Understanding Haiti

Posted on January 14, 2013
By Laurent Dubois

On January 12, 2010, Haiti was struck by one of the deadliest earthquakes in modern history, which killed upwards of 230,000 people and left millions homeless. The country’s National Palace, Port-au-Prince’s historic cathedral, and the headquarters of the U.N. mission in the country were demolished. As troops and relief workers rushed to help, the familiar tropes emerged again. Nearly every mention of Haiti in the press reminded readers that it was “the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere,” a moniker incessantly repeated like some dogged trademark. The coverage often made the country sound like some place entirely outside the West—a primitive and incomprehensible territory—rather than as a place whose history has been deeply intertwined with that of Europe and the United States for three centuries. And when people wanted to know how Haiti had come to be so poor, and why its government barely functioned, pundits offered a plethora of ill-informed speculation, like so many modern-day Cochinats. Many seemed all too ready to believe that the fault must lie with the Haitians themselves.

The day after the earthquake, televangelist Pat Robertson famously opined that Haitians were suffering because they had sold themselves to the devil. A more polite version of the same argument came from New York Times columnist David Brooks, who accused Haiti of having “progress-resistant cultural influences,” including “the influence of the voodoo religion.” Why else would the country be so poor, so miserable, when its immediate neighbor the Dominican Republic—right there on the same island of Hispaniola—was a comparatively prosperous Caribbean tourist attraction? Many called openly for Haiti to be made a protectorate. Brooks advocated “intrusive paternalism” that would change the local culture by promoting “No Excuses countercultures.” Against such claims, other voices responded by placing the blame for the situation entirely on outside forces: foreign corporations, the U.S. and French governments, the International Monetary Fund. Nearly all of the coverage portrayed Haitians themselves as either simple villains or simple victims. More complex interpretations were few and far between.


But the true causes of Haiti’s poverty and instability are not mysterious, and they have nothing to do with any inherent shortcomings on the part of the Haitians themselves. Rather, Haiti’s present is the product of its history: of the nation’s founding by enslaved people who overthrew their masters and freed themselves; of the hostility that this revolution generated among the colonial powers surrounding the country; and of the intense struggle within Haiti itself to define that freedom and realize its promise.

• • •

A little more than two hundred years ago, the place that we now know as Haiti—then the French colony of Saint-Domingue—was perhaps the most profitable bit of land in the world. It was full of thriving sugar plantations, with slaves—who made up nine-tenths of the colony’s population—planting and cutting cane and operating the mills and boiling houses that produced the sugar crystals coveted by European consumers. The plantation system was immensely lucrative, creating enormous fortunes in France. It was also brutally destructive. The plantations consumed the landscape: observers at the time already noted that alarmingly large areas of the forests had been chopped down for construction and for export of precious woods to Europe. And they consumed the lives of the colony’s slaves at a murderous rate. Over the course of the colony’s history, as many as a million slaves were brought from Africa to Saint-Domingue, but the work was so harsh that even with a constant stream of imports, the slave population constantly declined. Few children were born, and those that were often died young. By the late 1700s, the colony had about half a million slaves altogether. It was out of this brutal world that Haiti was born.

In August 1791, slaves on the sugar plantations in the north of the colony launched the largest slave revolt in history. They set the cane fields on fire, killed their masters, and smashed all the instruments used to process the sugarcane. They took over the northern plantations, gained new recruits, and built an army and a political movement. Within two years, they had secured freedom for all the slaves in the colony. In 1794, the French government—then in the hands of the radical Jacobins—recognized that freedom and extended it, abolishing slavery throughout the French empire.

Between 1794 and 1801, Saint-Domingue remained nominally a French colony, led by Toussaint Louverture—a former slave, now a French general. Louverture defended the territory from English invasion and sought to maintain the colony’s plantation system, intent on proving to the world that it was possible to produce sugar and coffee without slavery. But when Napoleon Bonaparte sent troops to resurrect the order that had been destroyed by the 1791 uprising, the population, faced with the prospect of a return to slavery, rose up again. With Haiti’s declaration of independence, the revolution was complete.

The aftershocks of that revolution reverberate throughout Haiti’s history. The country emerged in a world still dominated by slavery, and the nations that surrounded it saw its existence as a serious threat. For decades France refused to recognize Haiti’s independence, maintaining that it still had sovereignty over its onetime colony, and the governments of England and the United States followed France’s lead. Haiti’s political isolation and the constant threats directed at it weighed heavily on its early leaders, who keenly felt the burden of proving to the world that a black nation could succeed. To defend against possible attack, they poured money into building fortifications and maintaining a large army. Being Haiti, it turned out, was costly. What’s more, this emphasis on military readiness meant that, from the start, civilian concerns were often subordinated to the army’s needs.

The colony of Saint-Domingue had been built and populated with just one goal: to produce crops for export. This old order inevitably haunted the newly independent Haiti. Like Louverture before them, the men who first ruled the fledgling country—among them several ex-slaves—saw the reconstruction of its plantations as the only viable economic course of action. What else was there to sell besides sugar and coffee, after all, in order to buy the goods and the guns they needed to survive? But the former slaves who made up the vast majority of the population had a very different plan. They were not going back to the plantation system. Instead, they took over the land they had once worked as slaves, creating small farms where they raised livestock and grew crops to feed themselves and sell in local markets. On these small farms, they did all the things that had been denied to them under slavery: they built families, practiced their religion, and worked for themselves.

The deep division over what Haiti should be has shaped the entire political history of the country. Haiti’s rural population effectively undid the plantation model. By combining subsistence agriculture with the production of some crops for export, they created a system that guaranteed them a better life, materially and socially, than that available to most other people of African descent in the Americas throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But they did not succeed in establishing that system in the country as a whole. In the face of most Haitians’ unwillingness to work the plantations, Haiti’s ruling groups retreated but did not surrender. Ceding, to some extent, control of the land, they took charge of the ports and the export trade. And they took control of the state, heavily taxing the goods produced by the small-scale farmers and thereby reinforcing the economic divisions between the haves and the have-nots.

In the past two centuries, this stalemate between the ruling class and the broader population has led to a devastating set of authoritarian political habits. Over time—often convinced that the masses were simply not ready to participate in political life—the Haitian governing elites crafted state institutions that excluded most Haitians from formal political involvement. Although reformers occasionally pushed for a more liberal democracy, the elites always closed ranks whenever the question of sharing political power with the rural population arose. A simple fact illustrates the depth of this political exclusion. The majority of Haitians speak Kreyòl, a language born of the encounter between French and various African languages in the eighteenth century. Until 1987, however, the only official language of the government was French, which only a small minority in the country could read or even understand. For almost all of Haiti’s history, most of its population has literally been unable to read the laws under which they have been governed.

Haiti is often described as a “failed state.” In fact, though, Haiti’s state has been quite successful at doing what it was set up to do: preserve power for a small group. The constitutional structures established in the nineteenth century made it very difficult to vote the country’s leaders out of office, leaving insurrection as the only means of effecting political change. Haiti’s twentieth-century laws have grown more liberal, but its government still changes hands primarily through extraconstitutional, and often violent, means. And despite a powerful wave of popular participation in the past decades, the country’s political structures remain largely unaccountable and impermeable to the demands of the majority of Haitians.

• • •

Haiti’s domestic divisions were not the only—or even the most significant—source of its problems. Over the course of the nineteenth century, foreign governments gained more and more control over the country’s economy and politics. France did so in a particularly cynical and devastating way. When the French finally granted recognition to Haiti, more than two decades after its founding, they took a kind of revenge, insisting that the new nation pay an indemnity of 150 million francs (roughly $3 billion in today’s currency) to compensate the slaveholders for their losses. To pay the indemnity, the Haitian government took out loans from French banks, which added interest payments to the crushing debt load. Though the amount of the indemnity was later reduced to 60 million francs by France, the cycle of debt only worsened. By 1898, fully half of Haiti’s government budget went to paying France and the French banks. By 1914, that proportion had climbed to 80 percent.

As Janvier furiously put it, Haitians had been forced to pay for their land—”this little stretch of land of which we are the masters,” which they were “jealously keeping” for their descendants—not once or twice but three times. They first paid for it through their ancestors, with “two centuries of tears and sweat.” Then the Haitians paid for it during their revolution, through the “massive quantity of blood” spilled to win liberty and independence. And, after all that, they still had to pay for it in cash that passed from Haiti into France’s treasury for generations.

What might have been done with this money in Haiti itself? How much could have been created with it? We will never know. The indemnity was certainly not the only force sapping Haiti’s finances. The government maintained a massive military, and corruption and mismanagement also took their toll. So did the country’s civil wars, and the repeated demands from foreign merchants in Haiti—sometimes literally backed up by gunships—to be compensated for property lost during the fighting. But the indemnity represented a constant leak of funds out of the country for nearly a century. Ultimately, of course, the cost was borne by Haitian farmers, the descendants of the same slaves who had been “lost” by the French slaveholders.

The demands of the French were soon surpassed by the pressures of a new and powerful imperial force. Military officials of the United States considered Haiti strategically important, while American entrepreneurs were eager to build new plantations in Haiti as they had elsewhere in the region. In 1915, the marines landed in Haiti, ostensibly in order to reestablish political order after a bloody coup. They stayed for twenty years.

The U.S. occupation transformed Haiti in ways that are still playing out today. The United States, like other colonial powers, touted its building of schools and roads, and it is still recognized and appreciated for having brought significant medical assistance. But while the United States justified the occupation as a project to improve and democratize Haiti’s political institutions, it ultimately exacerbated the rift within the society. As more and more U.S. agricultural companies entered Haiti, they deprived peasants of their land. The result was that, for the first time in its history, large numbers of Haitians left the country, looking for work in nearby Caribbean islands and beyond. Others moved to the capital of Port-au-Prince, which the United States had made into Haiti’s center of trade at the expense of the regional ports. In the decades that followed, the capital’s growth continued, uncontrolled and ultimately disastrous, while the countryside suffered increasing immiseration.

The U.S. occupation also deepened Haiti’s economic and political dependence on outside powers. During the second half of the twentieth century, the extent of foreign support has often been one of the most important factors determining the political destiny of Haitian rulers—frequently more important than popular support within the country. When the legitimacy of a political leader is established by outside forces rather than a nation’s own population, of course, the results are rarely good for that population. François Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude, the Haitian dictators whose regimes were legendary for their brutality and terror, used U.S. support to stay in power for decades while driving hundreds of thousands of their countrymen into exile. Today, U.S. influence over Haiti is so well established as to seem almost unremarkable. After the 2010 earthquake, Haitians noted with little surprise that Bill Clinton, in his role as cochair of the international commission overseeing Haitian reconstruction, often seems to hold more power over the country than does Haiti’s elected president.

All these factors have contributed to a powerful sense of political exhaustion surrounding Haiti’s future. A succession of military regimes has left the country with almost no functioning social infrastructure. Ever since popular president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was violently overthrown in 2004, Haiti has been policed largely by foreign troops under U.N. command. Haiti’s proud independence has been eroded, too, by the thousands of foreign organizations that have flocked to the country over the years with projects for improvement and reform. For all their work, though, hunger, poverty, and disease still stalk much of the population. In the cities, the last decades have seen an increase in violent crime, including drug trafficking and kidnapping, while the situation in rural Haiti, where the majority of the population still lives, is increasingly desperate. The soil is severely depleted; generations of intensive agriculture and deforestation have taken their toll. As the population has grown and parcels of land have been divided into smaller and smaller bits, the social and agricultural strategies that worked well for Haitian peasants into the early decades of the twentieth century have become increasingly unsustainable. At the same time, the solutions prescribed by foreign powers and international organizations have largely turned out to be ineffective, or worse.

• • •

“Ladies and gentlemen, come and see,” beckons novelist Lyonel Trouillot in a searing account of life in contemporary Haiti. “This isn’t a country here but an epic failure factory, an excuse for a place, a weed lot, an abyss for tightrope-walkers, blindman’s bluff for the sightless saddled with delusions of grandeur . . . Proud mountains reduced to dust dumped in big helpings into the cruciform maws of sick children who crouch waiting in the hope of insane epiphanies, behaving badly and swamped besides, bogged down in their devil’s quagmires.” “Our history,” he laments, “is a corset, a stifling cell, a great searing fire.”

That history, however, represents the only foundation upon which a different Haiti might be built. And it can—indeed must—serve as a source of inspiration, and even hope. Despite all its tragedy, Haiti’s past shows the remarkable, steadfast, and ongoing struggle of a people to craft an alternative to the existence that others wanted to impose on them. Throughout Haiti’s existence, reformers and rebels have attacked authoritarian leaders and exclusive institutions in the effort to bring something better into being. Even when these attempts have failed, they serve as touchstones, sources of inspiration for confronting Haiti’s present crisis.

“Haiti disturbs,” sociologist Jean Casimir likes to say. It disturbs, of course, because of its poverty and its suffering. But it also disturbs because, throughout its history, Haiti’s people have repeatedly turned away from social and political institutions designed to achieve profits and economic growth, choosing to maintain their autonomy instead. The Haitian population has been told for two centuries, as it is told today, that it must change, adapt, modernize. No doubt some change is needed; but what has largely been offered to Haiti’s population in the guise of foreign advice is simply a precarious place at the bottom of the global order.

Haitians have consistently refused such offers. In 1883, Janvier explained that he was more than happy for outsiders to come to Haiti to enrich themselves through commerce. “But please,” he asked, “spare us your advice . . . We want to do things ourselves.” Haitians might be “stubborn” and “proud” in their independence. But they had their reasons. No one else in the world had ever “paid as dearly for the right to say, while stomping their foot on the ground: ‘This is mine, and I can do with it what I want!’ “12

Faced with various envoys, missionaries, and experts from inside and outside the country, many Haitian communities have—often with impressive patience and a marked lack of hostility—steadfastly resisted all attempts to make them abandon their historic aspirations. A population born of slave revolution, they have insisted on holding on to a way of life predicated on refusing the return of the plantation system or anything that looks like it. They have paid more and more for that refusal as their situation has grown increasingly difficult. Nevertheless, under incredible duress, Haitians remain as determined as ever to make their world on their own terms, to use it to their own ends and not those of others.

The social cohesion that has resulted from this long historical process was made dramatically visible by the 2010 earthquake. Many outside observers expected that, given the massive difficulties and lack of security in Haiti even before the disaster, there would be a complete social breakdown—as there might well be in many places where the state has essentially evaporated. But as aid workers and journalists arrived in the country, they were surprised at the level of organization they encountered. Television anchors kept asking expectantly when the looting was going to begin, but reporters in Haiti instead described most communities as rapidly mobilizing to deliver mutual aid. In many disasters, of course, common citizens are the first responders to the crisis, and Haiti was no different: neighbors, family members, passersby dug people out of the rubble with hammers, rocks, or their bare hands. But even after the initial rescue work was done, when the solidarity of emergency response might have given way under the strain of dealing with the catastrophe, the people of Haiti largely continued to look after one another. In many areas Haitians got no assistance at all for many days, even weeks. It was not the government but the networks that crisscross the country—neighborhood organizations, religious groups, extended families—that tended the injured, set up camps, fed one another, sang and prayed and mourned together.

The fact that they had to do so much on their own is appalling. But that they did it also shows clearly that Haiti, despite its massive poverty and its almost total lack of a functioning government, is not a place of chaos. Life in Haiti is not organized by the state, or along the lines many people might expect or want it to be. But it does draw on a set of complex and resilient social institutions that have emerged from a historic commitment to self-sufficiency and self-reliance. And it is only through collaboration with those institutions that reconstruction can truly succeed.

The Haiti of today cannot be understood without knowledge of its complex and often tragic history.



Excerpted from Haiti: The Aftershocks of History by Laurent Dubois.

Copyright © 2012 by Laurent Dubois.

Reprinted with permission from Metropolitan Books.

LAURENT DUBOIS is the author of Haiti: The Aftershocks of History and Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution, a Los Angeles Times Best Book of 2004. The Marcello Lotti Professor of Romance Studies and History at Duke University, Dubois has written on Haiti for the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, and the New Yorker website, among other publications, and is the co-director of the Haiti Lab at the Franklin Humanities Institute.