Charles Boylan Interviews Haitian activist
Jean Saint-Vil, July 16, 2004
Charles: Jean, welcome to the show. You've recently been speaking at public events, providing people with an education about an aspect of the history of Latin America and the Caribbean, specifically, Haiti, where you are from originally. Attending your presentation last night, I found this very enlightening. Tell us a little bit about your presentation and last night's meeting in Vancouver.
Jean: Last night I had the pleasure and honor of being invited by StopWar.ca to make a presentation, entitled, “Haiti: Fighting White Supremacist Terrorism: Before Napolean I, Beyond Bush II.” The presentation focused on the fact that the history of terrorizing people on the American continent is something that really begins in full force with the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492, and that this has specifically targeted non-whites.
Unfortunately, the current definition of terrorism finds that it's only terrorism when it affects Europeans. This has damaged people’s appreciation about the sources and roots of violence in modern society and the history of it. So, I made an effort to present the situation in Haiti in its larger context, in the context of violence that has been waged specifically against African peoples, starting with the arrival of Europeans on the American continent in 1492, and explaining how the struggle that we see currently going on in Haiti is directly related to this struggle that is ongoing throughout Latin America.
The people involved in this struggle seek to take their countries out of the control of the tiny elites - mostly European-rooted elites - whether it is in Panama, Peru, Haiti, or the Dominican Republic, in order to arrive at societies that are based on justice, and a peace that is sustainable. I hope that I have been able to contribute to the spectrum of knowledge that we as activists need to have on order to save ourselves from the sure destruction of the world that the rulers - the Bush Administration and “family” - are bringing us to.
Charles: Our audience is familiar to some extent with the problem of colonialism vis-à-vis the Indigenous peoples of Canada, but we're not so familiar with the colonial experience in Haiti. Tell us a little bit about that history, the history of the revolt of slaves in that part of the old French Empire.
Jean: As you know, Columbus landed in the North American continent. In fact the island of Haiti is the second place that he landed and the island was the location where the Europeans built their very settlement, Las Navidad. Columbus and his friends began to exploit the Taino people that were there. It is estimated that there were1.5 million.
Just 50 years later, they'd all been massacred. There was this Catholic priest De La Casa, who had what he considered to be a brilliant idea, to replace the dying Taino's with Africans who would be taken from the West Coast of Africa to go and work the lands and plantations where it never occurred to the Europeans that they could work themselves.
Between 1492 and 1803 Haiti was a slave colony under the influence of the Spanish, the British, and the French at various times. Because of the demographics of it, and because they kept getting new Africans on the island [the estimated lifetime after arrival from Africa, for those who made it to the land, was seven years, owing to the way that they were being treated; people even being eaten by dogs.]
Suffice it to say that by 1789, the same year as the French revolution, there were 450,000 African slaves in Haiti. Haiti represented the most prosperous colony of all colonies in the Americas. In fact, Haiti made more money for France than all 13 colonies in North America made for the British Empire at the time. So, there were 450,000 Africans being repressed by 40,000 whites and 30,000 of a new group of people that had been created on the island, called mulattoes, who were basically the product of rape by the Europeans of African women that were enslaved.
The inevitable happened; the Africans revolted. It's amazing that many people don't know this, yet it is the only defeat that Napoleon Bonaparte had on the American continent! It is the only successful slave revolt in recorded human history where people who were previously enslaved and ruled overcame this. They defeated the Spanish, British, and the French armies, all of them. They managed to do that because the Africans, under the leadership of Toussaint L'Ouverture, first offered the Spanish their help to fight the French.
They began to get military training under the Spanish and then later on L'Ouverture offered his help to the French to defeat the British who were occupying the Northern part of the island. Through the manipulation of European rivalry and the wars that were taking place in Europe at the time, the Africans were able to use this to their advantage and free themselves from slavery, and create the free Republic of Haiti on January 1st, 1804.
However, that was just one battle won, not the war, because Haiti was surrounded by slave economies. Surrounded by Puerto Rico that was a Spanish slave colony, Cuba another slave colony, and Jamaica, a British slave colony, and of course the United States. Against this, the Africans had no one to trade with. The history of Haiti for the first one hundred years of it is the history of what is called “gunboat diplomacy.” Nations that one would not even think about, Norway, Sweden, would get together, gang up with Spain or Germany and ask for ransom from the “menacing” Black Republic of Haiti at any given time because one of their nationals who had a business on the island would claim that an uprising had caused them to lose money.
The most outrageous of all of this was the French King Charles X in 1825, who demanded that the Africans pay reparations to the former slave owners because they had lost their property. He demanded that the republic of Haiti pay to France 150 million Francs, which was the equivalent of the annual budget of France at the time, and the equivalent of ten years of total revenue from Haiti. That nation ended up crippling its future by paying this outrageous ransom that was finally paid off by taking out loans from France and the United States, and payments were finally last made in 1947.
So when people go to Haiti and say “why are they so poor?” it's funny that they can afford such amnesia as if the poverty of Haiti is something that happened in the last ten years.
Charles: Can you comment on the direction the Liberal government of Paul Martin is going when he directed the Canadian armed forces to join the old slave masters, France and the United States to invade Haiti on February 29th of this year?
Jean: As you know, the decision that Jean Chretien made not to go to Iraq is something that angered the Americans, and the same thing with Jacques Chirac deciding not to go to Iraq with Bush, because he figured they already had access to oil in Iraq, therefore it wasn't a “good idea” to accompany Bush in his adventure. These people needed to make peace with Bush, and Haiti offered the perfect opportunity for them to become “friends” again. Obviously there is no threat for their armies to go into Haiti, namely because there is no army in Haiti. So they can go in there, invade and tell their populations that they're going there to “civilize” the blacks as has been done throughout history. It's that theory that there are inferior people in the world that need the help of the 'highly civilized' people to govern themselves.
So Paul Martin is practicing a policy that is not new at all, that is based on this idea that this giant to the south of Canada is a kind of giant that you'd rather have as your friend, as opposed to your enemy. Of course, Bush has also made enough threats that “you're either with us or against us.” Unless there is some serious demonstration or opposition on the part of the populations, I believe that the Canadian government will always just follow - like a lapdog- whatever the US says. There are a lot of people who are seeing that - right now -Canadian foreign policy is being written in Washington, and the guys in Ottawa basically just ask them how high to jump.
Charles: How deeply is Canada involved?
Jean: With regards specifically to the situation in Haiti, Canada did not play a passive role, as some people might try to grasp from what they're reading in the news. Canada was actually quite active. Few people realize that in January of 2003 there was a meeting in Ottawa that was called by the Canadian foreign affairs department, and high officials from the US, Latin America, dubbed the “Ottawa Initiative in Haiti.” The subject of the meeting as reported by Michel Vastel in L'Actualite of March 15, 2003 was “Aristide Must Go” and 'it's not the Haitian opposition asking for it, but foreign ministers of Western democracies, at the invitation of Canada'.
That was a full year before the coup took place, and that's what a lot of people are now beginning to realize, that the real story about what's happening in Haiti is not the coup, which did happen, but it's the story of the occupation of that island by forces that made that decision years ahead of time. People are saying, “why would they want to invade Haiti, what's the point? As far as we know there are no major resources on the islands, etc.”
When you look at the geopolitics of it, the position of Haiti in relation to Cuba, and we know the mentality of Baby Bush and his dream of toppling [Venezuelan President] Chavez, and [Cuban President] Castro, and the fact that when you're in Haiti you can see Cuba. Now of course they already have Guantanamo so it's not as if they're not already well situated. In between Haiti and Cuba is where the boats travel to get to the Panama Canal, and that's the major drug route.
We all know that the so-called “war on drugs” is a fake war in that the US, the DEA actually controls this whole thing to fund, for example, the Contras in Nicaragua, and this so called uprising in Haiti by funding the Haitian paramilitaries for at least two years while they were in the Dominican Republic.
So there are a number of reasons why having full access and control of a puppet regime in Haiti would be useful for the US not merely for the sake of Haiti to have the sweatshops operating, or for multinationals to use the Africans in Haiti, to make t-shirts and assembly line electronic production. That's not the main issue; it's also as a strategic position to help them achieve what they want to achieve in the rest of Latin America. For, as you know, whereas the spectrum of politics in North America and in Europe has been going to the far right. Basically you have right wing governments all over the place. In Latin America you have something else happening, left wing governments. So having control and toppling the unsubdued government in Haiti is kind of like a trial for what they might be doing in other places such as Venezuela, if these governments don't submit to the new religion, which is neoliberal policies.
Basically, the essence of the message of my presentation yesterday is that the populations that have paid the price for the slave trade are now being prepared to silently and obediently accept to also pay the price for the so-called 'free trade", and the message I was trying to bring to the audience is that the anti-war movement cannot continue to function without an active and close-touch collaboration with the very populations that are suffering from these policies. It cannot be a University-based intellectual movement; it has to be more than that. It has to be grassroots. The people that are of a Pan-Africanist point of view need to connect with the Noam Chomsky's, they need to connect with the campus activists, and need to realize that these things that are happening are not happening as isolated incidents.
We must look at the historical record and garner the courage to face the whole forest as opposed to merely looking at the trees. We need to move away from these clichés that are based on racism, where some leaders are considered guilty until proven innocent, while others have the privilege of being innocent until proven guilty. So, my presentation was basically that a lot of the hype that we get from the media and that we accept are rooted in deep-seated white supremacist ideology that causes us to demonize the people and to minimize and trivialize their struggles. There are people right now in Haiti who are struggling. These people understand what they are fighting for and they are going to topple the minority rule that is being imposed on them. I think they will succeed in nicer shape if they find the solidarity of progressives from all around the world, especially in Canada. I closed last night with the words of Martin Luther King, which I'll repeat, he said: “In this generation we will have to account not only for the bad words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the so-called good people.”
I get hopeful when I see the people from www.StopWar.ca, when people go beyond the fear of the "other". When we stop seeing each other as "other" we are going to be able to get the societies we deserve and move to a different world. We either do that or we perish.
Charles: A thought does occur to me and that is that it's not just a matter of charity here; we're not talking about just doing “good” for others, we're talking about our own sovereignty in Canada, our future, our livelihoods. In the old days they could sort of say well white settlers you get a certain privilege for usurping the lands of the Indigenous peoples, privilege for not being Asian, for not being black, etc. Today, these big oil companies, these big fish farming companies, these multinationals are attacking the small property of the farmers of the fishers, the workers in the sawmills and so on. As you said, everybody is up against this so there's a real basis for a solid alliance of interests here.
Jean: Absolutely. As it happened in the 60s, where Dr. King started to make connections with the poor white movement in the United States, and people started to realize that this was not just about helping the Africans move away from the bondage, and that we are all suffering. Canadians, we are all now subjected to all kinds of threats, the threat of “terrorists”. We are not the ones creating this fear but we are all suffering from it. All of these crimes being committed in our names, with our tax money, provide us with a responsibility to get informed and actually stand up against what's happening. We're living in a world where the bandits are wearing the ties and the people have no say. People need to move beyond the exercise of casting the vote and get to be very political and make sure we have access to the media. We're talking about things here that I never hear talked about on CBC, for example, yet these are the stations I use my tax dollars to finance. Canada is still enjoying a very good reputation around the world but if we continue to move and jump to the tune of whatever is happening in the US, pretty soon we are also going to be targets around the world.
Charles: Jean Saint-Vil, Vancouver Co-op Radio thanks you.
Jean: In the name of all those who don't have access, I thank you for giving voice to us, so that we can speak truth to power and try to leave to our children a world that is much safer than the one we have today. I truly honestly thank you for your courage to deal with these issues. Peace.
Charles Boylan, Producer and Co-Host of Wake Up With Co-Op! at 102.7 FM in Vancouver, B.C., interviewed Jean Saint-Vil, on Friday, July 16, 2004, following an evening forum in Vancouver sponsored by Stopwar.ca. Boylan, who also hosts DISCUSSION every Wednesday night 7 to 8 p.m. PDT (live at www.coopradio.org) has been active four decades in the Canadian communist and anti-imperialist movement, and for several years has been the spokesperson for the Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist) in British Columbia.
Jean Saint Vil, aka Jafrikayiti (www.jafrikayiti.com) spoke in Vancouver on July 15, 2004. Jafrikayiti is tha author of Viv Bondye, aba Relijyon [Long Live God, Down With Religion] For pre-coup context, see his “Time to Stop Resisting Haiti’s Resistance.” Jean also recently attended and spoke at the The Conference to Build a Worldwide African Revolutionary Organization, July 17-18 in London.
* Transcribed by Anthony Fenton.