The pioneering labor organizer Mother Jones said, “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.”

That pretty much sums up Haiti’s priorities today.

The nation called the “pearl of the Antilles,” back when it was the wealthiest Caribbean colony, has always known how to fight like hell. The African slaves, who were brought to Haiti to generate wealth for France, launched a rebellion in the 1790s that merged subterfuge on the plantations with guerrilla warfare. They won in 1804, thus creating the only successful slave revolution ever and the world’s first black republic.

Though liberated from France and from slavery, neither the transported Africans nor their descendants ever truly became free. Self-proclaimed emperors and presidents-for-life exploited the poor, benefiting themselves, large landowners, and businesses. State neglect of citizens’ needs, feudal agricultural practices, and violent security forces kept people trapped in vicious poverty with their rights suppressed. The concentration of land and resources devastated the vast majority. Today, more than half of Haiti lives on less than $1 a day.

Foreign governments also played a role from the very beginning. After the rebellion, the French saddled Haiti with a crippling debt upon its independence, equal to $21 billion today (France threatened to invade if Haiti didn’t compensate it for the loss of “property”). And the United States slapped on a decades-long embargo to ensure that word of the revolution didn’t reach slaves over here.

The role of foreign powers in undermining Haiti hasn’t changed. Marines killed many Haitians during the 1915-1934 U.S. occupation of the country. Later, the U.S. strongly supported the brutal dictatorship of Papa and Baby Doc that ran from 1957 until 1986. Papa Doc’s security force, known as the Tonton Macoutes, was heavily influenced by the vicious U.S. troops put in place during the occupation. More recently, the U.S. government helped oust the democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide not once, but twice—in 1991 and 2004.

Contemporary U.S. economic policies, together with the actions of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, have aggravated what Haitians call the “development of underdevelopment.” Free trade has destroyed agricultural production, in turn contributing to a food crisis and growing a sweatshop economy, with farmers forced to migrate to Port-au-Prince in search of work. The original foreign debt to France has been replaced by $1.05 billion in debt to the IMF and others. The international financial institutions will surely never get back the capital, but their creditor role does allow them to largely control the Haitian government’s economic policies.

Throughout the constant political and economic oppression has run another constant: a highly organized grassroots movement that has never given up the battle its ancestors began more than 200 years ago. The movement is composed of women, peasants, clergy and laity, workers, and others. Its mobilization, protests, and advocacy have brought down dictators and staved off some terrible economic policies. Haitian society has been able to keep alive a rich culture and a solidarity economy, in which neighbors and strangers care for each other’s needs.

The Haitian people may not yet have gained the rights and economic justice they deserve, but neither have they given up. Yolette Etienne, Oxfam Haiti’s director, said years ago: “Bamboo symbolizes Haitian people to a T. Bamboo takes whatever adversity comes along, but afterwards it straightens itself back up.”

Already, after one of the worst natural disasters in world history, they’re straightening themselves back up. Grassroots organizations are planning their strategies. More than 50 groups recently declared their priorities, which include: “housing, environment, food, education, literacy, work, and health for all; a plan to wipe out exploitation, poverty, and social and economic inequality; and a plan to construct a society which is based on social justice.”

Lenz Jean-François, a coordinator of a grassroots organization in one of Port-au-Prince’s poorest neighborhoods, says, “The people have to become a principal actor in the future, to transform this earthquake into an opportunity from which we can reconstruct our country with justice and rights.”

You go, Haitians. Fight like hell for the living. As Mother Jones knew, we in the U.S. have much to learn from you.

Beverly Bell, an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow, runs the economic justice group Other Worlds. She’s currently in Haiti. You can read her blogs on Michael Moore’s site.

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