President Trump ignited an uproar when he referred to Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries” in a meeting last week. But as shocking as the remarks were, they shouldn’t have been surprising. Trump simply exposed the racist premise that has driven American policy toward Haiti for the entirety of our history.
In July 1792, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to the Marquis de Lafayette. More than a decade after meeting the French aristocrat during the American Revolution, Jefferson congratulated Lafayette for his leadership of the French Revolution, which was “exterminating the monster aristocracy & . . . its associate monarchy.”
The author of the Declaration of Independence was proud of his old ally, but he had advice for him, too. From the United States, Jefferson had taken notice of the slave rebellion in Saint-Domingue. He wondered whether France would “ever be able to reduce the blacks” in its most profitable colony. He warned Lafayette that Saint-Domingue would “be lost if not more effectually succoured.”
Jefferson’s letter does not just confirm the hypocrisies of a Founding Father who battled British colonialism and advanced ideas of universal freedom before condemning the Haitian Revolution. It also reveals the pro-slavery and racist foundations of U.S. policy toward Haiti. U.S. politicians and policymakers, then and now, have equated Haiti with slave rebellion and blackness, disaster and poverty. They have advanced imperialism and stifled immigration based on the mischaracterization of Haiti as a “shithole,” simultaneously dangerous and diseased.
If the United States had achieved its goals, Haiti would not exist.
In the same moment that Jefferson assured Lafayette that “we as sincerely wish [the] restoration” of Saint-Domingue to France, slaveholder George Washington showed that he also was unsympathetic to the struggle for black freedom in the Caribbean. His administration shipped arms and munitions to French planters struggling to retain power and assured them that the United States would “render every aid in their power . . . to quell ‘the alarming insurrection of Negros.’ ”
In 1804, the Haitian revolution succeeded despite Washington’s efforts. But the United States then dismissed Haiti’s existence. For almost six decades after Saint-Domingue’s rebirth as the independent nation of Haiti, the United States refused to grant it diplomatic recognition and enforced a trade embargo.
Slavery and racism drove those policies. As both expanded in size and scope, a senator from Missouri argued that welcoming a Haitian diplomat would be seen as “a reward for the murder of masters and mistresses by black slaves.” A colleague from South Carolina agreed that “We never can acknowledge [Haitian] independence . . . the peace and safety of a large portion of our Union forbids us to even discuss it.”
While secession and the Civil War paved the way for the diplomatic recognition of Haiti by the United States, neither led to an improvement of relations between the two countries. In the late 19th century, the United States routinely tried to do everything from annexing Haiti to seizing parts of its territory to dictating its governance.
The motivations for the United States’ mistreatment of Haiti were obvious to Frederick Douglass. In 1893, the abolitionist and former U.S. diplomatic attache to the country, pointed out that the sole “reason for coolness” between the United States and Haiti: “Haiti is black, and we have not yet forgiven Haiti for being black.”
Of course, Haiti remained black, and that continued to shape its relationship with the United States well into the 20th century.
In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson, having enforced unprecedented racial segregation in the federal government, sent U.S. Marines to Haiti. His secretary of state said the action was necessary because Haitians had an “inherent tendency to revert to savagery.” During the ensuing occupation, the same U.S. government that enabled lynching and Jim Crow at home seized control of the Haitian treasury, censored the Haitian press, conscripted Haitian peasants for unpaid labor and waged war on Haitian patriots who took up arms against the occupation.
In the words of the NAACP, “it was unquestionably the race prejudice which prevails in the United States that made possible the brutalities practiced . . . upon citizens of the Negro Republic of Haiti.”
Although Haiti regained its independence in 1934, the United States maintained economic hegemony in the country.
It then advanced its interests at the expense of Haitians during the Cold War. From the 1950s through the 1980s, the United States gave millions of dollars to prop up the brutal dictatorships of François Duvalier and Jean-Claude Duvalier. Thousands of Haitians tried to escape from those violent regimes and the predictable volatility that came after their collapse. The United States routinely denied them asylum.
In fact, by the early 1990s, it spent tens of thousands of dollars each day turning away Haitian refugees. Even more federal money went to ensuing U.S. invasions of Haiti and participation in the 1991 coup that overthrew President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Those Haitians who survived U.S.-fomented instability and made it to Miami, Boston and New York were instantly reviled. In those cities, the U.S.-born population characterized Haitians as ignorant, criminal and unskilled. Absolving their country of its ills and absorbing mistake-riddled reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they associated Haitians with AIDS.
Trump has now done the same. One year after telling Haitian Americans in Miami that he wanted to “be [their] greatest champion,” the president ranted at a Cabinet meeting on immigration that Haitians “all have AIDS.”
Now he has slandered Haiti yet again, asking, “Why do we need more Haitians?” The willful ignorance embedded in that rhetorical question has already led to the forthcoming expulsion of Haitians granted temporary protected status after the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti. It makes clear that, under this administration, Haitians and Haitian Americans will have trouble exercising and protecting their human right to migration.
Given the history of U.S. foreign policy, Trump’s words and actions deserve both derision for their unoriginality and condemnation for their potential costs. Even before its birth in anti-slavery, anti-colonial and anti-racist struggle, Haiti confronted backlash from U.S. politicians who feared that it would undermine their own systems of slavery and white supremacy. Its people had to fight for their independent existence in a world where black was equated with savagery before becoming synonymous with shithole.
Of course, Haiti has survived. And so must the demand, one advanced by Douglass and the NAACP, that the United States treat it as an equal, not as its bête noire.