“I think Haiti is a place that suffers so much from neglect that people only want to hear about it when it’s extreme. And that’s why they end up knowing about it.” —Edwidge Danticat
The Reparations Debate Today
The issue of reparations has long been a demand of the descendants of enslaved people. Lately, the question has re-emerged as a topic of vigorous debate on the left and in more mainstream political circles. H.R. 40, a bill calling for investigation into the practical realities of reparations, has sparked new urgency around reparations, as well as with respect to specific reforms that could be enacted in its name. After initially opposing the bill, Bernie Sanders recently reversed course and now supports it. This was mostly the result of pressure from the reparations movement and left-wing supporters of his campaign, including from the Democratic Socialists of America’s Afrosocialist caucus.1Brianha Gray, “Bernie Asks the Right Question on Reparations: What Does it Mean?” The Intercept, February 26, 2019, https://theintercept.com/2019/02/26/reparations-bernie-sanders/.
In 2014, Ta-Nehisi Coates argued in The Atlantic that the call for reparations encompasses more than simple compound interest on the never realized promise of “40 acres and a mule.” He identifies the failures of twentieth-century policy and practice in the private sector housing market and discriminatory policies of federal housing programs that have exacerbated racial inequality in homeownership.2Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/. All of this widened the wealth disparities of African Americans both before and after the end of formal Jim Crow segregation.
On the socialist left, several positions have been staked out. First, a position argued by Cedric Johnson claims that demands for reparations are not “political,” implying that they are impractical and divisive to an emerging cross-racial class politics oriented toward “universal” demands.3Cedric Johnson, “Reparations Isn’t a Political Demand,” Jacobin, March 7, 2016, https://jacobinmag.com/2016/03/cedric-johnson-brian-jones-ta-nehisi-coates-reparations. This seems to assume that remediation cannot challenge structural racism. In response to Johnson’s argument, Black American socialist and writer Brian Jones offers that the call for reparations is, on the contrary, one that can build support for class politics and even general public investment in health care and education.4Brian Jones, “The Socialist Case for Reparations, Jacobin,” March 1, 2016, https://jacobinmag.com/2016/03/reparations-ta-nehisi-coates-cedric-johnson-bernie-sanders. A third position is advanced by the author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, who argues that reparations cannot be reduced to mere policy prescription, but also represent a way of “not forgetting” the foundational role of slavery in the accumulation of wealth and arrangements of class in former slaves societies in the Americas.5Keeanga-Yamahatta Taylor, “The Consequences of Forgetting,” Jacobin, May 7, 2019, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2019/05/reparations-slavery-racism-united-states-foundation.
Beyond the left, a new and disparate campaign of supporters of reparations made up of a coalition of nominal Black nationalists has inserted itself forcefully into the debate about redress. This campaign is rumored to be funded by the Koch brothers. These advocates call themselves “American Descendants of Slaves” (ADOS)6Farah Stockman, “‘We’re Self-Interested’: The Growing Identity Debate in Black America,” The New York Times, November 13, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/08/us/slavery-black-immigrants-ados.html. and have organized explicitly as a xenophobic force pushing to distinguish among the descendants of enslaved people in the Americas. They argue that Black people of Caribbean or Latin American origin, even where their ancestors suffered under chattel slavery, should not benefit from any program of reparations in the United States of America. They argue that even Black US citizens who are descendants of Caribbean or Latin American slavery should, instead, rely on reparations from their “own” countries.
While each of these approaches to the current debate on reparations differ significantly from one another and in their value to any politics of radical transformation, they share a limited focus on the United States and miss the full significance of internationalism to reparations and to broader horizons of Black liberation. Haiti’s singular history as the first free Black republic, born of revolution against New World slavery and its history of neocolonial subjugation ever since, provides the most illustrative frame for understanding the need for and possibilities of a modern, internationalist, transformative politics of reparations, and one which can combat the most reactionary and cynical misuses and abuses of the legacy, history, and potential of this demand.
Reparations and Black Liberation
Popular understandings of the reparations debate in the United States are mistakenly limited by two factors. First, reparations are assumed to be repayment for the historical injustice of slavery alone. Second, they disconnect Black liberation struggles from Pan-African and Pan-American efforts to hold the beneficiaries of anti-Black oppression accountable for their unearned gains, regardless of national boundaries. Here as in all cases, borders serve the interests of the ruling class. When the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and the International Monetary Fund work hand in hand with the United States and European powers to extract wealth from Black people and communities already scarred by the history of slavery, we do ourselves a disservice by assuming that nation-states can pay for historical and ongoing injustice. Black liberation struggles that are internationalist in scope better match the reality we face today, and that we have always faced at the hands of colonial powers importing chattel slavery to the West.
Understanding the international dimension of reparations invites us to seriously parse out what histories people are contesting and how strategies diverge. The history the reparations struggle presents poses a strategic question about what it would take to recognize the legacy of slavery and to begin to correct the horrors of this violent institution. Black American poverty is not a random occurrence but is always historically produced and often by design – as seen in anti-Black discrimination in education, housing, and labor markets. Reparations is a political project that holds political entities that benefitted from mass suffering accountable for their actions.
The reparations movement was ignited by Pan-Africanists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and revitalized for an American audience during the civil rights movement when a large segment of the African American population was still reeling from Jim Crow segregation in the South and similarly debilitating forms of racial segregation in the North. Some organizations involved sought to tie the demand for reparations to the struggles of Black people in the United States and internationally.
Founded in 1919, the Pan-African Congress called for the League of Nations to have an “anticolonial” commitment after the Treaty of Versailles, advocating for the protection of people on the African continent. The Pan-African Federation, distinct from the Pan-African Congress, was formed in 1944 and hoped to establish a new global labor alliance dedicated to building socialism and reanimating the dormant pan-Africanist movement. The Federation called for a genuine international alliance of workers that could challenge racism. Through the Universal Negro Improvement Association, Marcus Garvey and others looked to international bodies to recognize the exploitation of Black people in the Americas as well as on the African continent. Following the integration of the US military and the exclusion of Black soldiers from the welfare provisions of the G.I. Bill, Black women, such as Audley “Queen Mother” Moore, founder of the Committee for Reparations for the Descendants of Slaves, were integral to the reparations movement in the United States, popularizing the struggle for much of the twentieth century.7Ashley Farmer, “The Black Woman Who Launched the Modern Fight for Reparations,” The Washington Post, June 24, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/06/24/black-woman-who-launched-modern-fight-reparations/. Moore and other Black nationalist leaders petitioned the United States on behalf of reparations for African Americans in 1959 and 1962.
Though not always at the center of popular accounts of the reparations movement, internationalism has been at the core of Black abolition, decolonization, and reparations. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years In Power documents the internationalism of African Americans during the civil rights movement. Coates writes, “As Malcolm traveled to Africa and the Middle East, as he debated at Oxford and Harvard, he encountered a torrent of new ideas, new ways of thinking that batted him back and forth.”8Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power. An American Tragedy (New York: Random House, 2017), 100. What one gathers is that internationalism – something that Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party began to put into action – allowed the space for radicals to move beyond borders imposed upon them and to imagine the global dynamics of social struggle.
More recently, in 2014, fifteen Caribbean countries revitalized the reparations movement by presenting their grievances to European countries. Among their demands was material support to compensate impoverished countries for stolen wealth.9Ed Pilkington, “Caribbean Nations Prepare Demand for Slavery Reparations,” The Guardian, March 9, 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/09/caribbean-nations-demand-slavery-reparations. In addition, they demanded that European countries fund programs that would allow for deeper cultural connections and travel between the Caribbean and African continent. As the Black Agenda Report detailed in October 2019, the Caribbean reparations movement is about comprehensive justice, rather than a once-off monetary handout. The thirteen-member Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Reparations Commission established a ten-point plan to mandate that European governments and businesses acknowledge and make amends for slavery.10Caricom, “Ten Point Reparations Plans,” http://caricomreparations.org/caricom/caricoms-10-point-reparation-plan. These efforts range from targeting institutions, businesses, associations, and governments that continue to plunder Black communities. They include demands for direct payment from former colonial European powers who continue to influence the political landscape of the Caribbean. The University of Glasgow has begun institutionalizing Caribbean reparations through its public health and development projects.11Jamaica Observer, “Glasgow-UWI Reparations Project,” January 12, 2020, http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/career-education/Glasgow-UWI_reparation_project_begins?profile=0. Committing £20 billion, they will cooperate with universities in the Caribbean to implement reparation programs over the next twenty years.
Far from an idiosyncratic outlier on one half of a small island in the Caribbean, Haiti is exemplary of the history of the internationalism of the Black liberation struggle, and of the continued oppression reparations ought to address across the hemisphere. Caribbean and Latin American anti-slavery movements demonstrate a complex and ongoing struggle for Black liberation and political amends that includes and transcends reparations, and which remain relevant to any attempt to repair the historical and ongoing subjugation of Haitians and all the descendants of enslaved people. The Trinidadian Marxist scholar C.L.R. James described the power of the Haitian Revolution as a source of historical novelty and significance in The Black Jacobins. He wrote:
The transformation of slaves, trembling in hundreds before a single white man, into a people able to organize themselves and defeat the most powerful European nations of their day, is one of the great epics of revolutionary struggle and achievement.12C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), ix.
The island of Hispaniola, which was originally inhabited by the Arawak people, whose indigenous and communal society sustained itself through fishing and farming, has a complicated history with occupation and resistance. Yet the events in Haiti speak to a broader crisis of European settler colonialism, initiated by the arrival of Christopher Columbus and other Europeans to the Americas, eventually contributing to the near elimination of many indigenous populations. By the mid-seventeenth century, the Spanish government ceded the territory to France, who renamed their portion of the island “Saint-Domingue.” It was at this point that they systemized the chattel slavery of Africans. However, that system was overturned when the slaves rose up at the end of the eighteenth century and overthrew their masters in the revolution of 1791-1804.
The insurrection of Black slaves in Saint-Domingue altered the course of chattel slavery in the Americas. As Laurent Dubois documents in Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution, Haitian leaders such as Alexandre Pétion and Henri Christophe provided ideological, material, and financial support to South American anti-colonial figures such as Simón Bolívar to carry out campaigns against Spanish colonial rule.13Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), 303. Black struggle has and continues to underwrite universal struggles for emancipation even when other nations leave them in the dust. In 1815, Pétion provided Bolívar with 4000 muskets, 15,000 pounds of powder, lead, a printing press, and former slaves who had fought in the Haitian Revolution. This was not merely coincidental or for moral reasons. Pétion knew that for slavery to be abolished in Haiti it would need to be abolished elsewhere. Without the internationalization of the Haitian Revolution – a movement that was predicated on the abolition of slavery – decolonization in the rest of the Americas would have been slower and more arduous.
The internationalism of the Haitian Revolution tells us two things: first, that liberation is not an isolated event that can be quarantined to an island; and second, that oppression and, conversely, liberation, are grounded in historically produced material actions. In Haiti, as in the United States, the abolition of slavery so ignited the ire of those who benefited from a slavery-dependent economy that other methods of repression and low-cost labor-reproduction were established as both punishment and insurance of the continued supremacy of White settlers. Far from historical relics, policies that actively prevent the full participation and flourishing of the descendants of enslaved people are alive and well today. In Haiti, as in the United States, these policies include the imposition of inescapable debt, the denial of healthcare, and direct state violence.
In 1825, under the threat of reinvasion, the French government attempted to forestall Haiti’s political sovereignty and demanded that the newly liberated country pay former French plantation owners for their loss of “property” before it would recognize Haitian independence. The government of Haiti and its citizens paid $22 billion (in today’s terms) to France by the time payments ceased in 2010. The perversity of Haiti paying for its freedom and not receiving reparations is part of a broader historical injustice where the country’s majority, descendants of slaves, have failed to receive material amends.
In 2003, Haiti’s then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide requested that France pay Haiti over $21 billion in reparations.14Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, “A call for $21 billion from France aims to lift Haiti’s bicentennial blues,” January 4, 2004, The Boston Globe, http://archive.boston.com/news/globe/ideas/articles/2004/01/04/reparation_day/. Thus far, Haitians have received nothing. Aristide’s electoral victories in 1990 and 2000 have been coupled with paramilitary coups d’état in 1991 and 2004, leading to his exile. Peter Hallward suggests that Aristide’s proclamations for restitution and the redistribution of wealth are part of the reason for ongoing intervention by Haitian paramilitaries, Haitian elites, and foreign forces.15Peter Hallward, Damming the Flood: Haiti and the Politics of Containment (New York: Verso Books, 2007).
Neo-Colonial Health Interventions
Since April 2010, nearly one million Haitians have been infected with the cholera epidemic, and 10,000 have died. According to the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), “Due to massive flooding and its impact on water and sanitation infrastructure, cholera cases are expected to surge after Hurricane Matthew and through the normal rainy season until the start of 2017.”16As quoted by Catherin Thorbecke and Gillian Mohney, “Surge in Cholera Cases Feared in Haiti in Aftermath of Hurricane Matthew,” ABC News, October 7, 2016. Prior to October 2010, there had been no reported incidents of cholera in Haiti in nearly a century, according to the U.N. World Health Organization.17World Health Organization, “Cholera in Haiti,” October 26, 2010, https://www.who.int/csr/don/2010_10_26/en/. An expert panel of epidemiologists and microbiologists appointed by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon concluded that UN peacekeeping troops from Nepal imported cholera to Haiti and contaminated the river tributary next to their base through a faulty sanitation system.18Jonathan Katz, “UN Admits Role in Cholera Epidemic in Haiti,” The New York Times, August 17, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/18/world/americas/united-nations-haiti-cholera.html. The cholera epidemic and the U.N. military occupation are a modern iteration of imperialism, which requires up-to-date mechanisms for retribution for Haitians suffering from the epidemic.
In 2017, the U.N., under the direction of Ban Ki-moon, provided a $400 million voluntary trust to Haiti. However, only a sliver of the funds was used to tackle cholera. The remainder covered salaries and administrative costs that mostly benefited non-Haitian staff. The Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti petitioned the United Nations, seeking a remedy for the damages associated with the spread of cholera. Their petition was dismissed. Even though these facts are widely recognized to be true, U.N. accountability is absent in a system where uneven development and colonial power reign supreme.
In addition, postcolonial governments have implemented austerity under pressure from multilateral financial institutions, resulting in the steady dismantling of public health services. The 2010 earthquake in Haiti and the country’s deficient sanitation system made it difficult to manage the disease when UN forces introduced cholera. This epidemic has become a twenty-first century travesty in Haiti not because there is no cure for the illness but because financial deficit, military occupation, and environmental disaster have weakened the medical infrastructure necessary to tackle this contagious disease.
Neoliberal Military Intervention
Since the nineteenth century, the United States, under the banner of the Monroe Doctrine, has intervened in Haitian politics, often at the expense of Haitian political autonomy. US troops occupied Haiti outright several times – including under Woodrow Wilson in 1915, and under Bill Clinton in the 1990s. The US government used its influence with the Duvalier family, Haiti’s dictators for most of the second half of the twentieth century, to shape the Haitian economy in the interests of U.S. corporate interests. Under the Clinton administration, the 1994 “Operation Uphold Democracy” involved the forced entry of the US military into Haiti, leading directly to the death of at least ten Haitians.19Philippe de Girard, Clinton in Haiti: The 1994 US Invasion of Haiti (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004),127
International military intervention has been tied together with the neoliberal agenda promoted by the US and its allies, and ordinary Haitians have paid a terrible price. This involved trade agreements that wrecked Haitian agriculture, structural adjustment programs that allowed US multinationals to exploit Haitian workers, and “coercive legislation and policing tactics (anti-picketing rules, for example) to disperse or repress collective forms of opposition to corporate power.”20David Harvey, Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 77. Backed by the US., Haiti’s elites, from François Duvalier to Michel Martelly, have gone out of their way to ensure that Haiti’s minimum wage remains abysmally low – an effort Hillary Clinton personally spearheaded as Secretary of State under the Obama Administration. As revealed by the Haiti WikiLeaks cables, Clinton prioritized sending 10,000 troops to the country over any humanitarian aid.21Ansel Herz, “WikiLeaks Haiti: The Earthquake Cables,” The Nation, June 15, 2011, https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/wikileaks-haiti-earthquake-cables/. In another WikiLeaks document, she blocked a proposal that would have raised the minimum wage in Haiti from 24 cents an hour to 62 cents an hour, or $5 per day.22Telesur, “Haitian Workers Fight for Minimum Wage Suppressed by Clinton’s Stte Department, Telesur, May 22, 2017, https://www.telesurenglish.net/news/Haitians-Workers-Fight-for-Higher-Minimum-Wage-Suppressed-by-Clintons-State-Department-20170522-0037.html. These political interventions highlight the ways that the United States government’s policy toward Haiti centers “security” over relief, international market opportunities over local development, and stagnant wages over economic empowerment.
The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) commenced in 2004 following the U.S.-backed coup that overthrew Arisitide, who was democratically elected. The purported mission of the MINUSTAH occupation was to provide “peace and security,” but its troops have been implicated in repressing grassroots political movements, sexually assaulting Haitian women and children, and spreading cholera. The occupation continues under the banner of the United Nations, with Brazil, Chile, and Nepal playing a central role. The U.N. has justified the occupation with claims that Haiti is subjected to “political volatility, institutional fragility and economic stagnation.”23Jacqueline Charlers, “UN sets stage for end of peacekeeping in Haiti. A worried Dominican Republic objects,” Miami Herald, April 12, 2019, https://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/haiti/article229164759.html.
Debt, the denial of healthcare, and death at the hands of the purveyors of state violence are issues that undeniably affect the descendants of enslaved people far beyond the borders of Haiti, and parallel issues of inequality are not difficult to discern in the United States. The reparations debate must be seen as part of a broader international discussion about how the past can be remedied through financial, social, and political transformation. The political arc that it has yielded speaks to a growing struggle for Black liberation. Haiti is one of many cases where people are both inspired by mass action and sober about the reality of ongoing defeat.
Slavery is not merely a remnant of a racist past but continues to haunt African descendants. Haiti is being punished for its liberation and the example it set for enslaved and oppressed people all over the world. Ongoing tragedies, from foreign military occupation to U.S.-imposed wage stagnation, show that reparations must be comprehensive. If we want to do justice to an obscured history and provide concrete solutions so that we may be free, that means finding those volcanic eruptions of struggle from below – not just on US soil but on an international scale. Borders sully international resistance, and capitalism’s ability to conquer and divide has metastasized oppression especially among refugees, transgender people, and those living under war. There are deeper aspects of reparations that could be addressed. Its proponents invite us to imagine a situation where Black people are able to dream and create a new world through the arts, sciences, and beyond – as presented, for example, in Felwine Sarr’s illuminating text Afrotopia.24Felwine Sarr, Afrotopia (Paris: Éditions Philippe Rey, 2016). When reparations are put into practice, it will be about remembering the past and, in so doing, beginning to envisage a world in which everyone can be free.
1 Brianha Gray, “Bernie Asks the Right Question on Reparations: What Does it Mean?” The Intercept, February 26, 2019, https://theintercept.com/2019/02/26/reparations-bernie-sanders/.
2 Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/.
3 Cedric Johnson, “Reparations Isn’t a Political Demand,” Jacobin, March 7, 2016, https://jacobinmag.com/2016/03/cedric-johnson-brian-jones-ta-nehisi-coates-reparations.
4 Brian Jones, “The Socialist Case for Reparations, Jacobin,” March 1, 2016, https://jacobinmag.com/2016/03/reparations-ta-nehisi-coates-cedric-johnson-bernie-sanders.
5 Keeanga-Yamahatta Taylor, “The Consequences of Forgetting,” Jacobin, May 7, 2019, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2019/05/reparations-slavery-racism-united-states-foundation.
6 Farah Stockman, “‘We’re Self-Interested’: The Growing Identity Debate in Black America,” The New York Times, November 13, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/08/us/slavery-black-immigrants-ados.html.
7 Ashley Farmer, “The Black Woman Who Launched the Modern Fight for Reparations,” The Washington Post, June 24, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/06/24/black-woman-who-launched-modern-fight-reparations/.
8 Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power. An American Tragedy (New York: Random House, 2017), 100.
9 Ed Pilkington, “Caribbean Nations Prepare Demand for Slavery Reparations,” The Guardian, March 9, 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/09/caribbean-nations-demand-slavery-reparations.
10 Caricom, “Ten Point Reparations Plans,” http://caricomreparations.org/caricom/caricoms-10-point-reparation-plan.
11 Jamaica Observer, “Glasgow-UWI Reparations Project,” January 12, 2020, http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/career-education/Glasgow-UWI_reparation_project_begins?profile=0.
12 C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), ix.
13 Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), 303.
14 Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, “A call for $21 billion from France aims to lift Haiti’s bicentennial blues,” January 4, 2004, The Boston Globe, http://archive.boston.com/news/globe/ideas/articles/2004/01/04/reparation_day/.
15 Peter Hallward, Damming the Flood: Haiti and the Politics of Containment (New York: Verso Books, 2007).
16 As quoted by Catherin Thorbecke and Gillian Mohney, “Surge in Cholera Cases Feared in Haiti in Aftermath of Hurricane Matthew,” ABC News, October 7, 2016.
17 World Health Organization, “Cholera in Haiti,” October 26, 2010, https://www.who.int/csr/don/2010_10_26/en/.
18 Jonathan Katz, “UN Admits Role in Cholera Epidemic in Haiti,” The New York Times, August 17, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/18/world/americas/united-nations-haiti-cholera.html.
19 Philippe de Girard, Clinton in Haiti: The 1994 US Invasion of Haiti (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004),127
20 David Harvey, Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 77.
21 Ansel Herz, “WikiLeaks Haiti: The Earthquake Cables,” The Nation, June 15, 2011, https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/wikileaks-haiti-earthquake-cables/.
22 Telesur, “Haitian Workers Fight for Minimum Wage Suppressed by Clinton’s Stte Department, Telesur, May 22, 2017, https://www.telesurenglish.net/news/Haitians-Workers-Fight-for-Higher-Minimum-Wage-Suppressed-by-Clintons-State-Department-20170522-0037.html.
23 Jacqueline Charlers, “UN sets stage for end of peacekeeping in Haiti. A worried Dominican Republic objects,” Miami Herald, April 12, 2019, https://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/haiti/article229164759.html.
24 Felwine Sarr, Afrotopia (Paris: Éditions Philippe Rey, 2016).