Pascal Robert is a Haitian-American lawyer and journalist who co-hosts This is Revolution podcast, a brilliant program discussing Black Left politics with a refreshing level of humor and nuance. His observations, lightly edited for length and clarity, serve as a useful antidote to the argument that the Joe Biden administration has been a positive change for those in the crosshairs of American imperialism. Haiti, if you haven’t been following the news, has been shaken by protests opposing the puppet regime of Jovenel Moïse, who has refused to allow for democratic elections. Meanwhile, the Haitian diaspora faces state repression despite Biden’s election. We sat down for an interview to discuss these topics, and more.
1/ So we are barely 100 days into this new administration and thus far it has been awful for both Haitians in their homeland and in America. How do you read the situation?
The Biden administration is demonstrating the ultimate contempt that the Democratic Party has had towards the Republic of Haiti and Haitian people going back to the Clinton administration’s anti-immigration posturing with the Haitian “boat people,” as well as its neoliberal policies towards the Jean-Bertrand Aristide administration. Biden’s posture towards Haiti is a continuation of that hostility.
Even though Trump referred to Haiti as a “shit-hole” country, Biden made a statement even worse in a video sometime in the 1990s, saying, “All of the Republic of Haiti could sink under water and it wouldn’t mean a damn to the United States.” Jovenel Moïse has been supported by both Trump and Biden because he has supported America’s foreign policy prerogatives in Venezuela and across Latin and South America. He has also opened up Haiti to international investment and delegitimized the traditional oligarchy. In other words, he is opening up Haiti to more foreign exploitation by the core group of the US, France, and Canada. Biden is supporting him. Biden has also deported more Haitians than even Trump did in a similar period of time.
So Biden, contrary to his campaigning to the Haitian community in South Florida and Miami, has been no friend to the Republic of Haiti and I am not particularly surprised. I’m neither a Democrat nor Republican, my politics are to the left of both parties, but I have always found the Democratic Party will never disappoint in its contempt for Haiti and Haitian citizens.
2/ What should US citizens understand about the struggles that the Haitian American community is facing?
One of the main things that causes stress with the Haitian community is the continued political instability that exists in their homeland as a result of regimes being constantly placed in power and supported by the United States, particularly after the 2010 earthquake. That political instability causes questions about immigration. People will often try to come to the United States and gain Temporary Protective Status (TPS), which is a special immigration designation that would allow them to stay while turmoil or instability is going on in their homeland. Like all other communities, we’re dealing with the struggles of the American economy. But the current state of massive instability that exists in Haiti weighs heavily on Haitians in the diaspora. Many Haitians are unwilling to go back to visit the country because of kidnappings and discontent in the country. The political instability in Haiti results from several administrations being installed into power undemocratically.
3/ Americans are relatively clueless about anything having to do with foreign policy. Whatever they might think about Haiti probably comes from shallow and sensational news coverage of lurid issues like the former Duvalier regimes. Can you fill in the gaps with the long-standing structural issues that can help people better understand these developments?
Haiti was the first and only republic born of a slave revolt by Africans. The country was originally inhabited by the Spaniards, the whole island was called Hispanola, and then in 1627 the French took over the western part of the island and called it Saint-Domingue. They governed it with a brutal, harsh form of sugar plantation slavery, so much so that the average life expectancy of an African slave upon arrival was seven years. There was a consistent need to recycle African slaves to the country due to rapid death. In 1791, there was a revolt led by a group of slaves in a phenomenon known as Cérémonie Bois Caïman, a religious-ritualistic ceremony. Within a week, 1,000 to 3,000 plantation whites were killed. The country came to be destabilized, and thus began the 13 year process of the Haitian revolution.
Eventually leaders like Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Toussaint Louverture would emerge to lead an army of over 55,000 former African slaves to fight a triangulation between the Spaniards, the French and the British, eventually forcing all three off the island. In 1804, there was a call for independence of the island, which was named Haiti after the original name used by Native Americans on the island. That particular act in and of itself provided great service to the then-young Thirteen Colonies of the United States, because Napoleon Bonaparte, prior to his loss in Haiti, had dominion and control over the Louisiana Territory. He had sent tens of thousands of French soldiers to New Orleans with the plan of, after defeating Toussaint Louverture in Saint-Domingue, returning to North America and conquering the United States. Because he was unable to defeat Dessalines, he had to summon that New Orleans army to Saint-Domingue to help fight to secure a victory he was unable to gain.
His army was destroyed and that act ensured that the United States was protected from Napoleon’s invasion. To underwrite his losses, Napoleon sold the Louisiana territories to the US for 10 to 14 cents an acre, which doubled the size of the US, gave it much of the land west of the Mississippi, and allowed it to become the product of Manifest Destiny that we have today. If not for the Haitian revolution, we would probably be eating croissants and singing the French national anthem! When the Haitian revolution began in 1791, George Washington was president. While slave-owning Virginians were talking all this lofty rhetoric about independence , a few hundred miles away in the Caribbean there were Africans eviscerating three major European powers. It caused quite a bit of consternation to the “Founding Fathers.”
After its independence, Haiti was slapped with a massive embargo by the US under Thomas Jefferson and many European countries. It was not recognized by the US until the 1860s. France was so angered by Haitian independence that, under the threat of attack and recolonization, it extracted remunerations from Haiti for its independence which would exceed $25 billion from 1823 to 1947, and which it still holds. So unlike the United States, which were given lines of credit, Haiti, because it was Africans who had revolted, was slapped with an embargo and inhibited from acting as a free republic. One of the interesting consequences of the revolution is that it forced the European powers to recognize that the transatlantic slave trade had to end. At the same time, Haiti continued to pay a price for its independence and daring to neutralize the charade that white skin offered superiority to anyone simply because their skin was not Black. That continued into the 20th century. In 1915, the US invaded Haiti and bled its coffers dry. It occupied the country until 1934, and since the US occupation it has never had sovereignty of its own and it has been run instead at the behest of the US State Department.
4/ Haiti shares an island with the Dominican Republic and that diplomatic relationship has been pretty terrible (putting it in the most polite terms possible). There have been nightmare developments going on at the Haitian-Dominican border over the past decade alone. Can you help our readers understand this issue better?
Once the Haitian revolution was over, the Spaniards and other Europeans saw the Dominican Republic, the eastern half of the island, as a potential launching point to neutralize the the Haitian revolution. Haitians took over the eastern half of the island and freed the slaves and controlled it because they realized that it was a threat to its sovereignty. The Dominican Republic, which gained its independence from Haiti in 1844, has always been a proxy state for Western powers to destabilize the Haitian project because they realized it would offer them an opportunity and launching pad to make sure that country could always be under their thumb.
One can argue the Dominican Republic has always had an antagonistic relationship with Haiti because it was always a threat to Haitian sovereignty. At one point, the Dominican Republic’s leadership literally almost volunteered to be a colony of Spain so to avoid having to recognize Haiti. There’s always been this Antihaitianismo in the Dominican psyche going back to the relationship we had with the country that was exacerbated by the anti-Haitian/anti-Black racism that exists there. Haiti was pauperized by its economic situation and the relationship with these surrounding powers while the Dominican Republic was able to flourish under its Spanish colonizer.
It’s always been a country that used its muscle to mistreat and abuse Haitians, as was the case of the major massacre of Haitians under the Rafael Trujillo administration in the 1930s. There has always been an antagonistic relationship between the political elites of both countries but I don’t think that reflects Dominicans as individuals, as people, I know Dominicans who don’t hold this bitterness towards Haitians as well as vice-versa.
5/ For a lot of the white Left, C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins, his history of the Haitian revolution and Toussaint Louverture, is a major text. But you have a slightly different take. Can you explain?
I’m glad you asked that. That book is a classic piece of Left historiography. Part of my problem is that I think C.L.R. James suffers from the same phenomenon that many students of the Haitian revolution have in terms of their over-romanticizing of Toussaint Louverture. He was an elite person of color before the revolution began and a slave-holder as well. His vision for the country’s emancipation was only for his class of Blacks, Creoles born on the island. At the inception of the revolution in 1791, almost 70 percent of Africans on the island were not born in Haiti, they were born on the African continent. There was a major class and social distinction between what were pejoratively called Bosal — Africans born on the island — and Creoles, Blacks or more biracial mulattoes, who were Africans born in the diaspora. The Creoles tended to have a higher social standing and own land or slaves. At one point, 25% of the slaves on the island were owned by mulattoes. So there was a class distinction.
Louverture’s notion of freedom was to inure freedom for his class but to continue with an indentured servitude for the African majority. His long-term vision of the country was for it to be a colony under his Black management, not for it to be an independent republic.
Compare this with Dessalines, who was a threat to the entire colonial system because he wanted to cut all ties with France, which he did. He also wanted to engage in land reform to remunerate the peasant Africans who fought in the revolution by giving them land instead of turning them into indentured servants. My main problem is that James has a pejorative way of addressing Dessalines without realizing it is Dessalines who is ultimate hero of the revolution while Toussaint Louverture, imprisoned by Napoleon, is begging to be sent back to Haiti to be his Governor-General. This is while Dessalines is fighting both the French Generals Le Clerc and Rochambeau to gain independence for the country.
6/ THIS IS REVOLUTION podcast is really impressive for me because it offers a nuanced conversation about the history and theories of the Black Left in a fashion that avoids the sectarianism, pitfalls, and cul de sacs of various cults (pick any name out of the Trot hat). The Haitian revolution, beginning at the end of the 18th century, has played a significant role in the development of the American Left. An example is the abolitionist John Brown, who deeply studied Toussaint’s battle strategy as he prepared for the Harpers Ferry raid. How do your politics show up in the podcast?
Part of my Left/oppositional politics comes from my family background. My family always had a kind of Left anti-institutional worldview, which is very common among Haitians. My parents were products of the Cold War and, after coming to the United States in the 1960s, always talked about the role of colonialism and imperialism, the Black Liberation movement we had in the United States, the anti-colonial struggles we had in the world. This was the era of Che Guevara, Frantz Fanon, Kwame Nkrumah, so that kind of politics was very much part of the discourse in my household. I had two uncles who studied abroad in the Soviet Union. One became a student of physics and the other a chemist. So there was always a strong Left discourse in my family. My challenging imperialism, capitalism, racism and sexism comes out of a family background of looking at and understanding the way that power and wealth cohere to disadvantage what Fanon called “the wretched of the earth.”