In 1791, Haiti was known as Saint-Domingue, a French colony. It was the most profitable colony in the world, a top supplier of the world’s sugar. Slaves made up a majority of the population, and in an unprecedented feat, they rebelled and overthrew their colonizers, becoming the Republic of Haiti by 1804. However, that freedom came at a steep price. With the slave trade prospering across the world, the fight for Haitian independence elicited much fear and little sympathy. A nation of free blacks just to the south inspired horror in the U.S., which quickly moved to boycott Haitian goods and merchants. Even worse, by 1825, surrounded by a French flotilla threatening to storm its shores, Haiti was charged 150 million gold francs, more than 10 times the fledgling country’s annual revenues, to pay reparations for its own freedom. Though that sum was eventually reduced to 90 million francs, estimated at $17 billion today, Haiti was forced to pay it for well over a century.
Afterwards, Haitian politics were marked by competing regimes and struggles for power from both inside and out. From the 1950s until the mid-80s, Haiti was subject to the cult of Duvalier — a father and son dictatorship that ruled by brutality and force. In 1957, “Papa Doc” Duvalier consolidated power through sham elections, misappropriating aid money to fuel his militaristic rule and using his status as a practitioner of vodou to inspire fear by taking advantage of his people’s deep-seated religious beliefs. In the early 60s, a small number of Haitians started to leave, mostly wealthier classes with the resources to travel the U.S., but they mainly settled in the northeast United States, according to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the first mass arrivals of Haitian refugees fleeing his rule landed in South Florida — referred to disparagingly as “Haitian boat people” at the time.
The influx of Haitians reached a high point in 1980, when approximately 25,000 Haitians came to South Florida seeking asylum, according to a Congressional report.
(Published in The New Tropic on January 31, 2016)