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“In overthrowing me, you have done no more than cut down the trunk of the tree of the black liberty in St-Domingue -it will spring back form the roots, for they are numerous and deep.”

– Toussaint Louverture, leader of the Haitian Revolution

The nation that has gripped America the past few days, for once, is not America. It’s a capital city called Port-Au-Prince, an area that’ll undoubtedly be crammed into school curricula over the next 15 years. With the earthquake devastation adding to the dilapidation of an area already among the world’s poorest, there has been no shortage of opinions as to the cause, the effects and the aftereffects in Haiti.

We had the pleasure – depending on your sense of humor – of seeing George W. Bush thank Barack Obama for his “swift response” to the victims of Haiti (see Hurricane Katrina). We’ve seen the true mobilizing power of Twitter, most notably through the efforts of Wyclef Jean. Donte Stallworth pledged to donate $1 for every follower he had by midnight. Twitter, after all, is not just about what I ate for lunch.

It’s more than an interesting coincidence that the federal holiday of Martin Luther King Jr. will be tinged with news about the relief efforts of Haiti. We’re talking about a country where enslaved Africans won “freedom” by force of arms in a 12-year-long war led by slave-turned-leader Toussaint l’Ouverture.

In 1803, after l’Ouverture defeated the French colonialists, France gave them an ultimatum: Pay us royally and be recognized as a free nation or we will come wreck shop. The figure: 20 billion current U.S. dollars. After refusing to comply with the terms for 21 years, Haiti relented.

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(Need more perspective on how outlandish this ransom was: The United States paid France approximately $10 billion current U.S. dollars for the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The land purchased by the U.S. was 828,800 square miles. Haiti is 10,714 square miles. The U.S. was getting 80 times the land Haitians were getting but paid half as much! Let’s just move on).

To say that this was crippling is an understatement. The Haitian government paid as much as 80 percent of its total revenue in some years to pay off the debt. Of course, this was money they couldn’t put into health care, manufacturing, education, agriculture, foreign investments, etc. Haiti didn’t pay off their debt until 1947.

“My decision to destroy the authority of the blacks in Saint Domingue (Haiti) is not so much based on considerations of commerce and money, as on the need to block for ever the march of the blacks in the world.”

– Napolean Bonaparte

They paid for their freedom, only to still be in economical slavery.

Both revolutionaries, King and L’Ouverture knew that freedom was something worth forcing.

One favored guns. The other didn’t. One commandeered troops with bayonets. The other commandeered troops with rhetoric and marches. Both men were willing to die for emancipation. Both men did.

Neither were alive to see the fruit of their labors. The tales of l’Ouverture and King both provide interesting notions about the concept of freedom. Is freedom paying off an impossible debt for over a hundred years, dismantling any hope of economic prosperity in the process? Is it fighting for equal rights in a country that never even regarded you as human?

If success is in the journey, is freedom a means or is it an end?

We look at Haiti as a desperate country right now because their citizens are handicapped by a financially impotent government. But perhaps Haiti looks at us askew, because we’re granted more opportunities than they could imagine and we still find ways to not take advantage, remaining at the bottom of the employment and financial totem pole.

Freedom has its ostensible merits, but it’s not without its crippling costs. For l’Ouverture, freedom was a means and an end. For King, progress was the means. Freedom was an end.

All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem.

-Martin Luther King Jr.

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  • sloane

    thanks for this article. i’m haitian and ever since i was young, my father made sure to instill a sense of pride within me about my heritage and the sucessful slave revolt with gave birth the first black republic in the western hemisphere. he also made sure to inform me of the role that france and the u.s. have played in haiti’s dire financial situation. france owes haiti right now. the country needs to be built from the ground up, from the government, to the economy, to the medical infrastructure. i hope (but i don’t expect) that they do the right thing.

  • An

    I think Napolean Bonaparte was just jealous of the blacks. He had a minuscule penis.

  • I have two great articles on the History and misconceptions of Haiti on my blog…

    It’s amazing what people forget or do not know when they stop reading and only rely on soundbites and the media to educate them.