Haiti from independence to occupation

Haiti: The Aftershocks of History

THE HAITIAN people have been at the forefront of so many of the events that shaped the modern world. They staged the first and only successful revolution against slavery, intersected with a profound agrarian reform. They faced down the barbarity of the US military occupation of 1915–34 and ultimately pushed the occupiers out. 

The worker/student/peasant uprising of 1946 against President Élie Lescot was the first successful overthrow of a US-backed regime in the Americas. The popular mobilization of 1986–90 that culminated in President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s election was the first to frustrate the strategy of US imperialism in the 1980s—“promoting democracy” in the form of sham elections while dangling the bait of foreign aid.

Haitians have suffered mightily for repeatedly defying and defeating the imperial order. As if that were not enough, they suffered a new and unbelievable tragedy with the earthquake of January 12, 2010.

Author and historian Laurent Dubois reviews this rebellious and often tragic history in his fascinating and engaging new book, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History. He seeks to illuminate and explain Haiti’s coup-scarred history, and in particular shed more light on the origins of what another author, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, has termed its “predatory state.”

The weakness of the Haitian state that so troubled many around the world in the days and weeks following the earthquake is largely a consequence of the incessant interventions of the world’s big powers. Dubois describes this in much detail. Born into a world ruled by slavery, Haiti was shunned by all the wealthy countries of the time. France imposed the crushing Independence Debt in 1825 as a condition of diplomatic recognition and trade. Financing that debt led, in turn, to deeper financial enslavement to French and US banks. The United States. did not even recognize Haiti until 1862. Later came the violent and bloody 1915–1934 US military occupation.

This history is well documented already, but much of it lies in books that may be out of print or heavily academic. This book brings the history alive. What interests the author, in particular, is to probe the social and political relations that took hold in the new republic following independence in 1804, how they endured, and how they shaped the country for many years ­following. 

Haiti’s struggle for independence was at one and the same time a profound social revolution. Following independence, a deep-going agrarian reform unfolded, propelled by the former slaves. Its repercussions echo in modern times. Try as they might, Haiti’s new leaders were unable to preserve large-scale agricultural production. Those who fought for their freedom refused to accept new forms of exploited labor. “Haiti’s rural population effectively undid the plantation model,” explains Dubois. 

Throughout the nineteenth century, the peasantry in Haiti successfully resisted the penetration of capital and the state into their lives. They created a thriving agricultural economy that “guaranteed them a better life, materially and socially, than that available to most other people of African descent in the Americas throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” They did so at the cost of a voice in political decision-making. Whereas the twentieth century agrarian revolutions in Russia, China, and elsewhere in Asia fought for a government and state that would radically reshape rural conditions and enhance agrarian interests, the overriding sentiment in nineteenth century rural Haiti was to keep the government out of the countryside. 

Why would it be otherwise? As Dubois explains, one could do far worse in the world of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries than to live in rural Haiti. And in any event, the material and political conditions for a government that could take robust measures to promote agriculture on any kind of egalitarian basis were entirely absent. To the Haitian peasant, an elite-led urban government meant nothing more than taxation, disruption of village life, and perhaps worse, the loss of land.

It would take until the US military occupation, more than one hundred years following independence, before significant inroads into small- scale peasant agriculture could begin, including inroads against the all-important ban on foreign ownership of land.

Aftershocks is a rich history of this entire period up to the ignominious end of the occupation. The author has a real touch in bringing the Haitian people and some of their greatest thinkers alive in his pages. We learn of leading Haitian intellectuals and political leaders such as Anténor Firmin, Jean-Price Mars, Dantés Bellegarde, and Joseph Jolibois.

A favorite passage of this reviewer is Dubois’ description of the standoff in 1891 between Haiti and the US Navy over the latter’s determination to establish a permanent base at the harbor of Môle St. Nicholas on Haiti’s northwest tip. Then-foreign minister Anténor Firmin cables Haiti’s ambassador in Washington to ask how seriously the government should treat the US warships threatening to bombard Port-au-­Prince if Haiti does not cede. Dubois cites the ambassador’s cable reply. Reading the political climate in the United States, the ambassador writes, “The fleet is for the purpose of intimidating. Do not yield. Nothing will happen.” He proved right—the government stood firm and the fleet withdrew. (The United States never succeeded in acquiring Môle).

Aftershocks does disappoint in the brevity of its treatment of the later twentieth century. The 1946 uprising is treated most briefly; the important labor and political leader Daniel Fignolé gets only a slight mention. The essentials of the Duvalier years are covered, but post-1986 Haiti is too briefly summarized. There is a puzzling absence of treatment of the coup d’etat against the second government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004. Surely this event, so crucial to understanding the impact of the earthquake and the difficulties of post-earthquake Haiti, fits into the long and sad history of imperialist intervention described so well throughout the book.

Steven Stoll traces some of the same history treated in Aftershocks in an essay  published in Harper’s magazine in April 2010. He explains the peasant economy and argues for its legitimacy: “Capitalists have hated the agrarian household since the seventeenth century, calling its members savages, outliers, slackers and draggers, backward and degenerate.” Haiti’s urban elite wanted an agricultural production that their nascent state could tax and into which they could invest and profit. However, “To Haitian peasants, wage work looked suspiciously like slavery.”

Stoll’s essay argues that any plan for the rebuilding of Haiti today is folly if it does not give to agricultureal a dominant place. Small-scale peasant agriculture should be valued and promoted, with all of the requirements for social improvement in the countryside that this requires. Dubois argues a similar point in a recent essay in the New York Times: “As Haitians look to rebuild in 2012, the best blueprints will come from their own proud and vibrant history.”

Dubois is also the authored of Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution in 2004, described by historian Robin Blackburn as “among the handful of indispensable books on the Haitian Revolution (of 1791-1804).” Haiti: The Aftershocks of History joins that volume as a highly valuable companion piece. The new book will serve the Haitian people and students of Haiti well in the difficult years ahead, because learning the best lessons from the past is a vital for Haitians to chart their future.