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Culture: Haitian History



Max Blanchet

Haiti gained its independence on January 1, 1804, after a long revolutionary war that started in 1791, involved all three European powers of the time, and resulted in the defeat of Napoleon’s armies. On the Haitian side, the struggle was led by a cadre of brilliant generals, the most prominent of whom were Toussaint l’Ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Henri Christophe, and Alexandre Pétion. The Haitian victory was made possible by the alliance between the freedmen, mostly mulattos and the former slaves, mostly blacks.

During the war and throughout the early history of the new republic, the United States became its preferred trading partner. It is also worth mentioning that Haitians, at least their forebears, played a role in early American history as thousands of Haitians, including Henri Christophe, fought on the side of the Revolution, most notably at the battle of Savannah, and a Haitian mulatto, Jean-Baptiste Point du Sable, founded the city of Chicago. Today, there are close to one million Haitians living in the United States, mostly on the eastern seabord.

The leaders of the new Republic faced a number of significant challenges, namely:

  • To defend the political and territorial integrity of the new country
  • To achieve international recognition, and
  • To manage the growing and unruly competition for political and economic power between the freedmen and the former slaves.

In response to the first challenge, the revolutionary army was maintained and strengthened, and fortifications built throughout the country at great cost to its treasury.

As to the second challenge, generous support was given to Bolivar’s Revolutionary War in Venezuela and Colombia in an effort to gain the diplomatic backing of the new Latin American Republics. It is fair to state that without the Haitian contribution in men, weapons, money and other resources, Bolivar’s victory might have been much more difficult, if not impossible.

As to the competition between freedmen and former slaves, the approach was to maintain the large plantation system, to farm out plantations to top officers of the army and officials of the government and to force the mass of former slaves to work the land under conditions not unlike those that prevailed during slavery.

This unjust system was resisted by the peasantry which frequently challenged it through revolts mostly under Goman and Acaau, two well-known figures in early Haitian history, and gradually eroded it through maronage. By the mid 19th century, it had collapsed. The peasantry left to its own devices eked out a living under increasingly difficult conditions due to demographic pressures. The elites engaged in a never ending-struggle to monopolize the spoils of power, the only source of wealth. The end result was that government became kleptocratic and very unstable. This was further compounded by the fact that the Haitian President Jean-Pierre Boyer had unwisely agreed in 1838 to indemnify former French settlers to the tune of 100 million gold Francs for damages caused during the revolution in order to gain the recognition of Haiti’s independence. It took Haiti close to one century to pay off this debt.

By 1915, the system was exhausted thus making Haiti an easy prey to the ambitions of its neighbor to the North. The occupation of 1915-1934 was the result of this bitter encounter.

Although it brought about the modernization of Haiti’s administration, infrastructure, and armed forces, it met stiff resistance as it triggered a guerrilla war which ended with the assassination of its leader, Charlemagne Péralte. Tens of thousands perished on the Haitian side. The occupation also resulted in the rewriting of the Constitution to facilitate the penetration of foreign capital and in the forced migration of large numbers of Haitian laborers to American-owned sugar plantations in Cuba and the Dominican Republic. It brought the centralization of the country to the detriment of Haiti’s provinces whose vitality has declined ever since.

By the late 1920s, all classes in Haitian society had turned against the occupation mostly due to the heavy-handed and undemocratic rule of the Marine Corps and economic policies that did great damage to the middle and lower classes. President Franklin D. Roosevelt brought the occupation to an end in 1934.

After the occupation, the rule of the three A’s--whereby the army, the Americans, and money (l’Argent in French) constituted the essential ingredients for political success--became the new paradigm in the political arena.

After the succession of governments remarkable for their irresponsibility, ineptitude, and increasing corruption, the Duvalier dynasty emerged in 1957. It managed to subvert the prevailing order through sheer cunning, ruthlessness, and corruption.

The Duvaliers brought all independent institutions under their control: the Army, the Public Service, the Unions, the business sector, the Catholic Church, the various Protestant Churches, Vodou, the intellectual class, even the American Embassy in its geopolitical zeal to prevent a communist takeover of the country. Civil society was destroyed to satisfy the dynasty’s insatiable thirst for power. Those opposed to the regime were forced into exile or killed. Some have put the number of victims at approximately 50,000 from 1957 until 1986.

By the early 1980’s, it became clear, however, that the days of the dictatorship were numbered and that Haiti was undergoing fundamental changes due to the following factors:

The emergence of the Ti Legliz, or Church of the Poor, that espouses the Theology of Liberation and sides with the poor in sharp contrast with the Church’s historical posture. The Ti Legliz has done a tremendous job of raising the political consciousness of Haiti’s poor, especially in the countryside, with the result that their expectations with regards to jobs, health care, schools, democracy, security, land are much higher than they have ever been. The Ti Legliz phenomenon explains the emergence of Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide, one of its more forceful, eloquent, and fearless leaders.

The increasing democratization of Haitian culture through the emergence of the Creole language as a dominant force in Haitian cultural life, especially in the media, the recognition of Haiti’s African roots as the bedrock of Haitian culture, and the successful manifestations of this culture in literature, painting, and music.

The blossoming of hundreds of grassroots organizations throughout the country to translate into concrete actions the heightened political consciousness of the poor.

The presence mostly in the United States, of a large Diaspora which infused new ideas about democracy, equal opportunity, competence, respect for human rights into Haitian society. This Diaspora also constituted a safe base from which the ills of Haitian society could be criticized as well as a source of talents, energies, and funds with which this criticism could be sustained. It has established strong ties with certain sectors of American society, most notably the African-American community, religious institutions, and progressive organizations, which have become significant actors in the fight to shift U.S. policy towards Haiti. The presence of the Haitian Diaspora is felt most strongly in New York, Miami, and Boston.

This ferment against the established order culminated in the overthrow of Jean-Claude Duvalier in February of 1986. This was clearly a victory of the Haitian people. Since then, however, the Haitian establishment in partnership with its foreign allies--certain sectors of the U.S. political establishment, the Vatican, the Government of Joaquim Balaguer next door--has done everything in its powers to rob Haitians of the fruit of their victory. This has included:

  • The massacre of peasants and activists throughout the country, most notably at Jean-Rabel and Labadie, and the killing of prominent political and religious leaders and activists, including Volel, Izmery, Malary, and Vincent to name the more prominent.
  • The sabotage and rigging of elections in November 1987 and January 1988 respectively, and
  • The overthrow on September 29, 1991, of President Aristide, the first individual to be elected on December 16, 1990, directly by two thirds of the people in free and fair elections monitored by the international community.

The September coup was a cruel blow to Haitian hope for responsible and effective government for during the seven short months of his administration, Jean-Bertrand Aristide demonstrated a willingness to tackle head-on the problems facing Haiti:

  • The Public Service was streamlined with thousands of employees dismissed;
  • An effort was made to clean the army and bring it under civilian control;
  • Drug trafficking was greatly curtailed;
  • Development projects were formulated and successfully submitted to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund for their financial backing;
  • Public security was restored as political violence was reduced, especially in the countryside where the hated corps of the rural sheriffs was disbanded and replaced by elected officials; and
  • Haiti’s diplomatic relations with the Dominican Republic, France, and the United States were put on a dignified basis.

Today, with the assistance of the U.S. Government and the international community, a breakthrough has been achieved with the return to democratic rule in Haiti within the framework of the UN/OAS-sponsored accord of Governor’s Island signed in New York early in July 1993. A new government under the leadership of Prime Minister Smark Michel has been formed and approved by Parliament . It faces daunting problems, including:

  • The lack of security especially in the country side where remnants of still-armed paramilitary groups continue to wreak violence on pro democracy activists.
  • The size and composition of the new army and police, the selection and training of which do not appear to be under the control of the constitutional government.
  • The imposition of an IMF/WB-inspired economic program likely to impact the poor negatively, at least in the short term.
  • The holding of new elections in the first quarter of 1995 which will define the nature of parliament and local assemblies and councils for years to come.

In order to give you a sense as to how Haiti compares statistically with some of its neighbors in the Caribbean and with some countries in Asia and Africa, I have culled some statistics from UNDP’s, “Human Development Report 1994.”

They include demographic, health, economic, and literacy data, as well as rank based on a composite index reflecting some of these statistics.

These statistics suggest that Haiti is at the same level as India and Nigeria and possibly one generation behind its Caribbean neighbors. As poor as these statistics are relatively speaking, they have nonetheless shown considerable improvements in Haiti in the last 30 years and are susceptible to far greater changes in short order once the democratic system takes roots there.

Max Blanchet

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