By Paul Farmer. Introduction by Noam Chomsky. Common Courage Press, Monroe, Maine. 1994. ISBN # 56751-034-5 (hardbound) and ISBN # 1- 56751-035-3 (paper).

Reviewed by Bob Corbett
June 14, 1994

One of the most authoritative works on Haiti today is Paul Farmer's 1994 book THE USES OF HAITI. The review below takes the central thesis to task. I am hoping that this argument will generate some discussion, akin to the discussions over non-violence and Davis' account of zombification. Please do be bashful! Join in the discussion.


It is unusual to review a book in the middle of 1995 which, while written in 1994, has already become the most popular book about Haiti since Amy Wilentz's THE RAINY SEASON. But, not only has this become one of the most popular books on Haiti, it has become the authoritative word for many, the context from which one understands Haitian history. Since I have some rather serious doubts about what I take to be the main thesis, I felt that some voice of doubt should be raised. Hence, this review.

I really didn't want to read this book. I worried that I'd learn little and devote a great deal of time to the activity. I worried that it would carry the "Chomsky bias," a view that seems to shape historical analyses for particular contemporary ideological purposes, and, because of these two features I was sure that I would be most aggravated. Well, I was totally wrong on the first score. Farmer has a great deal of material from which I learned, and I even learned by formulating my objections to things which I found wanting. On the second score, it turned out as I expected. In the end, it is a tool of current political ideology more than an historical analysis.

Farmer writes a powerful book, well-documented and illustrated with many aptly chosen examples. But, while I believe that the evidence presented is mainly true, there is a great deal left out, and what is left out will challenge the thesis itself.

The thesis, as I read it, and as the title suggests, is that Haiti has served the purposes of the United States and the international community. Thus to understand Haiti one must understand the uses which Haiti serves for those international forces. This is all true, and something that one must emphasize in order to get a clear picture of Haiti. But, it is the next step in Farmer's logic which troubles me greatly. Namely, that this "international use of Haiti" is the dominant cause of her history, and, since the United States is the predominant player in this story, that the U.S. is the main force behind Haitian history.

In opposition to that view I wish to argue that the international community, and especially the United States is one of the major influences on Haitian history, but that there are distinctively Haitian forces which have shaped Haitian history too. What I reject in the Farmer view of Haiti is what I see as a thesis that says, in effect, the history of Haiti is one in which Haitians don't matter, at least not in the first order of things.

Farmer's book operates at two levels. The first is a negative critique of other views of Haiti -- views that seriously or entirely under-value the influence of the United States and other foreign influences. This thesis is well demonstrated by Farmer with significant help from the work of Robert Lawless (HAITI'S BAD PRESS) and Brenda Plummer (HAITI AND THE GREAT POWERS, 1902-1915). However, that the international community is a very significant player does not demonstrate that there are not equally important internal causes of Haitian history located in the policies, class and color structure of Haitian society, and the culture and events of Haitian history.

My claim, in short, is that Farmer falls into an error of uni-causal history -- attributing too much to a single cause and ignoring other important causes of the structure of contemporary Haitian society.

Certainly the historical views which Farmer attacks, those who have made the same error by ignoring or under playing the international community's contribution to shaping Haiti is so. But it doesn't help matters to make the same mistake on the other side -- the over-emphasis of the international contribution and the under-emphasis on local Haitian contributions.

Thus, that leads me to the second level of Farmer's book, not his criticism of past historical views, but his suggestion of a dominant uni-causal explanation of Haiti history.

I'll begin by accepting the overwhelming bulk of Farmer's analysis, and agreeing that past accounts of Haitian history have generally under-played international influences. However, let me cite a number of crucial moves made by Haitians which also impact Haitian history.

This decision had a major impact on Haitian history, and, I might add, made some very good sense to the people. The notion of modernization, international trade, even participation in government, was not something that the Haitian masses of 1804 -- until, ??? -- certainly until recent time, wanted. The people had, until about the turn of the century, a life of subsistence which was not one of misery, and, from all that I have read, liked it better than the alternatives which they thought they had.

And what was wrong with it as an aim? We in the west are profoundly committed to upward mobility and industrialization etc. The Haitian masses were not. Life was much less complicated and less dangerous were they to retreat into the fastness of the mountains and live in subsistence.

What burst that bubble? In large measure two other historical influences which seem to me not to have come from the international community -- the growth of population and the decrease in the productivity of the land. What caused the latter phenomenon? Certainly the increase of population contributed to it, and the results of the choice toward subsistence living, which downgraded education and modernization, including the modernization of agriculture.

How can one have a country in which the tiny elite controls the overwhelming bulk of wealth and power and not have the misery and powerlessness which has resulted in Haiti? How can the international community's influence alone account for all that historical impact? It just doesn't wash.

Enough of this line of thought. I have sketched the case that Haiti cannot be understood in terms of a uni-causal theory of influence. The international community and especially the United States has long been a very important factor of Haitian history, and those views which do not take that influence and interest into account are greatly wanting. Paul Farmer's book does an excellent job of exposing the weakness of historical accounts which do not face this reality. But, on the other hand, Farmer seems to me to commit the same mistake with regard to internal causal influences from Haitians. Haiti's history is a complex story and the influences of what made her what she is are very Complex. They include, importantly, influences and powers inside Haiti -- Haitian causes. They include, importantly, international interference, especially from the United States. Any attempt to ignore either side of this dual set of influences is a partial and oversimplified analysis. In this regard, Farmer's book is wanting. It greatly over-emphasizes the international and United States influence and greatly under-emphasizes the Haitian influences.

Along the way, there are some very interesting and most worthy analyses that Farmer brings out. I wish to conclude this analysis by bring some of these forward, as well as one or two minor quarrels along the way.

Again, while on the subject of Farmer's analysis of the Cacos in the first occupation: Farmer claims that about 1/4 the population was involved in the Cacos movement (surely this is wildly wishful thinking). Given that the population of Haiti is about 2,000,000 at the time, this means that some 500,000 Cacos and Cacos supporters existed. Yet Farmer claims the Cacos were brutally suppressed. Yet he cites that some 3,400 were killed. Now, from a force of 500,000 this is not a very large number. I don't think Farmer can have it both ways. If you conflate the number of resisters, then you have a hard time making a believable case of the inhumanity of the occupation's crushing of the revolt. If 500,000 were rebelling and only 3,400 were killed, that's a rather economical death rate. It doesn't serve Farmer's own story.

Farmer approves the claim of Rolph Michel Trouillot of whom Farmer says: "He suggests that the racism of the U.S. stewards reinforced color prejudice in Haiti, paving the way for noirist rhetoric of Francois Duvalier." Now, are we supposed to believe that the racism toward the mulatto elite because they were more white, was a preferable ideology? Duvalier did many horrible things, and creating and unleashing the Tontons Macoutes was among the worst of them. But the noirist movement was NOT a movement of Francois Duvalier. He and his cohort in publication, Lorimer Denis, were second generation noirists. This movement in Haiti was created and led by the most respectable and honored Jean Price Mars. It included many important members of the Harlem Renaissance and many black intellectuals in Haiti. If anything, this movement must be argued as one of the most positive contributions to growth in Haiti in her entire history. That Duvalier was involved in the movement in a negative way in the end, cannot detract from the philosophical position of noirism in general, nor of Duvalier's positive contributions to the theory in the 1930s.

Despite my seemingly negative assessment of Farmer's primary thesis, this is a very useful and important book and contains excellent material, which is well-documented. No one who cares about Haiti should miss it.

The major problem may be that Farmer overestimates his and other scholars' roles in analyzing Haiti. He assumes the distinction of Robert Lawless that there is a "folk" model of Haiti (a popularized and inaccurate model) and an "analytic" model (a scholarly and more accurate model). He believes that the folk model dominates the U.S. public, and that scholars have a responsibility to provide the true "analytic" model. Yet in the end Farmer has a realistic sense of who we might be: "But is it only fitting to regard ourselves as mere impotent scholars -- academic Cassandras whose works are not often read, much less heeded. (p. 347.)

I couldn't agree more. And those to whom we write are not so much influenced by the "folk" model, but are already involved in the more critical "analytic" models. Thus we don't need another over-simplified folk model, aimed more to serve current political ideology in Haiti than to dig out the difficult, complex and contradictory story of Haitian history. Among ourselves we can recognize who we are and who will hear us, and we can speak the hard and difficult story in its whole complexity, not an oversimplified view that wants to serve the interests of a current political movement, no matter how much we may approve of this movement.


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