Haiti – A Little History and Politics by Paul Farmer

[This article first appeared in the London Review of Books in 2004.  Farmer, a physician and anthropologist, is Maud and Lillian Presley Professor at Harvard Medical School and author of The Uses of Haiti and Pathologies of Power. It is included here because it gives some insightful background into the forces at work in the wake of the earthquake in Haiti. In the excerpt below, Farmer uses the recent book on Haiti by Laurent DuBois to introduce parallels to the then current political situation, the kidnapping of President Jean Bertrand Aristide.   To read Farmer’s entire article, please click on <http://www.lrb.co.uk/v26/n08/paul-farmer/who-removed-aristide>.  About Dubois’ book, Robin Blackburn wrote the following in The Nation: “There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of books about the Haitian Revolution, but only a handful are indispensable. Avengers of the New World joins that select company. A powerful narrative informed by the latest research, it digs beneath ready-made notions–whether of purely heroic rebels or of implacable caste hatreds–to bring to light the forging of new identities and new ideals.” — ed. Lew Rosenbaum]

The Uses of Haiti by Paul Farmer

Who removed Aristide?

Paul Farmer reports from Haiti

On the night of 28 February, the Haitian president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was forced from power. He claimed he’d been kidnapped and didn’t know where he was being taken until, at the end of a 20-hour flight, he was told that he and his wife would be landing ‘in a French military base in the middle of Africa’. He found himself in the Central African Republic.

An understanding of the current crisis requires a sense of Haiti’s history. In the 18th century it became France’s most valuable colonial possession, and one of the most brutally efficient slave colonies there has ever been. Santo Domingo, as it was then called, was the leading port of call for slave ships: on the eve of the French Revolution, it was supplying two-thirds of all of Europe’s tropical produce.  A third of new arrivals died within a few years.

Avengers of the New World by Laurent DuBois

Haitians are still living with the legacy of the slave trade and of the revolt that finally removed the French. The revolt began in 1791, and more than a decade of war followed; France’s largest expeditionary force, led by General Leclerc, Napoleon’s brother-in-law, was sent to put down the rebellion. As the French operation flagged, the slave general, Toussaint l’Ouverture, was invited to a parley. He was kidnapped and taken away to a prison in the Jura. In Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution,[*] Laurent Dubois tells Toussaint’s story in a manner that reminds us of its similarities to the current situation:

‘Toussaint must not be free,’ Leclerc wrote to the colonial minister in Paris at the time, ‘and should be imprisoned in the interior of the Republic. May he never see Saint-Domingue again.’ ‘You cannot hold Toussaint far enough from the ocean or put him in a prison that is too strong,’ Leclerc reiterated a month later. He seemed to fear that the deported man might suddenly reappear. His very presence in the colony, he warned, would once again set it alight.

Toussaint died of exposure and tuberculosis in 1803. Every Haitian schoolchild knows his last words by heart: ‘In overthrowing me, you have cut down in San Domingo only the trunk of the tree of black liberty. It will spring up again by the roots for they are numerous and deep.’

In November 1803 the former slaves won what proved to be the war’s final battle, and on 1 January 1804 declared the independent republic of Haiti. It was Latin America’s first independent country and the only nation ever born of a slave revolt. The Haitian Revolution, Dubois writes, was ‘a dramatic challenge to the world as it then was. Slavery was at the heart of the thriving system of merchant capitalism that was profiting Europe, devastating Africa, and propelling the rapid expansion of the Americas.’ Independent Haiti had few friends. Virtually all the world’s powers sided with France against the self-proclaimed Black Republic, which declared itself a haven not only for runaway slaves but also for indigenous people from the rest of the Americas (the true natives of Haiti had succumbed to infectious disease and Spanish slavery well before the arrival of the French). Hemmed in by slave colonies, Haiti had only one non-colonised neighbour, the slaveholding United States, which refused to recognise its independence.

Laurent DuBois teaches at Duke University

Haiti’s leaders were desperate for recognition, since the island’s only source of revenue was the sugar, coffee, cotton and other tropical produce it had to sell. In 1825, under threat of another French invasion and the restoration of slavery, Haitian officials signed the document which was to prove the beginning of the end for any hope of autonomy. The French king agreed to recognise Haiti’s independence only if the new republic paid France an indemnity of 150 million francs and reduced its import and export taxes by half. The ‘debt’ that Haiti recognised was incurred by the slaves when they deprived the French owners not only of land and equipment but of their human ‘property’.

The impact of the debt repayments – which continued until after World War Two – was devastating. In the words of the Haitian anthropologist Jean Price-Mars, ‘the incompetence and frivolity of its leaders’ had ‘turned a country whose revenues and outflows had been balanced up to then into a nation burdened with debt and trapped in financial obligations that could never be satisfied.’ ‘Imposing an indemnity on the victorious slaves was equivalent to making them pay with money that which they had already paid with their blood,’ the abolitionist Victor Schoelcher argued.

By the late 19th century, the United States had eclipsed France as a force in Haitian affairs. A US military occupation (1915-34) brought back corvée labour and introduced bombing from the air, while officials in Washington created the institutions that Haitians would have to live with: the army, above all, which now claims to have the country ‘in its hands’, was created by an act of the US Congress. Demobilised by Aristide in 1995, it never knew a non-Haitian enemy. It had plenty of internal enemies, however. Military-backed governments, dictatorships, chronic instability, repression, the heavy hand of Washington over all: this state of affairs continued throughout the 20th century.

Toussaint L'Ouverture

I learned about Haiti’s history while working on medical projects on the country’s central plateau. When I first travelled there in 1983, the Duvalier family dictatorship had been in place for a quarter of a century. There was no dissent. The Duvaliers and their military dealt ruthlessly with any opposition, while the judiciary and the rest of the world looked the other way. Haiti was already known as the poorest country in the Western world, and those who ran it argued that force was required to police deep poverty.

By the mid-1980s, the hunger, despair and disease were beyond management. Baby Doc Duvalier, named ‘president for life’ at 19, fled in 1986. A first attempt at democratic elections, in 1987, led to massacres at polling stations. An army general declared himself in charge. In September 1988, the mayor of Port-au-Prince – a former military officer – paid a gang to set fire to a Catholic church as mass was being said. It was packed with people, 12 of whom died. At the altar was Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the nemesis of the dictatorship and the army. Aristide was a proponent of liberation theology, with its injunction that the Church proclaim ‘a preferential option for the poor’, but liberation theology had its adversaries: members of Reagan’s brains trust, meeting in 1980, declared it less Christian than Communist. ‘US policy,’ they said, ‘must begin to counter (not react against) . . . the “liberation theology” clergy.’

Aristide’s elevation from slum priest to presidential candidate took place against a background of right-wing death squads and threatened military coups. He rose quickly [<read more>]


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