Haiti, Cuba, and the price of independence

The fates of Haiti and Cuba, those just-next-door neighbours in the Caribbean, have been uniquely intertwined, like non-identical twins. .

Haiti, a French colony, began its revolution in 1791, true to its time. (The U.S. in 1775, France in 1789.) It was Latin America’s first war for independence, and also a slave revolt, the only victorious one historically. Napoleon launched a reinvasion but by 1804, Haiti had won. Then, as the father in Maus says when he reaches the gates of Auschwitz, their troubles began.

The defeated colonial powers exacted a price. Britain didn’t recognize Haiti till 1833, and the U.S. not till 1862. France forced a repayment to former slaveowners on wretched terms dictated by Western banks. In 1900 that debt still absorbed 80 per cent of Haitian GDP. It wasn’t repaid till 1947! The U.S. invaded in 1915 and stayed till 1934. It then oversaw a string of tyrants culminating in Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier, from 1957–1986.

Cuba, whose revolution didn’t succeed until 1959, is the island nation that drew the lesson of the island nation, Haiti. That lesson was: if you let your previous rulers (Spain, then the U.S.) dictate your terms of “independence,” you will be immiserated and unfree. Its resolve to resist U.S. control shows how fiercely it learned that lesson. Survival against U.S. pressure may or may not be its greatest achievement, but it was the precondition for everything else.

Haiti, post the Docs (Papa and Baby) has been mired in economic, political and natural disasters. Its only real election, in 1991, was won by “liberation theology” priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide. A coup followed. U.S. president Clinton restored Aristide in 1994, on the condition that Aristide buy into the humiliating neo-liberal agenda — for which Clinton later, in his uniquely screwed-up way, apologized. Aristide’s popularity suffered, but he won re-election in 2000 with over 91 per cent of the vote. So in 2004 he was kidnapped by U.S. forces and flown to exile in Africa.

It’s been horrendous since, a succession of kleptocrats and oligarchs, vetted and approved by the U.S. with particular, despicable support from Canada that’s been admirably chronicled by a cadre of leftist Canadian critics.

In the current phase, there were intensified protests against controversial president Jovenel Moïse, who some argue clung to power illegally, backed by armed street gangs. He was assassinated this month by God knows who. (Perhaps the U.S. also knows.) A demeaning process of auditions and screening by the U.S. et al. followed, leading to a new illegitimate president. Even the head of Haiti’s senate, up to his ears in this stuff, said “Haiti has become a baseball thrown between foreign diplomats.” Good choice of metaphor. Imperialism is the U.S. national pastime.

Cuba, you might say, has in recent days had the same problem — dissent — but in a very different setting: relative success. Like its sheer longevity: despite a crippling U.S. economic blockade, it has lasted as a one-party communist state, for only about a decade less than the Soviet Union did. Health care and education have been impressive, including a COVID-19 vaccine, though production is hampered by the blockade. Its flaws are many, among them repression of dissent — including the unprecedented current rallies and marches. The government says all economic trouble is due to the blockade, and protests are down to U.S. plots.

The brilliant, globally acclaimed novelist Leonardo Padura is not a communist, but is a patriot who’s chosen to remain in Cuba. He says he doesn’t doubt the role of the blockade or U.S. agents. But there’s more to the dissent, surely, and even if there weren’t, there’s a deeper issue: “Cubans need to recover their hope and have a possible image of what their future can be.”

This is a matter peculiar to successful revolutions. They cannot coast, or lapse into defensiveness. They must renew periodically, or deteriorate lethally. Views will differ on what that means. IMO it requires a free press, opposition parties and elections. Those in turn imply a potential end to “the revolution.”

One can imagine the Soviet Union’s last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, watching from Moscow. He tried renewal there and it did fail. But what’s the alternative, if you want to avoid Stalinist brutalization, or the final grotty years of the Soviet blob?

Rick Salutin writes about current affairs and politics. This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

is a Canadian novelist, playwright, journalist, and critic and has been writing for more than forty years. Until October 1, 2010, he wrote a regular column in The Globe and Mail; on February 11, 2011, he began a weekly column in the Toronto Star. He currently teaches a half course on Canadian media and culture in University College (CDN221) at the University of Toronto. He is a contributing editor of This Magazine. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Near Eastern and Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and got his Master of Arts degree in religion at Columbia University. He also studied philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York City. He was once a trade union organizer in Toronto and participated in the Artistic Woodwork strike.[