The scale of the tragedy unfolding in Haiti today is unimaginable. For those looking to support the relief efforts, the White House is advocating donations to the Red Cross. You can donate $10 via your cell phone by texting “HAITI” to 90999.
I exchanged emails a short while ago with Haitian filmmaker Michelange Quay who made one of the most cinematically breathtaking and entrancing films of recent years, “Mange, ceci mon corps” (“Eat, For This Is My Body”). Michelange has taught film to Haitian students and, though he lives in France, much of his family and friends are back there. He writes:
I wanted to thank all you friends who wrote out of concern and
solidarity for me, my family, and the country of Haiti to be rebuilt.
My family is safe, but many close people have died or are missing, in
the chaos, as night falls again on the country.
That’s it, thanks for the positivity. We need every thought, because
they count. Let’s keep the faith and stay focused. Let this
catastrophe remind us, unite us. One Love.
Haiti has lived a long and sad history. There is something about this small half-island that seems to struggle time and again with how to get on its feet. I remember a section from PJ O’Rourke’s “All the Trouble in the World: The Lighter Side of Overpopulation, Famine, Ecological Disaster, Ethnic Hatred, Plague, and Poverty” about Haitian history that speaks to the endless cycle that seems to consume that country. Here is hoping that out of the rubble a new, more peaceful and stable country can be born. A synopsis of Haitian history picking up in 1818:
Jean Pierre Boyer was elected to replace Petion and took over the whole country when Christophe died. He signed a stupid treaty with France agreeing, in return for international recognition, to pay Haiti’s ex-landowners huge reparations. When the bill for this came due, Haitians, yet again, were sent to the plantations by force. They rebelled. Boyer resigned and sailed for Jamaica in 1843.
Major Charles Herard replaced Boyer. According to ‘Black Democracy: The Story of Haiti’ by H.P. Davis, Herard “entered the capital on march 21st amid an extraordinary demonstration of popular approval.” He promptly invaded the Dominican Republic, lost the war, blew his popularity, and in April 1844 “sailed for Jamaica.”
Three presidents followed in the next three years until General Faustin Soulouque was elected in 1847, supposedly because he was too idiotic to bother anybody. Soulouque crowned himself “Emperor Faustin I,” named 624 princes, dukes, and other nobles, and initiated a court etiquette so elaborate that after a joke the chamberlain would announce, “His majesty is laughing. Gentlemen, you are invited to laugh also.” Soulouque sailed for Jamaica in 1859.
Then came General Fabre Geffrard, who sailed for jamaica in 1867. And Major Sylvain Salnave, who was tried and shot in 1869. And Nissage-Sagent, who actually served out his constitutionally mandated term and left office peacefully. This so confused the nation that there was a coup d’etat anyway. General Michel Domingue sailed for Jamaica in 1876.
The next president, Boisrond-Canal, sailed for parts unknown. (Jamaica being, apprently, full to the brim with ex-leaders of Haiti.) J.N. Leger, in ‘Haiti, Her History and Her Detractors’, says the people showed great sympathy for Boisrond-Canal and “cheered him as he left the wharf.”
So it went for Haiti through another eleven chief executives, only one of whom gave up power on purpose, until we arrive at the case of Guillaume Sam. “General” Sam was “elected” “president” in 1915, that date being the only thing in his career which doesn’t require quotation marks. Once Sam was installed, the usual rebellion got under way outside Port-au-Prince, and the usual political opponents were locked in the national prison. Revolutions in Haiti don’t normally involve much fighting. The standard procedure is for the leader of the rebellion, when he feels strong enough, to send a small force of men into the capital. The rebels attack various government buildings, and the government troops either fight back or don’t according to whether they think the revolution is likely to succeed. Sam, however, committed a rules-book violation and had all his political prisoners slaughtered. The public was wroth. Sam had to hide in the French legation. A mob gathered there. In the words of H.P. Davis:
“The mob remained without the gates, but a small body of well-known citizens, after courteously explaining to the French minister that the people were no longer to be baulked off their revenge, entered the house and, finding Sam under a bed in a spare room on an upper floor, pulled him down the stairs, dragged him along a driveway, and threw him over an iron gate to the mob.”
Sam was torn to pieces.
It was then that the United States bowed to the kinds of pressure the United States is forever being pressured to bow to – in Kuwait, Somalia, Bosnia, and Haiti right now, for instance – and intervened. The U.S. Marines were sent to straighten things out in short order. They stayed nineteen years. And everything in Haiti has been hunky-dory ever since.