Haiti's Impact on the United States -- what 'voodoo economics' and high school textbooks reveal

July- September 2003

Greg Dunkel

Inspired by the 200th anniversary of Haiti's independence, all sorts of articles on Haiti are popping up, most bemoaning its current fiscal crisis. Some examine the role the United States has played there, mostly presenting its aid programs as benevolent attempts to install democracy and alleviate poverty. Others, more accurately, analyze U.S. efforts in Haiti as stifling democracy and the people's will along with extracting every possible dollar.

But while it is important to describe the impact that the United States, the world's only superpower, has and has had on Haiti, we must note that Haiti, although poor and isolated, has also had a major impact on the United States, stemming from its place in world history as the only state ever founded through a successful slave revolution.

The successful revolution against the French slave owners is a singular event. It is the only time that slaves managed to rise up, smash their oppressors, and set up a new state and social order that reflected some of their hopes and aspirations.

There are aspects of U.S. culture, ranging from marching bands and music to dance and literature, where the impact of Haiti can be seen. But the political impact of Haiti's successful revolution is the clearest in some words and phrases commonly used in North American English and also in how the history and significance of Haiti are hidden in high school history textbooks.

When Martin Bernal wanted to uncover the Afro-Asiatic roots of Greek civilization and culture in his book Black Athena (1987), he looked at the words the Greeks borrowed or absorbed from Egypt or Phoenicia, among other evidence. The same kind of evidence of Haiti's impact on the United States shows up in the mainstream U.S. press.

In the United States "voodoo" (the North American formulation of the Creole "vodou") is associated with Haiti.

Major newspapers used the phrase "voodoo economics" over 1,000 times in the last ten years. The New York Times used it at least 450 times since 1980. "Voodoo politics" shows up much less frequently -- only 25 times in the last 10 years. "Voodoo Linux," a variant of a popular computer operating system, also popped up as well as the "Voodoo" graphics card for games running on PCs. There were too many descriptions of voodoo rituals to easily count.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language even has a definition for "voodoo economics": "Based on unrealistic or delusive assumptions." But this definition hides the way the phrase is used. When Warren Buffett, the billionaire head of Berkshire Hathaway, one of the major players in the U.S. stock market, calls President George W. Bush's tax cuts "voodoo economics" (Washington Post, May 20, 2003), he was not only calling them "unrealistic." He was also predicting that they would mobilize his class, U.S. capitalists, by stirring their great greed, to support these cuts even if they were not in their long-term interests.

When George H. Bush, the father of the current president, was running against Ronald Reagan for the Republican presidential nomination in 1980, he called Reagan's supply-side economic policies, with their plutocratic catering to the rich, "voodoo economics." Reagan's appeal to the ruling class was more successful than Bush's since he got the nomination, but Reagan did feel compelled to choose Bush as his vice-president.

There are other examples. Jimmy Carter made the "voodoo economics" charge in his debates with Ronald Reagan in the '80s. Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) in a 1992 press conference accused then President George H. Bush of conducting a "voodoo" trade policy with Japan. John B. Oakes, a former editor of the New York Times, which is considered in American politics to be "liberal," said in 1989: "George Bush, who not so many years ago was justly critical of Ronald Reagan's 'voodoo economics,' has become past master of an even more illusory art form: voodoo politics."

It is interesting to see how these white bourgeois politicians, some of whom personally have vast wealth and all of whom represent vast wealth, use this epithet, which in the context they use it has racist connotations, primarily against other white bourgeois politicians.

In my Internet searches, I came across Kòmbò Mason Braide, a Nigerian economist and political analyst. He called the recommendation that Nigeria follow the economic policies of the Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Board, Alan Greenspan, "voodoo economics" and then went on to analyze its effects on the politics of the states along the Gulf of Guinea (Ghana, Nigeria, Benin and so on). Coming from an economist who lives in a part of Africa where voodoo developed, this epithet applied to Greenspan has a special sarcastic edge and Braide tries to make a strong connection to Haiti. (www.kwenu.com/publications/braide/voodoo_politics.htm)

While it is indisputable that "voodoo" is a widely used term in the United States, the historical context of its introduction into U.S. society was the uprising that began in August in the French colony of St. Domingue, 15 years after the United States declared its independence.

The U.S. bourgeoisie, which was in large part a slavocracy, was completely shocked that the enslaved Africans of Haiti could organize themselves, rise up, smash the old order, kill their masters, and set up a new state that was able to maintain its independence. This rebellion was such a threat to the existence of the slavocracy if its example spread, and so inconceivable in a political framework totally saturated with racism and the denigration of people whose ancestors came from Africa, that the only explanation that they could see for enslaved people participating in it was that they were "deluded."

They failed to consider that a majority of the enslaved people in St. Domingue had been born in Africa in freedom and remembered what it was. They did not have to be "deluded" into rebelling against their oppression. They participated willingly.

Which doesn't mean that voodoo did not play an inspirational and unifying role. It gave them the solidarity they needed to organize a mass uprising of enslaved people under the noses of the slave owners.

The slaves in the north of St. Domingue, the greatest wealth producing slave colony the world has ever known, organized for weeks beginning in early July, using the cover of the voodoo ceremonies that were held every weekend. Finally, 200 delegates, two from each major plantation in the North, gathered on August 14 at Bois-Caïman, a wooded area on the Lenormand de Mezy plantation, and set the date for the uprising for one week later, the night of August 21, 1791.

Boukman Dutty, a voodoo priest, was one of the people who led the ceremony and was selected to lead the uprising. According to well-founded but oral sources (see Caroline Fick, The Making of Haiti, p. 93, and C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins, p. 87), Boukman made both a prayer and a call to arms with the following speech:

The uprising did not succeed completely. The plan was for the slaves in le Cap Français (now Cap Haïtien) to desert their masters and the city on the night of August 21, and the slaves on the plantations to rise up and burn them and kill their masters, join with the slaves from le Cap, then seize and destroy the city. A few plantations rose up early, tipping off the French slave owners, who retrenched in le Cap. The city remained in their hands, but they could not crush the uprising, which spread widely.

By the middle of September, more than 250 sugar plantations and uncounted coffee plantations had been burned. A major part of the colony that exported $130 million worth of goods a year, a vast sum for the 18th century, was destroyed. The smell of burning sugar, death and revolution filled the air. The slaves of northern Haiti had embarked on a irreversible revolutionary course. Petrified slave owners fled to Cuba, Jamaica, New Orleans, and the United States, the closest havens.

The U.S. press was filled with lurid stories about the "chaos" that gripped the island, the satanic rites that drove slaves into a rampaging frenzy of destruction, about white slave owners fighting for their lives. The United States had always had a significant trade with St. Domingue, even when such trade was technically illegal. The young republic wanted to keep from being entangled in the war between England and France, while maintaining significant trade with this French colony.

Still, the slave-owning President George Washington wanted to help the French slave owners, who had appealed for aid. His secretary of state, the slave-owner Thomas Jefferson, authorized $40,000 in emergency relief as well as 1,000 weapons. Then Washington authorized $400,000 in emergency assistance to the slave owners of St. Domingue, on the request of the French government who wanted this treated as a repayment for the loans it granted during the Revolutionary War (see Alfred Hunt, Haiti's Influence on Antebellum America, p. 31).

Later the Spanish governor of Venezuela also granted $400,000 in aid to the French army Napoleon sent in a vain attempt to re-conquer Haiti.

The first substantial foreign aid the United States ever granted was designed to preserve slavery in Haiti. It didn't succeed.

The southern states followed the lead of the Spanish colonies like Cuba and Louisiana (Spanish until 1803, when it became French so Napoleon could sell it to the United States) in banning the importation of slaves from St. Domingue. The slave owners were trying to prevent their enslaved people from learning about Black emancipation and Jacobin ideas of republican government. So terrified were slave owners that some states briefly barred the importation of slaves from anywhere.

In 1803, just before Haiti declared its independence, Southern newspapers published a document supposedly of French origin discussing how U.S. factionalism and popular habits would allow France to spread sedition, especially if they controlled the mouth of the Mississippi. The document was probably a forgery, designed to impress Southern readers with the danger of French ideas and the vulnerability of slaves to foreign incitement (Hunt, p. 35).

The shadow of St. Domingue haunted the Southern press. As early as 1794, the Columbia (South Carolina) Herald ran a series of articles drawing the lessons of the slave insurrection. (Hunt, p. 111). Whether the first major U.S. slave insurrection in 1800 led by Gabriel Prosser was inspired by the events in St. Domingue is an open question, but both the abolitionists in the North and the slave-owners' press in the South analyzed it in that context.

The next insurrection organized by Denmark Vessey in 1822 in Charleston, South Carolina, definitely was inspired by Haiti. Vessey was born in the West Indies, traveled there as a slave trader's servant and wrote to Jean-Pierre Boyer, then president of Haiti, seeking aid. The reaction in the Southern states was to tighten the bonds of slavery.

Nat Turner's bloody revolt in 1831 again was seen in the Southern press as a replay of the tactics and the strategy of the Haitian insurrection. He was compared in morals and boldness to Haiti's founding father Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Whether or not he was actually inspired by the events in Haiti, Southern whites viewed his revolt as coming from the same volcano of revolution. After this revolt until the Civil War, the pro-slavery Southern press always tried to cast Haiti in the worst possible light, as hell on earth, in order to fight abolition and defend the institution of slavery, which made them so much money.

One of the famous skirmishes preceding the U.S. Civil War, John Brown's 1859 raid at Harper's Ferry, VA, was immediately interpreted as "an abolitionist conspiracy to instigate a slave uprising" (Hunt, p. 139). The Southern press resurrected the themes of "Northern Jacobinism" and the Haitian revolution, in lurid, emotionally charged articles, as if these were fresh events, not 60 to 70 years in the past. Even during the Civil War, Confederate propaganda used Haiti as an example of how the Confederacy was needed to protect white families from the evils of Jacobinism and abolition.

For over 70 years, Haiti was the example that Southern slave owners raised to defend their peculiar, and profitable, institution against abolition, even to the last days of the Civil War. The image of slaves breaking their chains was burned into their consciousness. The Northern bourgeoisie, opposed to slavery because it hindered their economic expansion, still were thoroughgoing racists and opposed to the revolutionary example of Haiti, even though it was not a direct challenge to their system of exploitation.

It is hard to know how much impact the Haiti revolution had on the slave masses in the southern United States. They knew about it for sure, despite the slave owners' attempts to insulate them from that example. Enough refugee slave owners were able to find refuge in the United States and Louisiana that the word spread about Haiti, about this beacon of hope, this model of self-emancipation. The historical record is still unclear about how deep Haiti's influence was.

Outside the South, however, Haiti was known and raised. In August 1843 in Buffalo, New York, at a National Negro Convention meeting, Henry Highland Garner, a prominent abolitionist and a former slave, after mentioning Denmark Vessey, Toussaint Louverture and Nathaniel Turner, said:

The Convention rejected Garner's revolutionary approach to abolition, which was obviously inspired by Haiti.

With the end of slavery in the United States, Haiti as a political issue began to fade. But its impact did not disappear. A singular event like the Haitian revolution, raised so often and so sharply both by reactionaries and abolitionists doesn't just vanish.

But the forum for using "voodoo" as a tool to attack and belittle Haiti changed. Guide books, travel writers and pop historians started filling their books, whose titles ranged from Cannibal Cousins, and Where Black Rules White, through A Puritan in Voodooland, with lurid and exaggerated tales of "voodoo" rituals. Books like these appeared as late as the 1970s.

Theodore Roosevelt, taking a brief vacation to the Caribbean when he was president in 1906, wrote a letter to his nephew, describing "the decay of most of the islands, the turning of Haiti into a land of savage negroes, who have reverted to voodooism and cannibalism" (Brenda Gayle Plummer, Haiti and the Great Powers, 1902-1915, p. 5). Roosevelt's charge of cannibalism had been made by another racist president, Thomas Jefferson, in 1804 and was so commonplace in the nineteenth century that Frederick Douglass felt he had to bring it up in his speech on Haiti.

The fact that "voodoo" has been used as a term of disparagement and contempt by so many bourgeois politicians and commentators for over 200 years makes it abundantly clear that Haiti still has a major impact on U.S. society since the bourgeoisie of this cvountry has felt it necessary to ideologically attack it for so long. The fact that in other contexts like computer operating systems and computer graphics, "voodoo" has positive connotations just strengthens the argument for Haiti's impact on the United States.

Haitian History: What U.S. Text Books Don't Tell

Looking at how Haiti's history is presented in high-school textbooks in the United States gives an insight into why many North Americans know so little about Haiti and how this limited knowledge has been distorted, muffled, and hidden behind a veil of silence.

In Saint Domingue in 1790, 10,000 people made fabulous profits from owning almost all the land and from brutally oppressing 500,000 slaves, entirely African or of African descent, with some 40,000 people in intermediate positions, generally either enslaved people who had managed to buy their freedom or had a French father. Fifteen years later, in 1805, the slave-owning colony was gone, replaced by the Republic of Haiti, whose citizens were mostly subsistence farmers who had their own weapons.

It was the first successful national liberation struggle in modern times. When Haiti declared its independence in 1804, it was the only state in the world to have a leader of African descent. In fact, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the governor-in-general in 1804, was an ex-slave who had survived a cruel master.

One widely-used U.S. high school text book, World History: Perspective on the Past, published by Houghton Mifflin Co., presents this struggle in just a few sentences: "Toussaint drove the French forces from the island. Then, in 1802, he attended a peace meeting where he was treacherously taken prisoner. He was then sent to France, where he died in prison. However, the French could not retake the island." (p. 536) About 30 pages later, when the subject of the Louisiana Purchase comes up, a little more is said about Haiti: "Toussaint's fighters and yellow fever all but wiped out a French army of 10,000 soldiers. Discouraged, Napoleon gave up the idea of an American empire and decided to sell the Louisiana Territory." (p. 562) (Actually, the 10,000 soldier figure is an error according to C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins, p. 355.)

Another common high school text book World History: Connections to Today, published by Prentice-Hall, devotes almost a page to Haiti, but sums up the struggle against the French attempt to re-enslave Haiti in 1802 in just a few words: "In 1804, Haitian leaders declared independence. With yellow fever destroying his army, Napoleon abandoned Haiti."

James W. Loewen in Lies My Teacher Told Me, which examines 12 widely used U.S. high school history textbooks, makes it clear that Perspectives and Connections are not just two bad apples; in fact, it appears they might be better than most.

Here are the main points of the history they omit. On Feb. 3, 1802, Gen. Charles Victor-Emmanuel Leclerc, Napoleon's brother-in-law, arrived at le Cap Français (currently Cap Haïtien) with five thousand men and demanded entrance. Toussaint's commander, Henri Christophe, was outnumbered and outgunned. Rather than surrender, Christophe burned down the city (starting with his own house), destroyed the gunpowder plant, and retreated into the mountains. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, under orders from Toussaint Louverture, seized the French fort called Crête-à-Pierrot in the center of the country with 1,500 troops, held off the 12,000 French troops that besieged it through two attacks, and then his troops cut their way with bayonets through the French forces to escape.

By the end of April, Louverture had been seized and sent to France, and all his lieutenants had either been deported or incorporated into the French army. But the popular resistance continued and intensified. The French continued losing large numbers of soldiers to yellow fever as well as small-scale but persistent attacks. Cultivators, fearing the reintroduction of slavery, continued to flee to the mountains as maroons and to form small armed bands.

By the end of July 1802, when news spread that the French had re-instituted slavery on Guadeloupe, reopened the slave trade, and forbade any person of color from claiming the title of citizen, resistance turned to insurrection.

French reprisals were terrible but only seemed to strengthen the conviction of the masses that they would rather die fighting than be re-enslaved. And they insisted on dying with dignity, no matter how cruel the French were. In one instance, when three captured Haitian soldiers were being burned to death, one started crying. Another said "Watch me. I will show you how to die." He turned around to face the pole, slid down, and burned to death without a whimper. A French general watching the execution wrote to Leclerc: "These are the men we have to fight!"

In another case, a mother consoled her weeping daughters as they were marched to their execution: "Rejoice that your wombs will not have to bear slave children" (Carolyn F. Fick, The Making of Haiti, p. 221).

In September, shortly before he died of yellow fever, Leclerc wrote to Napoleon that the only way France could win was to destroy all the blacks in the mountains -- men, women, and children over 12 -- and half the blacks in the plains. "We must not leave a single colored person who has worn an epaulette." (Officers wore epaulettes.) The commander of the French expedition saw no other way to win other than genocide.

By the end of October 1802, the insurrection was so strong that Toussaint's officers who had disingenuously joined the French, deserted and began a counterattack. The struggle took a more organized military character, while the popular insurrection intensified.

By mid-1803, the French were being mopped up in the south. Jérémie was evacuated in August, and Cayes fell on October 17. Then Dessalines decided to move on the French in Cap Français.

Without the artillery or logistics needed to support a long siege, Dessalines decided to take le Cap by storm. He assigned a half-brigade, commanded by Capois La Mort, to storm the walls covered by the mutually supporting positions, Butte de la Charrier and Vertières. Meanwhile, two other brigades maneuvered to seize batteries protecting the city from an attack from the sea. While grapeshot cut swaths through the brigade led by Capois, the soldiers kept pressing forward, clambering over their dead and shouting to each other, "To the attack, soldiers!" On Nov. 18, their combined assault took Charrier, which opened the city to Haitian artillery. The French general agreed to leave immediately and was captured ten hours later by the British. On Nov. 19, 1803, the French army left Haiti for good.

This is the reason why "the French could not retake the island" and why "Napoleon abandoned Haiti" -- the French were decisively defeated. The masses refused to return to slavery and their leaders organized a people's army that crushed the French.

World History: Connections and World History: Perspective don't treat Haiti's history from 1804 to 1860. That period came before U.S. capitalism had matured enough to expand aggressively into the Caribbean.

In 1825, France forced Haiti to begin paying huge reparations amounting to 90 million gold francs for freeing the slaves (worth about $21 billion in today's currency counting interest). This money, and the interest that Haiti had to pay on the bonds it floated to pay it, are what Haiti is presently demanding as reparations from France.

Even though the United States did not recognize Haiti until 1862, there was still a surprisingly substantial trade between Haiti and France and between Haiti and the United States.

With the end of the Civil War in the United States in 1865, the Caribbean became a cockpit of imperialist interventions and maneuvering. The two high school textbooks under examination mention Haiti from time to time as part of a laundry list of countries where the U.S. intervened.

But the United States was not the only imperialist power splashing around the Caribbean. In the years leading up to the first U.S. occupation in 1915, the warships of Spain, France, the United States, and Germany invaded Haitian territorial waters more than 20 times. Even Sweden and Norway got into the act.

Germany, an imperialist latecomer, aggressively pursued its interests in Haiti because it was restricted in other colonized parts of the world. Fleurimond Kerns in an article in Haïti-Progrès (May 18, 2003) describes one glaring incident:

While historians and some textbooks do list foreign, i.e. imperialist, interventions in Haiti and the larger Caribbean, finding descriptions of resistance is much harder. In her 294-page book Haiti and the United States, Brenda Gayle Plummer has a paragraph on what happened in Port-au-Prince on July 6, 1861. The Spanish navy was threatening to bombard the city if Haiti did not offer a 21-gun salute and pay a big indemnity. The people of Port-au-Prince were so upset when their government capitulated that they came out into the streets and the government had to use martial law to control the situation. (p. 41)

The case of Haitian Admiral Hamilton Killick is another outstanding instance of Haitian resistance. At the start of the last century, both the Unites States and Germany deployed Caribbean squadrons. Germany wanted to project its military power to reinforce its commercial and financial push into Haiti. The United States was planning on building the Panama Canal to tie its Pacific coast to the Eastern Seaboard and open up Latin America to its further imperialist penetration.

In 1902 Germany was meddling in a Haitian power struggle, backing one leader while Admiral Killick backed the other. Kern in his Haïti-Progrès article describes what happened on Sept. 6 of that year:

Through his self-detonation, Killick not only denied the Germans possession of a Haitian ship and the German munitions it had seized, he also came close to blowing up the Panther, according to one German crewman who wrote a postcard home (Postal History: Germany -- Haiti -- United States at http://home.earthlink.net/~rlcw).

German influence in Haiti waned after the U.S. marines invaded Port-au-Prince July 28, 1915 and began their 19-year occupation. At that time, the U.S. had not officially entered World War One but it was concerned to stop any attempt by Germany to set up a base in Haiti and to protect the Panama Canal, which had opened for business the year before. The U.S. occupation also ended the close financial and commercial ties between Haiti and France, though not the cultural ones. (France was an ally of the United States at the time, but also an imperialist competitor in the Caribbean.)

The start of this occupation was made easy by the political and administrative instability of Haiti, but it then met with four years of fierce armed resistance from guerrillas known as cacos under Charlemagne Péralte, and then later under Benoît Batraville. It caused great controversy in the United States and deep resentment in Haiti.

The only mention that Connections and Perspective makes of the 19-year-long U.S. occupation of Haiti is to mention how Franklin D. Roosevelt was true to his word, true to the "Good Neighbor Policy" when he withdrew the U.S. Marines.

They fail to mention that Roosevelt's need to appear to have broken with the expensive military interventions of his predecessors obviously played a role in abandoning the protectorate in 1934, since the United States was in the midst of the Great Depression. They also don't mention that there was a anti-occupation nationwide strike and series of demonstrations in 1929, one of which the Marines put down with deadly force (Nicols, From Dessalines to Duvalier, p. 151) . Over the next five years, agitation, outcry and bitterness over this issue continued, gained popular support and put relentless pressure on the U.S. to pull out.

These two textbooks ignore and obscure the role that the people and their resistance played in Haiti's history and the important role Haiti played in the hemisphere's history. They disguise the imperialist interests that U.S. and European interventions upheld by giving only brief and simplistic descriptions of major events. Even though the word "imperialism" does appear, these textbooks give U.S. students no real understanding of the racism, violence and greed that led the U.S. to repress and exploit the Haitian people for almost two centuries.

revised version of two articles that appeared in Haïti-Progrès July & September 2003


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