By Figaro Joseph
Berkeley, Ca.: Minuteman Press, 2010
ISBN # 978-0-9819945-4-3
92 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
December 2009

I was fascinated to read Figaro Joseph’s book that deals in significant measure with the troubled years of 1989-1991 in Haiti. However, it is a very difficult book to describe and to figure out what to make of it. This is because it has two relatively separable parts:

  1. The central purpose of the book seems to be an analysis of various historical methods used to understand any given historical period.
  2. However, it focuses on one single movement as the illustration of the theses about the historical movements. That claimed movement is Haiti of the period indicated.

In the sentence above I say “claimed” movement, since my central criticism of Figaro Joseph’s analysis of that period of Haitian history will be his understanding of the notion of “a movement.”

I must be honest that I was not much interested in the analyses of the relative merits of the historical theories as a tool for understanding. That part of the book seemed fairly technical and just not in an area of my own interest.

But I was fascinated with the analysis of the 1989 – 1991 period of Haitian history, and was impressed with Joseph’s assemblage of relevant facts and events to build his own understanding of the period. While I didn’t disagree with any of the factual claims, I do not come to the same conclusions he does, and his appeal to the authority of these historical methods wasn’t very persuasive for me.

Before I sketch his central thesis about Haiti and look at that argument, I must indicate that Joseph uses a paper I wrote and read at a meeting of the Haitian Studies Association as one of his sources. He even cites the entire essay in his appendix. This might lead one to believe I would be especially gentle in my reading of his essay, but, while I’m quite flattered to have been read and taken very seriously by him, I have tried to spell out some important differences in our understandings of the period.

Joseph defines his these about Haiti as:

“Our working assumption is that the popular movement failed to achieve its goals of producing lasting political, economic, and social change in Haiti because of the following reasons:

“1) The movement focused too much on electoral processes and not enough on building institutions and cultivating a cadre of leaders to ensure its survival. Furthermore, it relied too heavily on charismatic personality.

“2) The movement was truncated by the authorities and the bourgeoisie / elite class via electoral politics and state-sponsored terror.”

Later in the work he sort of divides the first thesis into two, emphasizing the failure of the “popular movement” and the excessive reliance on Jean-Bertrand Aristide as a charismatic personality. Thus I see the thesis as more three-fold that two. As I stated earlier, his assemblage of facts is impressive. I think he is basically correct on those, and he has cited very relevant and revealing facts at that.

Further, I find myself in nearly full agreement with two of the three elements of his thesis:

  1. That the reliance on Aristide and his charismatic personality was a key mistake.
  2. The hope for radical change in Haiti was profoundly impacted by “the authorities and the bourgeoisie / elite class via electoral politics and state-sponsored terror.”

Where I find myself understanding the situation differently than Joseph is in relation to his first conclusion: “The movement focused too much on electoral processes and not enough on building institutions and cultivating a cadre of leaders to ensure its survival.”

The irony in our disagreement is not that I don’t accept the notion that the failure of the hope for change wasn’t impacted by the lack of a movement that built strong institutions, I do accept that. I just think Joseph is wrong to think of this period and what was going on as a “movement” in any serious sense of the term. Nor do I think the various key figures saw this as a unified national political movement until the unique opportunity of the fall of Duvalier presented itself.

Unlike Joseph I was there during large portions of the time that he analyzes. He cites some of the most important people in the Ti Legliz movement, and mentions Father Pollux Byas as one of them. I had read about Byas when I was teaching in Vienna in 1983 in a Marxist magazine I chanced upon. When I went to Haiti in December of that year I met with him and began to work to help fund some of his projects, especially a coffee buying cooperative which would return a greater portion of the profits to the coffee growers, not to the coffee brokers who worked for rich and powerful elite. I also was in contact with other members of small Ti Legilz groups around Haiti, and again tried to help them raise funds for their projects.

What astonished me as I moved from group to group was how little they knew each other’s work (the leaders, especially priests, knew one another personally, but relatively little about the work the others were doing). Each group seemed influenced by Latin and South American’s notions of the small local community organizations, but they not only did not seem interested in any LARGER social organizations, and several of them studiously avoided this. One leader whom I won’t mention by name because he still works the same way today, refused any help I offered in the early days, telling me that one had to be very careful. If success rose to such a level that one’s group was noticed, this invited visits from the Tonton Macoute and interference and demands of a piece of the action. I was actually with Byas when one of those visits came from Macoutes who brought a jeep to give to Byas which he turned down. It was a very tense visit. His refusal of the jeep didn’t go over well.

The point I emphasize is that in the rural areas, for the bulk of the time in question in Joseph’s book, there was virtually no attempt at a nation-wide movement. Rather, the liberation theology movement’s emphasis was one working with a very small local group on fundamental issues of the production of food, building of schools and teaching reading, writing and arithmetic, providing medical care, and trying to remain as local and unnoticed as possible. Liberation Theory’s work grew up in nations that were, like Haiti, controlled by dictators and elites, and the task was first and foremost to simply improve the LOCAL situation. There were even arguments explicitly against any regional or national “movements” on the grounds they would, as my one friend emphasized, attract unwanted notice.

Further, to even use the notion of this period of change as “movement” in the same sense as applied to the notion of “movement” the government and elites had is misleading. It is very different senses of a “movement.”

The control of the government of Haiti by a tiny portion of the elite has been the dominant modus operandi in Haiti since it became a nation in 1804. These powers are well entrenched, and the history of Haiti is basically the story of one power group WITHIN this relatively small faction, rising to power over an existing ruling faction, and replacing them for a time. Sort of relatively small groups of elites, each taking its turn at the trough of national riches.

These very young, tiny and carefully local groups trying to improves basic necessities for the local folks, cannot be considered a “movement” in any sense that would allow it to compete against the historical milieu in any significant sense. I also think it is a mistake to link Aristide with these simple aims of the overwhelming bulk of Ti Legliz groups. (Haiti’s version of Liberation Theology’s “base communities”). First of all, while he too was deeply influenced by this movement, he was much more a revolutionary than someone looking for local change.

When he was running for president in 1990 and being lauded by nearly everyone I knew and associated with, I was in disagreement with one thing people were saying. I was a very strong supporter of Aristide and thought he was the best possible hope for Haiti at the time. I had seen him BEGIN to work with other parts of the more rural Ti Legliz groups, especially MMP of the area just east of Hinche. But, in the magazine I was then publishing, I cautioned that he was no democrat, but a revolutionary, and the overwhelming bulk of the Ti Legliz folks were profoundly democratic in all they did. How important is this difference I seem to have with Figaro Joseph? I’m not really sure, but I think is does indicate one important difference in how the two of us view this period: He seems to think there was some “failure” on the part of a “movement,” and that if the “movement” had behaved differently things would have, perhaps, turned out differently.

I saw changes coming to Haiti, especially rural Haiti, that were local and very positive, yet tentative and without power in larger arenas of action, especially political action. When political possibilities came about (for lots of reasons that Joseph and I agree about), it wasn’t surprising to me that without many roots to do so, many of the Ti Legliz groups came together in a flourish from the post 1986 period which deposed the Duvalier presidency. But to consider this a “movement” and talk as though some failures on the part of this “movement” caused the outcomes that came, is, on my view, to not understand who these groups were and what they were about. Further, it is to present a David and Goliath situation, and in this case when David lost, to accuse him of failure since he hadn’t grown up yet! It wasn’t a fair fight, and isn’t today, for the very reasons Joseph rightly cites in the second part of his thesis: “2) The movement was truncated by the authorities and the bourgeoisie / elite class via electoral politics and state-sponsored terror.”

One of the things that has always impressed me in the Hegelian / Marxian analysis of history is that they both argued that the historical situation gives rise to major social changes, and that the historical situation grows over long periods of time from many historical forces and conscious human decisions and actions are only one, usually a relatively small, part of that process. I don’t think that is a pessimistic view at all. But, a reasonable historical caution of taking our own power over history too seriously.

Back in the days of the anti-Vietnam war protests my brothers-in-law were always upset with my wife and me for our activities against the war. They kept arguing that we weren’t having any impact, we weren’t changing the war and so on. They were generally frustrated when I agreed with them and would tell them: I’m not doing these acts believing I’m going to be part of a movement that changes the world. Rather, I am in this because I believe that what we are doing is morally good and necessary, and we are trying to open people’s eyes to this situation. If we get changes, so much the better. If we don’t, so much the worse, but at least our moral integrity will be maintained. That’s the way I saw so many of the Ti Legliz movements. They wanted (local) change, for sure. But the leaders, and eventually the members, were doing what they knew to be right, not because they were building some huge movement to right things in HAITI, but they wanted to improve things in the village and neighboring farm areas.

My differences with Figaro Joseph are not so great. Many things happened very quickly after Jean-Claude Duvalier was forced to flee on Feb. 7, 1986 and huge numbers of people got caught up in the winds of change that were blowing strongly in Haiti. Yes, at that time the various Ti Legliz groups tried to reach out and join forces. However, it was really not a very serious or significantly “organized” movement. I think the conditions necessary for some world-historical movement just weren’t in place. While I’ve been terribly disappointed in Haiti’s general direction since Duvalier’s ouster, it seems much too strong a claim to point to counter-factual theoretical “possibilities” and lay blame on the Ti Legliz groups as “failing.” I think it’s more accurate to see that period as a hopeful laying the foundations for the possibility of a movement some day, growing out of these times.

It seems to me what is central to future hope for the Ti Legliz groups in Haiti, is not the grandiose political aims Joseph cites, but to “the opening of the eyes” of the peasants of Haiti to their potential place in the political life of the country and the importance of very basic material conditions of local and family life.

Bob Corbett


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