By Robert Fatton, Jr
237 pages with index and SIGNIFICANT bibliography
Boulder, Co.: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 2002.
ISBN # 1-58826-085-2.

Comments of Bob Corbett
October 2002

On the back cover of Robert Fatton’s impressive book Alex Dupuy says: “Haiti’s Predatory Republic is a formidable book that explains like no other the roots of the current crisis is that impoverished Caribbean country… it undoubtedly will be seen as the definitive work on contemporary Haitian politics.”

I believe Dupuy is correct in his assessment. Fatton offers a compelling analysis which builds on elements of the past 20-25 years, which I know well, yet he put them together convincingly revealing Haiti to be in the heart of a second major revolution. The first having ended just 198 years ago was the transition from a slave-centered colony of France to an independent nation of free people. The second is this transition from various forms of dictatorship to democracy. Fatton presents this transition as at best partial at the present time, stuck in a form of republic which he calls “predatory.” He further describes his own position as a “cautious pessimism.”

In Dupuy’s cover comments he says this books is “… accessible to professionals and lay readers alike…” There is a sense in which this is certainly true. I am a lay reader in the area of politics and democratic theory. And I read this book with great care and utter fascination. I already knew most of the facts of the past 20 years of Haiti, having experienced much of it as an eye witness and followed the rest with rapt attention. But Fatton’s book was like coming out of a fog into the clearing of sunshine. I think I now understand the whole picture better than I have ever before.

However, I’m not so sure how other lay readers will respond. I was driven by significant interest in Haiti and came to the book with a long history of reading very difficult books in my own field of philosophy and knowing first hand the rich rewards such hard work often yields. I just hope lay readers will give Fatton’s book a chance and do the work required to earn the clarity he brings to light.

Part of the challenge is that this is really two books. In part it is a fascinating, and compelling analysis of Haiti today and how today has emerged from the past 20 years. Anyone interested in Haiti would seem to be likely to be gripped and enriched by this account. At the same time the book uses Haiti as a case study to address a much larger controversy within the specialized area of political science on the nature of the historical transition of ANY nation from non-democracy to democracy. I must admit that this frame story wasn’t as interesting to me – nor as intelligible – as were the particular analyses of Haiti’s recent history. I suspect most non-professionals in political science will be much like me. It could be off-putting. I urge all who are fascinated with Haiti to muster the discipline and invest the time and energy into Fatton’s rich and compelling book. It’s likely to challenge, change and enlighten one’s view of the 1986-2002 period and set one speculating on future outcomes (as I do at the end of this review) comparing Fatton’s hints and leanings with one’s own.

Below I attempt a much simplified sketch of his central argument concerning Haiti, injecting reflections of my own. I say little about the general notion of his theory concerning nations in general moving from non-democracy toward democracy.

A central distinction which frames Fatton’s whole argument is between a change of regime and a change of government. In the first one changes the people, typically the president in Haiti. In the latter one changes the very FORM of government. Certainly everyone close to Haiti of 1986 will recall the war cry of “dechokage” – the task is not merely to remove Jean-Claude Duvalier, but to uproot Duvalierism. People used to say that the overthrow of Jean-Claude was to cut off the head while the task was to uproot the system. But what was this system? Here there was an ambiguity. Typically people answered the question by saying “Duvalierism.” But when pushed to announce what would replace it people typically said – democracy. This is a confusion of replacing a REGIME (the rule of the Duvaliers) with a change of governmental FORM.

On Fatton’s view the opposition was not Duvalierism vs. democracy. Rather it was Haitian historical dictatorship vs. democracy.

Duvalierism, while a particular form of dictatorship, and obviously a particular regime, was still within the typical Haitian essence of dictatorship. Fatton describes the key elements of this form of government in terms of class analysis.

What characterized the particular form of (historical) Haitian dictatorship is that there have been two classes only which had the cohesion and power to dominate the nation.

Between these two classes there are often tensions and squabbles for wealth and power. However, in those cases where this structure of dictatorship is threatened from below – and Haitian history is full of such cases, the possessing class and government tends to unite against a common enemy. On Fatton’s view this is exactly what happened in September 1991 when Jean-Bertrand Aristide was over-thrown. He was threatening the very FORM of historical governance in Haiti.


Perhaps the most critical move in Fatton’s analysis of the movement toward democracy in Haiti is his argument that with certain minimal “conditions” for democracy a popular uprising is likely to create a change of regime at most and not a change of government.

His class analysis insists that for democracy to occur there must be political parties and groups organized with enough internal cohesion, wealth and power that they can war with other such classes to create a form of government in which the interests of a wide-spread portion of the populace is represented in the resultant balance of power. Yes, democracy does take the form of a constitutional government of law with (relatively) fair elections and non-violent transitions of regimes, but the essence of democracies are not in these forms, but in the continued balance of power among classes which represent significantly large portions of the population.

On this view Haitian may often have dreamed of democracy, and many recall the documentary of Jonathan Demme in 1987 which captured that spirit. Yet, as November 29, 1987 showed, the dreams were not rooted in enough popular organization or power to withstand the coalescence of dictatorial power in the hands of the possessing class and the Duvalierist government remnants.

On Fatton’s view the transition toward democracy requires the rise of at least two classes from below – a sizeable and powerful middle class and a similarly large working class at the next level. Transition toward FULL democracy cannot be achieved until those two competing “parties” or classes have consolidated themselves within Haitian politics and reality.


One of the specially persuasive and attractive parts of Fatton’s argument is his view that the transition toward democracy is gradual and characterized by different stages. As the title makes clear, Fatton’s view is that Haiti is currently (2002) a “predatory” democracy. Ah me, that’s easier to say than define or make clear how this is not simply a curious way to say – “the old dictatorship is back.”

For me this is the shakiest part of Fatton’s analysis. He does argue that Haiti’s state is predatory since two classes – the possessing class and regime (elite and government) control almost all power and each thus extracts its wealth from Haiti in the traditional manners. But isn’t this the essence of the 200 years of dictatorship in Haiti?

On Fatton’s view yes and no.

Yes – in that while the existing structure is significantly the old model, it may appear nothing was “uprooted” or “dechokaged” – the monster stands.

No – however is Fatton’s “cautious pessimism” (which I tend to think of as really wild-eyed optimism) a few things have changed which allow him to describe this “predatory” Republic as an early stage toward democracy.

Two central facts have occurred which seem to Fatton to prevent a return to dictatorship and push Haiti gently along the (long) path toward democracy:

  1. Internal: The growth of popular consciousness in the 1970s and 1980s revealed to the masses the dreams of democracy and allowed them to name and oppose the concept of dictatorship or radical authoritarianism.

    The middle class and working class is still too small and weak to force democracy, but the cat is out of the bag; the hopes are real and powerful and won’t easily allow Haiti to fall back into dictatorship.
  2. External: With the end of the cold war and emergence of the U.S. world dominance the U.S. is less willing to tolerate friendly dictatorships and now demands some movement toward democracy and especially requires that all nations enter the sphere of global capitalism which requires some trappings of democracy.

Haiti may be in the primitive stages of democracy and most of us may hardly recognize this as anything that looks or sounds like democracy as we know it, but, on Fatton’s view, at the deeper levels a fundamental change has occurred.

It is important to Fatton’s analysis to understand the difference between a state where the central issue is the person or persons who are major players, and a state where the STRUCTURE of the state is what matters. Haiti has long been a state in which the ruler matters more than the structure. As one moves toward democracy, on Fatton’s view, this will become less and less the issue and the fundamental STRUCUTRE of the state will matter. In this regard the presidency of Jean-Bertrand Aristide has retarded the process rather than advance it. For democracy to begin to grow the power cannot be centered in some charismatic leader, but in the structures of the state itself.

Fatton does not merely assert all these beliefs. He argues each piece in careful detail. I have merely summarized my understanding of his central argument to try to simplify it for the non-specialist.

While Fatton’s view of WHAT IS is one I find quite compelling, it was a disappointment to me that he never addresses the future, and especially the pressing question: If he is correct, and if the primary condition which must occur for Haiti to move forward toward democracy is that a significant middle class and working class comes to be, then how is this to be achieved? This is perhaps the one area where his “cautious pessimism” is manifest. His analysis is that the Haitian economy is a zero-sum economy. That is, that there is so little wealth generated that when someone pulls money out of the functioning economy (for personal use), this is like taking money out of a poker pot – someone else loses this amount. In a more healthy economy there is no zero-sum gain. If an economy is healthy and growing, then one may take out personal wealth from the economy without that being directly taken FROM someone else, since surpluses are being created.

The question then is: How is Haiti to move toward a more healthy economy in which there is room for a middle class and working class to grow in size and political power?

This is a question which Fatton never even mentions. Since I was in Haiti in October when I read this book, and had nightly discussions with interesting and knowledgeable people, I did raise this question over and over. While none of my discussants were economists, the general view seemed to lean toward only three areas of seeming potential economic growth for the economy:

I must admit my own skepticism toward the last item, but Haiti does seem to offer a great deal of potential in tourism, and Haiti certainly has a gigantic willing work force to offer the world. But how does one attract the investment which could launch the economic forces to pull Haiti toward a more healthy economy? That seems the only hope for moving from the current impasse.

I have given a rather long summary of what I take to be the central argument of Robert Fatton’s book. I urge you not to take my word for it either that I got the position fully correct or that this little summary is enough. I urge you to go to the book itself and invest the energy, time and discipline to read this important book. I think Alex Dupuy is correct – this may well be THE book which explains this current period. It’s too important a book to be satisfied with this second hand report.


Along the way to arriving at the central argument discussed above there are many stunning smaller arguments and brilliant bits of analysis. I have selected just a few of those which especially caught my attention and I just list them as disconnected bits and pieces along the way. There are eleven of these I have selected:

  1. Fatton defends a thesis that entry into the possessing class (elite) is extremely difficult. Thus the only entry into wealth, power and prestige is via the government.
    “In this respect, both Lavalas and the opposition were prisoners of la politique du venture (politics of the belly), a form of governability based on the acquisition of personal wealth through the conquest of state offices. In a country where destitution is the norm and private avenues to wealth are rare, politics becomes an entrepreneurial vocation, virtually the sole means of material and social advancement for those not born into wealth and prestige.” (xi)
  2. Democracy requires both a sizeable middle class and a working class:
    “Haiti provides a paradigmatic case of the difficulties – if not the impossibility – of establishing democratic rule in extremely poor nations plagued by a despotic inheritance.”

    He argues that democracy is not:

    But “…balance of forces between contending classes – the bourgeoisie and the working class – and that absent these classes democracy is at best hesitant and indeed predatory.” (xi)
  3. Haiti is on the way toward democracy only in the sense that a retreat to dictatorship is highly unlikely. Nonetheless predatory democracy is a long way from what we tend to recognize as democracy. Perhaps it is useful to read of Fatton’s “next stage” (closer stage) of democracy which is yet to come in Haiti. This is “unconsolidated democracies” in which all the external forms we associate with democracy are there (regular, seemingly fair elections, rule by law, functioning courts), but each party is just waiting for a power shift to give up the forced democracy and return to a more authoritarian rule.
  4. Predatory democracy is seen as sort of a half-way house between dictatorship and unconsolidated democracy. Room for popular movement and some external power creates a significant attention to make things seem like what they are not. (p. 16)
  5. A predatory state is a state ruled by a class such that its dominant purpose is to extract wealth for that class. (p. 27)
  6. A dramatic shift in the U.S. position occurred after the end of the cold war allowed the U.S. to play an important role in the movement toward democracy. This “…meant the significant emasculation of foreign support for dictatorships and the global ascendancy of liberal democratic values.” (p. 39)
  7. Fatton points out a contradiction in the U.S. intervention:
    “…while the U.S. intervention strengthened Lavalas politically, it diluted completely its social-democratic economic platform. The intervention inevitably deradicalized Aristide, transforming him from an anti-capitalist prophet into a staunch U.S. ally committed to the virtues of the market. He became the prince, but a prince partially de plume.” (p. 108)
  8. Fatton reveals some of his grounds for pessimism:
    “In the Haitian context, this means that the Lavalas leadership issued from the lower middle classes and the petit bourgeoisie could easily abandon its radical transformative agenda and come to use its newly found state power to accumulate resources and gradually integrate into the existing economic elite.” (p. 111)
  9. Other grounds of pessimism:
    “While it would be wrong to equate the current situation and Preval’s or Aristide’s rule with Duvalierism or the ‘de facto’ regime of the military dictatorship, there is an increasing sense of déjà vu, of a descent into hell and a new authoritarianism.” (p.121)
  10. On redistribution of wealth:
    “Haiti is unlikely to enjoy any meaningful democratization without a modicum of redistribution of resources and wealth.” (p. 160)
  11. From the conclusion: “Haiti has thus entered what Bertold Brecht once described as ‘the time of struggles between the new and the old.’ We must wait to see whether the promise of the new will flourish or degenerate into the ugly vulgarities of the old. While the current situation invites at best a moderate pessimism Haitians continue to struggle against all odds.” (p.208)
Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu