Alex Dupuy
New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publisher, Inc, 2007
ISBN # # 978-0-7425-3831-3 and 0-7425-3831-1
238 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
January 2007

Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ordained a priest in 1982 and returned to Haiti for church service in 1985. I began going to Haiti in 1983 and in the next ten years was in Haiti 2-4 times each year. While I’ve spent untold hours reading about “earlier” Haiti, my lived experience parallels the career of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, so this book of Alex Dupuy touches deep cords of my interest and experience.

From 1984-1994 I published a magazine about Haiti whose primary purpose was fund-raising for the activities of the charity my former wife and I established, People to People, Inc. However, I included news reports from my trips, book reviews, political analysis and such. Then in 1994 I began an e-mail list for discussion, news, and inquiry about things Haitian. That e-mail list is still alive and well in 2007 and more than 50,000 messages have been posted.

Many of those writings of mine in STRETCH magazine and the various posts on the e-mail list (the overwhelming bulk NOT written by me) were about the (then) contemporary situation in Haiti and after 1990 much of it centered around the Aristide and Preval governments.

When I sit back now, after finishing Dupuy’s marvelous book and think back over the writings I seen in those 20 years I see a striking difference between my past experience and what I read in Dupuy -- the writings of the e-mail list, which included a huge mass of what appeared in the English-language press were either/or positions as contrasted with the more nuanced analyses of Dupuy.

What was clear to all has always been (with only a few months here and there being excepted) THINGS ARE NOT GOING WELL IN HAITI BECAUSE….. and the particular “because” was that some one or some group or alliance of groups was blamed. For some people the problem was Aristide and/or Fanmi Lavalas. For others it was one or more of the “enemies,” the former Duvalierists, the Haitian bourgeoisie, the United States government and it’s surrogates in the various international financial organizations, the drug lords and so on.

For years I have been troubled by what seemed over all to be much more heat and much less clarity and intelligence than I had wished, and that includes my own writings.

Alex Dupuy’s over-arching thesis is quite different. He makes a strong case that this story lacks any blameless good folks. Whether it is Aristide’s person and personality, the activities of his party and supporters, or any one or group of his Haitian opposition or the U.S.-led international community, each and everyone comes in for severe and intelligent criticism. There just isn’t, on Dupuy’s account, a “right” or “good” side in this story for the country of Haiti. It is a terrible tragedy of the repeated history of the fall of one failed state, being replaced by an equally failed state.

After finishing the Dupuy book I sat long and quiet in my reading chair thinking now of the future. My breath had been taken away. The current situation is near chaos, and Dupuy seems absolutely correct that nothing bodes well for the future. Well, let me rephrase that. If one would wish for Haiti anything like:

then, if that is the expectation, things do not bode well for the early 21st century. In some ways this should be no surprise. Those four items have never existed in the 203 year history of the nation.

Perhaps what is so frustrating for so many is that THIS TIME, when the fall of the government of Jean-Claude Duvalier ended the 29 rule of the Duvalier dictatorship, the times seemed very ripe for change. Things were in the air. There was genuine hope. Any who share those values above and who were in or connected closely to Haiti in 1986-87 can’t help but having been moved to hope in those days, and for so many of us Jean-Bertrand Aristide seemed a great part of that hope.

What in the world went wrong? Perhaps that is the central problematic that Alex Dupuy’s book: THE PROPHET AND POWER: JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE, THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY AND HAITI sets out to answer, and I am here to argue that Dupuy’s reply is quite persuasive.

It is a depressing story. There are no heroes and there is no real hope. But, Dupuy’s attention to detail, his scholarly ability to dig deeply for relevant data and his intelligent sense of seeing the whole, slowly putting together this gigantic tragic jigsaw puzzle is an impressive achievement. The book should be read by everyone interested in Haiti, but may well be read by others with primary interests in other countries since the picture Dupuy paints has many global reflections relevant to other places of the globe.

Dupuy begins with the United States, the international financial community, globalization and the new world order. A question I hear asked all the time, and one I have often asked myself is: what in the world are the U.S. interests in Haiti? And Dupuy in essence seems to argue that they are minimal. It isn’t specific economic or governmental benefits the U.S. wants, needs and demands from Haiti, rather it is that in the new world order which includes globalization and the penetration of U.S.-led businesses in the entire world, no exceptions can be made. Thus the U.S. sets the world-wide conditions of life in the early 21st century and there are no exceptions that can or will be made.

As Dupuy uses the terms.

  1. The global economy refers to the tendency beginning in the 1970s and refers to “… a process of integration of all parts of the world in the international division of labor of the capitalist world system, a concomitant weakening of the power of peripheral states, and the strengthening of the power of transnational corporations and global institutions controlled by the core states.”

  2. By “New World Order” Dupuy: “… refers to the unchallenged dominance of capitalism since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Socialist bloc in 1989, and the unchallenged status of the United States as the only global superpower.”

Thus, on his persuasive account Haiti is simply a by-product of a global empire the U.S. has been building and Haiti, like every other nation, is being pressured as the U.S. power allows, to conform to the new rules of life on the planet.

He points out the irony that the U.S. preaches the spread of “democracy,” but the U.S. seems mainly fixated on some notion of seemingly “fair elections” of political leaders. Little else of democracy seems valuable to this view and especially not national self-determination.

But Dupuy suggests that something more fundamental is lost in this move toward globalization and this new world order. He says:

“For if by politics we mean the right and the ability of a people to determine the agenda of their government, then both this right and this ability are being severely undermined by the subordination of the peripheral states to the dictates of the international regulatory institutions and powerful private actors who are not subject to democratic control and accountability.”

These international institutions are under the control of and do the bidding of the U.S. and these “private actors” are primarily the U.S.-based international corporations.

It is into this situation that Jean-Bertrand Aristide returns to Haiti and begins his priestly ministry. There will be two quite different Aristides in Dupuy’s account. The first is the Aristide of 1985-1991, the second will be the Aristide after 1994.

The first Aristide is, on Dupuy’s account, an appealing figure, but with a radical contradiction in his person and views. I am impressed and persuaded by Dupuy’s analysis that THIS early Aristide is best understood as a man of contradictory tendencies: a reformer with a true passion to bring about reforms consistent with the liberation theology concept of “the preferential option of the poor,” yet as a personal revolutionary and one who sees himself as not only a prophet, but as a leader not responsible to others.

In the days when this was all unfolding I was publishing a hard copy magazine called STRETCH. In a review of Aristide’s book, IN THE PARISH OF THE POOR I agued that Aristide was not one who could work with others or who cared to and that this personality trait weakened him as leader. In a later political analysis just before he was overthrown in September of 1991 I had written that he had to be seen not as a democrat but as a revolutionary.

After reading Dupuy’s account I am persuaded that I was mistaken in wanting him to be either a prophet or a democratic leader, a person committed to democracy or a revolutionary. The truth was he was both at the same time in an inconsistent mix which, when put into the political and historical situation in which he lived, had to lead to the disastrous consequences it did. I missed the significance of this contradiction.

On the other hand I have to ask myself: given the situation in December 1990, even with hindsight, could I suggest a course of action consistent with the situation and with Aristide’s person in which a better outcome would have come about, I have to answer – probably not. Were Aristide to have behaved differently he wouldn’t have been the Aristide in the position of power he was in. Were Haiti to have been in a different political, social and historical situation, then it just wouldn’t have been the Haiti where he was playing out his story.

I think Dupuy’s analysis helps clarify the dynamics without giving us a version that suggests: “Well, if only he (or some other group) would have done this or that differently, then……” No, Dupuy is analyzing and trying to understand what actually happened, not giving us a guideline for some counterfactual history.

However, this split in Aristide’s personality did make many things either impossible or more difficult. He preached democracy and revved up a great deal of support for this notion, yet he had an almost impossible time acting democratically within Lavalas or as president. He seemed deeply committed to his own vision and one was either with him or against him. The clash was devastating.

More importantly, he preached democracy, seems to have wanted a rule by law, but faced enormous forces against him, many of which were using physical force. Thus the more revolutionary, prophetic Aristide turned to the non-democratic “power of the people” to protect him.

These root contradictions did not bode well for his or Haiti’s future.

What was it even thinkable for Aristide to achieve? Dupuy points out that the neo-Duvalierists expected some form of the “old order” would return. Even those who recognized the winds of possible change were strongly blowing only aimed at a “minimalist democracy” that is a certain level of rule by law and voting, but it was expected that the main body of traditional practice would continue. However, what the early Aristide seemed committed to was what Dupuy calls a “maximalist” democracy, one which would not only be rule of law but also of meeting the mandate of the mass of people toward economic and social justice, a world which might look a good deal like the European social democracies of the past 40 years.

The fact of the strong opposition to any sense of maximalist democracy and the willingness of the opposition to use force and extra-legal methods, helped reinforce the use of anti-democratic methods in Aristide’s party.

The difficulty that I’ve seen in so much discussion of this period is the wish, hope, even demand, that this be a storm of the forces of good versus the forces of evil and that all struggle of the forces of good be by the book of law. Aristide was much more flexible and not quite the paragon of saintly democratic values that many sympathizers wished. But an interesting question to ask is: how was this transition toward serious democracy to occur where the forces of violence were being unleashed on the Aristide government?

There is something very demanding about the NOW, the immediacy of what’s going on at the moment. When that “now” is perceived as negative it is quite natural, almost automatic to look to explain the negative features and search for strategies of improvement. What is so easily and often forgotten in this very natural tendency is the fact that human society is at root developmental. This NOW that grabs our attention so powerfully, this WANT TO DO NOW that pulls us, so often causes us to forget that any given NOW comes out of a past and that, with only rare exceptions, that which we don’t like in the NOW is generally rooted in a social structure which has a long history. To the extent that reformers and people of good will do not think historically – attending to the structural and historical causes of current woes, all the more difficult is it to truly understand, explain or change the NOW.

Dupuy does not make this mistake and, certainly at the level of understanding, is a model of the hard work, scholarship and patience it takes to reveal the structural and historical roots of any NOW. He calls Aristide’s strategy of relying on the power of people his anarcho-populism. It is fascinating to speculate how a process of anarcho-populism might morph into some serious notion of democracy with rule of laws. Difficult to see. But what are the options?

Perhaps what got Aristide in the greatest mess was his advocacy of and refusal to deny the use of Pere Lebrun (fiery necklacing of people with tires). Not only was this a terrifying threat to government officials and opposition people in the bourgeoisie. It was a frightening inconsistency – at times Aristide seemed to be agreeable to working with the opposition and compromising here and there, and at other times he would be talking of how wonderful this tool was. It created strong doubt in the minds of many of the reliability of any alliance with Aristide.

Alex Dupuy seems to me exceptional in getting his facts straight and in analyzing the meaning of those facts. In this particular case of his assessment of Aristide’s first short term of office Dupuy faults Aristide for the contradiction of both taking the mantle of constitutional government while at the same time using the tool of extra-constitutional violence (the Pere-Lebrun and other mob-based modes of violence) as a tool and threat to support his administration’s rule and hope.

I see a difficult dilemma rooted in the frequent conflict between two different central notions of democracy:

Such a conflict was manifest at the time of Aristide’s elections. Dupuy does not deny this at all. He even cautions that the soon-to-come coup was hanging over Aristide’s head at every second and had even been played out by Roger Lafontant’s attempted coup before Aristide was even inaugurated.

What is a newly elected government to do in a case where

Dupuy recognizes this was Aristide’s dilemma. One suggestion he makes seems certainly accurate: Aristide could have done a much better job in attempting to build bridges to significant numbers of the bourgeoisie. Further, he should have been much more aware that his own contradictory public messages would cause alarm in the minds of members of the old Duvalierist world.

But even then – could this total social revolution, this attempt at an historical about turn of Haitian government and social relations have been effected without a force to counter-balance the forces of internal resistance, particularly of the army?

I seriously doubt this. I’m not wanting to suggest that Aristide’s reliance on the power of the masses and the tool of Pere Lebrun was an adequate power. The actual facts of what happened belie that. I’m suggesting that the clean line of Dupuy’s which seems to suggest Aristide should have remained quite pure to some sense of rule by law is to give too much weight to the principle of rule by law and too little attention to the will of the majority.

As Dupuy seems to rightly show there was a convergence of factors which made that period from the early 1980s to 1990 a period of great agitation. But in the end it seems to me that while a great chance was there, a glimmer of a breach in the armor of the old regime, the will and power were just not adequate to the task.

Aristide might well have behaved differently. On the other hand he was, on my view, clearly a central reason why the serious chance was even there. Had he not been who he was – as Dupuy well describes – the prophet and outsider to government, the champion of the poor, then even the chance of such a revolutionary change seems almost impossible to imagine.

In any case the dream of a people’s revolution toward a maximalist democracy model was short-lived. When it became quite clear that Aristide and his Lavalas government were going to take the notion of social reform seriously and when he moved to emasculate suspected enemies in high positions of the army, and as Aristide increased his inflammatory rhetoric of the peoples’ violence via Pere Lebrun, it all came crashing down in the successful coup of late September 1991, just a mere 7 months into his term.

What I found to be one of the few disappointments I had with Dupuy’s account was that as the account of Aristide’s first term ends we are catapulted almost immediately into Aristide’s return to power in October 1994 with the support of U.S. troops.

Dupuy does indicate several significant changes had occurred in the interim, so much so that we can view the second coming of Aristide as almost the coming of a new person. Aristide himself seems to have changed radically. Gone is much of his fire for fundamental social and political reform. Dupuy does argue that he seems to have accepted the reality of globalization and to have abandoned much of his liberation theology’s “preferential option for the poor.” He adds that much had changed in the world at large. While the collapse of the Soviet Union predated Aristide’s 1990 election by a year and a half, by 1994 the reality of The New World Order, the imperial dominance of the U.S., had become much clearer.

Nonetheless I must admit to wanting more. What happened to Aristide in those months in Georgetown in DC? Who and what influenced him? How is it that such a different Aristide shows up in Haiti, less the utopian dreamer, more the political realist, nearly a political hack?

I have the sense there is an important story that lurks in the dark of those years of near-imprisonment in Georgetown and I wish Dupuy could have lit those dark rooms. Perhaps there isn’t an adequate trail of data. In any case it remains a hidden story, but one that seems to mask things one needs to understand the “second” Aristide.

Dupuy states clearly his thesis on the second term of Aristide:

“Aristide realized that he was once again shunned by the dominant classes and their international allies and believed he was left with little choice but to rely on his mass base, especially the gangs of chimes, for his support. That strategy would prove to be the Achilles’ heel of his second term. In effect. I will argue, by relying on armed gangs rather than mobilizing his popular base as a counterforce to the opposition, as he tended to do in his first term, Aristide would marginalize the latter. Henceforth. Lavalas would become equated with the chimes, and the entire popular movement associated with Lavalas that made possible the defeat of the neo-Duvalierists after 1987, the election of Aristide in 1990. the resistance against the military junta between 1991 and 1994. and the return of Aristide in 1994 would become discredited, demobilized, and demoralized.”

The most that Aristide seems able to have done in his short term left was to survive and that he managed to do.

The years of Preval’s presidency (1995-2000) were seen by many as a puppet regime with Aristide pulling the strings from his fortress in Tabarre. However, Preval seems to have actually begun to distance himself significantly from Aristide.

Resistance had been building against Aristide as it was expected he would in fact win any fair election in December 2000 which he did, but Dupuy’s central contention is that Aristide’s second term was a constant battle with Aristide and his Fanmi Lavalas being pitted against the Democratic Convergence, a large group whose sole unifying factor seems to have been being in opposition to Aristide.

The constancy and vehemence of Convergence’s opposition made it such that no serious government was really possible in that period. However, Aristide’s troubles were not merely the opposition, Haitian and foreign, it included growing trouble inside his own (former) power base. Dupuy says it well:

“Indeed, since the return of Aristide to office in 2001, his government faced not only a political crisis but a crisis of governance as well. There is no doubt that this crisis of governance was exacerbated by the destabilizing strategy of the organized opposition and the foreign aid embargo against the government. But it also stemmed from the fractionalization, conflicts, and corruption within the ruling Lavalas party and at every level of government, as well as the inability of President Aristide to maintain control and exercise clear leadership over his party and government. Aristide may not have been directly responsible for all the politically motivated criminal acts committed by local officials, his grassroots supporters, or the police. But he also failed to take an unconditional stance against such acts, as we have seen.”

In any case very little of substance happened in the short second term of Aristide. Again this is a case of there being few real good folks in the whole sad chapter of Haitian history. Dupuy’s powerful summary of the second term points up how there is plenty of blame on all sides:

“Aristide’s second term of office, then, was disastrous on all fronts -- political, economic, and social. Three years of unrelenting power struggles between Aristide and his organized opposition had brought the country on the brink of chaos. It is clear that Aristide, as well as his Fanmi Lavalas party in power, relied on intimidation, violence, and corruption to maintain themselves in power, had become discredited, no longer represented the interests of the majority of Haitians who brought them to power, and were a major obstacle to the democratization of Haiti. But if Aristide and the FL subverted democracy, so too did the organized opposition, the Haitian bourgeoisie, and their foreign allies. The Democratic Convergence, made up of a motley group of individuals and political parties who were devoid of principles, did not share a common ideology, had no alternative program or vision to offer the citizenry. and gained no significant popular support. Its only raison d’etre was to overthrow Aristide and the unconditional support it received from the Bush administration and the IRI in particular gave it a veto power over the negotiations with Aristide. Similarly, the Civil Society Group and the Group of 184, who represented the interests of the Haitian bourgeoisie and saw Aristide and the FL as unpredictable partners with whom to form a pact of domination, threw their support to the CD and the former members of the military and right-wing militants to topple Aristide once again and dismantle the Lavalasian juggernaut.”

One might be tempted to say that Dupuy is too hard on the Democratic Convergence. I must admit I was a bit disappointed that in that one point he seemed to rely more on emotive language and name calling than pointing to factual data as he does for most other arguments.

While the day to day story of the building toward the 2004 coup d’etat was an internal story, Dupuy seems to agree with Amy Wilentz whom he quotes as writing:

[The so-called democratic opposition] “ … was being used to foment and mask what was essentially a coup against democracy by the island’s elite, in concert with right-wing elements of the Republican party.”

The violence heated up dramatically in 2003 on all sides with more than 1500 people reported killed that year. Finally in what on Dupuy’s account sounds like a 19th century Haitian coup, the end of Aristide approached. As so many times in the past, dissident army leaders returned from exile in the Dominican Republic to the north of Haiti and began to march on Port-au-Prince, gathering support and strength as they moved. As these bands approached the capital Aristide came under intense U.S. pressure to leave which he did on Feb. 29, 2004 under unclear circumstances.

After an interim government of President Boniface Alexander and Prime Minister Gerard Latortue, Rene Preval was elected to his second five-year term on Feb. 7, 2006. What is one now to expect?

I find myself fairly convinced by Albert Camus’s position which he argues in A HAPPY DEATH, and tend to think that when the masses live anything like the hopeless lives as do most Haitians that movement from such misery to a hopeful situation is most unlikely. I recall back in 1990 before Aristide was elected his campaign promise was he hoped to elevate the position of the Haitian masses from pure misery to simple poverty. I recall being utterly astonished to hear a politician talk like that. Now, in retrospect I think he was correct – a minimal condition of material decency from which to struggle is a necessary condition of struggle. It would have taken the Lavalas revolution to get there, but it just didn’t get the chance.

That revolution seems dead. Not only is Haiti again on its way to being “under control” of the old Haitian order and standard ways, but the power of the U.S.’s New World Order presses every more forcefully for all nations to fall into order as defined by Washington, the transnational corporations and world financial institutions.

I think the Haitian poor have lost a great deal in the collapse of the Aristide dream. From 1986-2004 many dared dream and struggle toward a better future. It seems to me to look very bleak for the Haitian masses today.

I thank Alex Dupuy for a challenging and enlightening book. It is rooted carefully in factual data, analyzing the global situation with insight and logical rigor. His account is fair and persuasive in the main. He has laid bare an era. Perhaps from my less hopeful standpoint it could be seen to read like an elegy for the dream of a maximalist democracy in Haiti. Perhaps it could be read as a justification for shaking one’s shoulders in disappointment, and suggesting that the best to be hoped for is some safety in some version of a minimalist democracy with Haiti knowing and accepting its pitiful place in The New World Order.

I hope this book can inspire Haitians to continue the dream of a structural revolution and eventually to act toward better things for Haiti’s future. But I must admit to not having much of that optimism in my own heart.

I think my own pessimism is not the best place to end. Let me share the closing paragraph of Dupuy’s book. It is much more hopeful:

“… the reelection of Préval signals the beginning of a new phase in the tumultuous transition to democracy in Haiti, temporarily derailed by both Aristide and his enemies. Even if for now that means a transition to a minimalist democracy compatible with the rule of capital, foreign and domestic, it nonetheless opens new possibilities for the majority to struggle to expand that democracy to include them and their interests and ensure they are not betrayed once again by false prophets.”

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett