On the streets of Port au Prince, there was chaos and bloodshed. Screams punctuated the air. In pitched battles between government soldiers and armed Haitians, scores of people were killed. The date: May 28, 1891. Frederick Douglass was then the U.S. Minister to Haiti, and lived in Port au Prince, seeing firsthand the political and economic upheaval that continued to rock Haiti. Despite his experience there, Douglass believed the country would thrive in the years ahead – especially if the United States treated Haiti with the respect that Douglass said it deserved.
What happened to Haiti’s prospects? For one thing, the country was subjected to American hegemony. During Douglass’ time there, Washington wanted Haiti’s northern harbor as a naval port for American warships. Haiti resisted. Douglass empathized with the country’s plight, but Washington’s military leaders put pressure on Haiti’s government to accept U.S. terms. They also put pressure on then-U.S. president Benjamin Harrison to fire Douglass, according to William S. McFeely’s biography of Douglass. At one point, the U.S. Navy supplied arms to a Haiti opposition leader, Florvil Hyppolite, giving him the means to overthrow elected president Francois Legitime.
After his stint in Haiti, Douglass – a former slave who became one of America’s greatest political figures – delivered a rousing speech at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, where he chastised U.S. policies toward Haiti, saying that, “It so happens that we have men in this country who, to accomplish their personal and selfish ends, will fan the flame of passion between the factions in Haiti and will otherwise assist in setting revolutions afoot.”
This “selfishness” continued – on and off – for the next century as the United States sought to dictate Haiti’s economy and politics. From 1915 to 1934, Washington occupied the island country. Most recently, in 2004, Washington orchestrated the coup that ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, according to Aristide. Before that, experts from the United States and other foreign countries convinced Haiti to implement economic policies that prompted Haiti’s rural population into Port au Prince – an immigration pattern that led to cramming of people into unsafe areas around the capital, which were leveled in last week’s massive earthquake, according to Brian Concannon, director of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti.
Today is the day that Americans celebrate Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday. In King were still alive, he likely would have criticized America’s past intervention in Haiti – at the same time that he praised the Obama administration’s swift response to Haiti’s disaster. As noted by journalist Casey Gane-McCalla, King criticized U.S. foreign policy for emphasizing military endeavors over genuine aid. But King also saw the promise of America and of bereaved foreign countries such as Haiti. Douglass did, too. Both leaders were optimists and realists.
In Haiti, Douglass saw a country where – for the first time in modern history – former slaves gained independence as a sovereign nation. Haiti’s problems weren’t all foreign-made, of course. Corruption and military coups have kept the country unstable. As Douglass noted in his 1893 speech, “There are ebbs and flows in the tide of human affairs, and Haiti is no exception to this rule. There have been times in her history when she gave promise of great progress, and others, when she seemed to retrograde. We should view her in the light broad light of her whole history. . . . Upon such broad view I am sure Haiti will be vindicated. . . . She has taught the world the danger of slavery and the value of liberty. In this respect she has been the greatest of all our modern teachers.”
Amen to that.