Friday, February 5, 2010
By Russell Simmons
At this time, two and a half weeks ago, the earth opened up its deep crevasses and let out a large yell that knocked down the people of Haiti. The devastation and destruction of Port Au Prince and its surrounding areas was heartbreaking, heart wrenching and at times, almost unbearable to even look at. The sadness in the faces that appeared on television and in the newspapers touched me to the deepest of my core. I humbly did everything in my power to help and will continue to support the Haitian people in all of my capacity. While the earthquake might have knocked down these beautiful people, with history at their back, I know they will rise again.
Since the slaves of Haiti rebelled triumphantly against their French occupiers in 1804, becoming the first free black republic in the world, Haiti has since been the subject of harsh policies, U.S. military occupation (1915-1934) and a pawn in the cold war. After Haiti’s liberation, for sixty-two years America refused to recognize Haiti and then organized an embargo and blockade against them. Later, the United States along with France threatened to re-invade Haiti unless they paid France 150 million francs in gold as reparations for defeating the French, which took until the mid 1940s to pay. Just to put it in perspective, 150 million francs in gold in 1804 is equivalent to approx $1 trillion US dollars today. This began a long history of Haiti being in debt to the world.
Our relationship with Haiti dates back hundreds of years, where Haiti even sent 900 soldiers to Savannah, Georgia to aid America in its war against England for our independence. Not only did they help us gain our independence, their rebellion against the French helped us obtain the Louisiana Territory, which makes up one-third of the United States. However, once Haiti liberated itself from the French, our relationship with Haiti changed dramatically. Although we recognized Haiti as a free nation in 1862, it was largely because President Lincoln wanted to have Haiti as a place for the Africans in America to go to. Later the US government, according to many historians, was complicit in the rise of the brutal dictatorships of Francios Duvalier and his son Jean Claude with their secret police, the Tonton Macoutes, which many believe was done because of fear that the USSR would try to bring communism to the island like they had done in Cuba. Although this never happened, the connection between the United States and Haiti has been forever intertwined, and has only gotten more complicated and more one-sided as time went on.
The Haitian people were the first to be free of slavery, but they have been paying a price ever since. As the United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for the Permanent Memorial to the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, I feel it is important to address the lingering effects of slavery that the Haitian people have endured. We, as a nation, have drained this beautiful island, but now we have the chance to repair the past. Although throughout our history, our government has at times made horrible choices, in the end, it is the people of our great country that can stand up and inspire the world once again. We have the chance to help re-build this country as a model for the 21st century, full of innovation and sustainable technology that is healthy for their and our environment. The wealth of giving that has out poured from our nation to theirs’ since this horrendous tragedy is the right beginning, but let us not stop there. Let’s continue to exude the love that is in the hearts of all decent Americans. It is this love that makes us great givers, as we know those who are in need the most, need not ask for any help. The ability to give is the greatest gift we have from god, so let us give all that we have, and smile when the people of Haiti rise again.
United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for the Permanent Memorial to the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade