In 1826, Southern antagonism towards Haiti erupted on the floors of Congress, when John Quincy Adams proposed that the United States should participate in a conference of independent American nations at which Haiti might also be represented. In response, Southern congressional leaders unleashed their fury in a tirade against the Haitian republic, spewing racist propaganda and insisting that Haitian independence must never be recognized.

Years later, during a speech in 1893, abolitionist Frederick Douglass aptly described the U.S. government's response to the Haitian Revolution as a demonstration of Americans' discomfort with Black freedom and self-determination. "Haiti is black, and we have not yet forgiven Haiti for being black…After Haiti had shaken off the fetters of bondage, and long after her freedom and independence had been recognized by all other civilized nations, we continued to refuse to acknowledge the fact….and treated her as outside the sisterhood of nations."

French Debt, Haitian "Freedom"

Until 1825, the U.S. government could easily justify their non-recognition policy on the grounds that its ally, the French government, was unwilling to recognize the independence of its former colony. From a purely diplomatic standpoint, it would have been a poor strategic decision for the United States to acknowledge Haiti if the French refused to do so.

That changed in 1825. In order to gain diplomatic recognition, and to gain entrance into the global trade arena, the Haitian government entered into a very costly agreement with France.

France agreed to recognize Haiti as a sovereign nation, but demanded that Haiti pay compensation and reparations in exchange. The Haitians, with their diplomatic and economic backs against the wall, agreed to pay the French.

The French government sent a team of accountants into Haiti in order to place a value on all lands and physical assets, including the 500,000 citizens who were formerly enslaved, and declared the value at 150 million gold francs, which in contemporary terms would equate to well over $20 billion.

Payments began immediately. And although Haiti was finally able to officially "buy" its economic freedom and diplomatic recognition, the debt of 150 million francs was a massive burden from which Haitians have never been able to fully recover.

Although the official debt was later reduced, France forced Haiti to pay an annual fee for its national sovereignty for nearly 100 hundred years—from 1825 to 1922. For almost a century, then, Haiti endured French-imposed penury.

By 1915, Haiti still "owed" France $121 million francs, and much of their resources went to paying off its debt. For instance, 51% of Haiti's revenues from coffee went to service the exterior debt, 47% went to pay internal debts associated with building the nation's infrastructure, with only 2% available for all other expenses.

This reality of suffocating debt, then, more than any other factor, explains how and why Haiti eventually became known as the "poorest country in the Western hemisphere."

And paying the French did not always help Haiti diplomatically with other countries. The United States, for example, continued its policy of non-acceptance of the fledgling republic despite French recognition of Haiti.

Due in part to its diplomatic isolation, debt, and economic struggles, Haiti entered into a troublesome era. Beginning in 1843, there were a series of military coups in Haiti. President Boyer was driven into exile, and over the next several years there were numerous short-lived presidencies culminating in the election of Faustin Élie Soulouque in 1847. Late in 1849, he was named Emperor Faustin I, and was officially crowned in 1852.

The shift from president to emperor was not simply a change in name. The decision to embrace the title of emperor was a reflection of the fact that the Haitian government was moving away from its democratic republican values towards the vision of an empire. Faustin I emphasized class hierarchy, created a secret police and a personal army to destroy his opponents, and the government became more imperialistic in its foreign relations.

Fortunately, by the turn of the decade, American abolitionists and the Haitian government finally had reasons to celebrate. First, in January of 1859, Emperor Faustin I was deposed by a military coup d'état, and his opponent, Fabre Geffrard, re-established a republican government.

More importantly, the Civil War broke out in the United States in 1861, which not only gave activists hope for the end of American slavery, but also prompted the Union government to finally extend diplomatic recognition to Haiti. After lengthy debate in Congress, President Abraham Lincoln enacted the law recognizing Haiti and appointed the first Haitian commissioner in June of 1862.

Despite these successes, it soon became clear that racism and the legacy of slavery proved more difficult to destroy than Black activists and their White supporters might have hoped. And although the relationship between Haiti and the United States government changed markedly, it remained fraught and complex.

From Neglect to Exploitation

While the first 100 or so years of Haitian history was marred by political isolation and economic embargoes that devastated the nation's attempts to establish and stabilize an independent republic, the next 100 years became, in many respects, the exact opposite. Rather than being ignored and excluded, Haiti became the subject of conquest, occupation, and control by western nations, particularly the United States.

Haiti's political victory in 1862 proved to be hollow at best. Gaining diplomatic recognition from the United States, which had once seemed beneficial, exposed Haiti to the possibility of foreign intervention and eventually resulted in occupation and manipulation by foreign nations.

Between 1862 and 1915, Haiti experienced tremendous internal turmoil. Dozens of military coups, horrific violence, and political instability devastated the island nation. For some observers, this might serve as evidence that Haitians were unable to effectively govern themselves. The reality is more complex, however.

In many ways, the story of Haiti's internal conflict is not unique. Political turmoil, violence, repression, and military coups have often followed revolutions in history. The American, French, and Russian Revolutions are just a few of the most obvious examples.

Even so, the extent and frequency of Haiti's problems set it apart from other revolutionary legacies. So what makes Haiti different? It is not, as Haiti's detractors might claim, a pathology among Haitians or evidence of a curse. It is, instead, a function of the social, political, and economic legacies of Haiti's history as a former slave colony that gained its freedom against all odds.

In addition, as in many former colonies, the racial dynamics that Europeans imposed had a lasting impact. In the case of Haiti specifically, the three-tier racial hierarchy that had developed under French rule morphed into an antagonistic divide between former slaves and former members of the gens de couleur.

Between 1868 and 1915, severe racial discord caused significant violence in Haiti as each group sought to gain control over the government. These racial tensions were exacerbated by the political and economic devastation that the Haitian Revolution, decades of political and economic embargoes, and the national debt to France had wrought.

Vulnerable, and struggling to recover from decades of neglect, Haiti was soon targeted by many countries, including Germany and France, as a site for potential political and economic imperialism.

Germany, in particular, developed strong economic interests in Haiti, and the presence of German investors in Haiti directly affected Haitian politics. For instance, German forces put down a Haitian reform movement in 1892 that they feared would be injurious to their economic development plans.

Ultimately, however, Germany's presence in Haiti had an even more profound impact on Haiti's destiny. In 1914, following the outbreak of World War I, the U.S. government became increasingly concerned about Germany's preoccupation with its Caribbean interests. Although the United States officially stayed neutral during much of the First World War, it remained determined to counteract Germany's potential power in the Americas.

As a result, in 1914, following more political conflict among the Haitian leadership, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson sent American troops to invade Haiti and commenced what became a devastating and brutal military occupation. The United States occupied and ruled Haiti by force from 1915 to 1934, often using violence to suppress Haitians who opposed foreign occupation. In one skirmish, alone, the U.S. military killed over 2,000 Haitian protesters.

For nineteen years, the United States controlled customs in Haiti, collected taxes, and ran many governmental institutions, all of which benefited the United States. In 1922, for example, the United States extended Haiti a debt consolidation loan that was designed to pay off its remaining debt to France. But in many ways, Haiti simply exchanged one master for another. Although Haiti was finally free of its debt to France, it now had a new creditor—the U.S. government and the U.S. banks who made a small fortune off the loan arrangement.

Although the United States finally withdrew troops from Haiti in 1934, the U.S. government still maintained fiscal control over the country until 1947, when Haiti finally paid off its loan to the United States. In order to do so, however, Haiti was forced to deplete its gold reserves, leaving the country bereft. Perhaps more importantly, the removal of the U.S. military did not result in the removal of U.S. influence in Haiti.

The Duvalier Years

As the Cold War set in after World War II, the most devastating impact of U.S. interference in Haiti was the government's ongoing support of the Duvalier regime, which ruled Haiti from 1957 to 1986. Fearful that Haiti would fall to communism, the U.S. government concluded that it would offer full support to the Duvalier government.

During that 30-year period, Haitians were forced to live under dictators "Papa Doc" and "Baby Doc" Duvalier, a father and son team, who openly murdered their opponents and stole millions of dollars from the Haitian people. Some members of the Haitian leadership have since claimed that the Duvaliers stole close to $1 billion. Even so, both Duvaliers enjoyed the backing of the United States because of their staunch "anti-communism" and the economic opportunities that Haiti offered American business.

The kleptocratic Duvalier regime began in 1956, when François "Papa Doc" Duvalier seized power in a military coup d'état. Within a decade, Papa Doc declared himself "president for life" and imposed a brutal dictatorship.

The U.S. government turned a blind eye to Duvalier's violence, corruption, and human rights violations—even training Duvalier's counterinsurgency force, the Leopards. These problems grew exponentially under Baby Doc's leadership.

In 1971, Papa Doc Duvalier died, and his son Jean-Claude, "Baby Doc," assumed power with the endorsement of the U.S. government. In fact, many American politicians and businessmen saw Baby Doc's regime as an opportunity to exploit the island nation and turn it into "The Taiwan of the Caribbean."

Given its proximity to the United States, American financial investors convinced the Haitian government to reduce its focus on agriculture and shift the economy towards manufacturing and export. As Haiti expert Paul Farmer explained, U.S. developers urged the Duvalier regime to embrace this economic strategy as the best path towards modernization and economic development.

The problem, however, was that Haiti's economy suffered immeasurably from this plan. Agricultural production dropped precipitously and Haiti was forced into a dependent and vulnerable economic position in the global market.

In the meantime, Baby Doc's terror continued. He formed death squads that murdered as many as 60,000 opponents of his regime, while stealing millions of dollars from the Haitian people and accumulating hundreds of millions of dollars in national debt. According to most estimates, Haiti owes $1.3 billion in external U.S. debt and 40% of that debt was created by the Duvaliers. Meanwhile, American investors have benefitted financially from the spiraling national debt.

Baby Doc was forced to flee Haiti in 1986, in the face of growing opposition from the Haitian people. Shortly thereafter, in 1990, Haiti held free, peaceful, democratic elections which resulted in Jean-Bertrand Aristide's short-lived first presidency. [Read here for more on the history of Haiti after 1990]

From Aristide to Today

Since 1990, Haiti has continued to suffer extraordinary political conflict and violence. The last twenty years have only reinforced Haiti's popular negative reputation, as a country marred by corruption, poverty, incompetence, and ignorance.

Even today, Haiti is plagued by protests over financial mismanagement, riots in response to the October cholera epidemic and the November flooding from Hurricane Tomas, and outrage over alleged election fraud.

As of the writing of this article, the Haitian Presidential elections remain contested. Election experts from the Organization of American States have just recently issued a report urging that the government-backed candidate, Jude Celestin, be dropped from the runoff elections because of fraudulent and improper ballots (which would put Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly in the runoff with current front runner Mirlande Manigat).

Whatever the outcome of this election, however, current understandings of Haiti are incomplete without the broader historical context. One cannot grasp the reasons behind Haiti's plight unless one acknowledges Haiti's painful journey—the first 100 years in which Haiti was punished, abused, and pushed aside from the global economy and political community, followed by the second 100 years in which Haiti has been occupied, controlled, manipulated, and exploited.

And, in the end, it is the combination of these factors—the extremes of either neglect or overt imperialism, and the unending weight of external debt—that have caused Haiti's current predicament.

As we mark the first anniversary of the devastating earthquake that killed an estimated 300,000 Haitians, we need to acknowledge the full history of Haiti and the role that the American government played in creating Haiti's plight. This will be particularly crucial for those who wish to see Haiti recover, blossom, and grow in the coming years.