Our Past, Haiti’s Futureby Carl Lindskoog ’02

In 2002, just days after I arrived in Washington, D.C., for a semester-long internship program, I met Augustine, a beautiful and captivating fellow intern from Florida. Augustine is Haitian, and as I got to know this fascinating woman, I also became fascinated by the rich history and culture of Haiti. Now I’m completing a dissertation on the history of Haitians in the United States, and Augustine is my wife. Through her, I’ve fallen in love with the people of Haiti.  

As thrilling as it has been to explore Haitian culture and history, it has also been uncomfortable and painful. I have been especially interested in the historical relationship between the United States and Haiti and in the experience of Haitian immigrants in the U.S. It was not easy, therefore, to learn about the many instances in which my country has adopted policies that have led to extreme hardship for the Haitian people.

Even in just the past 100 years, much is disturbing about the United States’ relationship with Haiti. During the American occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934, the U.S. imposed the corvee, a labor system of forced servitude that reminded the Haitian people of their past enslavement. When peasants resisted the corvee, U.S. Marines violently suppressed the insurgents and executed their leaders.

Post-occupation turmoil contributed to the rise of the now notorious dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier. Papa Doc has become synonymous in the minds of many Americans with the worst excesses of government brutality and state terror. What is less well-known is the degree to which he enjoyed U.S. support. American leaders tolerated Duvalier because they regarded him as reliably anti-Communist.

After Papa Doc’s death, the U.S. supported his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc,” working with him to institute an economic model that enriched international agribusiness and manufacturers while destroying peasant agriculture and entrenching Haitian cities in poverty. When the Haitian people finally broke the chains of dictatorship and democratically elected a populist priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the U.S. backed his overthrow twice.

American policies have contributed to hardship for Haitians in the United States as well. Undocumented Haitians in South Florida—after escaping Haiti’s political and economic oppression—have been imprisoned and deported by U.S. officials who claim they are economic immigrants rather than political refugees. Cubans, meanwhile—another group of undocumented refugees to Miami—have been allowed to stay.

Why review all this unpleasant history? Shouldn’t we look ahead to a reconstructed post-earthquake Haiti rather than glancing backward?

I believe we must acknowledge our responsibility in past injustices before we can resurrect a new, more equitable relationship between the U.S. and Haiti. Moreover, understanding the way American policies have often harmed Haitians might help us avoid similar abuses in the future.

For example, more than $9 billion has been pledged for the next three years and beyond to rebuild Haiti. However, the accompanying economic plan continues and even increases Haiti’s dependence on foreign investment and proposes rejuvenating Haiti’s low-wage, labor-intensive assembly industry.

This is the same failed economic model imposed on Haiti in the 1970s and ’80s. No wonder, then, that members of Haitian grassroots organizations—who have been shut out of these meetings about Haiti’s future—have claimed the plan “fails to address sustainable development needs.”

Because of the tragic Haitian earthquake, many Americans are taking a new interest in Haiti. For the sake of my wife Augustine’s family members who remain in Haiti—and for all Haitians—I hope this renewed interest includes an honest appraisal of our role in Haiti’s past and a genuine effort to help Haiti achieve a sustainable recovery.

Carl Lindskoog attended Northwestern from 1998 to 2000. He has a B.A. from the University of Iowa, an M.A. from Northern Illinois University, and is a Ph.D. candidate at City University of New York. Carl is the son of Dr. Don Lindskoog and Dr. Verna De Jong, Northwestern professors emeritus of psychology and English, respectively.

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