While reinstating adult slavery, the occupiers highlighted child slavery as a reason for being there in the first place. In 1921, an American aristocrat named John Dryden Kuser -- who had married seventeen-year-old Brooke Russell (later known as Brooke Astor), the daughter of Haiti's high commissioner, Brigadier General John H. Russell -- wrote a book called Haiti: Its Dawn of Progress After Years in a Night of Revolution. The work, in addition to being a hagiography of Kuser's father-in-law, justified the U.S. occupation in part because of the preexisting system of child slavery on the island. Four years later, at a meeting of the League of Nations' Temporary Slavery Commission, the commission's most outspoken and independent member cited Kuser to criticize Haiti for the restavèk system. Haiti's former minister of agriculture, Louis Dante Bellegarde, responded indignantly that peasants were simply arranging for wealthier Haitians to pay for their children's education in exchange for light labor.
The issue was not raised again in an international forum for over half a century.
The martyr Péralte's bust is today engraved on Haiti's fifty-cent piece, and in the Haitian national memory, the end of the American occupation in 1934 was a great moment. For the child slaves, however, the worst was still to come.
Over the next seventy years the restavèks, hitherto degraded, became crushed. Before independence, some had status as au pairs and maids in upper-class households. As wealthy Haitians became able to pay adult domestic workers, restavèks became the slaves of the urban lower middle classes. The national government's gross economic mismanagement and urban-oriented educational policies compounded natural disasters to bury rural populations. A decade after independence, the supply of restavèks exceeded demand. While restavèk abuse occasionally offended bourgeois sensibilities, the government never enforced the half-dozen laws that it passed in order to curtail such exploitation.
Starting in 1957, the dictatorships of François "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his son "Baby Doc" rendered Haiti a thug state. With his Tontons Macoutes death squads, the father institutionalized terror. Under the son, tens of thousands of Haitians were sold as slaves -- some tricked at recruiting centers, others simply dragooned -- to sugar consortiums in the neighboring Dominican Republic. "It is the destiny of the people of Haiti to suffer," Baby Doc once explained.
Five years to the day after rural Haitians overthrew Baby Doc in a bloody coup, they carried a populist named Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power. Haiti's first democratically elected president looked like the champion of the restavèk. A Roman Catholic slum priest who ran an orphanage, Aristide invited hundreds of destitute children to his inauguration: "Children of Haiti," he told them, "this year you have a little friend who is president."
But Aristide was president for less than a year. The remnants of the Tontous Macoutes overthrew the "little friend" in an orgiastically violent coup, in which they publicly displayed several Aristide supporters with their severed genitals in their mouths. Aristide fled into exile, where he denounced the plotters and tried to position himself once again as a defender of the poor. In so doing, he addressed the restavèk issue, calling it a by-product of underdevelopment and Western greed. U.S. officials in Port-au-Prince were unimpressed:
"The Haitian left, including President Aristide and his supporters in Washington and here," the embassy cabled Washington, "consistently manipulate or even fabricate human rights abuses as a propaganda tool."
Still, no one in Clinton's administration liked the new junta. Nancy Ely-Raphel, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, said, "They're slowly turning Haiti into hell." On September 19, 1994, a U.S.-led multinational force secured the ground for Aristide's return. A week before the intended restoration, Representative Phil Crane, a conservative Republican from Illinois, rose on the House floor to blast the plan: "Haiti is not worth one American life," he said, echoing Bob Dole's earlier statement in the Senate. "Let us go to China, the greatest slave state in history. Instead of bestowing Most Favored Nation [status] on them, let us teach them about democracy." But the Republicans had been out of power in Congress for forty years, and his words fell on deaf ears in the Clinton administration.
Copyright © 2008 by E. Benjamin Skinner
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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