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The Haitians and the Irish

[The Louverture Project welcomes new contributor R. P. Remarque.]

Similarities between the horrendous, compounding devastation in Haiti from Toussaint’s ousting until the present day, and the horrifying poverty and pulverizing political suppression of the Irish that peaked during, and after, the ‘Great Hunger’ years of the 1845-49 potato famine years, are startling.

Certainly they are not exact. One basic difference is that the Irish were crushed essentially because of unforgiving religious intolerance: Protestantism stridently vs. Catholicism. In addition, the Irish were perceived by the English as a race and as such were targeted for more or less legitimized slow extermination almost continuously since the Norman Invasion of 1169. The closer analogy to Haiti is that for centuries the Irish and their land were exploited for all they were worth … the same long-standing villainy that has driven Haiti and its people into senseless destitution.

The Great Hunger by Cecil Woodham Smith,* which chronicles the Great Hunger years, is much in need of tightening and organization. Even so, the appalling story that weeps through the pages of this well-documented history contains haunting echos of what you’re reading on this site about Haiti. Select another history of that time if you prefer; the basic facts remain the same. Whatever your source, perhaps some lessons from Ireland can illuminate Haiti’s ‘Troubles.’

Among the parallels between the two:

IRELAND: At the time of the Great Famine, England already had been strangling Ireland for nearly seven centuries.

HAITI: Haiti (Quisqueya/Hispaniola/St. Domingue) has been strangling from within … and additionally has been strangled from without … almost continuously since the Portuguese explorer Christopher Columbus stuck his unwelcome Spanish-sponsored boot there over seven centuries ago.

IRELAND: The English government’s laissez-faire attitude toward Ireland guaranteed deepening disaster because as conditions within Ireland worsened her people became increasingly unable to improve their lot from within.

HAITI: Haiti’s intensifying poverty and chronic lack of healthy leadership has left her people increasingly unable to fend for themselves. From your posting entitled ‘The End of Nationhood,’ copyright 2004 John Maxwell: ‘A country whose infrastructure has been destroyed, whose best and brightest have fled after a century of sponsored abuse, is expected to pull itself up, as Americans say, by its own bootstraps. As you will discover if you try, pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps simply breaks your back.’�

IRELAND: [As is true with the Haitians] the Irish received some help from outside sources including its worst oppressor (in Ireland’s case, England). Some came from sympathetic sources—notably the Society of Friends (Quakers) and later Irish emigr�es and their sympathizers in the U.S.—and was gratefully received. But most of it was shoved at them with blind arrogance, dispensed from the myopic standpoint of ‘benefactors’ who had neither comprehension of nor interest in what the Irish actually needed or could benefit from. And much of it came with such stiff strings attached that many Irish could never have hoped to qualify for it. Over the short run this left the Irish little improved; over the long run it left them increasingly angry, embittered, destitute and desperate.

HAITI: Two items from your January 24, 2004 Louverture Project 06:12 entry: ‘Humanitarian aid that does make it to the country is so laden with conditions as to make it meaningless.’� And from Samuel Madisten, Haitian Senator: ‘CARE has been “helping” people in the Northwest [of Haiti] for decades. But each year, the misery of the people of the Northwest increases. What is the real impact of this aid? To make people more dependent, more vulnerable, more on the margins?...The aid is not given in such a way as to give the people responsibility, to make them less dependent …’

IRELAND: During the great famine, the Irish were widely acknowledged to be living under appalling conditions. (From The Great Hunger: ‘The Frenchman de Beaumont found in Ireland the extreme of human misery, worse than the Negro in his chains; the German traveller Kohl wrote that no mode of life in Europe [which previously he had thought the worst endurable] could seem pitiable after one had seen Ireland.’) Yes, there were exceptions as there always are. But they were just that: exceptions.

HAITI: The living conditions in most of Haiti are abominable. In your January 24, 2004 entry posted at 06:12 PM: ‘The infrastructure that might supply basic human needs such as clean water, sewage, and health care are non-existent.’ Further description in the next entry.

IRELAND: The impoverished Irish had no money for even the basics of life: food, clothing, medicine. Soon enough they also had no furniture, then no housing. Those who were unemployed or were turned out of their homes huddled in holes that they dug into the peat bogs, or in segments of ditch that they covered as best they could. The multiple ragged thousands who were lacking even that wandered unprotected, begging, in the cold and rain until they died of starvation and exposure.

HAITI: From your January 24, 2004 entry … ‘Families who have shelter are reduced to living either in cardboard hovels or tin boxes that become ovens in the noonday sun. Eight people might live in a 12-foot by 12-foot room … One lady reported sleeping standing up holding two children while flood water mixed with human waste flowed past her belly button.’

IRELAND: Though certainly some Irish were perpetual beggars (as are to be found almost anywhere), the vast proud majority didn’t want handouts; they wanted to be able to provide for their own families as they always had.�

HAITI: From Stumax.com, posted at 07:41 PM under the heading ‘Korngold’s Toussaint’ is this citation noting the Haitians’ urgent drive to survive: ‘The original cause of the slave rebellion was the slaves’ desire to have one more day per week to cultivate their garden plots – their only source of food …’

IRELAND: The two most serious flaws of the often begrudgingly provided food-for-work programs were that they (1) offered bare-minimal subsistence and (2) kept the Irish from growing food that could feed their own families. This was particularly devastating in 1847. Ireland got an unanticipated respite from the blight that year, but few potato crops had been planted because to survive to that point the foundering Irish had submitted themselves in desperation to the workhouses where they had been told—in only partial truth—that they could exchange work for a bit of food to stave off imminent starvation.

HAITI: That is virtually the same situation described by the coordinator of the T�t Kole peasant movement in your January 24, 2004 Louverture Project 06:12 entry. Also in that same entry: The �Feeding Dependency, Starving Democracy: USAID Policies in Haiti� report ‘found that US-funded food aid and job-creation programs actually hurt Haitians by, among other things, lowering the prices farmers could get for rice and other grains, initiating projects which are at odds with �stated national, regional, and local priorities,� underfunding agricultural revitalization programs, and luring people into job-creation programs at key harvest times. This last item had the stunning effect of letting entire rice crops rot in the middle of a famine.’

IRELAND: Rampant disease ravaged Ireland’s malnourished population. Unable to afford even minimal health care, thousands upon thousands became an overwhelming burden on family members too weak and poor either to care for them or to resist the typhus, relapsing fever, lice infestations, scurvy, dysentery and other plagues that overwhelmed them. At least a million died of starvation and/or exposure. More died from such fast-spreading diseases as typhus and such body-wasting conditions as bacillary dysentery.

HAITI: From your posting entitled ‘The End of Nationhood,’ copyright 2004 John Maxwell: ‘Haiti endures the ravages of disease of all kinds, including HIV/AIDS …’

IRELAND: The Irish were prohibited from owning land. Those who could afford to do so lived on lease-holdings, most of them small, some of them barely big enough for a one-room windowless mud hut and a tiny plot in which to grow the family’s one critical crop. Lease-holders were perpetually on skittish ground, subject to being turned out without notice. Losing a lease was tantamount to receiving a sentence of death by exposure and slow starvation.� But anyone unable to pay had to make room for someone who could; landlords had their own taxes to meet. Often the lease-hut was destroyed within 24-48 hours of the eviction notice, to guarantee that the occupants would flee, joining the fast-growing hordes of others who already had been kicked out.

HAITI: From Stumax.com, posted at 07:41 PM under the heading ‘The story is about land (?)’ ’... the meta-meaning of the revolution was less about freedom than about land. According to Carolyn Fick, freedom to the slaves in Haiti was meaningless without land ownership.’ In any country, people must have land that they can call, or at least treat, as their own. Without it, anything they do manage to produce is constantly in jeopardy of being snatched from them without recourse. Is it any wonder that the result is hopelessness, egregious poverty … and bitter, unremitting anger.

IRELAND: By forbidding the Irish to pursue education either at home or abroad, England increased the ease with which it kept them perpetually under its thumb and unable to improve their lot.

HAITI:� ‘By law, education is free and compulsory in Haiti for children between the ages of 6 and 12. In practice, access to education is sharply limited by school location, language comprehension (classes are taught in French {RPR’s note: 80% of the population speaks Creole, not French} ), the cost of school clothes and supplies, and the availability of teachers. ... As a consequence of limited educational opportunities, only 65 percent of the adult population is literate. ... ’ http://www.worldstates.com/World_States/Caribbean/Haiti/Population/Education.htm. Another source puts the literacy rate at 45%. (http://www.faculty.fairfield.edu/faculty/hodgson/Courses/so191/LatinAmerReadings/HaitiEmbarass.html)

IRELAND: Ireland’s estimated population at the start of the Great Famine was 8 to 9 million.

HAITI: That Haiti’s population is 8 million is an inconsequential coincidence, but a coincidence nonetheless … this figure posted on Stumax.com at 05:01 PM under the heading ‘Two articles about Haiti.’

Without locating specific parallels within the Toussaint blog or elsewhere, there are other points of similarity worth mentioning:

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IRELAND: The English systematically took everything of value from the people and their land, then took their land, yielding nothing substantive in return.

HAITI: Haiti was exploited since the 15th century for its extraordinary ability to support sugar, tobacco and other coveted products, and for its strategic geographical importance. Its native population was decimated by disease and murder; the few remaining natives were worked to death. Its exploiters imported a slave population which it brutally worked. Eventually the human residue were left to fend for themselves.

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IRELAND: Fearing the potential strength of a united Ireland, for nearly seven centuries the British had been working diligently to keep the Irish republic thoroughly subservient. Like a long, unstoppable turning of the screw, England imposed one draconian law after another to obliterate Irish rights.

HAITI: Except for a brief respite under Toussaint Louverture, at least since the 15th c. Haitians (though not called that until much later) virtually always have lived under one heavy thumb or another. Leaving aside the small percentage of Haitians who did have rights (who got ... and held ... them at a price), the oppressed vast majority had virtually none. This quiet little toss of land never has posed a threat to anyone. Yet there has been no shortage of totalitarian ‘leaders’ who have thrived on obliterating the rights first of the native population, then of the imported one, enslaving both to that end. Working now on people who remain enslaved by poverty—and by the stubborn refusal of nations to dedicate themselves to helping the Haitians to regain their dignity, their republic and its land to regain their footing, and all elements to establish effective productivity—the lethal, punishing screw still is turning as inexorably in Haiti as it did in Ireland.

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IRELAND: Having no meaningful representation in government, the Irish had no opportunity either to change or to revoke the oppressive English rules under which they were forced to live.

HAITI: The ordinary Haitian had no representative after Toussaint was taken away, does not have one now and has none on the horizon. Living in increasingly distraught circumstances, Haitians remain at the mercy of whoever usurps and wields power from within or without.

IRELAND: When year after year, at lightning speed, the blight blackened the plants and putrified the potatoes that constituted the bulk of the poor Irish family’s diet, the Irish were given no agricultural alternatives that could keep them alive. Potatoes were a cheap, nutritious source of food, requiring little more than a hoe, some seed potatoes and minimal land; literally, potatoes were a life-saver for such precariously poor people. Virtually no Irish were equipped to grow anything else and had no wherewithal to acquire either knowledge or supplies for other survival pursuits. Without their sustenance food and the ability to grow the next year’s crop, they would starve and lose everything. When they did starve and lose everything the English government sent token help, then clenched all the more firmly its choke-hold on the fast-withering land and people.

HAITI:� Since Toussaint’s time, the Haitians have had no shepherd dedicated to leading them toward self-sufficiency. Quite the opposite. One after another, egotistic (and too often sadistic) bullies have seized and viciously controlled Haiti for their sheer self-aggrandizement, producing a malignant and endless embodiment of British historian Lord Acton’s apothegm: ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’

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As a last point, this proviso regarding Ireland is worth noting: When people are oppressed, they will seek to manage their own affairs as best they can. The British politician and orator Sir Edmund Burke said of the subjugated Irish, ‘since the law did not give [the Irishman] justice, he set up his own law. The secret societies which have been the curse of Ireland became widespread ...’�

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Most of Haiti’s people now are as miserably impoverished, disenfranchised and in desperate need of wholehearted help as Ireland’s were during, and after, its most severe potato famine. Haiti is staggering under a huge political and economic burden, and its people are stuck bearing a blackly negative image imposed on them by at best an ignorant outside world.

Yet even such horrendous conditions can be overcome. For hope look again at Ireland, now light years beyond its unspeakable days.

Ironically, 200 years ago when Ireland was dying from hunger Haiti was dazzlingly prosperous. With wise assistance that will involve Haiti’s own people as well advantaged friends and neighbors who together can develop patient paths out of its mire, Haiti could again become a proud republic. Ireland did it by carving out a place of its own in the technological revolution, boosting tourism and increasing foreign investment. (Considerable investment from the European Union was no small factor.) Conditions there are by no means perfect but they are a monumental improvement over the teeth-scraping days of the Great Famine. The turnaround took unconscionably long decades, but literally has made a life-or-death difference to the Irish. Haiti’s solution may or may not be entirely different; it must in any case be far quicker.

What’s certain is that expecting this battered republic to pull itself up by its own bootstraps is not only inane but dangerous. For other countries to continue withholding meaningful aid, whether in goods, services or money, displays a remarkable demonstration of burying one’s head in the sand (which leaves only one end waving in the air). Keeping Haiti dependent and beggarly helps no one but the corrupt and the criminal. Thwarting its embryonic democratic process teaches only that that process is not to be trusted. Each day the situation is left to fester delays its day of redemption that much more, increases the difficulty of creating a successful turnaround, and sentences Haiti’s perilously poor men, women and children to yet one more unstable day of scraping by, if they can, under increasingly wretched and dangerous circumstances.

The U.S. does indeed owe a major moral debt to Haiti, the little half-island (actually, ‘one/third-island’) whose black population, under its most benevolent and accomplished leader, Toussaint Louverture, helped to lay the U.S.’s path to greatness. Even if that were not so, the U.S. owes to its small neighbor, to itself, and to its assumed role as peace dispenser to the globe an active, immediate, irrevocable and unqualified commitment to help Haiti up-shift to a place of pride in this hemisphere and in the world, starting now. It is in their common interest as well as in simple humanitarian interest to do so … not by dictating how that will happen but by finding out what Haitians (as distinguished from the Haitian government) want on all fronts and helping them to achieve it in the ways that best suit them (the Haitians). That badly overdue task should easily be within the capabilities of the country that calls itself the world’s one and only superpower.

The U.S. should not be solely responsible for this task. Every country that has contributed to Haiti’s dire situation should form a coalition to help the little republic start its turnaround in quick time and see the job through thoroughly. Given its record in Haiti the U.S. certainly should not be permitted to lead the effort, but it should be expected to contribute a high percentage of funds and expertise if for no other reason than to atone for its strident role over these past two centuries in helping to shove Haiti into unrelenting degradation and suppression and keep it there.

Such efforts demonstrably can produce near-miraculous results. From its days of abysmal poverty, rampant disease, forbidden land ownership and deadly religious suppression, Ireland has metamorphosed into a productive republic, a desirable neighbor for its sister countries and an honored place on the globe we call Earth. With genuine help from its friends, Haiti can—and must—speedily be assisted to do likewise.

R. P. Remarque

*The Great Hunger by Cecil Woodham Smith, published originally by Hamish Hamilton Ltd., Great Britain, 1962; Penguin USA paperback reissued January 1995.