Haiti is Not a Shithole

  • Posted on: 13 January 2018
  • By: Bryan Schaaf
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Mother Jones

By Nathalie Baptists

12 January 2017

On Thursday, the Washington Post reported that President Donald Trump referred to El Salvador, Haiti, and African nations as “shithole countries” during a discussion with lawmakers about immigration protections. The White House subsequently released a statement that didn’t deny the comment, but on Friday Trump tweetedthat he did not use the offending word. (He is not disputing, however, that he remarked during the meeting, “Why do we need more Haitians?”) Haiti, often referred to as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, suffers from poverty and inequality. But anyone who has actually been there, as I have because my parents are Haitian immigrants, can tell you it’s not a shithole—and that’s a miracle of sorts.

For centuries, the United States has meddled and intervened disastrously in Haitian affairs and against all odds the Caribbean nation hasn’t become a shithole because of it. Today, on the eighth anniversary of the devastating earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands, people all over the country are alive and well and making do with what they have.

In 1804, Haiti became the first black republic after defeating the French during a slave revolt. The United States panicked—what if American slaves got the same idea? In response, the United States didn’t recognize Haiti as a country until 1862.  The ensuing trade embargo and French demands that the new country pay reparations (which Haiti paid until 1947) would hinder the country’s development for decades to come. After the assassination of President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam in 1915, President Woodrow Wilson sent US Marines to occupy Haiti; they stayed for nearly 20 years. During this time, 15,000 Haitians were killed by US forces.

In 1957, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier came to power. He ruled the country as a repressive dictator, using his special police force, the Tonton Macoutes, to brutalize citizens. Papa Doc’s brutal policies further strained the country’s relationship with the United States. After his death in 1971, his son Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier became the world’s youngest president at just 19. Relations between the United States and Haiti improved during this time period as President Ronald Reagan saw Baby Doc as a foe of communism. After Baby Doc was ousted in 1986, Haiti saw a series of coups and sudden leadership changes.

In 1983, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the four Hs, four groups that were at high risk for AIDS: homosexuals, hemophiliacs, heroin users, and Haitians. Though the CDC would later try to walk back the announcement, the proclamation destroyed tourism in Haiti and created a racist stigma that still persists today. Just last month, Trump reportedly said Haitians coming to the United States  “all have aids.” 

In 1991, the Haitian military topped democratically elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide and began three years of a brutal reign. In 1994, the New York Times reported that a top official of this paramilitary regime was on the CIA’s payroll for two years while his associates were repressing Haitian citizens. During this time, Haitians were fleeing to the United States by the thousands, many by boat. While the Clinton administration had a policy for Cubans fleeing the Castro regime known as wet foot/dry foot (any Cuban who made it to dry land could stay in the United States), the policy was not applicable to Haitians. Though they were fleeing violence, the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations turned most of them away.

By the 2000s, US policy toward Haiti remained the same. The US government helped keep the country’s minimum wage low at the behest of the corporations profiting off meager wages. After the earthquake struck, the Obama administration imposed a moratorium on the deportations of Haitians. Two weeks after the moratorium lifted, Hurricane Matthew struck the southern portion of the country, killing hundreds. President Barack Obama did not reinstate the moratorium, despite pressure from the Haitian community. 

Because of the Clinton Foundation’s ties to Haiti, where it led fundraising and relief efforts, the country often came up during the 2016 election. In fact, Trump told a small group of Haitians in Florida that he wanted to be their “biggest champion” before he was elected. But his actions have signaled that his policy toward Haitians will be more of the same. His administration has ended a program that protects Haitians from deportation and allows them to work in the United States. By January 2019, more than 50,000 Haitians will have to leave or live in the country in the shadows. A champion, indeed.

Photo Credit: Mother Jones


Washington Post

By Jonathan M. Katz 

January 12 2018 

Jonathan M. Katz, a freelance journalist, is the author of "The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster." He is the director of the media and journalism initiative at Duke University's John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute.

The president had no respect for Haiti. He could see as well as anyone following the news that the country was a basket case — racked by political unrest, filthy, incapable of handling its own affairs. There was no doubt his opinion of the black republic was informed by his blatant racism, which included praising members of the Ku Klux Klan. He had criticized his predecessors’ foreign wars while running for office. But in the White House, he realized he was willing to flex the country’s muscles abroad, as long as the mission fit his motto: “America first.”

Taking Haiti was a U.S. priority, he decided. The United States would invade. That president was Woodrow Wilson. The year was 1915. And if that was the beginning of a story you’ve never heard before, you aren’t alone. Since news broke that Wilson’s unwitting heir, President Trump, called Haiti — along with El Salvador and seemingly all 54 nations in Africa — “shithole countries,” the president’s defenders made it clear not only that they do not know Haiti’s history but also that they’re unaware of their own. As soon as they heard his comments, Trump’s partisans went defensive, claiming that while Trump might have been rude, he was right.

Fox News regular Tomi Lahren tweeted: “If they aren’t shithole countries, why don’t their citizens stay there?” “Trump should ‘vehemently condemn’ the Haitian government for running a shithole country,” wrote Will Chamberlain, one of the organizers of last year’s inaugural “DeploraBall.”

Some on the right particularly applauded a segment on CNN in which National Review editor Rich Lowry asked political commentator Joan Walsh whether she would “rather live in Norway or Haiti.” It was a reference to Trump’s reported wish that the United States ring in more Nordic immigrants instead of those from Latin America or Africa. Walsh refused to answer, noting she’d never visited either country. Tucker Carlson accused her of dishonesty. “Those places are dangerous, they’re dirty, they’re corrupt and they’re poor,” the Fox News host said, with an indignation Wilson would have admired. “Why can’t you say that?”

Trump’s supporters on cable news appear to believe that they, and he, are brave tellers of unvarnished truths others are too timid or politically correct to say out loud. (Never mind that Trump is a notorious, if not pathological, liar — or that, hours later, he tried weakly to walk back the “shithole” remark after his favorite TV show told him to.) But in reality, they don’t know many truths at all. To rail against poverty in countries such as Haiti and argue that it’s some naturally occurring, objective reality ignores why that poverty exists and what the United States’s role has been in creating it. And ignoring that means not only making bad and hateful decisions today but risks repeating the errors of the past.


Haiti was founded Jan. 1, 1804, by people of African descent who were tired of being slaves. They fought and won a revolution against France, ultimately defeating an expeditionary force of Napoleon Bonaparte’s army, then the most powerful in the world. France fought so hard to keep the colony because it was basically the Saudi Arabia of coffee and sugar at the time, providing the majority of both commodities consumed in Europe. The money it generated fueled the entire French empire. But it was made with blood. The slave regime necessary to produce those crops was so deadly that 1 in 10  enslaved Africans kidnapped and brought to the island died each year. As historian Laurent Dubois has noted, the French decided that it was cheaper to bring in new slaves than to keep the ones they had alive.

[Who suffers when disasters strike? The poorest and most vulnerable.] As soon as Haiti was free, the world’s most powerful empires did everything they could to undermine it. France refused to acknowledge the new nation existed. In the United States — then the only other independent country in the Americas — President Thomas Jefferson, a slaveholder, was uninterested in seeing a free black nation succeed nearby. The slaveholding powers refused to set up official trade with Haiti, forcing the country into predatory relationships. Haiti’s independence remained a cautionary tale U.S. slavers used to counter abolitionists until the Civil War.

France finally offered much-needed diplomatic recognition in 1825, at gunpoint. King Charles X demanded the Haitian government pay restitution of 150 million gold francs — billions of dollars in today’s money — to French landowners still angry about the loss of their land and the Haitians’ own bodies in the war. If they didn’t pay, he would invade.

Haiti’s leaders agreed. They spent the next decades raiding their own coffers and redirecting customs revenue to paying France for the independence they had already won, ravaging the economy. By the 1880s, Haiti had paid what France had wanted. But now it owed huge sums to foreign banks, from which it had borrowed heavily to make ends meet. In the early 20th century, much of that debt belonged to banks in the United States. Americans had also established extensive business interests in Haiti, exporting sugar and other commodities.

The United States, meanwhile, was looking to expand. Starting in 1898, we began using our military to secure new territory and markets overseas. By 1914, we had annexed the Philippines, Hawaii, Guam and other islands in the Pacific. In the Caribbean, we had Puerto Rico and a permanent base in Cuba at Guantanamo Bay. The Marine Corps had also helped carve out a new Central American country, Panama, in exchange for rights to dig a canal providing a trade route to Asia — and the United States invaded Nicaragua, Honduras, Mexico and elsewhere.

Haiti was next. Haiti’s politics, roiled by the economic turmoil caused by the debt, were in a tailspin. Presidents were repeatedly assassinated and governments overthrown. The banks demanded payment; U.S. businessmen wanted more security and control. Newspapers had been paving the way for U.S. public opinion — a New York Times dispatch in 1912 declared, “Haitians acknowledge the failure of a ‘Black Republic’ and look forward to coming into the Union.”

In late 1914, U.S. Marines came ashore in Port-au-Prince, marched into the national reserve and carried out all the gold. It was hauled back to the National City Bank in New York — known as Citibank today. Months later, declaring his concern that European powers, especially Germany, might gain a foothold in the Caribbean (even though they were all busy with World War I), Wilson ordered an invasion, then a full occupation.

The U.S. flag was run up Haiti’s government buildings. The Haitian government and armed forces were dissolved. For the next 19 years, the United States ruled Haiti. U.S. Marines fought a bloody counterinsurgency campaign to stamp out resistance. The Haitian government, constitution and army were disbanded and replaced with new U.S.-friendly ones. Intending to embark on a major public works program, the Marines instituted a system, drawn from Haitian law, called the corvée, in which peasants were essentially re-enslaved. Many of the occupation’s leaders were explicit white supremacists who used lessons they had learned instituting Jim Crow at home to create new, American forms of discrimination in Haiti. One major organizer was Col. Littleton W.T. Waller, a child of antebellum Virginia who assured his friend Col. John A. Lejeune — the future commandant of the Marine Corps: “I know the n—– and how to handle him.”

Not all Americans were fans of the colonial regime in Haiti. Anti-imperialist lawmakers, journalists and organizations including the NAACP protested, held hearings and wrote screeds against the occupation. But most Americans, then as now, were essentially unaware. As reports of massacres and other abuses mounted, though, embarrassment grew. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had served in the occupation of Haiti as assistant secretary of the Navy, came to office promising to end U.S. imperial policies in this hemisphere. The occupation ended in 1934. Haiti had some new roads and buildings, a legacy of scars and abuse and a new U.S.-made economic and political system that would keep wreaking havoc over the decades to follow.

In 1957, a U.S.-trained physician, François Duvalier, came to power. Known as Papa Doc, he was a black nationalist who positioned himself in part as an heir to the Haitian Revolution and an opponent of U.S. imperialism, but he also knew how to manage a nearby superpower. U.S. presidents gave him, and his son who succeeded him, support at key moments (when they weren’t trying to sponsor coups against him), until the dictatorship ended in 1986.


So in light of all that history, to be convinced that Haiti just happens to be a failed “shithole” where no one would want to live, you’d have to know nothing about how Haitians view their country and themselves. You’d have to know nothing about the destructive U.S. trade policies that continued past the end of the dictatorship, destroying trade protections and, with them, local industries and agriculture. You’d have to not know about the CIA’s role in the 1991 coup that overthrew President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, or the U.S. invasions in 1994 and 2004. You’d have to know nothing about why the United States sponsored and took the leading role in paying for a U.N. “stabilization mission” that did little but keep a few, often unpopular, presidents in power and kill at least 10,000 people by introducing cholera to Haiti for the first time. And you’d have to not understand the U.S. role in the shambolic response to the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake — which was a mess, but possibly not in the way that you think.

[Haiti’s ‘redevelopment’ hasn’t been about helping Haitians]

Haiti is indeed a difficult place to live for many of the people who live there. Poverty is rampant. There is no good sanitation system, in part because the same international system that introduced cholera in 2010 steadfastly refuses to meet its promises to pay to clean it up. (Before the outbreak, the United States withheld funds to pay for water and sanitation infrastructure for more than 10 years for purely political reasons.) After centuries of exploitation and abuse, the best hope for many Haitians is to move away — and suddenly encountering infrastructure and opportunities, they thrive. For many migrants, the ultimate goal is to earn enough money to retire, build a home in Haiti and go back.

In trying to walk back his slur Friday, Trump insisted that he “has a wonderful relationship with Haitians.” There is no evidence of that. As he decided to move forward with forcing the deportation of tens of thousands of Haitians allowed to take refuge after the 2010 earthquake, Haiti’s leading newspaper pronounced him the country’s “worst nightmare.” Last summer, he reportedly said all Haitians have AIDS — a slur that cuts deep in the Haitian American psyche. And now this.

I lived in Haiti for 3½ years, by choice. I saw many people struggling, many beautiful and terrible sights, and lived through some of the hardest days of my life. I learned a lot about the complicated relationship between that country and ours — the ways in which our power can be used for good, and to do incredible harm. Many people pointed out this week that Haitians have been through far worse than a racist president calling their country a “shithole.” The question is whether, knowing the truth, we all want to go through it again.



By Simon Romero

Jan. 18, 2018

When Jacques Despinosse lost a primary for the Florida House of Representatives in the 1990s, he chalked up his drubbing to the skepticism many voters had for candidates from what was then a relatively small Haitian diaspora.  But since then, Haitian-American politicians have made one electoral stride after another in the state, winning commission seats in the counties encompassing greater Miami, representation in the Legislature, the mayoralty of the city of North Miami and coveted judgeships.

Mr. Despinosse, 72, now a local eminence in Democratic politics, eventually won a seat on North Miami’s city council and served two terms. So after President Trump was reported describing Haiti and unspecified African countries as “shitholes,” Mr. Despinosse couldn’t help but smile a little. “Trump’s racism is a rallying cry for us Haitians,” said Mr. Despinosse, who focuses on persuading Haitian immigrants to obtain United States citizenship and vote. “He’s sorely mistaken if he thinks he’s toying with some uneducated refugees.”

Mr. Trump’s comments may have horrified many Americans, but for Haitians in South Florida, they were yet another reminder of the stigma they have faced since they began arriving decades ago in large numbers. They have had to refute claims that they are carriers of disease, struggle to find their footing in a society where Latinos have long been ascendant, and face ostracism from some of their African-American neighbors.

Still, the presidential insult is also serving among Haitians here as a reminder of their capacity to overcome such hurdles. And their Democratic-leaning leaders are now vowing to use the episode to bolster citizenship drives and turnout in a state where the outcome of presidential elections can turn on a handful of votes.

While their poverty levels are still relatively high — about one in five families live below the poverty line, double the national rate — the Haitian community in South Florida now exudes pride over their doctors, lawyers, engineers and other highly educated professionals. Many are the children of the immigrants who came by the boatload in the late 1970s and 1980s, escaping economic devastation and repression under Jean-Claude Duvalier, the despotic Haitian ruler aided by the United States when it was buttressing anti-Communist governments in the Caribbean.

Jan Mapou, a writer and owner of Libreri Mapou, a bookstore in Little Haiti specializing in Creole titles.CreditScott McIntyre for The New York Times.  Those arriving in the early waves found themselves from the start on unequal footing with immigrants from another Caribbean nation, Communist Cuba. In policies that lasted from the Cold War to the final daysof the Obama administration, the United States gave Cuban immigrants legal status upon arrival, significantly easing their way into Florida’s labor force.

Haitians, meanwhile, often toiled in the shadows. Reflecting fears in the United States over an influx of Haitian immigrants, American authorities rejected more political asylum requests from Haitians than those from any other national group. Among those who made it to American shores, Haitians were disproportionately incarcerated, according to Alex Stepick, emeritus professor of anthropology at Florida International University.

Longtime Miami residents kept their distance from the newcomers who spoke Creole and sometimes mixed in voodoo rituals with Catholicism. Native-born Miamians would sometimes describe a person with psychiatric problems as “acting Haitian.”

Many Haitian immigrants and their descendants contend they are still treated worse than other groups. Still, they can also point to achievements in an array of realms, having emerged as a crucial source of remittances for the Haitian economy and a constituency to be courted in American elections for both Democrats and Republicans.

During the 2016 campaign, Mr. Trump himself visited Miami’s Little Haiti, a bastion of the Haitian community, in which he told the small gathering, “I really want to be your biggest champion.” Georges Sami Saati, 65, a Haitian-American businessman and Republican who was in the crowd to greet Mr. Trump that day, said he remained in the president’s camp, emphasizing the president’s capacity for “straight talk.” “Look, I don’t agree with 100 percent of what Trump says,” said Mr. Saati, adding that his comments on Haiti “are something that many people say every day.”

Still, with Haitian-American politicians wielding greater influence in South Florida than ever, political leaders in the community, which is heavily Democratic, are forging strategies to counter what they view as the Trump administration’s hostility toward them. They point to the administration’s move in November to end a humanitarian program allowing more than 45,000 Haitians to live and work in the United States since Haiti’s 2010 earthquake; a December report that Mr. Trump said that Haitians “all have AIDS”; and just this week, the removal of Haiti’s eligibility for a small number of temporary visas to do agricultural or seasonal work. Among other reasons for the decision, the administration cited Haitians’ history of overstaying their visas.

Mr. Trump has denied disparaging Haiti and making the comment about AIDS, though the episode reminded some here of how Haitians protested their inclusion in the 1980s by the Centers for Disease Control on the list of groups having the highest risk of contracting AIDS. “Haitian kids were treated like we had created HIV,” said Francesca Menes, 32, a Haitian-American political activist who was born in Miami. “It was a very challenging time to grow up Haitian.”

About 333,000 people of Haitian descent live in the three big South Florida counties, according to Census Bureau estimates, and 244,000 are American-born or naturalized citizens. While their political leaders hope they can muster enough new votes to deny Mr. Trump a second Florida victory in 2020, the president still has resilient support elsewhere in the state.

Representative Matt Gaetz, a Republican representing a district extending from the Gulf of Mexico to the Alabama state line, this week called living conditions in Haiti “disgusting.” “Everywhere you look in Haiti, it’s sheet metal and garbage,” Mr. Gaetz toldMSNBC in describing one of the Western Hemisphere’s poorest countries.

Haitians are undeniably wielding influence in local and county politics, including in North Miami, a city with about 60,000 residents where people of Haitian ancestry form one of the largest voting blocs. “It’s absolutely clear why Trump and the Republicans want many of our brothers and sisters deported and out of here, and it comes down to political power,” said Smith Joseph, 56, a Haitian-American doctor who is North Miami’s Democratic mayor. Little Haiti, long the heart of the community in Miami, exemplifies the changes rippling through Haitian Florida. Originally known as Lemon City for its citrus groves, the area was segregated for decades, with many of its black residents tracing their roots to immigration from the Bahamas.

Haitians put down stakes in the 1970s, opening eateries, haberdasheries, tax-assistance services and grocery stores. Muralists evoked Haiti’s turbulent history on the area’s walls. Konpa music still blares from some storefronts and recent arrivals sell clothing from the back of vans. The greatest threat today to the neighborhood’s Haitian essence is not from poverty, but wealth.

Developers have begun homing in on the streets near Miami’s Design District. Galleries in Little Haiti now feature conceptual installations, a shop deals in vinyl records and foodies can nibble on Argentine sweetbreads. Surging rents are now pushing out some longtime residents, though Haitians’ foothold throughout the rest of South Florida is not in doubt. “Since those difficult origins, we have worked hard, paid our taxes, raised new generations of driven professionals,” said Jan Mapou, 76, a writer and owner of Libreri Mapou, a bookstore in Little Haiti specializing in Creole titles. He proudly pointed out that his twin daughters are both doctors.

“Sadly, Trump and his people betray their ignorance when it comes to Haiti’s bond with the United States,” Mr. Mapou added, emphasizing how hundreds of Haitian infantry volunteers fought alongside Americans in the War of Independence. “We’re a people who have given life to this country, and we’ll just keep doing that.”

Doris Burke and Alain Delaquérière contributed research. A version of this article appears in print on January 19, 2018, on Page A12 of the New York edition with the headline: In Florida, Haitians See Trump Slight As Battle Cry. Order Reprints | Today’s 

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