Haiti: A History Of Struggle

THIS YEAR marks the 200th anniversary of the Haitian revolution, when the
black masses abolished slavery and won national independence.
Their deeds were
an inspiration to the masses of the Caribbean and the working people of
Europe. Yet, today, Haiti is the poorest nation in the northern hemisphere.
Following a US-supported coup against its former President, Jean Bertrand
Aristide, earlier this year, the country is now in chaos and under UN
Niall Mulholland looks at the reasons for the current situation,
beginning with the revolution in 1804.

During the 1690s, French forces wrested the western part of the island of
Hispaniola from Spain and named it San Domingo (later to become Haiti). San
Domingo became the most lucrative colony in the world.

But this great wealth was built on the blood and sweat of generations of
slaves that worked the sugar plantations and mines. Around 20% died en route
from Africa and many more died due to harsh working conditions. Barbaric
punishments were also used by the plantation owners; for example, slaves were
burnt alive or filled with gunpowder and blown up.

Slaves reacted with individual revolt and a series of small scale slave
rebellions. But it was the inspiration of the 1789 Great French Revolution
(bourgeois-democratic) that led to revolution.

The Haitian merchants (the nascent capitalist class) demanded their own
colonial assembly, like the new National Assembly in revolutionary France.
They wanted more control over the island’s economy and affairs.

But the ruling nobles were against any concessions, viewing them as a
threat to the old order. They attempted to form a bloc with the ‘mulattos’,
the mixed race part of the population. But this alliance soon fell apart when
the mulattos’ call for equal rights was spurned and a subsequent mulatto
revolt was put down.


At the same time, the mass of the population, the slaves, began to agitate
for liberty and equality. Although an uprising in 1791 was crushed, with the
loss of ten thousand lives, a fuse was lit. Rebellion spread and Francois
Dominque Toussaint emerged as the key black leader.

Toussaint understood that the slave revolt, however courageous, needed a
disciplined army and tactics. He led brilliant military victories against
stronger and modern armies and captured large parts of rural San Domingo.

The execution of the French King, Louis XVI, in 1793, represented a new
radical stage in the French revolution. Seizing the opportunity, Toussaint
called on all blacks to join his revolution and renamed himself, Toussaint
L’Ouverture (‘Opening’ or freedom). This revolt terrified the ruling classes
of Europe; slavery was integral to the profits, power and prestige of their
empires. They were alarmed that Toussaint’s call would inspire revolutions
throughout the colonies and even amongst the working poor at home.

The British despatched forces to the island and areas captured by them saw
a return to slavery. This enabled Toussaint to bring together blacks, mulattos
and even a section of whites in his army. By 1795, he controlled big swathes
of the island.

At this point, Toussaint still believed San Domingo should remain part of
France. He thought that only practical aid from revolutionary France could
help the economic, social and cultural development of the island. However,
Toussaint failed to understand the significance of the political counter
revolution underway in France.

The Directory was inaugurated as the ruling council in France in 1795,
marking the end of the revolution’s most radical and democratic phase. The
bourgeoisie now wanted to consolidate its power and to crush the radical wings
of the revolution.

Toussaint eventually grew wise to the Directory’s manoeuvring, and, in
1797, saw off French forces. The revolutionary fervour of the masses allowed
the ex-slave army to go on and defeat the British forces on the island.

Slavery abolished

After vanquishing the enemy, Toussaint introduced a new social and economic
programme; officially abolishing slavery, re-organising the administrative and
justice systems, and building roads, schools and bridges. Crops in 1800 were
equal to the highest ever. In 1801, the crop was even larger again! All this
was achieved after years of revolution, counter-revolution and wars.

The Toussaint regime also introduced labour reforms, including cutting the
working day. Whipping was banned and workers were given a quarter of the
revenue from plantations.

Toussaint’s style of rule could be autocratic and secretive but it appears
he did not act for personal gain or for the interests of a narrow ruling
elite. He genuinely wanted to better the lives of all people on the island.

To an extent, Toussaint’s army provided an arena for political discussion
but the masses were not involved in decision making. The revolution proved
unable to deliver full national and social liberation; capitalism was still
young and played a progressive role, and the working class – the only class
capable of overthrowing class rule and running a new socialist society –
barely existed anywhere.

Toussaint’s new regime soon faced mortal danger from Napoleon Bonaparte,
the new ruler of France. As invasion loomed, Toussaint strengthened coastal
forts and distributed arms to the masses. However, he failed to attend to
growing discontent amongst the black masses that led to a large scale uprising
in 1802.

Toussaint crushed the rebellion and in a desperate attempt to placate
Napoleon, showed mercy towards whites who had also risen against his rule.
This failed. Napoleon enlisted the help of slave colonial powers, including
Spain, Holland, Britain and, secretly, the US, for an invasion. Despite the
serious differences between the powers, when it came to fundamental class
interests – the defence of the slave trade – they united.

Toussaint’s forces successfully employed army and guerrilla tactics once
Napoleon’s expedition army landed on the island. However, at this stage,
Toussaint decided to negotiate, perhaps believing that Napoleon was at his
weakest point and would accept less than sovereignty over San Domingo.
Toussaint’s misplaced trust in Napoleon was rewarded with betrayal and arrest.
He was despatched to France and, in a matter of months, died in prison due to

The first black republic

Toussaint’s death unleashed a new radical wave that finally ejected the
French from San Domingo. Napoleon’s attempts to crush the revolution cost
100,000 black lives and 50,000 French lives. On New Year’s Day, 1804,
Toussaint’s successor, Jean Jacques Dessalines, made a ‘Declaration of
Independence’. San Domingo was renamed ‘Haiti’. So was born the world’s first
black republic and the second colony to win freedom after the US.

From the 1840s, a series of "stand-in" regimes (stand-ins for the mulatto
elite) ran Haiti and, from the 1860s, the country and region increasingly came
under imperialist domination.

As well as pursing imperialist interests, the colonial powers were also
vengefully determined that the black republic would be seen to fail. The first
ever US sanctions were levelled against Haiti. In 1915, the US went a step
further, and occupied the country. With lessons for the US presence in Iraq
today, the occupiers in Haiti soon faced a guerrilla struggle. After twenty
years of national resistance the US power left the island.


The 1930s and 1940s saw social and class turmoil in Haiti, including
student and workers’ protests. In these decades, the small working class
created trade unions. Several communist parties were also established but
faced severe repression.

The notorious regime of ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier, and then his son, Baby Doc,
from the late 1950s to the mid-1980s, were finished by a mass struggle of
workers and students. A series of highly unstable and short-lived regimes

Unfortunately, these years of radical urban movements did not have a
revolutionary leadership that could take power, sweep away capitalism and
realise the demands of working people.

The political vaucuum was partially filled by Jean Bertrand Aristide, a
popular priest working in the slum areas of Port-au-Prince, who won the 1990
presidential elections, promising to tackle poverty.

He was overthrown in 1991 by General Cedras but returned to power on the
back of 20,000 US troops after the Clinton administration had eventually lost
patience with the volatile and defiant Haitian regime.

As Aristide carried out social cuts and privatisations his support
lessened. The reactionary opposition mounted an uprising in 2004 and the
President was bundled out of Haiti by US troops. Pro-US lawyer, Boniface
Alexandre, was appointed ‘interim president’.

Under the current foreign occupation poverty and unemployment have
worsened. Poverty conditions led to the loss of 2,000 lives during heavy rains
in May. The huge social gap between the impoverished Creole-speaking black
majority and the French-speaking mulattos, 1% of whom own nearly half the
country’s wealth, remains unaddressed.

Only the masses of Haiti can find a way forward, with the working class
playing the leading role. A mass socialist alternative has to be constructed
in opposition to the reactionary elite.

This is not an easy task given the defeats suffered by the Haitian masses
and the immense levels of poverty and class oppression they face. However,
opposition will grow. During May 2004, slum dwellers held anti-US protests.

The working class requires its own mass organisations that take an
independent class position. A genuine socialist leadership would emulate the
revolutionary fighting spirit of Toussaint and the ‘Black Jacobins’. It would
stand for a socialist revolution throughout the Caribbean and link up with the
US working class. Two hundred years after the Haitian revolution, the masses
of that poor country can again be to the forefront of revolutionary movements.