Haiti’s Migrant Crisis & the Blind Eye to Imperialism’s Sins

Rainer Shea
Illustration credit: The Week

Last year, when photos came out of Texas border patrols riding on horseback to use whip-like reins for intimidating Black Haitian migrants, the United States was confronted with an uncomfortable reality about how our society is set up.

Images like these were supposed to be confined to America’s era of slavery, yet here they were today. What factors had led to the situation revealed in these photos? Why had these migrants fled their homes? How much was the United States to blame? Beyond the unnerving optics, how many parallels were there between the context behind the border patrol’s tactics, and the slave patrol tactics that they so resembled?

There were more parallels than many Americans were comfortable to admit. And this is apparent from studying how U.S. interference has exacerbated the brutal conditions that colonialism created for Haiti.

The first dimension of America’s complicity in Haiti’s crises is the reality that settler-colonialism—the system that’s behind the founding of the United States—is at the root of the conditions in Haiti. As Alex Dupuy writes in Spanish Colonialism and the Origin of Underdevelopment in Haiti, the foundations of the country’s deficiency in wealth were laid down by an initial form of colonial rule whose interests were totally separate from those of Haiti’s. Dupuy assesses that the surplus which slave labor in Haiti produced was transferred from the colonists to the metropole, serving to advance accumulation and to be used in European industrial manufacturing investments. Writes Dupuy about the implications of this fact: “The colonial ruling class in Haiti, as well as in all the other West Indian [American] colonies, therefore, did not constitute a separate, autonomous ruling class; from the very beginning it was tied to the Spanish aristocracy and transferred its wealth to Spain.”

This was the fundamental nature of the economy that colonialism created within Haiti: an arrangement where production served not to enrich the country’s people in any sense, but to grow capital within Europe. The only thing which has changed since Haiti gained independence, and since the leadup to the country’s present situation, is that Haitian labor now serves imperialism in both Europe and the Americas. As Harsha Walia writes in Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and the Rise of Racist Nationalism:

Even after Haiti’s successful revolution, creating the first independent Black republic, France extorted $40 billion dollars (in today’s terms) to compensate slave colonialists. Debt manipulation was perpetrated through US banks, including National City Bank, which Peter Hudson notes was “the largest and the most important imperial financier in the United States,” as well as US-owned companies like the Haitian American Sugar Company and the National Railroad Company.

Walia elaborates that these banks and corporations stole gold out of Haiti’s national reserves, sought to reinstate racial slavery, got the U.S. to carry out a military occupation of Haiti, and forced through a thirty million dollar loan—the latter of which foreshadowed the predatory IMF loans that imperialism would later use to dominate the former colonies.

From the beginning of the 1915-34 U.S. military occupation of Haiti, up to the present day, Washington has been interfering in the affairs of the country. During the occupation, two companies strong-armed the country into giving up 1.5 million acres of land, and dozens of plantations were set up to extract agricultural labor. The puppet government the U.S. set up in the country to facilitate this exploitation was the first in an ongoing succession of regimes which Washington has imposed upon the country to advance corporate interests in the region. As Richard P. Tucker writes in Insatiable AppetiteThe United States and the Ecological Degradation of the Tropical World, this exploitation sabotaged not just the country’s socioeconomic development, but its natural capital: “This enormous scale of concentrated corporate power had grave consequences for the ecological destinies of the region….Corporate agrocapitalism was the driving force of ecological change, both on the plantations and in the surrounding lands from which the corporations drew labor and resources.”

Since this most overt phase in Washington’s interference in Haiti’s affairs, U.S. imperialism and the corporations which drive it have maintained neo-colonialism within the country in a more concealed fashion. By the 20th century’s second half, Washington had replaced outright military occupations with supporting Haitian despots—which had a virtually indistinguishable impact from the first few decades of neo-colonial rule. As Jean Casimir and John Canham-Clyne write in Haiti after the Coup: “From 1957 to 1986, under the U.S.-backed family dictatorship of Francois ‘Papa Doc‘ and Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc‘ Duvalier, Haiti was plagued by military intimidation, political corruption, and elite control of national resources.”

Since the dynasty ended, Duvalierism’s legacy has been having increasingly adverse consequences for the country’s conditions. Assess the authors of Building a More Resilient Haitian State, the country has undergone a decline in economic development that’s solidified its status as the poorest place in the hemisphere:

Alone among the states of the Western Hemisphere, per capita GDP has fallen over the past 40 years to roughly one-half to two-thirds the level that it was in 1965. Not surprisingly, Haiti suffers from the highest rates of absolute poverty: fifty-four percent of the population is estimated to live on less than $1 per day, and 72 percent on less than $2. Income distribution is the most unequal in the hemisphere.

This can be blamed on Duvalierism, and by extension on U.S. foreign policy, because Duvalierism’s central purpose is to perpetuate the country’s extreme exploitation. Since the outset of the neoliberal era, this has become more true than ever. The economic output of Haiti’s population has more than halved during these last several decades because since neoliberalism’s introduction during the 1970s, the country has undergone an increase in all the policies that harm its people’s living standards: privatization, austerity, wages that aren’t designed to keep up with inflation, and regressive taxation.

Under these conditions, where the existing economic deficiencies from colonial rule have been made even worse during the last several generations of “independence,” it’s no wonder why many Haitians feel the need to flee. They’re not crossing borders out of lack of responsibility, as anti-immigrant rhetoric often claims. They’re doing it in response to the harm that U.S. policies have caused to their communities. So is the case for the migrants from every other country that’s been harmed by imperialism. As Elliot Dickinson concludes in Globalization and Migration: A World in Motion, “people dislocated by exploitation and war associated with the penetration of the global economic market into peripheral areas of the Global South were compelled to migrate both internally and internationally. In other words, the empire came home.”

To see those photos as innocuous, to see it as mere coincidence that the border patrols resembled the slave patrols, one must ignore all of these realities. One must act as if the actions of the United States have been totally unrelated to the conditions that these migrants are facing. Because if Washington shares no blame, it’s easier to rationalize the belief that these migrants deserve the kind of casual disrespect that the U.S. shows them. The logical conclusion of acknowledging Washington’s sins against Haiti is to give up the entire basis for the xenophobic worldview, which treats the globe’s impoverished populations as if they’re responsible for the position they’re in.