by Jeanette Charles
Solidarity as defined by President Aristide takes root in the African philosophy of Ubuntu, Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu: “a person is a person through other human beings. A person becomes a person through the community. A person is a person when she/he treats others well….Ubuntu is the source of all philosophy grounded in solidarity, cooperation, unity, respect, dignity, justice, liberty and love of the other.” – Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haïti-Haitii?: Philosophical Reflections for Mental Decolonization
“Haiti has no debt with Venezuela, just the opposite: Venezuela has a historical debt with that nation, with that people for whom we feel not pity but rather admiration, and we share their faith, their hope.” – Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez upon absolving Haiti of all financial debt in the wake of the 2010 earthquake
After 35 years of incarceration, political prisoner and freedom fighter Oscar López Rivera was released in 2017. One of his revolutionary lessons urges us to recognize that “colonialism is the problem” we continue to face today. While he specifically referred to Puerto Rico and its colonial status, his reflection is applicable to anywhere in the world devastated by exploitation, occupation, and invasion at the hands of European colonialism and US imperialism. As such, we can examine the current and historical challenges facing both Venezuela and Haiti, as well as their complicated relationship, as cases that expose the open wounds and lasting effects of colonialism and counter-revolutionary attacks against revolutionary processes committed to liberation and the reconfiguration of global power.
Colonialism explains why United Nations forces implicated in mass rape, human trafficking rings, and the cholera epidemic continue to occupy Haiti. Colonialism is the driving force behind former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s spring 2018 tour throughout the Caribbean, intimidating, threatening, and bribing states to vote at the Organization of American States (OAS), in favor of foreign intervention in Venezuela. Colonialism has cultivated the root of complex political, economic, and sociocultural relationships between the states, peoples, and grassroots movements of Venezuela and Haiti.
The most recent US efforts to isolate Venezuela from the region, demoralize its people through a concerted economic war, and intervene in its political process—by working with international collaborators to ultimately punish its black majority revolutionary process—have their historical precedents in Haiti. Haitians experienced these counter-revolutionary attacks as they fought to defend their own revolutionary process under the leadership of Fanmi Lavalas President Jean Bertrand Aristide and earlier, throughout the era of Haitian Independence.
“Haiti represents a moral and political reference. Chávez once said, you cannot pay back a moral debt, and what Haiti gave us is unpayable,” explains Jesús “Chucho” García—Afro-Venezuelan historian and Consul General for the Bolívarian Republic of Venezuela in New Orleans—with respect to Haiti’s critical role in Venezuelan independence. The bridges that Africans, and later Haitians, built with pre-independence Venezuela throughout the 18th and 19th centuries took on multiple dimensions, including material aid, strategic development, spiritual force, and principled political vision. Haitians’ intentional support of abolition throughout the Americas ensured South American independence and sowed the roots of the Bolívarian Revolution, which began in 1998 and continues today.
As such, Venezuela’s Bolívarian Revolution has attempted to return this “historical debt” with Haiti, rectify the harms of colonialism, and consolidate a Caribbean and Latin American united front against US imperialism, by extending its reparations model of oil wealth redistribution beyond its borders and by exercising a diplomatic model rooted in regional integration and cooperation. “Beyond Venezuela, I’m thinking about the integration of Latin America, this Afroamerica that is scattered throughout all these lands and all these waters,” Chávez voiced on May 8, 2005 on his television program Aló Presidente, speaking to the legacy of black liberation in the Americas and identifying Haiti. His call compelled hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Venezuelans to direct their moral and political compass toward the first black republic of the Western Hemisphere.
Subsequently, Venezuela has provided funds and subsidized oil for Haiti as well as other Caribbean nations through its program PetroCaribe. In the case of Haiti, Venezuela has also ensured additional disaster relief humanitarian aid and dissolved all loans. However, these significant gestures have facilitated contradictory results. Instead of reaching the people and improving economic conditions for the majority Haitian poor, these initiatives have lined the pockets of Haitian Duvalierist elites. Recent mass mobilizations and legislative accounts have denounced corruption of PetroCaribe funds and the displacement of Haitians across the island of Ile-à-Vache, both cases tied to the Haitian government’s misuse of Venezuelan aid. In October 2017, news surfaced after years of concerns from Haitian grassroots about the PetroCaribe program, after five Haitian senators who commissioned an audit of the international program publicly released the report. The audit attested to the corrupt use of funds and cited payments to private corporations. High level officials in the Haitian Government under then President Michel Martelly—supporter of current President Jovenel Moïse—were implicated. Months prior, in February 2017, to the disappointment of Haiti’s grassroots movement, the Venezuelan Government immediately recognized the illegitimate (s)election of Moïse, closely associated with Martelly and the Duvalier dictatorship, at the very moment when mass demonstrations were continuing to protest the fraudulent election that installed him as president.
These contradictions, while contemporary examples, speak to the unresolved consequences of the independence era and colonialism’s impact. Similarly, they correspond directly to Venezuela’s attempt to return this “historical debt,” via the shared resources of oil wealth without an intentional political orientation and management oversight, which has caused harm and exacerbated the economic and political crisis in Haiti.
In order to understand today, we must look into the more than two centuries of interwoven histories between Haiti and Venezuela. These histories offer a window into understanding the challenges found in building regional integration and promoting a black internationalist solidarity model that is under constant siege by imperialist powers. Today, it’s necessary for us to uncover, explore, and act on these histories in order to evade damaging historical cycles.
The Ripple Effect of the First Pan-Africanist and Black Internationalist Revolution
“Black internationalism” in this article refers to the solidarity expressed between oppressed nations focused on the liberation and interests of African/black peoples from the continent and throughout the Diaspora. Haiti’s founding is exemplary of a successful black internationalist and pan-Africanist revolutionary process whose solidarity with African peoples and independence forces in Venezuela made shockwaves throughout history.
Chávez was the first president in Venezuelan history to identify with his African and indigenous descent, as a feminist, as well as an anti-imperialist. He was also the first president to declare Venezuela’s historical debt to the island nation. Yet in spite of these critical testaments, Chávez often referred to criollo Independence leaders such as Simón Bolívar and Francisco de Miranda’s relationships to Haiti, shadowing accounts of Venezuela’s African and African descendant leaders and their connections to the Haitian Revolution.
Historian Gerald Horne attests to the uncontainable impact of the Haitian Revolution, initially marked in 1791 by the Bois Caïman ceremony led by resistance and spiritual leaders Cecile Fatiman and Dutty Boukman. The ceremony inspired a wave of successful pan-African-led rebellions on the island against mainly French colonialism. Horne attests, “Haiti, which was not opposed to extending aid to the neighboring enslaved, was invoked even when it was not directly involved in spurring unrest. Haiti, the island of freedom, mocked the pretensions of slaveholders—those on the mainland not least—and inspired the enslaved to believe realistically that their plight was not divinely ordained, nor perpetual, but could be overcome.”
The rapidly spreading rebellions from Martinique to Barbados were inspired by and aligned with the Haitian revolution and its call for an end to colonialism. Venezuelan Consul General and historian García explains, “[Haiti was] an indisputable reference in the early nineteenth century to all oppressed peoples across Latin America and the Caribbean….Haiti was the Cuba of the 19th century [which] spread solidarity to our country [of Venezuela] as well as the nations of Colombia, Ecuador, Panamá, Bolivia, and Peru, while bearing in mind liberation projects of Cuba, Santo Domingo, and even Mexico.”
One such instance involved African-Indigenous leader José Leonardo Chirino, who orchestrated a maroon rebellion in the Venezuelan Caribbean coastal township of Coro, Falcón in 1795. Venezuelan historians suggest that Chirino frequently travelled to Curacao and Saint Domingue as part of his enslaved work. This led to his exposure to African anti-colonial and abolitionist struggles. While records of who he met and who he may have trained with or received direct material support from are difficult to secure or may not exist, there are clear accounts that after these travels, Chirino launched a rebellion on May 10, 1795 alongside hundreds of enslaved and free blacks as well as the Jirahara, Ajagua, and Caracas Indigenous peoples. Records indicate they launched attacks on Macanillas Hacienda, which spread to El Socorro, Varón, Sabana Redonda, La Magdalena, and haciendas in other regions of Venezuela. It’s still undetermined whether or not Africans from Saint Domingue were directly involved in Chirino’s maroon forces as they were across the Americas from the US South to islands stretched across the Caribbean.
Upon the arrival of Chirino’s forces to the central square of Coro, the criollo slave-owning elites arrested one hundred black maroons and executed 86 others by firearm. Subsequently, Spanish colonial forces captured Chirino several months later on August 1795. He was publicly executed and dismembered. His wife and children were separated and sold to different haciendas.
For Venezuelans, this African-Indigenous insurrection represents one of the first political movements that voiced the demands of the independence era and chipped away at colonialism’s stronghold in South America. The launch of the rebellion is commemorated every year during Afro-Venezuelan history month. Chirino’s rebellion is one of potentially hundreds more examples where Haitian struggles inspired or accompanied revolutionary acts in Venezuela.
Today, Afro-Venezuelans have addressed the omission of Haiti in their nation’s founding by exploring documented accounts and oral histories of often anonymous Haitian maroon leaders and warriors and their efforts to topple Spanish colonization across Latin America. Haitians’ historical actions solidified the foundations for Venezuela’s future international solidarity efforts, support for Caribbean-wide reparations campaigns, and the very establishment of cumbes (societies founded on the principles of self-determination by self-liberated Africans and indigenous people), which continue to exist as revolutionary organizing spaces.
Miranda, Bolívar, and Venezuela’s Unfulfilled Promise to Haiti
The names most often mentioned in official Venezuelan accounts on anti-colonial struggle across the Americas are Europeans and their American-born descendants. In the case of Venezuela, this includes Simón Bolívar and Francisco de Miranda. Both travelled to Haiti seeking refuge, to enrich their ideological vision, and to develop their military might against Spanish colonialism in South America. Perhaps the most pivotal to understanding Venezuela’s complicated relationship with Haiti today can be seen through the lens of Bolívar’s voyages to Haiti.
Bolívar initially sought support from Haiti in 1815, eleven years after the triumph of the Haitian Revolution, after his troops lost to Spanish forces in Cartagenas, present-day Colombia. Southern Haiti’s President Alexandre Pétion provided food and shelter for Bolívar and his company as well as material aid, financial support, and military strength ahead of his upcoming independence battles. Pétion explicitly extended Bolívar solidarity during one of Venezuela’s most dire moments in its independence struggle, on the condition that Bolívar abolish slavery in any territory his forces liberated. According to some scholars, Bolívar departed from Haiti with approximately 4000 rifles, gunpowder, a small fleet, printing press, food, and at least 250 Haitian veterans who fought in the revolutionary wars.
Despite this incredible show of support, after another bout of defeats, Bolívar returned to Haiti to recuperate, re-arm, and regroup. In one of his letters written December 4, 1816 before sailing back to South America, Bolívar etched into historical memory Venezuela’s debt to Haiti: “If men are bound by the favors they have received, be sure, General [Marion], that my countrymen and myself will forever love the Haitian people and the worthy rulers who make them happy.”
On this voyage, after his exchanges in Haiti, Bolívar was victorious in South America. Bolívar along with African and indigenous forces succeeded in liberating Venezuela from Spanish control. The independence forces also freed today’s Brazil, Guayana, Ecuador, Colombia, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Bolivia, northern Peru, and Panama.
Upon this incredible feat, Bolívar declared slavery abolished in these territories and issued the first decree in Venezuela on June 2, 1816. Bolívar himself had already freed enslaved Africans associated with his family’s properties earlier in 1813. However, it wasn’t until thirty-eight years later on March 24, 1854 that slavery was officially abolished in Venezuela, under President Jośe Gregorio Monagas. Despite Bolívar’s greatest efforts, he faced fierce resistance by other slave-owning independence generals and high-level authorities in the new South American republic. Consul García reminds us that even General Miranda stood against abolition and advocated that enslaved Africans serve thirty years in the Venezuelan military before granting their freedom. This contradiction left lasting effects on the relationship between Haiti and Venezuela and speaks volumes to the engrained nature of white supremacist slave economies in the Americas.
Moreover, in addition to the aforementioned delay on abolition, while Bolívar held Pétion and Haiti with the utmost respect, he did not formally recognize Haiti or establish official diplomatic relations once Venezuela became independent. Consul García as well as historical records remind us that this decision was significantly informed by external intimidation from imperialist forces, including the US which feared the implications of recognizing the Black Republic. Haiti represented to the US and its colonial allies—and what they have declared Venezuela since 2015—“an unusual and extraordinary threat to [US] national security.”
Perhaps a strategic decision, yet undoubtedly one that undermined Haiti’s unwavering commitment to regional liberation, Bolívar also excluded Haiti from the first regional gathering of independent states in the Americas—the Congress of the American States in Panama in 1826. Today, we find Venezuela facing the similar exclusion at the hands of OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro and the Lima Group, namely rightwing states from Latin America and the Caribbean in alignment the US, calling for intervention in Venezuela’s domestic affairs. Overwhelmingly, however, progressive states have stood beside Venezuela in these trying times.
Bolívar’s unfortunate decision to omit Haiti played a role in the French and US’s racist counter-revolutionary backlash against the nation that persist to this day. France devastated the Haitian economy, demanding financial restitution for sugar industry losses after the Revolution, further exposing the French state’s racist notions concerning their control over African life. Threatening military intervention and surrounding the island, Haiti paid France 150 million gold francs, the equivalent of $22 billion in gold, lumber, and other resources until 1947, under-developing its infrastructure—as we have witnessed occur with other majority African and indigenous nations.
We Must Center Black Internationalism and Reparations
These histories touch the surface of what we need to know to understand the layers involved in Venezuela and Haiti’s contemporary relationship and the dilemmas they face together and independently at this present conjuncture.
How does Venezuela return the historical, moral, political, material, and spiritual “debt” of Haiti’s hand in its independence? And how do Venezuelans repair harms caused by the decisions their founding leaders made in the 19th century? What measures can be taken by Venezuelan grassroots movements to demand that the Bolivarian Revolution also responds to concerns raised in light of cases like the Haitian Government’s mismanagement and corruption of PetroCaribe funds? How can Venezuelans stand in solidarity with Haiti’s majority poor? And how can Venezuelans’ actions and strategic interventions to rectify these contradictions serve as examples for grassroots movements around the world?
Haiti’s deeply abolitionist, black internationalist, and pan-Africanist solidarity model were critical and necessary to defeat occupying colonial forces in South America. Given this, it is critical that Venezuela, as a majority black nation, as well as other black nations and those around the world fighting for liberation, study Haiti’s historical internationalism and commit their struggles to active solidarity now with the Haitian people.
Our solidarity must follow earlier models of anti-colonial struggles as manifested in Haiti’s example as well as the Cuban revolutionary model which has transformed over time, from direct military support in anti-colonial struggles in Africa and internationally, to present-day medical training for youth from majority poor nations. Our revolutionary work with Haiti should emerge in our collective efforts to accompany the people’s grassroots movement and inherited revolutionary process: Fanmi Lavalas.
The Bolivarian Revolution should be directly tied to the Haitian grassroots movement. There are historical and, at present, intentional imperialist reasons intervening and preventing this relationship from taking shape. However, ensuring that this relationship flourish would encourage steps toward a reparatory approach to this historical debt. The Bolivarian Revolution is facing the same global confusion campaign, media smear tactics, economic strangulation, and racist attacks—not only experienced by Chile’s Salvador Allende—but also experienced by Fanmi Lavalas. There are countless lessons to learn and share between these two nations which will contribute to all our movements moving forward.
Until such a black internationalist relationship is forged, we will continue to witness inefficient, unsatisfactory, and contradictory results in the solidarity model Venezuela and other international movements apply to Haiti.