Reparations in Reverse: What the West Did to Haiti (Part 1) by James Taichi Collins

Truth and Time: The Paintings of Ulrick Jean-Pierre


There is an historical argument to be made that modern politics began with the French Revolution. There is little debate amongst historians that the French Revolution is the most historically consequential revolution in human history. The struggle to abolish the Ancien Régime was the first time that a person’s political position was categorized in terms of “left-wing or right-wing.”  It divided people into ideological camps of conservatives, liberals, reactionaries, and radicals. And when Napoleon took over half of Europe during the later phase of the Revolution, these political ideas quickly became mainstream throughout the rest of the globe. Marxist scholars often view the French Revolution as the capitalist revolution that overthrew feudalism, and set in motion the political divide we now have between the forces of labor and capital. 

If it is the case that modern politics begins with the French Revolution, then it could also be argued that anti-colonial politics started with the Haitian Revolution – the  most successful slave revolt in human history.

Two hundred and thirty years ago in 1791 and coinciding with the turbulent French Revolution in the homeland, slaves of the French colony of what was then called “Saint-Domingue” rose up against their owners and started the Haitian Revolution. When the slaves were freed and declared independence in 1804, Haiti became, after the United States, the Western hemisphere’s second republic. Founded upon enlightenment ideals, it emulated the French national motto of “fraternity, liberty, and equality.” The country became a symbol of hope for the anti-colonial struggles that followed, and influenced and empowered other Africans who had also been taken to the Americas as slaves. The Haitian Revolution is the root that branched out into the abolitionist, civil rights, and the Black Lives Matter movements, as well as other anti-colonial struggles around the world. 

If you understand this history of Haiti, then I hope you share my anger. We all should be furious, repulsed, and shamed by what Haiti has become now. After all Haiti has done to inspire the struggles of liberation, we have allowed it to become re-shackled by western Capitalism. The West was never able to tolerate a Republic founded by freed slaves. The story of Haiti is not just a story of liberation, but of revenge.

Let’s put Haiti’s economic situation in perspective.  During the last quarter of the 18th century, when “Saint-Domingue” was still colonized by France, it was the most profitable colony in existence – providing most of the world’s coffee, sugar, and cotton. Nicknamed as “the Jewel of the Antilles.” – generating more revenue than all of the thirteen North American colonies combined.  (Hallward, p.9) And yet, despite the abundance of natural resources and the early promotion and application of liberal values, Haiti is now the poorest country in the Americas and one of the poorest in the world. 59% of Haitians live under the national poverty line of $2.41 per dayThe average life expectancy is also just 62.8 years, which is also the worst in all of the Americas. However, a few elites have managed to remain wealthy, making Haiti one of the most economically unequal countries in the world today.

There is no short answer as to why Haiti went from the wealthiest to the poorest country in the Americas. But the springboard for its trajectory towards poverty can be located with the vindictive policies enacted by Western powers after Haiti achieved independence. Because the country was founded upon a successful slave rebellion, Haiti was seen during the early 19th century as a threat to other slave-owning states. After a heavy embargo and trade restrictions that were set in place by the Western powers, Haiti was finally recognized as a sovereign state by France in 1825.  But recognition came under the strict condition that the newly independent country would “compensate” the former slave-owning state of France over its lost “property.” In other words, in exchange for its survival as a sovereign nation, the former plantation slaves were forced to pay France for their own freedom with a sum of 150 million francs –  an amount roughly equal to France’s annual budget at the time. Because the “compensation” was so astronomically large, Haiti had to borrow from other nations at such steep interest rates that it took until 1947 for France to receive the last installment.  (Hallward, p. 12)  In order to ease  the economic cost of abolishing slavery and ending colonialism for the former slave masters and colonizers, Haiti had to pay what journalist and best-selling author Naomi Klein described as “Reparations, but in reverse.” (p.457)  Since 1825, Haiti has remained in constant debt not only to French creditors but later to German, American, and other interests as well.  This has been one of the fundamental reasons why the country has lacked enough funds in its reserves for development projects. It has been one of the key reasons why Haiti has a massive deforestation crisis, having been forced to sell off timber in a desperate attempt to pay back France. This is why, to this day, Haiti has been forced to take out loans from neoliberal institutions like the IMF and been forced into a state of perpetual austerity

It is crucial to understand the fundamental roots of Haiti’s poverty in order to dispel the notion that its poverty is a natural phenomenon.  It is true that the earthquakes, hurricanes, and tropical ecological conditions make it harder for development – but they are not the primary cause of Haiti’s underdevelopment. Other countries in Latin America such as Ecuador or Trinidad and Tobago are also prone to similar natural disruptions, yet they are able to improve their economic conditions and are in the process of development.  

Moreover, there persists the racist notion that Haiti’s prospects have been thwarted not by external Western policy but, rather, the inherent traits of a black population lacking the requisite “work ethic.”   The conservative columnist David Brooks in the New York Times once shamelessly suggested that “Responsibility is often not internalized” in Haiti because of the “influence of the voodoo religion.” Or take Bill O’Reilly from Fox News, who adapted his trusty race-baiting “Welfare Queen” trope to claim that “no matter how much charity is given, no matter how many good intentions there are, Haiti will remain chaotic until discipline is imposed.”  Attributing Haiti’s struggles to natural causes or racist misconceptions makes it easier for other countries to cut off desperately needed foreign aid.  As long as experts and analysts tell us that Haiti has itself to blame, foreign aid will continue to be seen as wasteful “handouts.”  But if the real causes of Haiti’s poverty are properly understood, we might see more efforts to help develop the nation.  And if the historical injustices it has endured can be sufficiently highlighted, we might even hope that economic assistance could be motivated not only by pragmatism and self-interest but by a genuine desire to make amends for the sins of the past. 

Thus, to begin to understand the causes and effects of the injustices that Haiti faces today, we must first start from the very moment it was stained by the taint of colonialism. 

A Brief History of Haiti 

1492 ~ 1791: Colonization, Ethnic Cleansing, and Slavery 

Hispaniola – the island shared by Haiti in the west and the Dominican Republic in the East – has been in contact with the western world since Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas in 1492. Contrary to the nationalistic mythology that portrays him as a hero, Columbus ethnically cleansed and brutally enslaved the native Taino people that resided on Hispaniola, with his successors later destroying its civilization altogether.  After the completion of this first phase of colonialism, the 1695 Treaty of Ryswick granted Spain the eastern side of the island and France the western side, in which they named “Saint Domingue.”  With the native Taino population completely wiped out, the European colonizers brought in a new labor force of slaves from Western Africa, thus beginning the second plantation and settler phase of colonization. 

Before reaching the New World, one in five slaves that were collected in Western Africa died in the slave ships – with causes ranging from disease, starvation, and suicide.  There were cases of forced cannibalism, as the crew would often use the flesh of a few slaves to feed the rest in the ship.  The four out of five that survived were met in Saint Domingo by a living hell. Because it was cheaper to buy new slaves than to keep the existing ones alive, slave owners showed no hesitation in torturing their subjects to increase production. Their methods to control the slave population included whippings, rape, immolation, sodomization with piercing hot wood, pouring melted wax on top of heads, mutilation of the limbs and/or privates, and live burial up to the neck with heads smeared in sugar so that flies would devour the victim. (James, p. 12 ~ 13)   “Slaves in Haiti,” as one historian puts it,  “were kept down by perhaps the most extreme and arbitrary terror known in modern history.”  (Robinson, p. 260) 

1791 ~ 1915: Slave Revolution, Shockwaves, and Endless Debt 

The extreme subjugation of a slave population that comprised the vast majority of the island made an open rebellion inevitable.  The opportunity presented itself when the French homeland became destabilized by the French Revolution and the influence of British power in the Caribbean grew. In 1791, the slaves of Saint-Domingue rose up in revolt

Although it is not necessary to rehearse the Haitian Revolution in detail, its significance and essential characteristics must not be overlooked. While the white population of the Thirteen Colonies revolted over a tea tax, the black population in Saint Domingue fought because they could not breathe. While the Thirteen Colonies waged an 8-year war against the British empire with the aid of France, the slaves of Saint Domingue would engage in a 12-year struggle (from 1791 to 1804) that pitted them successively against the Kingdom of France, the British Empire, the Spanish Empire, and Napoleonic France. And while the United States gained its independence through a military campaign led by literate landowners and experienced military generals, Haiti’s independence was won through a revolt mostly carried out by illiterate ex-slaves with no military training – with the notable exception of some of its revolutionary leaders, such as Toussaint Louverture.  Haiti’s victory of independence was, therefore, one of the greatest military upsets of its time and sent shockwaves to the imperial powers. 

After reading about the slave revolts in Haiti, Thomas Jefferson feared a chain reaction that might cause his own slaves to revolt. He wrote, “if something is not done and soon done, we shall be the murderers of our own children.” Such handwringing within the colonial empires was not only due to the material loss of Haiti’s natural resources, but also to disagreeable sight of Africans achieving self-determination and running a sophisticated republic. This challenge to the existing narrative of inherent white superiority was alarming. Napoleon Bonaparte spelled it out clearly:  “My decision to destroy the authority of the blacks in Haiti,”  he wrote in regards to his military campaign to take back Saint Domingue, “is not so much based on considerations of commerce and money, as on the need to block forever the march of the blacks in the world.” (Kim, 2003)  

In time, slaves in Jamaica, Cuba, Brazil, and the southern United States, would regard the Haitian Revolution as a symbol of hope and a promise of justice. When Frederick Douglas served as U.S. ambassador to Haiti in 1889, he praised the Haitian Revolution as a source of inspiration and declared that it had “struck for the freedom of every black man in the world.” (Dubois, 2004, p.305) And like a pebble dropped into a quiet pond, the ripples from Haiti grew into another movement, one that is now considered “the first wave of decolonization.” This wave would broaden out to reach the shores of the rest of the Americas, and not just in the form of an abstract ideal.  Haiti provided direct aid to Venezuela in their war of independence in the early 19th century. (Arana, p. 186) 

Despite the abolishment of slavery and deliverance from colonization, peace and prosperity did not prevail for Haiti.  For one, Toussaint Louverture, the military mastermind behind the successful slave revolt who later became governor, was betrayed, arrested, and killed during Napoleon’s military campaign in the last phase of the Haitian Revolution. Without the stewardship of Louverture’s vision, Haiti fell under the control of the more authoritarian Jean-Jacques Dessaline, who proclaimed himself emperor of the newly liberated state. Like the Jacobins in the French Revolution, Dessaline initiated his own “reign of terror” and massacred thousands of former white colonists who had remained on the island.  Dessaline’s assassination in 1806 led to a series of regime changes – as Haiti would become a republic, a state, a kingdom, an empire, and once again a republic. For a time, North and South Haiti separated, only to be unified again. During one period, from 1822 to 1844, Haiti asserted control over the entire island of Hispaniola, including what is now considered the Dominican Republic. What the Haitians saw as unification was regarded by the Dominicans as an occupation. The bitter legacy of this dark episode created an enduring anti-Haitian sentiment in the Dominican Republic, one that haunts the island of Hispaniola to this day.

As Haiti’s domestic problems in the 19th century weakened its political stability, foreign powers swooped in to ravage its economy. It was at this time, for example, that Haiti was forced to pay France reverse reparations. The choice was either to bear a continued embargo, suffer another invasion by France, or pay off their former slaveholders. The decision to pay reparations saddled Haiti with an insurmountable debt that ultimately brought the country to economic ruin. 

It is hard to fathom the egregious absurdity of this arrangement between Haiti and its former colonizers. Despite winning the war, the victorious Haitians were compelled to compensate the losers. Imagine the uproar if the Treaty of Versailles had required Great Britain and France to pay vanquished Germany for its loss in World War I. Of course, it did no such thing. But even when reparations “make sense” and losers pay the winners, the consequences can be devastating: Its acquiescence to the Versailles treaty made the Weimar Republic unpopular and eventually opened the door for a Fascist dictatorship in Germany.  It should be much less surprising that a destroyed economy in Haiti would leave the door open for a plague of demagogues to beleaguer the nation for more than a century. With crippling debt and destabilizing regime changes, the “Jewel of the Antilles” was left destitute throughout the 1800s – deprived in its political infancy of its chance to develop and become a viable world power. 

1915 ~ 1934: U.S Occupation of Haiti 

By the early 1900s, through intermarriage and social relationships with Haitians, German businesses came to control the foreign exchange market and 80 percent of Haitian commercial enterprises. (Shannon, p. 4) More than a decade before the U.S. joined WW  I  and officially declared Germany an enemy, there was already an uneasiness in the States over the rise of the German Empire. It was bad enough that Germany was reshaping the balance of powers in Europe. The U.S. was certainly not going to let it do the same on its own turf.  In its own effort to increase its influence over the Caribbean republics, the U.S., under President Taft, adopted what was called “Dollar Diplomacy,” a strategy to encourage U.S. banks to lend money to these fledgling states as a way to constrain them by debt. Haiti, of course, was one of the targets of the Dollar Diplomacy strategy.  But because of the crippling debt that Haiti already owed to France, U.S. banking interests panicked over the likelihood of a Haitian default.  On December 17, 1914, U.S. Marines stormed into the country, pillaged Haiti’s national bank, and delivered the spoils to the National City Bank of New York (now called Citibank) (Katz, p. 40) To the injustice of having to pay reverse reparations, Haiti was now the victim of out-and-out plunder. 

The official U.S. occupation of Haiti began the following year and lasted until 1934.  Although President Woodrow Wilson touted his internationalist policies under the pretext of promoting democracy, his real intentions were to make Haiti more attractive to business interests. When, for example, the U.S. occupiers were chafed by laws that prevented foreign land ownership, they responded by abolishing the existing Haitian constitution.  When the parliament refused to approve the proposed amendment, the U.S. dissolved the legislature altogether and forced a sham national plebiscite to ratify the change. (Dubois, 2012, p.21) The occupation created a facade of democracy to mask what was, in reality, autocratic rule. 

The vicious treatment Haiti received was not uncommon in U.S. foreign policy which seems to have become heir to Napoleon’s racist views. The early 20th century was the heyday for the Ku Klux Klan with millions of active members, but even liberal thinkers had become enthralled by social Darwinist views that regarded socio-economic success as a marker of genetic advantage. The prevailing sentiment is captured by the response of a U.S. Army general when questioned about American violations of the “ordinary rules of civilized warfare” during the suppression of the Philippine insurrection in 1900. This commander of the American forces replied simply, “These people are not civilized.” (Schmidt, p.7) Those in higher offices had similar views. President Wilson, reacting to the arrival in America of Italian, Hungarian, and Polish immigrants, wrote in contempt that they had “neither skill nor energy nor any initiative of quick intelligence.” (Pizzigati, p.63) During a period of Cuban unrest in 1906, Teddy Roosevelt threatened nothing short of genocide when he fumed he was “so angry with that infernal little Cuban republic” that he would have liked “to wipe its people off the face of the earth.”(Schmitz, p. 25) The U.S .attitude towards Haiti comes as no surprise. The lingering resentment against a sovereign nation born out of a slave revolt found new life in contemporary trends. While the move to abolish the Haitian Constitution was ostensibly in order to make the country more attractive to foreign investment, it was also a form of psychological warfare to dismantle Haitian nationalism and crush its sense of pride.  

In addition to humiliating the country, the U.S. also fractured Haiti’s sense of unity through a racist colonial policy of “divide and conquer.” Much as European empires created the mythical divide between Tutsi and Hutus which in more recent times resulted in the Rwandan genocide, the U.S. occupation of Haiti fomented racial divisions between lighter skinned and darker skinned Haitians. While looking down upon all nonwhites, the American occupiers showed a preference for lighter skinned Haitian minorities. Based on the shade of their skin, one small group of Haitians was granted political, economic and educational privileges, while the majority was dispossessed of almost all power.


James Taichi Collins is a “Zainichi” Korean-American, born and raised in Wakayama, Japan. He moved to the United States in 2012 to attend college at the University of Delaware, where he received his degree in Political Science and became a community organizer. He has since worked in various electoral races from Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s 2018 primary, to Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign in Iowa. James identifies as a socialist and currently resides in Astoria, Queens.


Dubois, L. (2004). Avengers of the New World: The story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 

Dubois, L. (2012). Haiti: The aftershocks of history. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Hallward, P. (2010). Damming the flood: Haiti, Aristide and the politics of containment. United Kingdom: Verso Books.

James, C. L. (1963). The Black Jacobins; Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. New York: Vintage Books. 

Katz, J. (2013). The big truck that went by: How the world came to save Haiti and left behind a disaster. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 

Klein, N. (2014). This changes everything: Capitalism vs. The climate. London, England: Penguin Books.

Kim, C. (2003, November/December) The Soul of a Free Man: Toussaint-Louverture. Humanities, Volume 24, Number 6

Pizzigati, S. (2012). The rich don’t always win: The forgotten triumph over plutocracy that created the American middle class, 1900/1970. New York: Seven Stories Press.

Robinson, W. I. (1996). Promoting polyarchy: Globalization, US intervention, and hegemony. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schmidt, H. (1971). The United States occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. 

Schmitz, D. F. (1999). Thank God they’re on our side: The United States and right-wing dictatorships, 1921-1965. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Shannon, M. W. (1996) Jean Price-Mars and the American Occupation, 1915 ~ 35 New York : St. Martin’s Press

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