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Haitian migrants holding hands cross the Rio Grande in Ciudad Acuña on their way to Del Rio, Texas, where a makeshift encampment has grown to almost 15,000 people. This week the U.S. began deporting many back to Haiti despite that country's desperate violence and poverty in the wake of multiple natural disasters. Photo by Antonio Ojeda/Agencia Press South/Getty Images

And Then There Were Guys On Horseback: We Have Not Yet Forgiven Haiti For Being Black

Abby Zimet

For up to 15,000 heartsick Haitians languishing in fear, thirst, hunger and 100-degree temperatures under a bridge in Del Rio, Texas, their slog across the Rio Grande was only the last step of an ineffably  harrowing journey - not just the months-long trek through parlous jungle but the centuries-long history of a country so beset by relentless calamity it's been deemed "a descent to hell," from colonialism, slavery, occupation to earthquakes, hunger, gangs. Like too many other countries, the world's first black republic became the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation in large part thanks to abuses by imperialist powers - first neglect, then conquest and exploitation, most often by an ever-racist U.S.A. Writing to his old ally the Marquis de Lafayette in 1792, Thomas Jefferson noted the slave rebellion in what was then Saint-Domingue and wondered whether France would “ever be able to reduce the blacks” in its most profitable colony. The world's first state to be born of a successful slave revolt, Haiti declared independence in 1804; the U.S. didn't recognize it until 1862, after which it swiftly moved to ravage it, importing African slaves for its sugar, coffee and other plantations. By the early 20th century it had begun a "gunboat diplomacy" of repeatedly intervening in Haiti to "protect American lives & business interests." In 1915, amidst civil unrest after a presidential assassination, the Marines took control in what became a bloody 20-year occupation; the NAACP found that, "Unquestionably, (America's) race prejudice made possible the brutalities practiced (upon) citizens of the Negro Republic of Haiti."

And so it went. Between 1934 and 1986, the U.S. installed several brutal dictators, including Papa and Baby Doc Duvalier, organized two coups and interfered in elections in an unsavory arc leading straight to former guy's rants about shithole countries and all Haitians having AIDS, never mind all that nonsense about the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Still, Haitians kept leaving. After the devastating earthquake in 2010, thousands left for Brazil, Chile and other parts of South America; when jobs dried up in 2016, many began trying to get here, often by foot through Panama's infamous Darien Gap jungle. This year, U.S. immigration agents encountered over 30,000 Haitians, nearly six times last year's number. They were fleeing overlapping disasters: July's presidential assassination, escalating gang violence - 165 gangs reportedly fight it out in Port-au-Prince - over four million hungry people, or almost half the population, crumbling infrastructure, no running water, a hurricane and August earthquake that left over 30,000 people homeless, the grim sense there is "no normal life anymore" and "nothing to go back to." In the face of those crises, four months ago the U.S. announced it would give Temporary Protected Status to some Haitians to allow them to remain in the country. But it only applied to those arriving before July 29, two weeks before the earthquake. The hopeful if inaccurate word spread, and by last week thousands had assembled in Del Rio, doggedly wading back across the river to Ciudad Acuña for food and water while awaiting a miracle.

Facing a humanitarian and political disaster, Biden unconscionably responded with what could be America's fastest, cruelest, biggest, blackest expulsion of migrants in decades - rendered even worse by using the Trump-era Title 42 excuse of COVID to make it seem legal, if obscene. The first flights of angry, weary, disoriented Haitians have already landed in Port-au-Prince, and the U.S. plans to keep up deportations through the week with between five and eight flights a day despite the outrage of advocates and anyone else aware of our own culpability in the ship-'em-out injustice now playing out. This week, there was also the lurid spectacle of likely racist Texas Rangers on horseback rounding up terrified migrants - aka thuggish agents of a dubious state recreating America's original sin by acting the part of slave chasers - and wielding their reins like whips, all as a horrified Twitter endlessly debated whether they were actually whipping them or just looking like they were whipping them and a queasy media found new euphemisms like "whip-like cord" for old, ungodly crimes. Regardless, it was generally agreed that "white people with whips rounding up black people" is not a good look, even in Texas. The White House, meanwhile, expressed its concern - shades of Susan Collins - which didn't make much of a dent in what remains a moral, legal, racial and political shitshow of towering proportions.

For Haitians and anyone else appalled by their fate, there was one last indignity: the racist, hysterical fear-mongering swiftly taken up by a right-wing eager for blood, from the reptillian Greg Abbott - we need to "stop these caravans from overrunning our state" - to GOP Texans decrying an "invasion" of migrants who could "take over our country without firing a shot." On Fox, a Del Rio woman ominously reported, "We’ve had footprints from illegals, in the middle of night, underneath our daughters’ bedroom windows"; Red State blasted a "national security disaster" overseen by "a mental invalid" who's "on the beach again for a long weekend." Leading the slimy charge was Ted Cruz, never one to miss a performative photo op while spreading hate and lies and pretending to be outraged by something. "I am on the ground in Del Rio," he intoned in a bumptious, Monty-Python-like video, gesturing to huddled black bodies behind him. "As of this moment, there are 10,503 illegal aliens...This man-made crisis was caused by Joe Biden." Bullshit, said America, which noted the GOP runs Texas so maybe some of this is on them: "You're right, Haiti's earthquake, hurricane and collapse of the government probably had nothing to do with it....Mother of God!...I hope they come to my neighborhood - welcome, friends... I assume Cancun Cruz headed directly to his office to work on legislation to double funding to process refugees and sent staff to make sure they are properly fed (as) their processing continues. Or he went out for a lobbyist-paid steak." Finally, you smug, racist, self-righteous, opportunistic son of a Cuban migrant: They're not illegal aliens. They're human beings.

"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) treated her as outside the sisterhood of nations." - Abolitionist Frederick Douglass in an 1893 speech on the U.S. government's response to the Haitian Revolution and Americans' discomfort with Black self-determination.

Abby Zimet

Abby Zimet

Abby has written CD's Further column since 2008. A longtime, award-winning journalist, she moved to the Maine woods in the early 70s, where she spent a dozen years building a house, hauling water and writing before moving to Portland. Having come of political age during the Vietnam War, she has long been involved in women's, labor, anti-war, social justice and refugee rights issues. 

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