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The Historical, Political And Social Conditions That Led Haiti To Turbulence

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

To better understand the historical, political and social conditions that led Haiti to this point, we turn now to Jean-Eddy Saint Paul. He teaches at Brooklyn College and is the founder of CUNY's Haitian Studies Institute. Professor Saint Paul, welcome to the program.

JEAN EDDY SAINT PAUL: It's nice to be on the WEEKEND EDITION.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to start way back after the Haitian revolution, which was essentially a slave rebellion that allowed Black people to take over a French colony. But they had to pay for that freedom, right? In 1825, Charles X said he would recognize Haitian independence for 150 million francs, which was a shocking sum. You know, for context, the U.S. bought Louisiana in the Louisiana Purchase for half of that. It crippled the Haitian economy.

SAINT PAUL: Yeah, definitely. At the time that the Haitian revolution happened, the international community never accepted as a fact the Haitian revolution. My ancestor - they defeated the French army, so they won their own revolution, but they had to pay for that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, and they had to borrow that money from French banks. And Haiti, in fact, didn't repay all the interest on the loan until 1947. Is that right? That's a century and a quarter of stalled growth.

SAINT PAUL: The fact that France caused Haitian people to pay for that revolution - it was a way, symbolically, that the empire put its foot on the neck of Haiti. And that actually started the process of foreign debt - international debt of Haiti that has a negative impact for the development of the country.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's look at politics and how Haiti has then been governed. You know, I've been there many times, and there's a huge divide between the elites and the population.

SAINT PAUL: Since the very beginning, Haiti has had a dysfunctional elite because the language of all Haitian is Creole. One hundred percent of the population speak Haitian Creole. But guess what, Lulu? Since 1804 until 1987, the language of Haitian people was not recognized legally as an official language. So the elite who took power in Haiti - they used a language that was the language of the former master, the French. And the elite also, in order to give the impression that they are civilized person - they embraced Christianity while rejecting the popular religion of Haitian people, the Haitian voodoo. So I think since 1804, we have had that disconnection between the elite and the masses.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And the United States has also been heavily involved in Haiti over the years.

SAINT PAUL: The U.S. occupied Haiti for 19 years, between 1915 and 1934. So during that occupation, one of the first moves that the U.S. did - they went directly to the National Bank of Haiti, and they took the gold reserve of Haiti, and they transferred that gold reserve to improve Wall Street here in New York. This is one fact. Another fact, from 1805, the first constitution of Haiti, no foreigner could own land in Haiti. So the second move that the U.S. did during their occupation - they changed the constitution, and they introduced a clause that allowed foreigners to own land in Haiti. Then we also had 20 - almost 29 years of dictatorship - dynastic dictatorship of the Duvalier. The U.S. unconditionally supported that dictatorship by providing the regime, the regime of the Duvalier, the economic and military assistance in order to torture the Haitian population. Jean-Bertrand Aristide was the first president democratically elected in 1990.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And then Jean-Bertrand Aristide was removed. Peacekeeping forces were put in. There was the devastating earthquake of 2010 - so much turmoil. And right now, there is essentially no government. I mean, only 10 officials are in Congress. There's a complete vacuum of power. You have friends and family there. What are they telling you about the situation right now?

SAINT PAUL: So my family - physically, they are OK. But emotionally, you know, everyone in Haiti is, you know, suffering in trauma, Lulu. And also, Haitian people in the diaspora - we are in a traumatic situation because of everything that is happening in Haiti.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So where do we go now? Jovenel Moise is dead. There are two different people who could claim to be the next leader. It's not clear when elections will be. So what next? What do you think needs to happen?

SAINT PAUL: Jovenel Moise - I think we need international commission to investigate to know what's happened because until now, we have just speculation, right? Because Jovenel Moise was very unpopular, we don't know what could be the behavior of the Haitian population in the next day and next week. They have been unable to make, like, a consensus to present a common agenda. So I think it's a struggle for power. That struggle of power - nobody know what could be the outcome.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jean-Eddy Saint Paul teaches at Brooklyn College and is the founder of CUNY's Haitian Studies Institute. Thank you very much.

SAINT PAUL: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAIB.'S "WHEN IT RAINS (CHOVE CHUVA)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.