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Another reason to aid Haitian refugees

Many cogent and compelling arguments have been made for better treatment of the Haitian refugees, most based on compassion, human rights, or international law. But another reason, thus far overlooked, is gratitude. The Haitian people have made a far greater contribution to American independence and to democracy and freedom in the western hemisphere than is generally understood.

This country feels a special bond with the French because of Lafayette's role in the Revolutionary War. America's World War I soldiers landed in France with the cry, ''Lafayette, we are here!'' And Americans feel close to the Poles not only because of their present travail but because of Casimir Pulaski and Thaddeus Kosciusko, also Revolutionary War heroes and probably the best known Polish names in the United States.

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But who remembers the 800 Haitian volunteers, free men all, who came to this country in 1778 to aid the American struggle against the British and fought valiantly at the Siege of Savannah? Except for the bronze plaque in the Savannah railroad station, now converted into a headquarters for the city's Convention and Visitors Bureau, this gift of blood for freedom has largely gone unnoticed. Incidentally, among those volunteers, 88 of whom died in battle, was Henri Christophe, later ruler of a free Haiti and builder of the Citadel, sometimes referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World.

It may not be easy to believe that this small poverty-stricken island we know as Haiti was, at the close of the 18th century, the wealthiest of the European colonies in the Western Hemisphere. Such Haitian produce as sugar cane, cotton, indigo, and coffee constituted two-thirds of all of France's overseas commerce, and the typical plantation owner spent half of his year in Paris on both business and pleasure. But this affluence was built on the backs of 500,000 African slaves who were not unaware of the French Revolution of 1789 and in that same year launched what was to become the first successful slave insurrection in modern history.

This first independent black nation in the West, born in the crucible of slavery, embraced freedom with an evangelical fervor and saw itself as the prototype for other colonized and enslaved peoples.

Among the independence movements it assisted were those of Don Pedro Girard in Mexico, Simon Bolivar in Venezuela, and Jose Marti in Cuba as well as similar struggles in what is now the Dominican Republic, in Jamaica, and even in Greece.

But of most importance to the future of the US was the success of Haitian arms in throwing off the yoke of French colonialism and slavery. Had not Toussaint L'Ouverture, Dessalines, Christophe, Petion, and other Haitian patriots been able to defeat the best troops Napoleon could throw at them France would have gone on to strengthen its other bases in the New World and would never have agreed to the Louisiana Purchase. Napoleon parted reluctantly with the vast western territory and only because of ''the great trouble'' he was facing in Saint-Domingue as Haiti was then known. He called it ''a magnificent bargain -- an empire for a trifle.''

And how has the US repaid this priceless assistance? By some foreign aid, most of which has ended up in the pockets of the ruling class, but also by threats of annexation during the administration of President Grant, by 19 years of occupation by the US Marines during the terms of Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, and now by incarceration on land and interdiction on the high seas under the Reagan administration.

There are now about 3,000 Haitians languishing in federal prisons or held behind barbed wire in American detention centers whose only offense is flight from an oppressive government. They should have been welcomed. They should now be released. The helping hand we extended so generously to 1.6 million Indochinese and Cubans should also be extended to a few thousand Haitians.

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Our leaders must come to understand that tyranny is not a monopoly of the left and that refugees who have a well-founded fear of persecution and cannot return without grave harm or loss of life are by definition political refugees. And no less authorities than the International Commission of Jurists and US Federal Judge James Lawrence King of Miami have labeled the current Duvalier regime in Haiti ''the most repressive in the western hemisphere.''

American's traditional attitude toward political refugees has been warm and openhanded. But we seem to have difficulty in assuming that attitude toward the Haitians. A new direction in our relations with the Haitian people and the third world generally is urgently needed, and a greater knowledge of the past may help us achieve it.

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