With natural disaster after natural disaster, individuals living in Haiti are looking for hope wherever they can find it, but has the United States ever offered that hope?
In a scene reminiscent of the era of chattel slavery, United States Border Patrol officers were seen on horseback rounding up Haitian refugees. In videos of the incident, the officers can be heard echoing the Trumpian sentiment that Haiti is a “shithole” country. Biden’s perspective is not all too different; in 1994, he said that “if Haiti just quietly sank into the Caribbean or rose up 300 feet, it wouldn’t matter a whole lot in terms of our interests.” That this comes under the auspices of the Biden administration is no surprise, as his immigration and foreign policy towards the island and its inhabitants is simply a continuation of the policies of past administrations.
Completely misunderstanding the issue at hand, the Biden administration suspended the use of horses by the US Border Patrol, as if the horses were the issue, and not the inhumane treatment of those seeking asylum. In a video interview of a recently deported Haitian refugee, he commented on the horrific treatment, stating that “they chained us like animals. They chained our hands, feet, and waist. Once we arrived they made us stay inside the plane until they unchained us so the journalists don’t see what they did . . . I don’t even think they see us as humans.” Such treatment is standard as far as US immigration policy goes, only varying in the rapidity with which they deport them.
While under the Biden administration deportations in general, and of Haitian refugees in particular, have increased due to the use and abuse of the Trump-era policy, Title 42; this is not the first time this has happened. In the early 1980s, the Immigration and Naturalization Service under the Reagan administration established a policy towards Haitian refugees of accelerated deportation: detention in prison-like facilities and interdiction at sea. This blatant disrespect of the legal rights of refugees has recently prompted the United Nations to warn Washington that these deportations may be a violation of international law, which it is, but that has never stopped the US in the past and is unlikely to alter its trajectory for the foreseeable future.
US Special Envoy for Haiti, Ambassador Daniel Foote, denounced the Biden administration’s policies in his resignation letter on Sept. 22. Tired of his suggestions being ignored, he offered one last recommendation, stating, “what our Haitian friends really want, and need, is the opportunity to chart their own course, without international puppeteering and favored candidates but with genuine support for that course. I do not believe that Haiti can enjoy stability until her citizens have the dignity of choosing their own leaders fairly and acceptably.”
History endorses Foote’s suggestion, as the last time in recent history that the outflow of refugees slowed was during the period following the democratic election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991. This would be short-lived, however, as just seven months later he was deposed in a coup led by Raoul Cédras and his organization, the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (FRAPH), funded by the International Republican Institute in Washington D.C., with the aid of the Tonton Macoute, a death squad funded and trained by the United States during the administrations of the US-backed dictators Francois Duvalier (“Papa Doc”) and his son Jean-Claude Duvalier (“Baby Doc”) in 1957 and 1971 respectively. The number of refugees soared following the coup, as well as during the dictatorial regimes of Papa and Baby Doc. The US denied responsibility for the coup, as it always does, and thus rejected the demand to accommodate these refugees, instead choosing to house many of them in the now infamous Guantanamo Bay military prison. In usual fashion, under the guise of restoring democracy, the US bore the white man’s burden, sending its military to occupy the island in 1994 in order to return Aristide to Haiti, only to remove him from power once again in a 2004 coup. Astute observers might recognize a connection between targets of US intervention and the countries of origin of asylum-seekers at the US border.
The origins of US-Haiti relations and thus US intervention on the island are found in slavery and commerce: the immensely profitable trafficking of both enslaved Africans and the commodities they produced. When insurrection broke out on the island of Hispaniola in 1791, the first president of the young republic, George Washington, called the rebellion of slaves “lamentable,” quickly rushing to aid the French planters by advancing a hefty sum of money. White and gens de couleur (people of color) slave owners, fleeing for their lives, some with their ‘property’ in tow, became the first Haitians in the United States. The enslaved Africans were oftentimes shipped back to Hispaniola because the Americans feared the spread of Black Jacobinism on the mainland. While white slave owners found sanctuary in the United States, their darker-complexioned class counterparts, along with free Africans, were met with hostility, and measures were adopted over the years that sought to expel both, as racial ideology on the mainland made little to no distinction between the two.
Ever since Haiti gained its independence in 1804, the United States has sought to re-enslave the whole island. The abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote in “The North Star” in 1848 that “nothing is more annoying to American pride or to American cupidity than the existence on our very borders of this noble Republic of colored men,” saying further that “the slaveholders of this country have a design to subvert this truly brave Republic.” That Haiti drew the ire of the slaveholders’ republic was no surprise, for the triumph of their revolution had sent the entire slave system into a veritable death spiral, eventually resulting in its complete destruction. There were numerous plots to undermine Haitian independence throughout the 1800s, including the arming of secessionist Dominican rebels in the 1830s by then US Secretary of State John C. Calhoun, as well as the flooding of Haitian markets with counterfeit currency and an attempted annexation by the Grant administration in the 1870s. The long-held dreams of slaveholders past would be realized when the United States sent marines to occupy Haiti in 1915. Following a sham election, the puppet regime ceded complete control over the Haitian government and banks to the United States.
Perhaps unsurprisingly then, the attitudes and policies of the US government today towards Haiti and its citizens, while experiencing the expected situational variations under specific historical circumstances, have not changed all that much in the past two centuries. The policies which perpetually recreate this catastrophe continue, irrespective of administration, Democrat or Republican. Fortunately, the spirit of Black Jacobinism lives on, and the struggle of the Haitian people against foreign domination and their agents on the island continues into the present. To those well-intentioned citizens of the United States who were outraged at this most recent incident and wish to see their government change its course, what must be done is therefore more complicated and challenging than simply electing a different president every four years. I nevertheless implore you not only to act, but also to organize yourselves, for it is through organized action that we might be able to effect change.