U.S. embargoes against Haiti -- from 1806 to 2003

Oct. 16, 2003

Greg Dunkel

In 1806, Haiti was diplomatically isolated. It had audaciously declared its independence two years before, after crushing the French army sent by Napoleon to re-enslave it.

But no country in the world recognized its independence. Certainly not France, which had just suffered a major blow to its fortunes and prestige. Not Spain, which still had its slave-based colonial empire in the Caribbean and Latin America. Not Great Britain, at that time the predominant world power, worried over its plantations in Jamaica, just 75 miles from Haiti, whose profits also depended on the brutal super-exploitation of enslaved Africans.

There was substantial trade between the United States and Haiti, even after the Haitian revolution ended slavery. Haiti sold coffee, molasses, sugar, cotton, hides and so on, and bought dried cod, cloth, hardware and other bulk commodities. But Thomas Jefferson, the slave-owning, slave-selling president of the United States, was terrified by the successful slave rebellion and went so far as to call Toussaint Louverture's army "cannibals." Louverture was a leader of Haiti's liberation struggle and its army.

Jefferson gave backhanded support to the Haitian struggle when its successes led France to consider selling Louisiana. But that was just a temporary maneuver. He was implacably opposed to Haitian independence.

He tried hard to prevent any contact between the United States and Haiti. Jefferson called upon Congress, which his party controlled, to abolish trade between the two countries. France and Spain, two major colonial powers in the Caribbean at the time, were also enforcing boycotts of Haitian trade. Consequently, partially in 1805 and finally in 1806, trade between the United States and Haiti was formally shut down.

Trade still continued on an unofficial basis. U.S. ships could call at Haitian ports, but Haitian ships were excluded from U.S. ports. This decimated the Haitian economy, already weakened by 12 years of hard fighting and much destruction.

In the 1820s, South Carolina Sen. Robert V. Hayne made the U.S. position absolutely clear when he stated: "Our policy with regard to Haiti is plain. We never can acknowledge her independence." Acknowledging Haiti's independence would have thrown slavery, the foundation of the South's economy and prosperity, into question.

The embargo let U.S. merchants dictate the terms of trade between the two countries, establishing a neocolonial relationship. Jefferson, and other racist slave owners, kept the United States from recognizing Haiti until 1862. The U.S. slave owners presented the racist argument that Haiti's devastating economic decline was an example of what happens when Africans govern themselves. Before the Haitian revolution, St. Domingue -- its French name -- was more lucrative for France than the Thirteen Colonies ever was for Great Britain. They did not mention that Haiti's problems were caused by their own cruel and punishing neocolonial economic policies and actions.

Even in the midst of a civil war fought over the existence and expansion of slavery in the United States, outright racist actions were common in Washington. In April 1862, when Sen. Charles Sumner raised the issue of recognizing Haiti and Liberia, representatives of border states like Maryland and Kentucky objected to the presence of Black diplomats in Washington. (For more information, see "The Struggle for the Recognition of Haiti and Liberia as Independent Republics," Charles H. Wesley, The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 2, Oct., 1917.)

French & European recognition

In the early 1800s, Haiti's government still felt threatened by France even after it had crushed Napoleon's army in 1802. For example, in 1821 France offered internal self-rule under a French protectorate. This was essentially what Louverture thought he had won in 1801 and the Haitian government saw it as a threat.

Haiti had given asylum and essential military and material help to Simón Bolívar in his struggle to free Latin America. But Spain still possessed Cuba and Puerto Rico, had claims over the eastern portion of the island of Hispaniola, now the Dominican Republic, and still profited from slavery. Furthermore, Haiti faced the hostility of the United States, even from sectors like the Northern bourgeoisie, who weren't tied to slavery but were still thoroughly racist.

In return for conditional recognition as an independent nation in 1825, President Jean-Pierre Boyer offered France 150 million gold francs as indemnity and to lower customs duties for French products to half those of any other nation. This was a tremendous sum, estimated by the present Haitian government to be $21 billion in current dollars including interest. After a show of force by the French navy in 1825, Haiti swiftly borrowed 24 million francs to pay the first installment. Full recognition by France followed in 1838.

The money was earmarked to indemnify the slave owners and their heirs for their "losses" during Haiti's revolution. For Haitians, the freedom they had won with their blood had also to be paid in cash.

After France's conditional recognition, Great Britain and the other European powers quickly followed suit. But the United States refused.

France's financial hold on Haiti continued until the first U.S. occupation in 1915. This hold was so complete that even when Haiti set up its Banque Nationale in the 1880s, it was done with French capital and French bank officers.

During the 1800s Haiti had two neocolonial overlords: France and the United States, both of which extracted as much as they could from the country, blaming Haiti's economic problems on what Haitians were forced to do.

Current U.S. boycott

In the 19th century, the United States and the European powers used Haiti's extreme diplomatic isolation and the devastation resulting from its revolution against the French slave owners to control it. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the United States uses Haiti's dire poverty.

Today, Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere by any measure, comparable to poor countries in Africa.

Haiti's debt was $302 million in 1980. In 1997 it was almost $1.1 billion, which is almost 40 percent of its Gross National Product. The value of its exports has fallen to 62 percent of 1987 levels. It should be listed as a severely indebted low-income country but the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have refused to do so.

More than 80 percent of the people in the countryside regularly don't get enough to eat. Some 50 percent of the people are illiterate. Seventy percent are unemployed. Life expectancy is 56 years and falling. Infant mortality is more than double the Latin American and Caribbean average. (Figures from PAPDA -- the Haitian Platform to Advocate for an Alternative Development)

Few people in Haiti have a reliable supply of clean water and those who do buy it by the jug.

The U.S. government put an embargo on loans to Haiti from the Inter-American Development Bank and got the European Union, formerly another large donor to Haiti, to do the same. The United States took this action because in the 2000 elections, Washington's favored candidates lost.

When U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke at the Organization of American States meeting in Santiago, Chile, in June 2003, he warned that the OAS would reevaluate its role in Haiti if the Aristide government did not conform to OAS resolutions about the organization of Haiti's elections. This was also a warning to Latin American countries to follow the U.S. policy on Haiti.

The United States wants to rig Haitian elections so that its favored candidates win. In the 19th century, it used gunboats and threats to assure victory. Now it's more convenient to hide the hand that throws the rock behind an organization like the OAS.

But Haiti is not Florida, where George W. Bush stole the last presidential election. The first election that Aristide contested in 1990 was in fact more than just an election. It was a mass movement, a Lavalas flood to elect a people's candidate -- and it swept aside all the encrustations and debris left over from decades of foreign interference and U.S.-backed Duvalierist terror.

Aristide's election was a shock to U.S. reliance on rigged cosmetic elections to put in politicians who will enforce neo-liberal policies.

Despite a 1991 military coup to oust Aristide that cost over 5,000 lives and all sorts of CIA skullduggery, popular support for Aristide remained strong. He and his party won the 2000 election. The real reasons the U.S. and European governments are withholding aid from Haiti are to force concessions out of Aristide -- or topple his administration should he not submit -- and to punish the Haitian masses as in the 19th century for daring to make a revolution that ended slavery.


Go to: Haiti: A Slave Revolution 200 years after 1804 Table of Contents

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