The Caribbean and Latin America at the Rendezvous of History

by Melanie Newton
In 2004 two events sent shock waves across the Caribbean Sea, presenting us with two radically different blueprints for future hemispheric relations.

In February a combined force of American, Canadian and French troops slipped into Haiti in the dead of night, “convinced” President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to resign, and spirited him out of the country into exile. Over the past five years the United Nations has occupied Haiti, ostensibly helping to build democracy, but, in reality, crushing democratic opposition movements. In a historic turn of events, Brazil, which has emerged in recent years as a regional superpower, has led UN forces in Haiti since 2005.

Meanwhile, in December 2004, the governments of Venezuela and Cuba spearheaded the Bolivarian People’s Alternative (now the Bolivarian Alliance, or ALBA). ALBA has sought a new kind of relationship between independent Caribbean and Latin American states. Several islands have joined ALBA, attracted by Hugo Chavez’s apparent willingness to use his country’s oil wealth as the lubricant for a new kind of regional politics. ALBA’s concept of trade and development seems to be based on the advancement of social justice and human well-being, rather than the expansion of free trade and global capital. Chavez’s commitment to solidarity with the non-Hispanic Caribbean seems to be reflected in his vocal opposition to the Brazil-led UN mission in Haiti. Most other continental Latin American governments are either contributors to the Brazil-led occupation force or have greeted the coup and the subsequent occupation with silence. This is in stark contrast with most of Latin America’s outspoken opposition to the military coup in Honduras and their support for ousted Honduran president Manuel Zelaya.

The occupation of Haiti and the Bolivarian Alliance open a new window on to the historical landscape of the Caribbean and continental America. To understand the deeper significance of recent events we must go back 200 years, to early 19th century Haiti. In spring 1806 Francisco de Miranda – a man second in importance only to Símon Bolívar in the history of Latin American independence – arrived in Haiti, seeking support for an uprising against Spain. In Haiti he procured ships and found time to sketch the national flag of the future republic of Venezuela. The new flag was first hoisted in the Haitian city of Jacmel on March 12, 1806, a date still celebrated as “National Flag Day” in Venezuela.

The Haiti of Miranda’s day was only the second independent state in the Americas after the United States, and the first nation to abolish slavery. In an age dominated by slaveholding and colonising powers, Haiti’s revolutionaries had the audacity to reject both slavery and French imperial rule. The Haitian revolutionary army was one of the most effective military forces the world had seen, defeating Spain, Britain and Napoleon’s France within the space of a decade. After declaring independence in 1804, Haiti’s emperor, a former slave named Jean-Jacques Dessalines whose back bore scars from whippings he had endured as a slave, declared Haiti a black republic and committed Haiti to an anti-slavery foreign policy in the Americas. On Christmas Eve 1815, Simón Bolívar, the future “Great Liberator” himself, sailed into the Haitian city of Les Cayes as a political refugee. The President of Haiti’s southern Republic, Alexandre Pétion, gave the stranded Bolívar political asylum, as well as military and financial support and a printing press (a very important element of any 19th century revolution). Pétion had one condition: Bolívar had to make slave emancipation in Spanish America an immediate priority. Pétion saw in the “Bolivarian Dream” of an independent Latin America a chance to end Haiti’s crippling international isolation. Slaveholding powers were determined to see the Haitian experiment in black freedom and independence fail, because Haitian success spelled the end for slavery. The United States did not recognize Haiti until 1862, and France, the former colonial ruler, only accepted Haiti’s independence after Haiti agreed to pay the equivalent of $2.4 billion US as “indemnification” for the loss of French property (most of it property in human beings).

Bolívar had already freed his own slaves but it was Pétion who convinced him to make general emancipation a central revolutionary goal, and Pétion’s support proved crucial to Bolívar’s success. To some degree Bolívar kept his promise to Pétion, promulgating a constitution in 1827 which denounced slavery as an outrage against justice and humanity. Ultimately, however Bolívar’s anti-slavery impulses could not keep pace with his commitment to a united Latin America. Time and again, Bolívar compromised with Latin American slaveholding elites in order to secure their support, allowing slavery to continue. Bolívar was even less committed to Haiti than he was to abolition. Under pressure from the United States, Bolívar did not even invite Haiti to the 1826 Congress of Panama, the first hemispheric meeting of independent states. Incidentally, Brazil and the United States, the hemisphere’s two biggest independent slaveholding nations, were both invited.

Despite his genuine admiration for Pétion and the key role of black soldiers in the continental wars of independence, it seems Bolívar had little time for black people. Bolívar’s limited willingness to acknowledge his movement’s debt to either Haiti or to Afro-Latin Americans is one source of modern Latin American elites’ inability to come to terms with their own history of slavery and racial inequality. The “indemnification” payment to France and Haiti’s exclusion from the Panama Congress burdened Haiti with a terrible debt and confirmed Haiti’s diplomatic isolation. The freedom for which so many of Haiti’s people died, was tragically undermined, and subsequent generations of Haitians have paid the price.

As we face the current crisis in Haiti and ALBA’s effort to forge a new regional solidarity, we can choose what lessons we draw from this history. We must come to terms with the fact that our own internalized racism – not just the racism emanating from Northern countries – has limited our chances for a better collective future. Nevertheless, in the story of Pétion and Bolívar, we can also choose to see the glimmer of tremendous, as yet unrealized human potential and possibility. Bolívar made a choice not to take the high road and embrace Haiti’s revolutionary blackness, but the road is not closed to us forever. We do not have to be victims of our past, doomed to repeat its mistakes for all eternity.

The answers to the Caribbean and Latin America’s present dilemmas lie in our own histories of struggle, survival and unfinished revolutions. The life and ideas of another heir to the legacy of the Haitian Revolution can perhaps offer us a constructive way of charting a better, common Caribbean and Latin American future. Born in Martinique, Frantz Fanon became the international spokesperson for the Algerian National Liberation Front in its battle against French rule. Like the Haitian revolutionaries of long ago, he was his generation’s most scathing critic of imperialism and racism in general, and French colonialism in particular. Through his own life and his writings, Fanon taught the world that true political solidarity is not based on supposed cultural or ethnic sameness, but rather a leap of faith, a willingness to see alliances with and between the most dispossessed and degraded people as the root of social transformation. Lasting changes begin when we acknowledge the burden of past error, and confront and commit ourselves to working through differences, real or imagined. The ghosts of Bolívar, Pétion and Fanon, along with the hundreds of thousands of black and indigenous Caribbean and Latin American revolutionaries who died for this more democratic vision, wait to see which path we choose.

Melanie Newton is a Barbadian and Associate Professor of History at the University of Toronto. This article is based on her talk to Toronto meeting on ““ALBA: Dawn of Solidarity in Latin America” on September 30. It was originally published in Staebrok News, and also appeared in The Bullet.