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The fight for the pen: Examining the case for autonomy in Haiti’s political independence

Shajara Khan

Source: Council on Foreign Relations

Reputation is not something we shape ourselves, it is something others shape for us. As much as one wishes to present their ideal version of themselves, it is largely not possible to do so. One prime example of this is the country of Haiti, a country whose reputation is bookmarked by several historically significant events. In the 21st century, the country suffered a deadly earthquake whose aftermath is still felt today. More recently, the country’s government has dissolved due to corruption instigated by gangs, leading to calls for foreign intervention by the United Nations (UN) in order for the country to return to a state of relative stability.

However, this is not the total reputation that should be assigned to Haiti by the international community. Haiti was “the second country in the Americas to gain independence and the first modern state governed by people of African descent.” This milestone should have been the start of a momentous reputation into post-colonial autonomy, but has instead devolved into another example of a post-colonial country struggling to maintain its independence.

This article will analyse the prospective future for Haiti and its people; whether foreign intervention will restore the sovereignty of Haiti and its position on the international stage; or if intervention will bring about neo-colonialism to the nation and end its three-hundred year old autonomous independence.

The waves of human occupation

Before European colonisation, the island now occupied by the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic was occupied by the Arawak-speaking Taino people from the Yucatan peninsula (now part of Mexico), with records indicating their migration dates back to around 4000 BCE. They named the island ‘Ayiti’, which means ‘land of the mountains’ in Arawak – which became the inspiration for the adoption of the country name ‘Haiti’. Over millennia, the Taino divided ‘Ayiti’ into five kingdoms that maintained their territories until Christopher Columbus found the Caribbean in 1492. Almost immediately after Columbus’ arrival, the island of ‘Ayiti’ was renamed ‘Hispaniola’ (Little Spain) and the genocide of the Taino was apparent. It is estimated that by 1531, the Taino population shrunk to 600 from an estimated population of 300,000-400,000. This decimation in the population largely resulted from diseases from the Spanish combined with the enslavement of the Taino, forced to work in the newly established gold mines. With the sharp decline in free labour for the Spanish, they looked elsewhere for their source of labour. Under the governorship of Nicolas de Ovando – third governor of the ‘Indies’ from 1502 – the trans-Atlantic slave trade began, with the delivery of 17 enslaved Africans in 1505. Noting the effectiveness of the enslaved Africans, he requested more enslaved be sent to work the mines.

While the Spanish used the island, now known as Hispaniola, as a resource gathering and trading hub throughout the 1500s, concerns grew over the increasing number of pirates occupying the smaller islands off the west coast. In particular, there was worry over French pirates who were occupying the island of Tortuga. Over the next century, the French pirates – with the support of their monarch – managed to control the territory. The fight for this territory eventually culminated with the signing of the Treaty of Ryswick, ending the Nine Years War between France and Spain – the latter fighting on behalf of the Holy Roman Empire. One aspect of the treaty entitled France to the Western third of the island, which was renamed ‘Saint-Dominique’ in 1697.

Over the 1700s, Saint-Dominique established its reputation to be the wealthiest outpost in the French Empire, utilising the mass enslavement of Africans – with almost 800,000 enslaved Africans brought to the territory – which had become the norm in the European colonies in the Americas. This practice continued until 1791, when slave revolts occurred en masse throughout Saint-Dominique, influenced by the French Revolution of 1789. Led by former slave Toussaint L’Ouverture, the enslaved Africans fought for more than a decade to gain autonomous independence from all colonial powers. It was eventually granted to them in 1804, when one of L’Ouverture’s generals Jean-Jacques Dessalines successfully pushed back against Napoleonic French forces and the nation gained the title of the ‘First Black Republic’ in the world.

One step forward, billions of steps back

This victory for autonomy and independence was short lived as others refused to acknowledge the benefits of a sovereign nation that fought hard for its independence – and was governed by former enslaved people from Africa. France refused to acknowledge the newly formed ‘Haiti’ as an independent nation until 1825, when King Charles X agreed to recognise Haitian independence only on the condition. He demanded that Haiti pay 150 million Francs to the former slaveholders, as compensation for ‘lost property’. The payments took 122 years to resolve and an additional loan of 166 million Francs from French banks, including interest, which has been calculated to be today’s equivalent of $20-30 billion USD.

However, it was not just France who saw the independence of Haiti as a threat. The United States feared that by acknowledging Haiti as a territory governed by formerly enslaved people it would stir up sentiments towards the abolition of slavery in the US. This fear was invoked by Thomas Jefferson – simultaneously a proponent of independence by way of the 1789 French Revolution and slaveholder in Virginia – who during his presidency implemented a policy of political and diplomatic isolation of Haiti. It was not until 1862 that the United States recognised Haiti as a sovereign state. But even then, the United States was concerned about leaving Haiti to its own devices as a newly independent nation burdened with debt. This led to several unsuccessful bids for the territory between 1868 and 1915. The assassination of seven Haitian presidents between 1910 and 1915 and the increased German presence in the early 20th century, prompted President Woodrow Wilson to send United States Marines to take control of Haiti in 1915. Occupation of the country formally ended in 1934, but financial control of the country was exerted until 1947.

Between 1935 and 1991, Haiti’s political leadership became a case study in post-colonial theory – starting with the implementation of the ‘Garde’, a military leadership backed by the United States. Elections were held for leaders, however, these leaders were ultimately chosen at the United States’ discretion. In 1957, a new type of leader emerged in the form of François Duvalier, who ran a more populist platform, with vocal disdain from the military. However, Duvalier’s leadership brought about dictatorship to Haiti and an era of unmitigated chaos that continued after his only son, Jean-Claude took over as president in 1971. In 1986, Jean-Claude Duvalier succumbed to the calls for regime change and fled to France, bringing about the return of military rule to Haiti.

It was in 1991 when Father Jean-Bretrand Aristide became the first democratically elected president of Haiti, only to be overthrown by the military eight months later. This once again led to international intervention into Haitian politics – this time in the form of Operation Uphold Democracy, a mission authorised by United Nations Security Council’s Resolution 940. This allowed for a peacekeeping operation that worked to remove the Haitian military’s coup d’etat. Operation Uphold Democracy went on for three years, until former US president Bill Clinton implemented Operation New Horizons, a US-led peacekeeping operation primarily focused on restoring infrastructure and institutions such as education. Aristide restarted his presidency, but the Haitian constitution barred him from seeking a second consecutive term. In response, Aristide believed that his party, the Struggling People’s Organization, was not effective enough in their support of him, and subsequently formed the Lavalas Family in 1996. However, Haiti was unable to shake off the reputation of violence in the country as Aristide was re-elected in 2001, amidst politically motivated violence. Despite Aristide’s assertions about his ability to lead the country according to his personal ideology, his reputation as a democratically elected president was able to quell those who opposed him.

Planned obsolescence of stability

The restoration of good repute was dashed from the people of Haiti as anti-Aristide protestors drove Aristide and his bodyguard Franz Gabriel out of Haiti in 2005. In an interview with Amy Goodman from DemocracyNOW, Aristide and Gabriel detailed the events of their ousting, noting that US military personnel escorted the two men out of the country. At the end of the interview, Aristide implied that intervention only occurred because the US was not personally satisfied with the autonomic direction of Haiti’s politics, stating “our goal was to move not from coup d’etat to coup d’etat anymore, but from elections to elections…That wasn’t their goal. They went back to coup d’etat.” UN intervention returned to the nation, with a major focus on judicial reform. However, this also proved to be a difficult task to complete with the 2010 earthquake thwarting any meaningful effort to transition into a stable democracy. One 2014 study reported that Haitian trust in government was at its lowest of 8.5 per cent in 2010, highlighting disillusionment towards institutional leadership.

In 2021, As Haiti prepared to rejoin the international community on its own terms under the leadership of president Jovenel Moïse, he was assassinated in his home 24 hours after naming Ariel Henry as his prime minister – who was to oversee the September 2021 election. Henry promptly took on the role of president with the support of the US, and pushed past objections to his legitimacy. Despite strong-arming his way into a position of leadership, Henry has been largely hands off in any governance and in fact sacked government ministers in response to US sanctions in 2022. Simultaneously, gangs have taken over the country in the midst of the political turmoil, with economic sanctions and travel bans being placed on them.

In early 2023, the last ten elected senators announced they were leaving office as their terms expired, leaving Haiti with no government.

Pattern recognition

There are two camps of argument for the next step in Haiti: one side argues that a new UN peacekeeping operation should be deployed as a necessity in providing governance until a new government can be implemented.

Conversely, the other side argues that the country does not need to add to its track record of foreign aid failing to provide a long-term solution. The people of Haiti know what is best for their autonomous independence, but is the international community ready to agree? Or are they reliant on the reputation they imparted?


Shajara Khan graduated from UNSW with a Master of International Relations and a Bachelor of Arts (Korean Studies). During her master's, she worked on her dissertation analysing how ideology plays a major role in U.S. politics



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