Imani Tafari-Ama | Haiti needs help, not hindrance
In July, 37 Haitians landed in Portland on Jamaica’s east coast. This was followed by 36 refugees seeking sanctuary on September 9. Current crisis conditions of life in the Haitian republic galvanised these 67 desperate men, women and children to pack themselves in risky 18-foot boats and flee from their native country.
It was no joyride for the men, women and children who were seeking to save themselves from what has been described as desperate and disheartening political and socio-economic circumstances prevailing in both urban and rural areas of the beleaguered nation.
In the past two decades, Haiti has been wracked by the massive 2010 earthquake and the aftershocks of a cholera epidemic unleashed by United Nations (UN) peace-keeping troops who claimed diplomatic immunity for their culpability for contaminating the river on which the local population depended for their water supply. A bad situation was made worse because the influx of non-government organisations (NGOs) that collected millions of dollars in Haiti’s name did not trickle down these resources to those in need. To this day, some citizens continue to live in the makeshift tent cities set up as temporary shelters. Haiti also suffers routine devastation from hurricanes, as denuded hillsides cannot withstand the impact from torrential rains and mudslides.
Compounding the acts of God that were catalysed by natural disasters are the man-made tragedies of chronic destabilisation from unstable political regimes. The assassination of the president of Haiti, Jovenel Moïse, on July 7, 2021 sent a country that was already reeling on its proverbial backfoot further into the psychosocial, political and economic gutters. It was therefore astounding that the initial knee-jerk from Jamaican officials to the arrival of the Haitians on Jamaica’s shores was that they should be sent back with immediate effect. However, humanitarian advocates intervened, and the negotiations are ongoing for the displaced Haitians to realise their asylum-seeking goal.
The relations between Jamaica and Haiti are long and historical ones. We need to plumb the depths of this past interaction to understand the intricacies of the current political and socio-economic situation. After 12 years of struggle, Haiti realised the only successful revolution by enslaved Africans against European colonialism in 1804. It was a bloody battle, galvanised by deep spiritual convictions. Dutty Boukman (or Boukman Dutty) a Voodoo African priest born in Senegambia (today’s Senegal and Gambia), left Jamaica, the country of his colonial confinement in 1791, and made his way by boat to Haiti, or Ayiti, as the indigenous peoples called that country. His mission was to initiate the revolution with a spiritual ceremonial ritual at Bois Caïman in August of that year.
Travel between Jamaica and Haiti was not uncommon; the indigenous peoples – Tainos and Kalinagos - crossed these seas long before Christopher Columbus lost his way and arrived in the island that came to be known as La Española (Hispaniola) in 1492. After taking over from the Spanish, French colonisers renamed the half of the island that they occupied Saint Domingue. The other half that was conquered by the Spain was called Santo Domingo.
Since its revolution, Haitians have had a rough time reconciling its political, social and economic fortunes in the face of heavy-handed resistance to its autonomy and place among the free world states by pompous politicians in France, Spain, Britain and the United States of America. Ironically, the overthrow of these colonisers happened nearly a century before the United States of America, the so-called ‘Leader of the Free World’, was itself free.
There are 15 colonies in the Caribbean today. These include Martinique, Guadeloupe, Canne, St. Barthelémy, Saint Martin (France); Montserrat, Anguilla, British Virgin Islands the Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos Islands, (Britain); Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, Sint Maarten (The Netherlands); Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands of the United States (United States of America.
Over five centuries since the Pope of Rome divided the world between Spain and Portugal with the Treaty of Tordesillas, giving these countries the authority to conquer these lands, peoples and resources in the interest of their royal crowns and coffers, the colonisers are still entrenched in the Caribbean. Commonwealth countries like Jamaica still are politically shackled by the British monarch, which is another story. You would think that the Euro-American countries that benefited from the extraction of profits from human and material resources would give up, right? No, Frederick Douglass, former enslaved-turned-statesman, said memorably, “power does not give up without a demand”.
Colonisation is often relegated to the past by those determined not to pay reparations to the descendants of those who suffered its worst impacts. There is also denial of this past by those determined to transcend the ugliness of this history and move on with their lives. But there is a political economy of forgetfulness. And, if we want to leverage for human rights, we should place Haiti on a pedestal because she made a blood sacrifice for our blandishing of emancipation and independence as vaunted ideals.
WEAPONISING IS WRONG
Weaponising rejection of Haitian refugees is wrong. It is more strategic to support an underdeveloped country to address the complex and multifaceted problems that encompass various aspects of the country’s political, economic, and social systems. To understand the political economy of Haiti, it is essential to examine its historical context, governance structure, economic development, and challenges faced by the nation.
Haiti operates under a semi-presidential republic system, with a president as the head of state and a prime minister as the head of government. The country has a bicameral legislature consisting of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. However, Haiti has struggled with weak governance institutions, corruption, and limited rule of law. These issues have hindered effective policymaking and implementation, leading to socio-economic disparities and political unrest.
Agriculture remains a significant sector employing a large portion of the population but faces challenges such as deforestation, soil erosion, and vulnerability to natural disasters. The country also has limited industrialisation and relies heavily on imports for basic goods.
Foreign aid plays a crucial role in Haiti’s economy, accounting for a significant portion of its budget. However, aid dependency has created challenges in terms of sustainability and self-sufficiency. Additionally, Haiti has faced difficulties attracting foreign direct investment because of factors such as political instability, inadequate infrastructure, and a challenging business environment.
Most of the population live in poverty, with limited access to basic services such as healthcare, education, and clean water. Income disparities are significant, with a small elite controlling a disproportionate share of wealth. We are sailing in the same boat and should take the beams out of our eyes before we push our neighbours back into dangerous waters.
Imani Tafari-Ama, PhD, is a Pan-African advocate and gender and development specialist. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org