June 12, 2024

Why Black Americans should care about what’s happening in Haiti & Cuba

A lot of people have been blowing me up over the last two weeks asking me to speak up about what’s happening in Cuba and normally I would, as it’s always been my way to lend a voice in these times. 

But as a woman of Haitian and Cuban lineage living in the United States, this subject hits home in a very personal way. And so I took some time to reflect and ask myself, “What message could I possibly convey to my American friends about why they should care about any of this? How does this impact them?”

And as is usually the case when it comes to the diaspora, the answer to that query can be found by taking a look at history.

Haiti was the warning shot

On July 7, many of us woke up to the headlines that Haitian president Jovenel Moïse had been assassinated and his wife, Martine, was in critical condition.

As is often the case when anything happens in the island nation, people expressed their dismay about how “Haiti can’t catch a break” along with a subtle tinge of judgment about the corruption and savagery the country appears to always be tainted by.

Haiti thegrio.com
Natanaelle Guillaume wipes away a tear as she stands with others during a vigil being held for Haitian First Lady Martine Moise at Jackson Memorial Hospital on July 16, 2021 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

But let’s be clear, Haiti is not jinxed. Instead, it is more accurately an ongoing reminder of how mercilessly white supremacy will go out of its way to punish Black people for having the nerve to be free.

Before it gained its current and often cited distinction as “the poorest country in a Western Hemisphere” Ayiti (as it is called by my fellow countrymen) was celebrated as the first independent Black republic.

While the Spanish colonizers who enslaved Africans on the other side of the island (known as the Dominican Republic) pretended to have a shred of humanity, the Frenchmen who took over the land known as Haiti were more blatantly cruel.

And due to this disparity in treatment, an ongoing divide was cemented on Hispaniola, the island Haiti shares with the DR, where kinfolks who ended up in the Dominican Republic were wooed into assimilating to the point of renouncing their Blackness altogether, while their mistreated Haitian brothers and sisters masterminded a historic revolution.

I’ll spare you guys all the gory details because this history has been extensively documented. But for those who are unfamiliar, let’s just say that thanks to the unmitigated gall of Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the Haitian Revolution was a stunning success.

And in a fair and just world these men would have been celebrated for generations to come as the first Black people to ever defeat white supremacy at its root.

But alas, the world is not fair or just. So instead, what happened was, France ultimately penalized Haiti for its loss of property (and the loss of enslaved humans) by financially drowning it in a debt that it’s never been able to bounce back from.

According to Wikipedia, After the Haitians gained independence from French colonial rule in the Haitian Revolution of 1804, the French returned in 1825 and demanded that the newly independent country pay the French government and French slaveholders the modern equivalent of US$21 billion, for claiming slave owner’s property and the land that they had turned into profitable sugar and coffee-producing plantations.

This independence debt was financed by French banks and the American Citibank, and finally paid off in 1947.”

 Portrait of Toussaint Louverture by Alexandre-François-Louis, 1813 (Public Domain)

That’s right folks, Haiti had to pay France $21 BILLION dollars in reparations simply for gaining their freedom. I tried to work out how much that would be in 2021 after inflation but sincerely couldn’t find an online calculator that could go that high.

France’s actions, aided by the United States, weren’t just immoral — their penalty was also a warning shot to our Black American brothers and sisters, letting them know not to get any funny ideas about seeking their own freedom.

After seeing what happened in Haiti, it would be another 25 years before Nat Turner and his allies would even attempt to do the same thing.

And because white supremacy is a creature of habit, France’s response to Haitians pretty accurately foreshadowed the legacy of slavery in the United States that has also created a gross economic disparity between Black and white Americans.

So if you can understand why poverty stemming from systemic racism can cause the “savage” conditions in your favorite hometown hood, where so much richness and love still resides despite the odds, then in essence – what’s happening in Haiti shouldn’t be all that foreign.

It is also worth noting that between the 1790s and 1809, large numbers of Haitians of African descent migrated to Louisiana because they were scared and wanted to seek shelter in another colony of France (which Louisiana was at the time).

So when we talk about people like Beyoncé being American Creole, I promise you there is Haitian blood (and the spirit of revolution) mixed all up and through that lineage.

We are quite literally a reflection of each other. The only difference is, Haiti’s oppressors get to live in Europe while watching their target burn in the distance.

When racism and Communism converge

Earlier this month when protests erupted in Cuba after citizens expressed their dismay about food shortages, electricity outages, and rising COVID-19 cases that made life there increasingly unbearable – it’s not a coincidence that they were echoing the same complaints being made by African Americans in low-income neighborhoods.

And thankfully, as per the Grio, Black Lives Matter has recognized that and called out the US government’s decades-long embargo on Cuba for being “cruel and inhumane.” 

“Since 1962, the United States has forced pain and suffering on the people of Cuba by cutting off food, medicine, and supplies, costing the tiny island nation an estimated $130 billion,” BLM wrote last week in a statement on its Instagram account.

Anabel Alcaz joins with other protesters who shut down part of the Palmetto Expressway as they show their support for the people in Cuba July 13, 2021 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

They also highlighted that the embargo was “instituted with the explicit intention of destabilizing the country and undermining Cubans’ right to choose their own government” and is “at the heart of Cuba’s current crisis.” 

So in a nutshell, Black Lives Matter is alleging that the American government played a part in financially crippling (and therefore sabotaging) an area full of Black and brown people as a punishment for not falling in line. Hmmm, sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Isn’t that what happened to Haiti and also to hundreds of Black communities all over the globe?

When people find out my dad is Cuban they often say “Oh really? I thought you were Black” as if the two are mutually exclusive.

But as I’ve written about extensively, “Latin” is an ethnicity, not a race. And Cuban is just a nationality.

While the Cuban government likes to lie on its census and say that the country is only 10% Black, activists on the island say that number is actually closer to 50%; an estimation that can easily be confirmed just by walking the streets of Havana.

This massive Black presence is in large part because at the beginning of the 20th century, approximately 200,000 Haitians left their rural homes for eastern Cuba. And there was so much intermingling, Haitian Creole is now the second most popular language in Cuba after Spanish. 

So yes family, Cuba is not just Black, its hella Black.

That’s why when you hear about the inhumane conditions Cubans are being subjected to, or see the hashtag #SOSCuba popping up on your feed, I need you to deprogram yourself from seeing them as an “other.”

The African diaspora and our shared Blackness connect us all well beyond country lines. And as beautiful as that is to remember, we need to reconcile with the fact that white supremacy is also just as far-reaching.

When I call Black people “fam” I mean it. Whether that stands for family, fanmi or familia, we are kindred and undeniably tied.

To paraphrase Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., injustice to any of us anywhere should enrage ALL of us, everywhere. 

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