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cc Reflecting on Haiti’s current instability and tumultuous existence, Kimani Waweru provides an historical analysis of the Caribbean island, speculating that the root causes of problems affecting Haiti also transpire in Kenya and much of the developing world. By establishing a correlation between Haitian and Kenyan experiences, the author proposes a need for Kenya to learn from Haiti’s struggle. Despite its remarkable success in being the first Latin American country to gain independence, the first post-colonial nation with a black leadership, and the only country to have gained independence through a successful slave rebellion, Haitians have been subjected to unfathomable duress. Colonialism, slavery, exploitation, invasion, occupation, and corruption in politics have permeated Haiti’s historical landscape. Through the adoption of revolutionary ideology and the elimination of Western rhetoric, which fails to prioritise citizens’ interests, Waweru believes Kenyans can counter imperialism's strength and foster an arena for social justice.

I will try to relate Haiti’s experience to our own so as to learn from this country’s weaknesses and strengths. By doing this, we will be able to understand the root causes of problems bedevilling Kenya and the Third World. Knowing the cause of these problems will enable us to tackle and solve them.

Haiti has featured prominently in world news for a number of years, most of the time for negative reasons. A few months ago, a hurricane swept some parts of the country, causing great damage. Over 100 people lost their lives. As one of the poorest countries in the Caribbean – about 80 per cent of the population survives on less than two dollars a day, and a half of its population on less than a dollar a day – Haiti’s health facilities are in a pathetic state. A large percentage of the population is unable to feed its families. Nonetheless, one questions why a country blessed with a good climate and agricultural opportunities experiences such life-threatening issues. It is paramount to revisit Haiti’s historical trajectory in order to understand the nation’s current instability.

Before invasion by foreigners, Haiti belonged to a group of people called Taíno, meaning ‘men of the good’. Arriving from Spain, Christopher Columbus was the first foreigner to set foot on the island. It is frequently claimed that Columbus ‘discovered’ the island in 1492, indicating that the indigenous Taínos he encountered were not human beings. Columbus invited Spanish colonial settlers to exploit Haiti's wealth, particularly gold, enslaving Taínos within their own land. The Spanish colonialists proceeded to brutally exterminate the entire Taíno population, creating a shortage of human labour. Thus, in 1503 the colonialists brought black people from Spain to work in Haiti’s mines.

When the French arrived in Haiti in 1625, conflict arose between them and the Spaniards over Haiti’s wealth. The fight ended in the signing of the Ryswick Treaty in 1697. The treaty gave France control over Haiti, which was known as Saint-Domingue at the time. To exploit Haiti's wealth, France embarked on a mass importation of slaves from Africa. The slaves were forced to work under extreme conditions to produce wealth, which solely benefited the slave masters.

Black slaves did not sit around waiting for the messiah to save them or hoping to get sympathy from the slave masters, rather they demonstrated resistance in various ways. For example, some took to the mountains where they attacked and killed slave masters. This rebellion culminated in the rise of an inspirational leader called Toussaint L'Ouverture. L’Ouverture organised an army of slaves which terrorised French exploiters. Because of his leadership, slaves believed in themselves and were able to fight with determination.

To end the resistance, the French tricked L’Ouverture into agreeing a deal and subsequently arrested him in 1802. He was taken to prison in France, where he died of pneumonia. Haiti’s slave population did not despair; they continued with the fight.

By 1 January 1804, Haiti became the first black country, and the second in the world – after the United States – to regain independence, under the leadership of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who had taken over from L’Ouverture.

Upon taking over, Dessalines ordered the killing of Frenchmen who remained in Haiti. This action angered the international community, particularly the US and Western Europe, illustrated through a refusal to recognise this newly founded government.

Haiti assisted, and expressed solidarity with Latin American countries struggling for freedom. The great Latin American liberator, Simon Bolívar was once granted asylum in Haiti. In 1825, under the leadership of President Jean-Pierre Boyer, Haiti surrendered to France's demand of 150 million francs as compensation for controlling resources which purportedly belonged to French citizens following independence. The previous ruling regimes had refused France’s demand. This capitulation led to Haiti’s dependence on France. Boyer was eventually overthrown in 1843.

During the leadership of Jean Vibrun Guillaume Sam in 1915, the US invaded Haiti and occupied the country for 19 years, ostensibly because Vibrun had killed 167 political prisoners. Thereafter, the US ruled Haiti through proxies, and even pushed for the amendment of an article in Haiti’s constitution banning foreigners from owning Haitian land.

After the US left the country in 1934, there followed several leaders, with the election of François Duvalier in 1957 garnering the most attention due to the president’s infamous anti-people policies. Prior to his presidency, Duvalier excelled in articulating issues affecting common people. In 1963, he entrenched himself as the future of Haiti’s leadership by changing the constitution to ensure he maintained his presidential position for life. He died in 1971, and his son Jean-Claude Duvalier, whom he had designated as his heir, was made president at the age of 19.

As the younger Duvalier continued to operate according to policies implemented by his father, he failed to bring the change highly sought after by Haitians, leading many to become dissatisfied with the Duvalier dynasty and expressing a desire to depose it.

Under the leadership of a Catholic priest called Jean-Bertrand Aristide, peasants, urban workers and members of the petty bourgeoisie took to the street demanding Duvalier's resignation. Aristide was the leader of the Fanmi Lavalas, a movement which played a crucial role in the uprising.

On 7 February 1986, Jean-Claude Duvalier gave in to mounting pressure, resigned and fled the country, marking the conclusion of this loathed dynasty.

From 1986 to 1990, Haiti was ruled by provisional governments, which amended the constitution. In the first election under the new constitution held in 1990, Aristide emerged the victor with 67 per cent of the votes cast. This election was perceived as the first free and fair election in the history of Haiti. The US was uncomfortable with Aristide because of his combination of liberation theology and anti-capitalist rhetoric, thus the American government chose to support Aristide’s opponent, a former World Bank official, Marc Bazin.

The US approved of a death squad called FRAPH, implemented to destabilise the Aristide government. The destabilisation led to Aristide’s overthrow in September 1991 in which the US secretly backed a military coup. General Raoul Cedras, named chief of general staff of Haiti’s army by Aristide, did exactly what Joseph Mobutu had done to the Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba in the early 1960s, cooperating with the US to overthrow the country's leader. Poor people did not take this lightly and poured into the streets to protest. Their protests were mercilessly crushed by the military regime. It is estimated that under this military reign approximately 7,000 people were killed.

Because of the oppression and economic hardship that followed, many people fled to the US using motor boats. Most of them were deported back to Haiti. The US government had to encourage Haiti’s military regime to step down and let Aristide complete his term. The United Nations Security Council backed the removal of the military regime.

The US government set conditions which the Aristide government had to honour upon returning to power. These conditions included complying with IMF and World Bank conditionalities, co-opting former officials of the Duvalier dictatorship and accepting to complete the term without seeking re-election at its conclusion. Acceptance of these conditions made Aristide unpopular among his supporters, since his compliance affected them negatively. When Aristide’s term culminated in 1996, he persuaded his friend, Rene Preval, to run for president under the Lavalas party. Preval won the election with 88 per cent of votes.

Due to party differences there was a split between the two friends, which led to Aristide forming a breakaway movement called Lavalas Family. When the next election was held in 2000 and was boycotted by the opposition, Aristide emerged triumphantly with 90 per cent of votes.

To counter the Democratic Convergence coalition and Group 184 formed by the US and Haitian ruling classes to destabilise him, Aristide relied on in his Chimères security force, comprised of lumpenproletariat, namely, the impoverished from Haiti’s slums. This force attacked Aristide’s opponents, who in turn formed similar forces to counterattack. Knowing that they could not beat Aristide in a fair election, his opponents formulated excuses, suggesting that the 2000 elections were irregular. Aristide’s opponents were fully supported by the US and other Western countries, who suspended foreign aid to the Aristide government as a symbol of protest around unfair elections. The suspension of aid was meant to turn Haitians against Aristide.

By February things had turned from bad to worse; the US capitalised on this downturn, and facilitated another coup which involved abducting Aristide and his family then flying them to the Central African Republic (CAR). The US insisted that they were helping Aristide since he had resigned. Aristide was later given political asylum in South Africa where he resides to date. The chief justice of the Supreme Court, Boniface Alexandre, took over the government in accordance with Haiti’s constitution, and invited UN peacekeepers to participate in the governance of Haiti. Supporters of Aristide took to the streets to demand his reinstatement, but were confronted by the peacekeeping force. This confrontation continued for several years, costing many injuries and deaths.

The interim government finally held elections on February 2006; Preval won with 51 per cent of the vote, albeit amidst allegations that he had not in fact gathered the 50 per cent needed for one to be declared president. Preval remains in power today. His neoliberal policies are geared to satisfying the interests of the West, such as through privatisation.

It is in the best interests of Kenyans to learn from Haiti’s tumultuous history and present experiences.

Firstly, blindly following Western rhetoric can be catastrophic to people of any Third World country. Any government seeking to succeed must prioritise the interests of its own people, especially the poor majority. Looking at Haiti, we realise that the country’s problems are a result of its leaders playing as stooges of the West. Aristide tried to focus on his people's needs, but betrayed them upon his return after the first coup.

Secondly, imperialism survives through the exploitation of Third World countries – every means will be implemented to destroy a country which endeavours to follow an alternative way of production and distribution of wealth. In the case of Haiti, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) is purportedly used to maintain peace and the status quo.

Thirdly, in the struggle for social justice it is very important for people to differentiate between enemies and friends. Only then will they know the tactics to use against their enemies, and how to work effectively with friends. For example, when the imperialist US collaborated with the local ruling comprador class to remove Aristide, the Haitian president failed to improve the livelihoods of the poor, who represented the backbone of his support. Instead, Aristide allowed them to use the tactics used by lumpenproletariat against the people. He should have realised that unless you contribute to the development of the lumpen class it can be difficult to succeed. This class tends to waver between the exploiters and oppressed, because they have been dehumanised by the state and become ideologically bankrupt. Aristide failed to use the workers and the progressive petty bourgeoisie. In fighting for social justice, workers are key to any struggle and a failure to involve them will inevitably lead to defeat.

Lastly, organisation is critical. For any struggle to succeed it has to be led by an organised group of people. This is precisely the reason why Aristide used his Lavalas movement in dislodging the Duvalier dynasty from power. Another key element which coalesces with organisation is ideology: one may be organised but nevertheless fail to lead the struggle to total victory because of lack of clear ideology. One has to adopt a pro-poor or a revolutionary ideology. Such ideology states that things keep on changing, thus one must examine society the way it is, not the way we think it is.

In conclusion, I will return to the current situation of most Third World countries, including both Kenya and Haiti. Exploiters usually make us believe that we cannot change the status quo. Although wealth is socially produced, it ultimately ends up in the hands of a few people who own capital. However, if we adopt a revolutionary theory as a guide in our work we will realise that this is false. By applying revolutionary theory, the oppressed can liberate themselves from the chain of neocolonialism.

* Kimani Waweru is a receptionist with Release Political Prisoners (RPP) and a member of the Mau Mau Research Center (MMRC).
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