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Jan. 18 2010 - 12:03 am | 540 views | 0 recommendations | 6 comments

Haiti and history: Caribbean disaster through the eyes of MLK and Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

Image of Frederick Douglass via Wikipedia

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.”

Al Sharpton, who is flying today to Haiti, said his trip was fueled by “moral imperative,” and that, “It would be the height of hypocrisy to talk about celebrating Dr. King and not deal with Haiti.”

Amen to that.


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  1. collapse expand

    RE:Al Sharpton, who is flying today to Haiti, said his trip was fueled by “moral imperative,” and that, “It would be the height of hypocrisy to talk about celebrating Dr. King and not deal with Haiti.”

    Where does the USA get the legal authority to deal with Haiti?

  2. collapse expand

    Mr Curiel. Very nice piece. I hope that President Obama’s efforts (and therefore ours) prove to be truly helpful. It would be so nice for us to go somewhere not to create chaos but to actually provide a good …

  3. collapse expand

    Jonathan,

    The moral imperative should have hit us and Al Sharpton a long time ago, before the earthquake happened in Haiti. But, wonderful piece. Thanks for putting the country in a historical perspective that is tied to the struggle of the people there. I always find it interesting that John James Audubon was born in Haiti, something people don’t tend to realize. His father owned a sugar plantation there and was one of the slave owners from which the people gained independence.

    • collapse expand

      Nick — Thanks for the comment. I agree the urge to react should have happened “a long time ago.” Haiti had been off my radar for too long, and it’s a shame that it takes a tragedy like this for the country to re-emerge on people’s priorities. I didn’t know that Audobon was born in Haiti. History if always interesting that way. When i was researching my “Al’ America” book, I (of course) came across Christopher Columbus’ journey there. Many people who’ve encountered the island have tried to take advantage of it.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    Filmmaker Michael Moore may hate former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who may distrust Mohammed Fadlallah (the former spiritual head of Hezbollah) but all three can agree on one thing: They liked meeting journalist Jonathan Curiel. That’s me. I don’t fawn over people I interview, but I give them room to talk before formulating an opinion (or two). Beyond my journalism (a long reporting stint for the San Francisco Chronicle, plus freelancing for the Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, Columbia Journalism Review, and others), I’ve taught as a Fulbright Scholar at Punjab University in Lahore, Pakistan; and conducted research at England’s Oxford University, as a Reuters Foundation Fellow. I’m also the author of “Al’ America: Travels Through America’s Arab and Islamic Roots.” If journalists are what they cover, then I’m an omnivore – someone as interested in Picasso and Seinfeld as I am in Washington politics and foreign affairs.

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