the father of American democracy. He is also hailed by die-hard classical liberals and neoliberals alike.

Jefferson was terrified that the creation, and flourishing, of a black republic in the New World would serve as a model for the rebellion of America’s own slaves; and that, at all costs, would be unacceptable. As early as 1793, Jefferson wrote to James Monroe that “Never was so deep a tragedy presented to the feelings of man … I become daily more and more convinced that all the West India Island will remain in the hands of the people of colour, and a total expulsion of the whites sooner or later take place. It is high time we should foresee the bloody scenes which our children certainly, and possibly ourselves (south of the Potomac), have to wade through and try to avert them.” Two years later, in a letter to Aaron Burr, Jefferson compared the Haitians to assassins and referred to them as “Cannibals of the terrible republic.”

In 1801 Jefferson said to the French charge d’affaires, Louis Andre Pichon “Nothing would be easier than to supply everything for your army and navy, and to starve out Toussaint.” Jefferson could not foresee the events that were about to unfold in revolutionary France.

Napoleon Bonaparte overthrew the Directory in the coup d’etat of 1799 and he was intent on retaking Haiti. In 1801, Bonaparte dispatched a massive expeditionary force under the command of Marshal Charles Leclerc (his brother-in-law) to restore French authority. Bonaparte also wanted to restore slavery to Saint Domingue.  Jefferson remained neutral throughout this period but this position of neutrality was part of a long game. During the ensuing struggles, L’Ouverture’s second-in-command, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, defected to the French. The French promised  L’Ouverture his freedom if he surrendered but they deceived him, clapped him in irons and deported him to France where he died in prison. The remaining French troops were defeated in 1803 (Leclerc died of yellow fever) and Dessalines assumed power. He later declared himself emperor. Independence was declared in 1804. Dessalines’s men ransacked the country and slaughtered any whites they could find. This steeled Jefferson’s resolve and he ordered an economic embargo of the new country

Having helped the Haitians gain their freedom, he then sought to strangle the new-born nation. He sought to quarantine the island and opposed official trade because that would mean recognizing its independence. And that could inspire slave insurrections throughout the American South. The embargo on Haiti remained in force until the spring of 1810; trade fell from $6.7 million in 1806 to $1.5 million in 1808. Non-recognition of the republic remained official American policy until 1862.

The US wasn’t the only country to act in this way towards Haiti. Britain and France both demanded compensation and when this was not forthcoming they placed an embargo on the country and issued threats.

Jean‐Pierre Boyer (President, 1818–43) unified the entire island and signed a controversial indemnification treaty with France in 1825. In return for French recognition, the Haitian government agreed to pay 150 million francs over five years to compensate losses by French colonists.

The French believed that they had been unjustly treated by the Haitians. When the Bourbon monarchy was restored, Charles X made a decision to punish the Haitians.

So in 1825, French warships threatened to re-enslave the former colony, King Charles X came to collect 90 million gold francs – 10 times Haiti’s annual revenue at the time. With no way to refuse, and no way to pay, the young nation was shackled to a debt that would take 122 years to pay off.

The debt was finally paid off in 1947 but other nations came looking for money: most notably Britain and the United States.  By the beginning of the 20th century, Haiti fell under the control of foreign commercial interests that. Britain, the US and Germany allegedly helped themselves to the contents of Haiti’s national bank.   Following years of external pressure and not an inconsiderable amount of internal turmoil, the country was invaded and occupied by US forces in 1915. The Marines finally left in 1934.

When I heard that Jean Claude ‘Baby Doc’  Duvalier had returned to Haiti I, like many others, could not believe what I was seeing and hearing. Surely Duvalier wasn’t foolish or arrogant enough to return?  Surely crowds of angry Haitians were waiting to string him up?  But what is he doing there? He claims that he wants to help rebuild the country, which is ironic given that he and his father helped themselves to millions, if not billions of dollars from Haiti’s treasury.

Mother Jones has the story here.

Duvalier had been threatening to return to Haiti for some time. He was reminded that if he did set foot in the country, he could be arrested and tried for corruption, theft and human rights abuses.

As I finish this blog, I hear that Duvalier has been taken into custody for questioning. RTE reports that,

a senior government official told Reuters news agency that Mr Duvalier would be questioned and may be prosecuted for stealing from the treasury during his years in power as ‘president-for-life’.

The Guardian says,

Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier was charged with corruption, theft, misappropriation of funds and other alleged crimes committed during his 1971-1986 rule after the former Haitian dictator was hauled before a judge in Port-au Prince tonight.

“His fate is now in the hands of the investigating judge. We have brought charges against him,” Port-au-Prince chief prosecutor, Aristidas Auguste, told Reuters.

Maybe he won’t be needing that return ticket to France after all. We watch and wait.

UPDATE: 21/1/11

Some tidying up. Added link to US occupation of Haiti

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