Review Article: Books by Aristide, Farmer, Plummer and Trouillot

Reviewed by Robert Lawless (1)
From: Robert Lawless:
Published in 1994 as "The Challenges Facing Haiti (and the United States)"
in Journal of Third World Studies 11(2):473-498.

Review Essay: The Challenges Facing Haiti (and the United States) By Robert Lawless

Aristide: An Autobiography
Aristide, Jean-Bertrand (with Christophe Wargny)

Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1993. xiii + 205 pp.

In the Parish of the Poor: Writings from Haiti
Aristide, Jean-Bertrand. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1990. xxiv + 112 pp.

The Uses of Haiti
Farmer, Paul
Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press,
1994. 432 pp.

Haiti and the United States: The Psychological Moment
Plummer, Brenda Gayle
Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992. xiv + 303 pp.

Haiti, State Against Nation: The Origins and Legacy of Duvalierism
Trouillot, Michel-Rolph
New York: Monthly Review Press, 1990. 282 pp.

The issue of Newsweek on the newsstands at the time the U.S. troops were carrying out "Operation Restore Democracy" referred to the president of Haiti as "the flaky Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide." Earlier in a forgotten talk show Henry Kissinger had said that of course Aristide is "psychotic"--and in the same breath made the uncharacteristic admission that he knew nothing at all about Haiti. According to the journalist Amy Wilentz in The Rainy Season, a U.S. embassy official in Port-au- Prince already in the late 1980s had described Aristide as "a Marxist maniac."

When Aristide first came to the attention of North American journalists (which was only when he won the presidency in 1991), the newspaper, magazine, television, and radio media gave unwarranted credence to the venomous speculation concerning Aristide's political philosophy and to the outright lies of his sworn enemies. The sources of these fabrications, all with their own agendas, usually misrepresented Aristide's populist and socialist views while the notoriously faked CIA report labeled him as mentally unstable. Right-wing commentators such as Rush Limbaugh, of course, used the term communist in their anti-Aristide diatribes. While U.S. forces shifted to "Operation Uphold Democracy," columnist Pat Buchanan referred to Aristide as "this crazed cleric." The more respected newspapers reporting on Haiti, such as the Christian Science Monitor, Miami Herald, New York Times, and Washington Post, consistently used the words "leftist priest."

During my appearances on radio and television talk shows in the Midwest just before, during, and after the U.S. intervention I was struck by the exceptionally strong opinions about Aristide--usually opinions of fear and loathing. These opinions emanated from people who proudly displayed--in a few short exchanges with me--their total ignorance of Haiti and Aristide. These opinions were formed, of course, from the media's irresponsible following of the well-funded and widespread defamation campaign against Aristide that began in earnest after he started his comeback in the United States in early 1992. These stories had their origins in right-wing elements within the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the U.S. embassy in Haiti, the CIA, and the U.S. and Haitian military.

Most of these fables centered on the alleged human rights violations carried out by Aristide's followers and supposedly encouraged by Aristide himself. According to various international human rights organizations, however, of the total number of cases of human rights abuse during a significant 17-month period .2 percent were committed during Aristide's almost eight months in office, and 99.8 percent were committed during the first nine months of the coup regime (about two-thirds of the .2 percent were committed by the uncontrolled army under Aristide). Boston Media Action, an independent journalist watchdog organization, points out that, nevertheless, during all this time the press stressed abuses by Aristide rather than by the coup regime-- though admittedly by the end of the three-year reign of military terror most journalists had figured out that it was the army and not Aristide followers that were murdering and torturing people. The New York Times, perhaps the worst abuser of this truth among the respectable press, continued to report the extremely small percentage of past civil rights abuses under Aristide (which amounted to 26 cases) more frequently than the up-to-date abuses of the military regime (which in the nine months following the coup amounted to 1,867 documented killings, 5,096 illegal and arbitrary arrests, and 2,171 documented cases of torture and beatings).

Such a campaign of disinformation is not at all unusual in Haitian-U.S. relations. In 1992 Schenkman Books published a book of mine titled Haiti's Bad Press(reviewed in this journal in the Fall 1993 issue). By saying that Haiti has a bad press, I meant both that Haiti is presented in a bad light and that the performance of the media is inferior and sometimes simply incompetent. My book traced the historical development of the prejudices and the resulting discriminatory remarks of journalists, historians, travelers, authors of adventure stories, and others writing on Haiti. Little has changed in almost two centuries; Haiti remains the primary whipping boy of the white-dominated world, blamed for everything from AIDS to zombies. Currently it is blamed for choosing its own leaders.

Historian Brenda Gayle Plummer speaks eloquently of the (white) North American "fears and fantasies about savage blacks inhabiting a nightmare world of their own making. These fears stem in part from the cataclysmic slave insurrection that so changed the Western Hemisphere, and from psychic tensions deeply embedded in U.S. culture and society. When coupled with a history of political turbulence, repulsion led the U.S. public to see Haiti as a doomed land, beyond comprehension, beyond help, and outside history" (p. 1).

Typically the Western media cover the Third World only in cases of coups, calamities, and communism. Haiti has, however, always provided a particularly exotic case for Western writers to indulge in political and sociocultural bigotry. Most of the 19th- and early 20th-century interpretations of Haiti's problems were straightforwardly racist. When overt racism first became unfashionable in North America in the mid-1960s, writers defined Haiti's problems in terms of savage rulers who were either fools or lunatics--or both--and an easily dominated mass of ignorant peasants.

All these dangerous and often nonsensical errors, fallacies, and delusions need to be rectified--especially so since during the few weeks surrounding the return of Aristide Haiti was host to about 600 foreign journalists frantically, frivolously, and erroneously reporting and videotaping extraordinary but inextricably misunderstood events. Fortunately we have several excellent books available on Haiti to do the job--many of them published just within the last few years. A good place to start in contextualizing the drama that we have all seen on television and that some of us have read about in the press are the writings of Aristide himself. Next, we need to understand the historic relationships of Haiti with its powerful and overbearingly influential neighbor--a difficult task made easier by Plummer's splendid book. Then we have to pick our way through the labyrinth of the Duvalier era, and fortunately we have a pathfinder in Michel-Rolph Trouillot's book. And finally we need to reexamine the contemporary politics and relationships between Haiti and the United States, a grim chore that Paul Farmer performs superbly.

Aristide's Books

The articles in In the Parish of the Poor were selected and translated by Wilentz. She also wrote a 140-page "Foreword" that is informative though it overstates the authority and pervasiveness of the Roman Catholic Church among the rural and urban poor. Aristide's autobiography was first published in French in 1992 under the title Tout homme est un home or "every person is a human being."

Perhaps the first thing to understand about Aristide is that the masses of Haiti regard him as a saint and a savior; some, indeed, regard him as immortal--due, no doubt, in large part to his awesome personal courage and his escape from several nearly successful assassination attempts. The people of Haiti refer to Aristide affectionately as Titid or Ti Pe (the little father).

His church, St. Jean Bosco, is on the edge of an infamous Port-au-Prince slum, La Saline. For many years he has been at odds with the official hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church and especially the extremely reactionary Haitian mirror of that hierarchy. The Church has tried many times to silence Aristide, including expelling him from his order, the Salesians. In 1988 paramilitary gangs burned down St. Jean Bosco. The Church asked him to resign his priesthood when he assumed the presidency, but he refused. He is not a defrocked priest, as the North American media has erroneously reported, but he obviously despises the doctrinaire Pope John Paul II and the reactionary hierarchy of the Church, saying that the people no long buy the "package" that the Vatican is trying to sell (1990, p. 21).

His first book is in the form of a letter to his brothers and sisters in Latin America "who have struggled for the liberation of our peoples" (1990, p. 3). Aristide wants to lift the mystery of Haiti and unite it with the other peoples in the southern hemisphere. The book also contains several sermons and speeches by Aristide.

The books clearly illustrate that Aristide has a close identification with the suffering in Haiti; he writes that this "is a story not of one man, but of a people, my people" (1990, p. 16). And he clearly identifies the struggle of the people in Haiti with the struggles of the powerless everywhere, especially in Latin America, writing, for example, "Here in Haiti, we consider every attack against you an attack against us, just as every injury or death that we suffer in our dark corner of the world is a death or injury that you feel, too" (1990, p. 47).

In an often quoted metaphor Aristide writes about how "the rich of my country, a tiny percentage of our population, sit at a vast table covered in white damask and overflowing with good food, while the rest of my countrymen and countrywomen are crowded under that table, hunched over in the dirt and starving" (1990, p. 9). He predicts that "one day the people under that table will rise up in righteousness, and knock the table of privilege over, and take what rightfully belongs to them" (1990, p. 9). He sees himself as part of that historic turning of the tables. Active in human rights movements for many years, Aristide has an obvious and perhaps volatile appeal to many segments of the Haitian population, especially the peasantry and the urban poor.

Nevertheless, members of the elite run the governments in Haiti, and despite the early and heroic independence of Haiti from France--and from slavery--the attitude of the elite classes of Haiti has traditionally been a colonial one. Although nativism, negritude, and the increase in the use of Creole have made all Haitians more aware of their similarities, tension continues to exist between the elites and the rural and urban poor. With few profitable land holdings to support them, members of this very small urban elite group have traditionally used the government and its authority to tax as a source of personal income. Such a perception of government on the part of the elite has worked against the conception of public office as a public trust and even against the idea of social responsibility.

In contrast, the Haitian masses have for almost two centuries been seemingly satisfied with their small plot of land and have expected nothing better from the government than to be left alone. Haiti, then, may be regarded as a predatory state run by an elite class that extorts its living from the masses. The institutional structures of government do not operate for the benefit of the people as a whole. Directly and indirectly, members of the elite depend on the government to make their living. The political repression seen in the succession of arrests, torture, and gross violations of human rights in Haiti represents the efforts of the elite to maintain itself economically at the direct expense of the poor. Their loss of power would result not only in the loss of control and prestige but also in the loss of income.

The series of military coups after the ouster of Jean-Claude Duvalier in February 1986 can be seen as an expected jostling for position by the elites in this land of scarce resources. What was really quite unusual was the legitimate election held in December 1990--an election that the Haitian elites never wanted but that was unavoidable given the international spotlight at the time. In this election, monitored by more than 400 international observers including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Jean-Bertrand Aristide won the presidency in a landslide of 67 percent of the estimated 75 percent of the two million registered voters who cast ballots. His election raised expectations both in Haiti and elsewhere in the Caribbean. For example, at Aristide's inauguration Jamaica's prime minister said that he sensed "a very great moment in Caribbean history after all the generations of struggle and tyranny."

It was not to be. Just 236 days after his February 7, 1991, inauguration the army ousted Aristide in an extremely bloody coup. In sickening detail Farmer recounts the September 30 coup that put Raoul Cedras and his brutal buddies into power and that resulted in the slaughter of over a thousand Aristide supporters from the slums of Port-au-Prince (pp. 182-189). In his own recounting of the coup, Aristide writes, "We leave the palace as prisoners, headed for the army general headquarters. Cedras is there. . . Smart and sprightly in the uniform of his high rank, he is smiling, calm, even cheerful and condescending. He tells me plainly, with a glowing countenance: 'From now on, I am the president.' Eight of my companions are tortured and beaten by the soldiers. Cedras is pleased with himself. The officers drink to his health. There is the atmosphere of a macabre festival alongside the bloodied faces of my friends. I myself have my hands tied. They try to humiliate me. The military discuss my fate in loud tones. 'We ought to kill him.' They almost get into an argument about who will have the pleasure of doing it. . . . The pressure applied by the democratic countries wins the day: I will leave, finally, on the plane sent by Carlos Andrez, the president of Venezuela" (1993, p. 158)


The Organization of American States declared the new regime to be illegitimate, and in November 1991 the United States imposed an embargo on Haiti demanding that the army allow a democratically elected government to take its place. Aristide lived since his ouster first in Venezuela and then mostly in the United States negotiating with the U.S. government, the Organization of American States, the United Nations, and various power brokers in Haiti for his return. And on October 15, 1994, Aristide returned--under the watchful eye of the U.S. military--to an extraordinarily jubilant welcome from the Haitian masses as their rightful president.

Aristide began this arduous journey to the presidency 37 years before his inauguration on February 7, 1991. The son of relatively wealthy rural Haitians and greatly influenced by his grandfather, who apparently had a well-tuned sense of justice and exploitation, Aristide spent most of his time in Port-au-Prince in a school run by the Salesian priests, primarily from France and Belgium. In 1966 he entered the Salesian seminary in Cap-Haitien. His first internship was in the Dominican Republic.

From 1979 to 1982 he studied biblical theology in Israel. After a few months back in Haiti he was sent to Montreal by the Salesians. In January 1985 he returned to Haiti after three years of graduate study in Montreal where he had been regarded as a scholar of great potential. His commitment to liberation theology, however, continued to get him into trouble with the Church, and the Salesian order expelled him in December 1988. In October 1990 he announced his candidacy for the presidency. The first accusation that I saw that Aristide is a communist appeared in print the next month.

In response to the accusations that he is a communist Aristide writes, "Rather than searching for models, I prefer to welcome those ideas that rest on the values of beauty, dignity, respect, and love" (1993, p. 126). And he explains, "Marxism is not a source of inspiration for me. Instead, the texts of Marx constitute one tool among others to which I may have recourse" (1993, p. 68). As Plummer writes, "The logic of Christian ethics formed the moral basis of his discourse" (p. 232). It is, indeed, a sad fact of the legacy of anticommunism--a worldwide, mindless bequest largely of the United States--that one need only be labeled a communist to have one's life put in danger; the several times that paramilitary groups and hired thugs tried to assassinate Aristide they were heard to be shouting "Communist!"

Aristide's program during his 1991 months in office was hardly radical, however, containing, for example, support for an increase in the minimum wage, a massive literacy campaign, some land reform, the abolition of the notorious rural section chiefs, the collection of taxes from the rich, attempts to stop drug trafficking and other smuggling, and a crackdown on corruption in public administration. These original policies were, furthermore, based on the belief that the old system was too corrupt to support any change, and this belief gave opponents of Aristide the chance to label him as rigid. In the book written after his ouster he did state, "There was an absolute break between those expert in the theology of liberation and those who hoped for a compromise with the system they served" (1993, p. 66), but this is more a statement of fact than a disclosure of rigidity.

Also, the perception of Aristide as anti-American can be easily drawn from his writings, which contain phrases such as "the land of snow has exploited my beloved country" (1990, p. 7). The perception of him as socialistic can be based on phrases he uses such as the "deadly economic infection called capitalism" (1990, p. 6). And his attitude toward both the United States and its policies of "developing" the Third World is clear in such passages as: "The cold country to our north, and its allies . . . send us more money and food. Of course, that money and that food corrupt our society: The money helps to maintain an armed force against the people; the food to ruin our national economy; and both money and food keep Haiti in a situation of dependence on the former colonizers" (1990, p. 47).

The perceived anti-Americanism is, however, merely the necessary accompaniment to a pro-Haitianism; the socialism, a counterforce to the core-peripheral relationships of the First World to the Third World; and the anti-developmentalism, a recognition that development policies are simply effective and pervasive mechanisms of neocolonialism. Further understanding, then, of the Haitian challenges requires a close examination of U.S.-Haitian relationships.

Plummer's Book

Plummer is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin who received her Ph.D. from Cornell University where she wrote a masterful and exhaustive 773-page dissertation on Haitian-American Relations from 1902 to 1934. Plummer points out that the relationships of Haiti and the United States "reflect in microcosm many of the grand themes of the Western Hemisphere: wars for empire, struggles for independence, the slavery and freedom duality, conflict between liberal democracy and authoritarianism, and the dilemma of race" (p. 9). The careful scholarship and the clear explanations of subtle sociopolitical machinations are outstanding. For example, the explication in Chapter 8 of the sinisterly murky relationship between Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and the United States during the Trujillo years is quite enlightening.

Plummer, of course, discusses the U.S. occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934, summarizing this misadventure by saying, "The Haitian protectorate was unprecedented in its duration, the racism that characterized U.S. behavior in the black republic, and the brutality associated with pacification efforts" (p. 101). She concludes, "The United States had neither changed nor reformed Haitian politics but inadvertently strengthened and assured the survival of many of its worst features" (p. 120). This is a view from which no contemporary Haitian scholar dissents; Trouillot, for example, writes, "In the end the U.S. occupation worsened all of Haiti's structural ills" (p. 107).

After the occupation foreign aid and cordial contacts between the two militaries largely governed the relationship between the United States and Haiti. Along with other scholars Plummer locates the alliance of the United States with the military in Latin America as beginning with the administration of U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson and especially its expression by Thomas Mann, a State Department career officer who authored the so-called Mann Doctrine. A couple of weeks after Mann gave a talk in Washington in 1964 outlining a new policy that virtually lifted all sanctions on military regimes, the Brazilian army overthrew the constitutional government--and the United States recognized the junta within 12 hours. By 1969 U.S. President Richard Nixon had restored military assistance to the unsavory Duvalier regime in Haiti.

When the elder Duvalier died in 1971 the United States began making Haiti economically dependent on its big neighbor. The USAID and other U.S. agencies based their approach "on the time-honored conception of Haitians as a source of cheap, docile labor who expected little and got less" (p. 177). Apparently the 1971 transition from Duvalier Senior to Duvalier Junior, for example, was part of a deal worked out between Francois Duvalier and the Nixon administration during Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller's trip there in 1970. The United States would support the continuation of the Duvalier dynasty, and Jean-Claude, the son, when he came to power, would support a new economic program guided by the United States, a program featuring private investments from the United States that would be drawn to the offshore assembly industry of Haiti by such incentives as no custom taxes, few safety regulations, a minimum wage kept very low, the suppression of labor unions, and the right of U.S. companies to repatriate their profits.

After U.S. President Ronald Reagan assumed office in January 1981 Haiti became an example of what the United States will do for a pro-American, anticommunist country. Various U.S. government agencies helped destroy the indigenous economy, and Haiti became economically dependent on the United States. With the aid of the international lending enterprise Haiti joined the ranks of debtor nations. And with the Reagan administration giving five times as much military aid to the dictatorship as had Carter the army in Haiti finally regained the power it had lost under the senior Duvalier. The U.S.-sponsored growth of the army coupled with the impoverishment of the countryside--helped enormously by the USAID-led slaughter of Haitian pigs (allegedly suffering from African swine fever)--set the groundwork for the eventual military dictatorships.

Plummer identifies two themes in U.S. foreign policy: "Containment has always been a cornerstone of the U.S. attitude toward Haiti. During the war between the Haitians and the French, the United States took steps to prevent revolutionary 'contagion' from spreading to its own enslaved black population. In subsequent years it imposed a blackout on the rebel republic. . . . It explained away Haitian sovereignty in exceptionalist arguments. . . . Following the defeat of Spain in 1898, the United States enjoyed maritime supremacy in the Caribbean and continued to exercise control of the independent republics" (p. 210). In addition, "The desire for political stability in the Caribbean region is a thick thread running through the fabric of U.S. diplomatic history. Policy-makers unfortunately equated stability with the promotion and retention of regimes that could neutralize endemic popular discontent" (p. 211).

During the senior Duvalier's rule the United States purchased stability at a very high price. As Plummer states the obvious situation, "Repressive governments and brutal poverty seemed intractable problems given the assumption that the security of dependable 'allies' took precedence over social and economic justice" (p. 214). Later after the end of the Duvalier era and after the U.S. Army-trained general Henri Namphy became chief of state "Washington resumed the suspended foreign assistance programs and almost doubled grants to Haiti over the previous 1985 fiscal year [including] nearly $500,000 worth of riot equipment, ostensibly for use against diehard Duvalierist conspirators" (p. 218). The poor and powerless in general and certainly Aristide's supporters in particular all suffered from the military's use of that equipment.

The United States under the Bush administration continued the strange notion of the Reagan administration that democracy could flourish under a military dictatorship and viewed the simple mechanism of an election as an elixir--as long as the "right" person was elected. The United States "estranged itself from the very forces that would necessarily constitute the backbone of a truly free, independent Haiti" (pp. 228-229). Congress, slightly more progressive than the Bush administration, "guardedly advocate[d] a phased program of aid restoration, linked to visible progress toward democracy, to be implemented through the foreign aid authorization law of 29 June 1989" (p. 229).

The several military administrations of Haiti that followed the end of the Duvalier era and the fall of Namphy in September 1988 were terribly brutal and all attempted to totally repress any expression of democratic processes and organizations. Nevertheless, "the United States had still not completely divorced itself from its unrequited romance with the Haitian army, on which it planned to bestow more riot- suppressing equipment. . . . This idea derived from a U.S. Defense Department that had not kept abreast of events, or remained cynical, naive or worse" (p. 231).

By this time Aristide "had become one of the most popular and influential figures in Haiti. His fiery sermons gave voice to the rage of the dispossessed and pinpointed with acuity the crimes committed by Duvalierists and the depravity of their elite and foreign collaborators. Aristide did not spare the United States, which he heavily criticized for its long-time support of Duvalier and subsequent repressive military regimes" (pp. 231-232).

Writing prophetically Plummer states, "Underlying fears of disorder partly explain the ready resort to military expedients. The new Haitian politics has been messy: it spills out into the public arena, sweeping up crowds in rage and enthusiasms. U.S. policymakers' distrust of the people as a mob or multitude dates back to the writings of the federalist era. An almost reflexive impulse to repress revolts of people of color, buried deeply in U.S. history and society, also contributes to the prominence of repressive measures in addressing Haitian problems" (p. 234).

Trouillot's Book

Trouillot is a professor of anthropology at Johns Hopkins University, the author of a work well known to students of Haiti, Nation, State, and Society in Haiti, 1804-1984, and the stepson of Supreme Court Justice Ertha Pascal-Trouillot, who served as provisional president of Haiti in 1990. His book concentrates on the before and after of the 29-year reign of the father-son Duvalier dictatorship and provides one of the few critical analyses of the Duvalier era, though a somewhat translucent Gramscian Marxist theoretical lens fogs some of the analysis. Nevertheless, the insights of Trouillot are a valuable counter to the fact that Haitian intellectuals and foreign observers alike "have repeated the tune . . . that Haiti's major problem has been its governments. . . . [However,] it is not enough to say that Haitian governments have never been up to their job;it is necessary to know why Haiti continues to produce such governments, and why and how such governments led finally to the Duvaliers" (p. 18).

One of the significant contradictions of the Haitian situation, according to Trouillot is that "societies on the periphery of the capitalist world economy are of necessity outward-looking, if only because they are economically dependent on capitalist centers. Yet states are inherently inward-looking (even if expansionist); they exercise primary control over a definite territory and derive their momentum from the dynamics of coercion and consent within that space" (p. 23). In the early days of Haiti "an authoritarian labor system was more likely to lead to increased productivity in the export sector and generate local accumulation of capital. On the other hand, militarized agriculture, and even milder forms of the plantation system, conflicted with the masses' vision of freedom and thus with the fundamental principle of liberty around which the nation was built. But great as it was, this dilemma was exacerbated by the Western powers' efforts to reestablish Haiti's economic dependence" (p. 50).

Those who established the character of the Haitian state in its early years chose a system that perpetuated the country's dependence on powerful neighbors while, as Trouillot points out, it "persistently siphoned off the meager resources of the peasantry, so that this peasantry came to finance the state while having no control over it" (p. 59). Since the state "has a monopoly on force . . . the limits to the excise of state power . . . are dictated by the conditions of a state's existence, rather than by any abstract moral code" (p. 35). The function of the Haitian state, therefore, was to extract and distribute peasant surplus (p. 83), a job it performed without regard for human rights. Whatever qualms the urban elites might have had about such a system were eased by the fact that most members of these elites regarded the peasants as mindless animals in a faraway interior. Economically the consequences were disastrous, for neither rulers, merchants, nor landowners "reinvested the surplus they expropriated; there was no local accumulation of capital, either in private hands or within the state sector, and no major effort to improve the forces of production" (p. 84).

About the only contacts peasants had with the state were the tax collectors and the army. The army of the early Haitian state, however, was quite different from the army that overthrew Aristide. As Trouillot points out, the old Haitian army, for all its flaws, was the army of the revolution, fighting for Haitian independence from foreign intervention. "In sharp contrast, the Haitian Garde was specifically created [by the Americans] to fight against other Haitians" (p. 106)--a role it played until 1994 when its successor was disembowel by another invasion from the United States.

Against his interpretation of the history of Haiti Trouillot, in Chapter 6 "State Against Nation," provides a masterful description of the indescribable, the regime of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier. Trouillot interprets the two Duvalier regimes as totalitarian along the lines of Mussolini's Italy; they were total in the sense that the state encompassed all of civil society. State violence was total. As Trouillot points out, "Duvalierism distinguished itself by a new kind of state violence, one that systematically violated the codes governing the use of force by the state" touching innocents, relatives of offenders, and women (p. 166). The equation of the chief executive with the nation was total; "those who held power enjoyed it only on the basis of a direct link to the chief of state" (p. 171). Totalitarianism was also exhibited in various forms of polarization, such as the widening of the gap between the rich and the poor (p. 182) and spatial polarization with Port-au-Prince housing 20 percent of the population but consuming 80 percent of the state expenditures (p. 183). And all the while the Duvaliers always played the anticommunist game to gain U.S. support for their crippling policies (pp. 202-203).

The most economically disastrous relationship between the United States and Haiti, the offshore assembly industry that culminated in the deleterious policies of the Caribbean Basin Initiative, began during the senior Duvalier regime and "accentuated economic and spatial polarization without benefiting the nation" (p. 210). These assembly plants took people out of food production and didn't create any additional indigenous industry. Almost all of the raw material, investment capital, machinery, and management for the assembly plants were shipped in from the United States. Almost all the products of the assembly plants, such as baseballs, textiles, electronic parts, and shoes, were shipped out to the U.S. market. And as Trouillot states, "Haiti's trade deficit rose from $12.4 million in 1970 to . . . $183 million in 1980" (p. 211).

In explaining the beginnings of the uprising against Jean-Claude Duvalier in the provincial town of Gonaives Trouillot writes, "Haitians had for long placed the responsibility for their poverty on the dictatorship. Yet while some peasants could fall back on household production of a few garden crops . . . the mushrooming lumpen of the towns, freshly born of that peasantry, had lost both their gardens and their sense of political isolation" (p. 217). Nevertheless, as Trouillot further explains, "What Haitians witnessed on February 7, 1986, was not the disorderly escape of an 'entire leadership' pushed out by popular pressure . . . but a transmission of power, orchestrated with absolute order--albeit against the background of a popular uprising" (p. 225). The United States was very much involved in easing Duvalier out of power; it had always had difficulties dealing with the Duvaliers; the random terrors of the senior Duvalier had been an international embarrassment, and nobody quite understood the slow-witted junior Duvalier. A militarily enforced discipline beneath the facade of a democracy--which to the U.S. government means the election of an acceptable person--was much preferable to the rapid turnover of the inefficient if not incompetent ministers and bureaucrats of Jean-Claude's administration.

The military regimes that came into power after the departure of the junior Duvalier, indeed, initially enjoyed the friendship of the United States as well as generous military aid. The United States, however, wasn't quite prepared for the viciousness of the U.S.-trained Haitian officers. According to Trouillot, "By the end of its first year in office the CNG [i.e., the military government], generously helped by the U.S. taxpayers' money, had openly gunned down more civilians than Jean-Claude Duvalier's government had done in fifteen years" (p. 222). By May 1993 UN envoy Dante Caputo stated, "The Haitian people are living under the most ferocious repression in their entire history." Nor, of course, was the United States at all prepared for the future appearance of a populist priest as resident.

In an epilogue Trouillot writes, "Though Haitian activists willingly acknowledge the need to redistribute the country's resources more equitably, most are reluctant to face the complex problems created by declining agricultural productivity" (p. 229). According to Trouillot, the challenge to Haiti is to create institutional channels through which the peasantry can participate in the reconciliation of the state with the nation (p. 230).

Farmer's Book

In October 1994 when I participated in the Kennedy Library Public Forums in Boston on "Haiti and American News Media," I was asked what journalists should read about Haiti if they have time to read only one book. I replied without hesitation, "Paul Farmer's The Uses of Haiti." Although written for the public, the book should be particularly enlightening for journalists since it portrays Haiti as historically enmeshed in a global socioeconomic system and "privilege[s] a 'Haitian version' of the country's history" (p. 56)--perspectives consistently ignored by journalists.

The socioeconomic system smothering Haiti is, of course, that of the United States. The primary use of Haiti, as Farmer accurately points out, is "to provide its clients with tropical produce, raw materials, or cheap labor. Outside of their country, Haitians are useful for cutting cane, cleaning buildings, or driving cabs" (p. 255).

Farmer's book is subtle, complex, and ambitious. He weaves accounts of U.S. intervention in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic into his narrative and gives us three stories of individual Haitians to increase our empathy, saying "sadly, the Haitian people find themselves in a position of needing to reach the hearts and minds of North Americans and to persuade them to change the policies that affect Haitians so directly" (p. 262). Farmer, then, speaks for Haitians to Americans through these compelling stories. Even if one does not accept the political perspectives of Farmer, one must react to the plight of these individuals.

The first story involves a young Haitian woman, the mother of two and a political refugee, who suffered the brutalities of U.S. immigration policies for a year in the U.S.-run Guantenamo concentration camp. She was force-fed maggot-infested canned chicken, subjected to midnight searches, given unexplained injections, held down screaming to have her blood drawn, threatened with dogs, beaten with aluminum batons, and put in solitary confinement. At the time of the writing she was working for the Coalition for Haitian Refugees in New York City.

In the second story Haitian military personnel tortured to death a man in his mid-20s a few months after the 1991 coup as the United States was sending aid to this same military. "His face, and especially his left temple, was misshapen, swollen and lacerated. . . . [His] mouth was a coagulated pool of dark blood; he coughed up more than a liter of blood in his agonal moments. Lower down, his neck was peculiarly swollen, his throat collared in bruises, the traces of a gun butt. His chest and sides were badly bruised, and he had several fractured ribs. His genitals had been mutilated. . . . [His] back and thighs were striped with deep lash marks. His buttocks were hideously macerated, his skin flayed down to the exposed gluteal muscles. . . . It took [him] three days to die" (pp. 302-303).

The third story centers on a woman in Farmer's ethnographic site, a village of internal Haitian refugees displaced into abject poverty in 1956 by a U.S.-financed hydroelectric dam. The woman was one of the first cases of AIDS in this part of rural Haiti and died in May 1992 at the age of 27. Her father committed suicide shortly thereafter. Farmer, who is a physician and a specialist in AIDS as well as an anthropologist, suggests that AIDS may have come into Haiti from North America and is related to Haitian poverty, male prostitution, and the tourism of the New York City gay community.

In his criticism of the press Farmer focuses on the New York Times and the principal reporter on things Haitian, Howard French, who, as Farmer writes, "misrepresent[s] Haitian reality in striking fashion" (p. 166). In telling detail Farmer points out that French "is so associated with uncharitable interpretations of the democratic movement that he has been picketed by Haitians in New York on more than one occasion. On Governor's Island, coup leaders greeted him as 'our foreign minister.' To those unfamiliar with Haiti, French's slant has seemed, at times, subtle. To those who study popular commentary on the country, his reports and 'news analyses' have merely reproduced the tales told by U.S. officials and by sectors of the Haitian elite" (p. 361). Indeed, the New York Times seems to have become the primary conduit of all that the U.S. State Department, the USAID, the U.S. embassy in Haiti, the CIA, and the U.S. and Haitian military see fit to print.

In several authoritative pages Farmer documents Aristide's attempts to revitalize the country during his short tenure--and the efforts of the North American press to make him a demon (pp. 161-171). The facts are that after six months of Aristide's first administration "insecurity had all but disappeared in the capital. There was a dramatic decrease in the number of Haitians attempting to leave Haiti by boat. For the first time in years, the Haitian treasury had a positive balance" (p. 169). Farmer concludes, "Aristide is indeed a radical, but not in the sense of the dispatches to Washington: he is radically devoted to the poor" (p. 133).

Farmer ascertained a pattern in Aristide's struggle with American politics and press in his attempt to reclaim his proper place in the National Palace: "Diplomats involved in the process would press Aristide for concessions. His advisors would advise him against compromising his pact with the Haitian people, and Aristide would underline the probability that the military and its representatives were acting in bad faith. The priest would then be depicted as intractable and rigid, even though he, in the end, acceded to key demands. The U.S. press would dutifully echo this depiction. And finally, the de facto regime would fail to live up to its end of the bargain, leaving Aristide with nothing to show for his concessions" (p. 208).

The most recent of the five books reviewed, Farmer's essay still was completed before the October 15 return of Aristide. Farmer suggests that little hope exists for Haiti to extricate itself from the embrace of abuse by powerful neighbors and a detached indigenous elite, unless, perhaps, "one believes that [U.S. President Bill] Clinton's foreign policy objectives are radically different from those so clearly stated by the preceding two administrations" (p. 357). The vacillating Clinton seemed for many months to be trying both to placate politicians in south Florida and satisfy the Congressional Black Caucus. Finally Clinton put a stiffened embargo into effect that drew the military regime to the bargaining table on Governor's Island during the summer of 1993.

Farmer writes, "Having watched these developments from Haiti, I can relate that any satisfaction people may have felt about this apparent triumph of diplomacy was tempered by what we witnessed all around us. Those with radios were privy to the uninterrupted stories of arbitrary arrests and beatings and killings; those with the stomach for such things could count the bodies that greeted residents of the capital most mornings as they opened their doors" (pp. 210-211). Cedras and his gang reneged on the Governor's Island Accord, and Clinton had no choice but to use military force. The question remains, however, concerning the commitment of the Clinton administration to real social justice in Haiti--to how Haiti will now be used.

The Challenges

I think we can easily identify several challenges. The only workable democracy for Haiti requires the cooperation of the government with the most significant segment of the Haitian population, which is, of course, the food producers. The peasant farmers have, however, traditionally been the objects of exploitation and have usually been viewed by the elites as either sources of income or rebellions.

In the recent past grassroots organizations in the countryside have emerged, and the military regimes have tried their best to destroy them. Many of Haiti's grassroots movements trace their beginnings back to the Ti Legliz, or "little churches," that often provided cover for democratic activists during the Duvalier era. Finding hope in liberation theology, these ecclesiastically-based groups expanded rapidly during the 1970s using church-based training programs and often united by the church-funded radio station Radyo Soley. In addition, during the 1970s farmers throughout the countryside were forming rural cooperatives, some with as few members as ten but all giving peasants new ideas of power and political organization.

Neighborhood associations are found primarily in urban slums and focus on such things as obtaining potable water and electricity and defending residents from crime and extortion. These associations--mostly in the slums of Port-au-Prince--were particularly hard hit by the military regimes since they provide people with a highly visible network for potentially political organizations.

Labor unions in Haiti have traditionally functioned underground--except the U.S.-backed Federation of Workers Union. The proliferation of U.S. offshore assembly plants in the 1970s coupled with indigenous anti-labor policies impeded the formation of unions. The political enrollment of the urban proletariat, however, is essential to the maturation of a participatory and progressive democracy.

Part of the current confusion no doubt comes from heightened expectations. After the ouster of the Duvalier regime a very wide variety of urban and rural groups attempted to develop a progressive government. Even peasants in some of the most isolated areas of Haiti came to think of the government not only as the cause of problems (the shortage of drinkable water, for example) but also as the source of possible solutions to such problems. Rarely, however, have the urban elite and the national government combined in a concerted effort with the underclasses to develop a strongly united and widely supported national policy. The Haitian elite largely remains politically particularistic and personally self-aggrandizing.

Despite the good intentions of some and the genuine concern of others in the United States a careful reading of the history of Haiti (and the Caribbean and Latin America) cannot help but convince us that one immediate challenge for Haiti (and the Third World) is to avoid the ultimately deleterious activities of the United States. Although various segments of the United States political spectrum exercise various perspectives on Haiti, in general, it is fair to say that United States policy focuses on political stability and social order for Haiti--and socioeconomic security for Americans. Any concern for social justice is coincidental. In this view the ideal Haiti would be an offshore assembly enclave where U.S. factories could find a docile labor force.

My thesis is that all these easily identified problems are surface manifestations of deeper, underlying challenges that are historical, ecological, structural, and cultural, and that are not easily amenable to national sociopolitical solutions. These more vital structural difficulties require responses that are significantly different from the traditional solutions offered by governments and international aid organizations. The empowerment of people, the elimination of the military, and the equitable distribution of resources are certainly basic requirements.Haiti is additionally challenged by the horror of its recent history. Other countries, such as Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, and Rwanda, have had brief periods of greater trauma than Haiti but few contemporary nations can match the Haitian experience with 37 years of harsh dictatorships featuring state-sponsored terror--the only respite being a few months during Aristide's administration (and perhaps to a lesser degree for a few months after the August 1977 visit to Port-au-Prince of Andrew Young, who warned the Haitian government that economic aid would be directly tied to human rights). We can only hope that Cedras will be the last to join the march of generals, such as Namphy, Prosper Avril, and so forth and so on, into the pages of Haiti's recent inglorious military history.

Currently we have the very strange case of a country occupied by its own army and then being liberated by a foreign army. The very U.S. military that helped reinstall democracy in Haiti has, in fact, a notorious reputation for supporting the reactionary foreign policy of the United States in its squelching of democratic movements and in its installing and maintaining dictatorships--especially in the Caribbean and Latin America.

It is difficult to imagine the U.S. Army defending peasant groups, slum dwellers, and labor unionists. In fact, the deployment of the troops in Port-au- Prince, as reported to me by my informants, seemed to be concentrated so as to protect the wealthy suburbs such as Petionville. For example, on September 30, 1994, the people's demonstration and march on the third anniversary of the coup against Aristide was savagely attacked by paramilitary groups right in the downtown area with at least eight marchers killed, while U.S. troops were set up along John Brown Avenue, a main commercial street running up the hills to Petionville.

Perhaps the greatest challenge, however, is to have a robust ecological and economic plan for Haiti, for the big neighbor is determined to maintain Haiti as a source of cheap docile labor under firm sociopolitical control. The notion of a tight rein is obvious in the U.S. emphasis on retraining (that is, retaining) the Haitian army. That army, however, was already trained by the United States. Many of the officers attended the U.S. Army's School of the Americans in Fort Benning, Georgia, often called in Latin America "the School for Dictators." How does the United State professionalize officers who have already been through the U.S. training program and are apparently performing as required?

In terms of economic controls it is interesting to speculate why the reinstallation of Aristide took three years and then followed by only seven weeks the signing by Aristide's ministers in Paris on August 26, 1994, agreements with the IMF and the World Bank that emasculate Aristide's program of social justice. The economists like to call the plan an open system. The question is "Open to what and to whom?"

The plan focuses on the traditional "development" strategies of import substitution, privatization, and an export-based economy. The model for such a plan is Taiwan. However, Taiwan first had 30 years of continual rural development. The plan won't work in a country like Haiti with an impoverished rural population. Unfortunately the new Aristide program continues the historic pattern of ignoring the rural areas. In particular, the plan does not mention, for example, using indigenous techniques of soil conservation, strengthening the rural organizations, or increasing peasant access to the national political voice. The traditional notions of planting trees and transferring technology are not going to work in Haiti. And whatever Haiti does receive in monetary aid will go largely to pay off debts to international financial institutions and to finance the NGO's.

In his reinstallation speech Aristide said, "This is about moving from misery to poverty with dignity." In fact, poverty is just where North American capitalists and Haitian elites want most of the population. Aristide actually can't do much operating under the 1987 constitution because this constitution was written by those who had expectations of corrupt executives and purposefully weakened the presidency. About the most radical thing Aristide may be able to do is to develop a graduated income tax package. And obviously the United States isn't interested in real change but instead in managing the inevitable reforms of Aristide and his successors so that they do not become revolutionary. At any rate, the current plan of the Aristide government is largely the same plan the USAID instituted under Jean-Claude Duvalier that made Haiti dependent on the United States in the first place, led to economic impoverishment, and eventually military dictatorship.

Perhaps Haiti needs to think about a good revolution. Perhaps the United States needs a good revolution in thinking.


Art, Music, & Dance Book Reviews Film History Library Literature
Mailing List Miscellaneous Topics Notes on Books People to People Voodoo


Bob Corbett