Michel S. Laguerre
St. Martin's Press, NY. 1989
ISBN # 0-312-020660-X
Review by Bob Corbett
Michel Laguerre is certainly one of the most prolific authors on the subject of Haitian Voodoo. The slim volume under review is mainly a group of essays which have been previously published, and collected with slight modifications.
It is a very useful volume and makes a strong case that Voodoo is not a fatalistic religion which keeps Haitians in poverty, but that Voodoo is thoroughly politicized and a constant source of political struggle.
Laguerre traces the early development of Voodoo as a religious ideology of Africanism, and as an occasion to meet, plan and motivate resistance to slavery. He also shows the important place that Voodoo, especially in the maroon communities, played in the revolutionary struggle of 1791-1803. However, Laguerre goes too far in this section and even claims that Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines were Voodooists. The literature of the revolution generally portrays them as enemies of Voodoo, regularly punishing anyone caught practicing Voodoo. Laguerre's sources for claiming the opposite of this generally received position are slim. He cites "oral tradition," and a curious unconnected quote from Michel Descourtilz.
It is nothing new to claim that Voodoo played a key role in the revolutionary period. What makes Laguerre's book especially interesting is the rest of the book in which he claims that Voodoo since 1804 has been a primary political tool for protecting the property rights and other interests of Haitian peasants.
Laguerre claims that secret Voodoo societies exist beneath the government of Port-au-Prince and that these societies are sources of civil government and political power vis a vis the country's government. This claim has much influenced Wade Davis who made this thesis central to his study of zombification in Haiti. However, the thesis leaves one with certain suspicions. If Voodoo is not to be regarded as a quietist religion which leaves people at the mercy of the loa, the spirits, and if it is to be seen as a sources of political organization for the common people, then it must be seen as an extremely ineffective political organization.
The history of Haiti is a tragedy for the common people. They have been exploited, killed, imprisoned, beaten and otherwise abused by every ruler in Haiti's long history. Where has the effective resistance been? Where have any significant gains been made for the people? Unless Laguerre's argument can address and respond to those questions then his position of Voodoo's import for politics, or at least politics which aids the common person, is quite suspect.
However, Laguerre is a bit vague on whom the politics benefits. As we move toward the end of the book to his analysis of Duvalierism and Voodoo, we read that the rural houngans were mainstays in the Tontons Macoutes. This everyone knows. But Laguerre claims that this was the recognition of their already existing rural political power, and an astute move by Francois Duvalier to bring this power to his side. Yes. But, who benefited? The houngans, the Macoutes, Duvalier and his friends. Is this Voodoo in the service of politics? It seems so. This is far removed from the more positive claims of Laguerre that Voodoo provides a positive politics for the peasant struggling for survival against oppressive forces. Rather, this Duvalierist Voodoo is yet another source of overt oppression on the beleaguered peasant.
Nonetheless, the book is good reading. Laguerre covers a wide range of topics concerning Voodoo, and presents challenging and often non-standard thesis.
There is a noticeable habit Laguerre has of dividing his analyses into threes. Thus we discover that there are three factors which account for Voodoo's underground status; three periods in colonial history; three primary political problems faced by Soulouque; and three levels of socio-religious phenomena. I kept waiting for the number three to arise as some important concept in Haitian Voodoo, but it never did. Then, too, we never hear from Michel Laguerre, himself, about where he is with or in Voodoo. This remains a scholarly work; an interesting and challenging one; one with several non-standard views about Haitian Voodoo, most of them well argued.
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