Caribbean Disdain for Haiti

Haiti - demonstration
Port-au-Prince, Dec. 30, 2003: A boy runs to avoid tear gas at a demonstration calling for the resignation of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Conflict over the legitimacy of Aristide's government has left dozens dead in recent months (Photo: Thony Belizaire/AFP-Getty Images).

There is a Caribbean ambivalence toward Haiti which this newspaper finds unfortunate and, frankly, distasteful.

For it is an attitude, particularly in the English-speaking Caribbean, that has echoes of the house-slave versus field-slave mentality, or how, in the region, we sometimes deal with poor relations. We engage them at the back door or in the kitchen, but they are never quite good enough to mingle with the guests in the drawing room.

This behavior toward Haiti, we understand, has its genesis in a complex set of historical circumstances and the peculiarities of colonialism and geopolitical relations.

Indeed, colonial education did not dispose the people of ex-slave colonies to see Haiti in the context of its historic, social, and political significance as the first black republic in the world whose independence was won 200 years ago by the defeat by a slave arm of what was then one of the world’s superpowers.

Moreover, Haiti’s descent over two centuries into instability and poverty, and its status as the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation, fed a sense of superiority into its neighbors.

We had hoped that this attitude toward Haiti, essentially a mimicry of the former powers’, was substantially eroded, if not totally removed, when Haiti was accepted as a member of the Caribbean Community (Caricom) in 1997.

This is a development not to be glossed over. Caricom, after all, is not just another club with a place for all and sundry. At the time of Haiti’s accession, Caricom was on its way to putting in place the structures for the creation of a single market and economy. In other words, there was an expectation of a full integration of Haiti’s economy with the rest of the community’s.

Nonetheless, two centuries after the armies of Toussaint [L’Ouverture], [Jean Jacques] Dessalines, and [Henri] Christophe defeated the French in an important episode in the history of black people, Caricom, and, indeed, Jamaica are showing that their embrace of Haiti is, at best, tenuous.

Caricom, significantly, sent its least experienced prime minister, Perry Christie of the Bahamas, a country that does not subscribe to the community’s economic protocols and is largely aloof from its emerging political arrangements, as its official representative to the celebrations. Significantly, too, Jamaica, whose prime minister, [P.J.] Patterson, holds the chairmanship of Caricom, sent only a nonresident ambassador.

What can best be said about the effort is that it took political correctness to ridiculous extremes.

We suspect that Caricom was timid for fear that in the context of the political quarrels in Haiti over the legitimacy of the government, the opposition would accuse the community of giving succor to the administration of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Perry, in this regard, was a safe bet. We expect that similar considerations helped to influence Patterson’s decision to stay away.

What is apparent is that Caricom, despite Patterson’s declaration of a willingness to play honest broker, does not have the same confidence in its relations with Haiti as with the “old” member states, which allowed it to intervene in political crises in Guyana (twice) and St. Vincent.

If it had that confidence, it would have made it clear to the Haitian opposition that the bicentennial celebrations of the achievement of black slaves was of monumental importance to black people across the world and transcended the immediate domestic politics.

[President Thabo] Mbeki of South Africa understood this. Unfortunately, Patterson didn’t.