Haiti’s bid to join the African Union (AU) this month may evoke a little head scratching and confused double takes. After all, it is the first country outside of Africa to ask for permission to join the increasingly active coalition of African nations.
Yet anyone who has been to Haiti, or even compiled a hasty historical timeline of the Western hemisphere, can scratch out a tenable storyline that explains Haiti’s unusual, but not unfathomable bid to join the African conglomerate. A blend of history, culture, and economic realities answer why Haiti is joining with nations that are more than 5,000 miles away.
Haiti links its history to Africa
Haiti is famous throughout the Africa Diaspora – the loosely, but close knit spectrum of nations with significant populations of slave descendents – for its revolt against slaveholders. Haiti became the first free black republic in 1804, when a group of slaves overtook the French to earn the nation’s freedom. That act alone made the small island nation special to Africans all over the world, but there are other ties as well. These include language, food, music and art.
For example, while Haitian cuisine shares the fruit-infused diet of its Caribbean neighbors - mangoes, guavas and limes - traditional Haitian cuisine also includes Africa transplants such as okra, the taro root, and pigeon peas. Kompa, the country's national music style which many call the Haitian Meringue, relies heavily on the African drum beat which pulsates throughout music. Even the French influence in Haitian Creole ties the country more to Africa (where more than 10 countries use French as an official language) than its immediate neighbors like the Dominican Republic where Spanish is spoken.
Many of the 54 countries involved in the AU view Haiti as an African country, albeit just a little further away than most. The recent earthquake tragedy showed just how connected the African continent feels to the island: Senegal offered Haitians “free land,” after the earthquake, and at the AU summit in 2010, Chairman Jean Ping invited Haitians to repatriate to Africa.
“What happened to Haiti is a tragedy that transcends borders,” Ping said. “We have attachment and links to that country. The first black republic … that carried high the flame of liberation and freedom for the black people and has paid a heavy price for so doing."
Given the strong overtures from African nations to offer free land, help and assistance to Haitian earthquake victims (African countries pledged more than $8 million USD after the quake), it should come as no surprise that two years later AU nations are advocating for Haiti to join its exclusive club. Haiti has been an “observer” of the AU for a while, and its request to be an associate member will be officially ratified during the next AU summit in June 2013.
New economic avenues
A formal association with the AU will open more economic opportunities for the cash-strapped nation, which remains among the world’s poorest. Some may see the move to join the union as a signal that newly minted President Joseph Michel Martelly and his administration are trying to disentangle Haiti from total dependence on foreign aid – most of it from the United States – in favor of business opportunities with Asia, an important investor in Africa.
But that’s a big dream.
Currently, less than 3 percent of Haiti’s GDP comes from foreign direct investment, according to World Bank data, yet up to 40 percent of the country’s budget is made up of foreign aid. Yet, by becoming an associate member of the AU, Haiti will have access to credit through the African Development Bank, according to Haitian Ambassador Ady Jean Gardy who led the Haitian coalition at the AU Summit in Addis Aba, last week.