Matthew Casey, author of Empire’s Guest Workers, discusses President Trump’s recent comments on Haiti.

Donald Trump’s description of Haiti as one of a number of “shithole countries” came one day before the anniversary of the 2010 Haitian earthquake and a few weeks after he resurrected stereotypes associating Haitians with AIDS. It was also a full century after the US government and companies first began to play an outsized role in Haitian politics and enjoy the economic advantages of migrant labor while denouncing Haitians themselves.

Remarkably, one of the first places where US companies were enriched by Haitian immigrants was in the sugar industry of Cuba. In the decades after the Spanish-Cuban-American War of 1898, Cuba was subject to US political, military and economic domination. US sugar investors and banking interests made their fortunes off the island’s most profitable crop; the labor was provided by a half million immigrants from Haiti, Jamaica and elsewhere in the Caribbean. US administrators, the Cuban press and politicians debated this immigration with the same racist clichés that anyone who reads the news today has already heard. Immigrants were accused of carrying diseases, decreasing wages, committing crimes and plotting revolution.

The Haiti that migrants left was also largely a product of US policies. In 1915, Marines invaded Haiti for what would become a nineteen year military occupation; President Woodrow Wilson justified the intervention on the assassination of a Haitian President and used the language of progress. Unfortunately, occupation policies ignored the economic plights and democratic rights of ordinary Haitians. Back in the states, writers and journalists exploited stereotypes about Haitian spirituality to bring tales of “Voodoo” and zombies to the American public. Meanwhile, occupation efforts to centralize the economy disrupted the Haitian countryside, sending peasants into the ever-crowding capital of Port-au-Prince or steamships headed for Cuba.

During the Depression, sugar jobs dried up and starvation hit the Cuban countryside. The Cuban government, by 1933 under increasing influence of Sergeant Fulgencio Batista, carried out a campaign of mass deportations. Some 40,000 Haitians were forcibly sent home with little regard for the families or savings they left behind.

US troops withdrew from Haiti in 1934 but the occupation laid the political infrastructure for subsequent dictators. Since then, Haitian governments have complied with development projects sponsored by the United States, the UN and various NGOs. Democrat and Republican administrations alike have encouraged projects that create jobs without reducing poverty and enrich foreign garment manufacturers without bringing in tax revenues for the Haitian state. Instead of simply asking: what is wrong with Haiti? We must also ask: what is wrong with a century of development projects?

Something else happened last week. In the wake of Trump’s remarks, people challenged the stereotypes. Haitian-Americans took to the streets and social media to celebrate their heritage and individual accomplishments; writers denounced the racism with nuanced historical explanation. This too, has a parallel in the past century among Cuban and Haitian writers who challenged anti-Haitian racism and the mistreatment of immigrants. But the most important work is being done at the grassroots level, largely invisible in a Google search or an old newspaper. In neighborhoods throughout the United States—just as a century ago in Cuba—Haitians are building their lives and creating relationships with non-Haitians–all despite a climate of discrimination and the knowledge most must work harder than a native to gain less.

This is not to romanticize hardships, it is to say that the United States must do better to protect families, recognize immigrants’ humanity and celebrate what they contribute to society. Nothing makes xenophobia look more foolish than to hear today’s anti-immigrant arguments in another time and place.

Empire’s Guest Workers explores the seasonal migration between Haiti and Cuba in a way that moves smoothly between the global economy and family dynamics, grassroots activities and the tangled international relations among the United States, Haiti and Cuba.

Chapter 1 of Empire’s Guest Workers is freely available until 17 February 2018.

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