Haiti has always charted bold new paths in its fight for independence.
From the slave rebellion that made it its own nation — the first nation formed by slaves — to its economic struggles and fight to rebuild, the Haitian identity has been unyielding in its quest for freedom and stability.
But political freedom and economic stability have been hard to sustain.
Immediately after kicking its French colonizers to the curb, Haiti’s independence was undermined. It was required to pay a large indemnity to France or risk not being recognized by many other countries as its own nation, an action that would leave the country in a constant state of debt to France. Haiti, in search of legitimacy and security, paid the fine.
Playing by the rules didn’t protect Haiti from being a pawn in the West’s political ambitions.
In 1915, 330 U.S. Marines landed at Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Their arrival marked the beginning of a U.S. occupation that lasted almost 19 years. The U.S. took over the Haitian government, changed its laws, and fought a long and bloody battle in an attempt to get the Haitians to yield to its rule and protect its interests. As the United States Office of the Historian summarizes it:
“As a potential naval base for the United States, Haiti’s stability concerned U.S. diplomatic and defense officials who feared that Haitian instability might result in foreign rule of Haiti. … In 1914, the Wilson administration sent U.S. Marines into Haiti. They removed $500,000 from the Haitian National Bank in December of 1914 … thus giving the United States control of the bank. … President Wilson sent the U.S. Marines to Haiti to prevent anarchy. In actuality, the act protected U.S. assets in the area and prevented a possible German invasion.”
The occupation ultimately failed, but the damage was already done. Again, Haiti had suffered the effects of another nation’s ambitions and was left even more unstable and disparaged than before. Still, the people remained focused on their freedom.
In some regards, Haiti’s history is not that different from many African nations, which have also had a long and sordid history with Western powers.
From occupations and invasions to the division of the continent, African nations have suffered as a result of Western interests.
First, there was the “Scramble for Africa.” Historian Saul David describes the mad dash for control of the African continent: “As late as the 1870s, only 10% of the continent was under direct European control … by 1900, Europeans ruled more than 90% of the African continent.”
Then, there was the partitioning of Africa during the Berlin Conference, which David explains “began the process of carving up Africa, paying no attention to local culture or ethnic groups, and leaving people from the same tribe on separate sides of European-imposed borders.”
Both events were at the whim of Western powers that approached people in African countries as things to own. After centuries of suffering, those nations have taken action to unify and heal from the still-evident effects of colonial rule.
In an attempt to reclaim the African continent’s resources, culture, and economic power, the African Union was founded in 2001.
The controversial and much maligned dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, led the creation of the African Union. Yes, that Gaddafi — the deposed Libyan leader who was killed on Oct. 20, 2011. While the good and the bad of his rule have been widely discussed and debated, he had a vision of a unified Africa, which would include “Caribbean islands with African populations,” as stated in his 2009 speech in Tripoli.
Now, five years after his death, that vision could become a reality.
Haiti has expressed a bold desire to join the African Union, wading into uncharted waters in another attempt to take control.
After years of turmoil and destruction, Haiti sees its path to rebuilding — with the support and protection of empathetic African nations.
“To know where you’re going, you need to know where you’re from,” the Haitian ambassador Jacques Junior Baril said in a recent interview with SABC Digital news. And the close cultural connection and mutual respect between the AU and Haiti is clearly evident. In 2010, former African Union chairman, Jean Ping said, “We have attachment and links to that country. The first black republic that carried high the flame of liberation and freedom for black people.”
But the African Union isn’t sold on the idea.
While there is potential for the formation of a “sixth region” of global delegates who will represent the African diaspora, Haiti may not be admitted into the African Union, instead remaining an observing member.
The Haitian ambassador stated, “It’s not something we decided, it’s a place that we earned after we fought for our independence 212 years ago. We paved the way for every other African nation to be free today, so historically speaking Haiti should have been in the AU already.” While Haiti has made its intentions clear, ultimately, it’s not for Haiti to decide.
Regardless of its status in the African Union, Haiti will continue to shatter boundaries, working toward the integrity and national sovereignty that they have long fought for.
Thumbnail image by DVIDSHUB/Flickr.
Update 5/24/2016: This post was updated to clarify that no official determination has been reached yet regarding whether Haiti will join the African Union.