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From slavery to Sarkozy in Haiti

By Patrick Sylvain and Peniel E. Joseph, Special to CNN
Peniel E. Joseph, left, and Patrick Sylvain
Peniel E. Joseph, left, and Patrick Sylvain
  • Joseph and Sylvain: Haiti's tragic poverty stems from a brutal history of colonial subjugation
  • Authors say after Haiti's independence, France and U.S. cracked down
  • Nicolas Sarkozy visited Haiti, the first French president to do so
  • His trip offers hope for alliance, but Haitian wariness runs deep, authors say
  • Nicolas Sarkozy
  • Haiti
  • France
  • Earthquakes
  • Caribbean

Editor's note: Peniel E. Joseph, a Haitian-American, teaches history at Tufts University. His latest book is "Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama." Patrick Sylvain is a Haitian language and culture instructor at Brown University and a language coach at Harvard. His latest bilingual poetry collection is "Love, Lust & Loss."

(CNN) -- Haiti's emergence as the first free black republic, forged against the backdrop of Caribbean and North American slavery, is pivotal to today's discussions of citizenship, democracy, and freedom.

Now, 206 years after its declaration of independence, Haiti's dire poverty, the earthquake and its massive death toll have triggered yet another global "first," one with potentially major geopolitical consequences.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy recently visited Haiti, the first French president to set foot on Haitian soil. His historic trip recalled long-standing colonial wounds, even as he graciously offered much-needed economic assistance to a ravaged Port-au-Prince. The visit also offered a glimpse of the Caribbean republic's paradoxical relationship with its former colonial master.

A country once known as the "Pearl of the Antilles," Haiti 's downfall was not of its own making. Its tragic poverty stems from a brutal history of colonial subjugation, one that caused an unexpected and globally shattering revolution that toppled the colonial rule of France, an imperial power that Alexander Hamilton had dreamed of dismantling in the Americas.

Haiti's war of independence, from 1791 to 1803, was won through a combination of bravado and a political self-determination embodied in the bracing personality and ingenuity of Toussaint L'Ouverture. Toussaint was helped by U.S. President John Adams, who saw in him a temporary ally in the quasi-war against France, from 1798 to 1801.

The young United States sought to muster its strength through naval expansion and indirectly curtail France's power in the Caribbean. In 1799, the United States lifted the embargo against Haiti (Saint-Domingue) by providing it with arms, food supplies and naval intelligence that aided Toussaint's war against the pro-French elites.

But positive U.S. policies toward Haiti and the political gains orchestrated by Toussaint L'Ouverture under the Adams administration were dramatically reversed under Thomas Jefferson. He supported the punishing French blockade of Haiti and allowed the French naval power to rise under the leadership of Napoleon, which culminated in the arrest and deportation of Toussaint to France.

The French blockage and closing of U.S. ports to Haiti stunted the embryonic republic's economic growth. France demanded reparations from Haiti of 150 million francs -- about $21 billion in today's money. This forced debt crippled Haiti's economy and took 122 years to repay.

So, on the one hand, President Sarkozy's visit to Haiti initiated a new chapter between that country and France. Indeed, according to Sarkozy, "Haiti must set the conditions for a national consensus on which to base a national project. Haiti for the Haitians."

In a very real sense, Sarkozy's visit offered a glimpse of a more promising future for Haiti, one marked by cooperation with former colonial rulers, in which prosperity replaces endemic poverty.

Haiti's proud and resilient citizens, who have endured a seemingly endless series of setbacks since independence in 1804, remain hopeful that Sarkozy's visit ushers in a long-overdue political alliance with France. But they are also aware that the nations' contentious history cannot be repaired by a single visit from a French president.

Although global observers may interpret French promises of economic aid to Haiti as a gesture of goodwill to the earthquake-stricken nation, Haitians will take a more complex view.

Some observers may also interpret France's assistance as just another in a long line of handouts, but students of Haitian history know better. That assistance has been paid for many times over in the blood of countless unknown Haitians who toiled and died under French rule.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Peniel E. Joseph and Patrick Sylvain.