Haiti is the only place in the world where colonial slavery was abolished by the slaves themselves, in the face of implacable violence. As historians of the revolution that began there in 1791 have often pointed out, there is good reason to consider it the most subversive event in modern history.
Independent Haiti was surrounded by slave colonies in the Caribbean and flanked by slave-owning economies in northern, central and southern America. The three great imperial powers of the day – France, Spain and Britain – sent all the troops at their disposal to try to crush the uprising; incredibly, Haitian armies led by Toussaint l’Ouverture and then Jean-Jacques Dessalines defeated them one after the other. By late 1803, to the astonishment of contemporary observers, Haitian armies had managed to break the chains of colonial slavery not at their weakest link, but at their strongest.
This extraordinary victory provoked an extraordinary backlash. The war killed a third of Haiti’s people and left its cities and plantations in ruins. When it was finally over, the imperial powers closed ranks and, appalled by what the French foreign minister called a “horrible spectacle for all white nations”, imposed a blockade designed to isolate and stifle this most troubling “threat of a good example”.
France re-established the trade and diplomatic relations essential to the new country’s survival only when Haiti agreed, 20 years after winning independence, to pay its old colonial master enormous amounts of “compensation” for the loss of its slaves and colonial property – an amount roughly equal to the annual French budget at the time.
With its economy shattered by the colonial wars, Haiti could repay this debt only by borrowing, at extortionate rates of interest, vast sums from French banks, which did not receive the last instalment until 1947. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s request that France pay back some of this money, in the run-up to the bicentennial celebration of independence in 2004, encouraged the former colonial power to help overthrow his government that year.
The slaves who won the war against the French were determined, above all, to avoid any return to a plantation economy or its industrial equivalent. Over the course of the 19th century, large parts of Latin America, as well as much of Europe and Europe’s colonies, were ravaged by the systematic expropriation of peasant farms, and of collectively or indigenously owned land and resources. In Haiti, however, there was significant resistance to such trends, nourished by exceptionally resilient forms of communal solidarity and popular culture – for instance, a reliance on collective work (konbits), widely shared religious affiliations and a rich tradition of oral history. This resistance in turn solicited powerful countermeasures, including, from 1915 until 1934, the first and most damaging of an apparently unstoppable series of US military occupations.
The Americans abolished an irritating clause in Haiti’s constitution that had barred foreigners from owning Haitian property, took over the national bank, reorganised the economy to ensure more regular payments of foreign debt, imposed forced labour on the peasantry, and expropriated swaths of land for the benefit of new plantations, such as those operated by the US-owned Haitian American Sugar Company. As many as 50,000 peasants were dispossessed in northern Haiti alone.
Most importantly, the Americans transformed Haiti’s army into an instrument capable of overcoming popular opposition to these developments. By 1918, peasant resistance gave rise to a full-scale insurgency, led by Charlemagne Péralte; US troops responded with what one worried commander described as the “practically indiscriminate killing of natives”, “the most startling thing of its kind that has ever taken place in the Marine Corps”.
The next phase in the “modernisation” of the Haitian economy was contracted out to the noiriste dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who came to power in 1957 through a rigged election in which he won only a quarter of the votes garnered by his main rival. Four years later, Duvalier ripped up the last shreds of the constitution when he arranged for his re-election, winning 1,320,748 votes to zero.
Duvalier’s determination to gain complete control over the country encountered resistance not only among the rural poor, but also among more cosmopolitan sections of the elite. He overcame both problems by supplementing the army he inherited from its US patrons with a more home-grown paramilitary force, nicknamed the “Tontons Macoutes” after a child-snatching bogeyman from Creole mythology. The paranoid ferocity of Duvalier’s regime has long been the stuff of legend. In the autumn of 1964, for instance, after a dozen young men in the south-western city of Jérémie launched a reckless insurgency, Duvalier’s militia publicly slaughtered hundreds of their kin.
By the mid-1960s, nearly 80 per cent of Haiti’s professionals and intellectuals had fled to safety abroad, and most of them never returned. Estimates of the total number of people killed under Duvalier vary between 30,000 and 50,000. “Never has terror had so bare and ignoble an object,” reflected Graham Greene (whose 1966 novel, The Comedians, is set in Duvalier’s Haiti). The CIA was impressed with the result, noting that by the 1970s “most Haitians [were] so completely downtrodden as to be politically inert”.
Such downtreading was the precondition for international imposition of the neoliberal policies that began to reshape Haiti’s economy when Jean-Claude Duvalier inherited his father’s office as “president-for-life” in 1971. These policies were designed to turn the country into the kind of place international investors tend to like; Haitians soon started to refer to them as the “death plan”.
This plan has stifled public spending and forced the privatisation of Haiti’s (often highly lucrative) public assets, while accelerating the reorientation of the country’s economy away from agrarian autonomy and towards urban hyperexploitation. The case of rice production – the staple food for most of the population – is especially significant.
In the mid-1980s, local farmers were still able to produce almost all the rice Haitians consumed, but the last tariffs protecting Haitian farmers were removed in the mid-1990s and imports now account for two-thirds of consumption. Domestic production is now further undercut by the vast amounts of additional “free” rice that are dumped on Haiti every year through the ministry of USAID grantees, in particular the Baptist, Seventh-Day Adventist and other like-minded churches
Increases in the garment and light-manufacturing sector were supposed to compensate for agricultural collapse. For a while, the lowest wages in the hemisphere encouraged mainly American companies or contractors to employ roughly 80,000 people in this area, while military and paramilitary coercion kept the threat of organised labour safely at bay.
By the end of the 1990s, however, a combination of international competition and local “instability” had reduced the number of people employed in sweatshops to barely 20,000, and their wages (averaging $2 a day) had fallen to less than 20 per cent of 1980 levels. Bitter experience has forced the Haitian poor to improvise robust ways of defending themselves against their oppressors. Over the course of the 1980s, opposition to both Duvalierist repression and neoliberal economic policies inspired a powerful popular mobilisation. This was able first to “uproot” Duvalier fils and his Macoutes in 1986 and then, in 1990, after an army crackdown that killed another thousand people or so, to overcome direct military rule. It forced the army’s international backers reluctantly to sanction Haiti’s first ever round of genuine democratic elections, which in early 1991 brought the liberation theologian Aristide to power on an anti-capitalist, anti-army agenda.
Haiti was the first country in Latin America to dare choose a liberation theologian as its president (twice), and this is a crucial but often neglected aspect of its recent history. The Catholic Church had long been a solid pillar of the status quo, and its partial conversion in the 1970s into a well-organised vehicle for the “self-emancipation of the oppressed” reverberated throughout the region.
Pentagon officials were quick to realise, as one American military figure put it, that “the most serious threat to US interests was not secular Marxist-Leninism or organised labour, but liberation theology”. Pope Jean-Paul II and his successor, Joseph Ratzinger, reached the same conclusion as their American counterparts on the religious right. Thirty years ago, in Haiti, there was only a tiny handful of small evangelical churches preaching political resignation and passive reliance on God’s grace; today there are more than 500 of them.
Yet Aristide’s election in 1990 changed the balance of power in Haiti for ever. Political violence came to an abrupt and exceptional stop. “We have become the subjects of our own history,” Aristide said, a couple of years before his election, and “we refuse from now on to be the objects of that history”.
A central priority for the businessmen and sweatshop owners whose interests were previously protected by the army has, understandably, been to restore or replace it. The need to do so became still more acute when Aristide was re-elected in 2000 with an even bigger share of the vote, backed up for the first time by a political organisation, Fanmi Lavalas, which won roughly 90 per cent of the seats in parliament.
The subsequent ten years of struggle in Haiti are best understood in terms of this basic alternative: Lavalas or the army. As the conflicts of the past decade confirm, there is no better way for political elites to deflect awkward questions than by redefining them in terms of crime, security and stability – terms, in other words, that allow soldiers rather than people to resolve them.
Ruthless application of this strategy after the Lavalas election victory in 2000 led to the internationally sponsored coup of early 2004, just in time to squash any celebration of the bicentenary of Haitian independence. Since they could no longer rely on Haiti’s own army, in order to overthrow a duly elected government for the second time, US troops were obliged to lever Aristide out of Port-au-Prince themselves. In mid-2004, a large United Nations “stabilisation” force took over the job of pacifying a resentful population from soldiers sent by the US, France and Canada, and by the end of 2006 another several thousand of Aristide’s supporters were dead.
Last year, the current president, René Préval, who ostensibly governs this UN protectorate, agreed to renew its stabilisation mandate, to persevere with the privatisation of Haiti’s remaining public assets, to veto a proposal to increase the minimum wage to $5 a day, and to bar Fanmi Lavalas, along with several other political parties, from participating in the next round of legislative elections.
The decision taken by US and UN commanders in charge of the disaster relief effort, to prioritise military and security objectives over civilian-humanitarian ones, has already caused tens of thousands of preventable deaths. Plane after plane packed with essential emergency supplies was diverted away from the disaster zone, in order to allow for the build-up of a huge and entirely unnecessary US military force. Many thousands of people were left to die in the ruins of lower Port-au-Prince, while international rescue teams concentrated their efforts on a few locations (such as the Montana Hotel or the UN headquarters) that could also be enclosed within a “secure perimeter”.
For the same reason, throughout the first week of the disaster, desperately needed medical supplies were reserved for field hospitals set up near the US-controlled airport and other “secure zones”. Hospitals in “insecure” Port-au-Prince itself, overwhelmed with dying patients, have had to perform untold numbers of amputations without anaesthetic or medication. Still more “insecure” areas such as Carrefour and Léogane – the places closest to the earthquake’s epicentre – received no significant aid for at least ten days after the disaster struck.
Unless prevented by renewed popular mobilisation in both Haiti and beyond, the perverse international emphasis on security will continue to distort the reconstruction effort, and with it the configuration of Haitian politics for some time to come. As reconstruction funds accumulate, pressure to expropriate what remains of Haiti’s public services and collectively owned land is sure to be accompanied by pressure to speed up the growth of Haiti’s booming security industry, and perhaps to restore – no doubt in close co-operation with the current occupying power – the army that Aristide managed to demobilise in 1995.
What is already certain is that if further militarisation proceeds unchecked, the victims of the January earthquake won’t be the only avoidable casualties of 2010.
Peter Hallward teaches philosophy at Middlesex University and is the author of “Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment” (Verso, £16.99)