The world’s first independent black republic, Haiti was forged in the fire of history’s only successful slave revolution. Yet more than two hundred years later, the full promise of the revolutiona free country and a free peopleremains unfulfilled. Home for more than a decade to one of the world’s largest UN peacekeeping forces, Haiti has a tumultuous political culturebuffeted by coups and armed political partisansthat combined with economic inequality and environmental degradation, created immense difficulties even before a devastating earthquake leveled the capital of Port-au-Prince in 2010, killing tens of thousands of people. This grim tale, however, is not the whole story. In this moving and detailed history, Michael Deibert, who has spent two decades reporting on Haiti, chronicles the heroic struggles of Haitians to build their longed-for country in the face of overwhelming odds. Based on years of interviews with Haitian political leaders, international diplomats, peasant advocates, gang leaders, and hundreds of ordinary Haitians, Deibert’s book provides a vivid, complex, and challenging analysis of Haiti’s recent history.
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About the Author
Michael Deibert is an author and journalist, whose writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Guardian, and Wall Street Journal, among other publications. He is also the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti.
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Lanne pase toujou pi bon (Past years are always better) – Haitian proverb
Following the 25-year rule of Boyer, Haiti saw four different presidents in as many years before Faustin Soulouque, an army officer hailing from Petit-Goâve, took the reins of the nation in 1847. In addition to his support from within the military, Soulouque was backed by thousands of irregular armed partisans referred to as zinglin. Though initially viewed as something of a malleable stand-in (a mistake Haiti's political class would make time and again), Soulouque proved himself to be anything but, surrounding himself with gifted advisors such as Lysius Salomon, a young black lawyer from Les Cayes, and massacring a host of enemies, almost all of them mulattoes, shortly after taking power. Two invasions of Santo Domingo ended in retreat, and in 1849 Soulouque crowned himself Emperor. So violent was Soulouque's reign that one observer of his iron-fisted communiqués opined that all seemed to begin with the word Quiconque (Whosoever) and ended with the words sera fusillé (will be shot). Soulouque was an enthusiastic vodouisant, but the lwa, as the vast pantheon of vodou spirits are referred to, were not on the Emperor's side to prevent his overthrow by mulatto forces in December 1858, Soulouque's exile reinforcing the pattern of coup, exile and black–mulatto tension that would be repeated throughout the country's history. During the presidential tenure of Soulouque's former advisor Lysius Salomon from 1879 to 1888, salutary efforts to reform the country's educational system were overshadowed by a rebellion by the president's enemies to which he responded in September 1883 with merciless fury, putting the capital's main business district to the torch and unleashing soldiers and paramilitary supporters, killing an estimated 1,000 people, a pillage that stopped only after foreign diplomats threatened an invasion.
At the turn of the century, one of Haiti's more promising political leaders, the anthropologist and journalist Anténor Firmin – his prescient 1885 work De l'égalité des races humaines argued the then revolutionary concept that "the races are equal" – saw his presidential ambitions undermined by yet another military officer, the ancient Pierre Nord Alexis. Known as Tonton Nord, Alexis was backed by Germany (who would engage in a triangulated struggle for influence over Haiti with France and the United States) and seized power in December 1902. Nord's ascent was marked by an extraordinary final act of defiance by Admiral Hammerton Killick, chief of Haiti's navy, who boarded the navy's flagship, La Crête-à-Pierrot, draped himself in the Haitian flag and, accompanied only by the ship's surgeon, touched his cigar to a fuse and blew up the vessel in the Bay of Gonaïves rather than let the Germans seize her. Thus Killick became another in the long list of Haiti's tragic martyrs. One of Tonton Nord's successors, Cincinnatus Leconte, showed great promise, appointing competent officials and repairing roads and telegraph wires and demonstrating, by all accounts, a genuine drive to lift Haiti out of the squalor in which it had so long dwelled. Leconte's full potential will never be known, as, one steamy morning in August 1912, the presidential palace in which he dwelt was blown to smithereens when arms stored within its walls ignited, killing Leconte and some 300 soldiers.
Leconte departed a country whose sovereignty was rapidly evaporating. By 1910, American interests had a 50 percent stake in the creation of a new Banque Nationale de la République d'Haïti (BNRH), with the Haitian government in effect ceding control of its own fiscal policy to bankers in New York. Although French and German financial actors were also involved, by this point the dominant role of the United States could hardly have been clearer.
Squeezed and plotted against from the outside, and violently factionalized on the inside (its warring political factions periodically recruiting cacos – little more than guns-for-hire brigands tempted by the promise of a day or two's looting), in 1904 Haiti greeted the centenary of its independence from France with the Haitian writer and diplomat Frédéric Marcelin looking around and chiding his fellow politicians that it was "madness" to celebrate the date. He went on to demand of them:
What have you done that you can boast of? Show us the civilization you have created. What will you present to the tribunal of history? Where is the work, which is the idea that you have attached to your name? Is it our civil strife, our fratricidal killings, our social miseries, our economic ignorance or our idolatrous militarism that you will glorify?
And he then added poignantly:
We glorify an ideal that despite all of this, allowed a small nation to remain free and independent, an ideal which we are sure, embraces the soul of our citizens from first to last in cities as well as in the countryside, it endures a century but is still young; Freedom or death.
A decade later, even that ideal would be taken away.
By July 1915, Vilbrun Guillaume Sam had been in office for four months. A ceaselessly intriguing military commander from a prominent black family from the north, he had led the revolt against President Oreste Zamor and subsequently assumed the office himself, thus becoming the fifth president in a five-year span (Sam's cousin, Tirésias Simon Sam, had served as president for nearly six years at the turn of the century). One of Sam's first acts was to round up and imprison various, mostly mulatto, politicians he believed might be plotting against him in league with Rosalvo Bobo, a mulatto physician from Cap-Haïtien. These included his predecessor Oreste Zamor and at least 200 scions from the most prominent families in the capital and elsewhere, including the Prévals, the Polynices and the Péraltes. They were imprisoned in the capital's old prison under the questionable mercies of a Sam loyalist, Charles Oscar Etienne, known as Le terrible. Even as he did so, though, Bobo's forces succeeded in taking Au Cap, Fort-Liberté, and several other towns, only to be forced out of the former by the landing of French troops from the cruiser Descartes, joined soon thereafter by American troops from the USS Washington.
In the capital, on the night of 26 July, Sam's enemies launched an attempted putsch, peppering the palace with gunfire as a wounded Sam and his family fled to the nearby French legation. Down at the jail, Etienne slaughtered almost all the prisoners and subsequently fled to the Dominican Embassy, where Edmond Polynice, the patriarch of his family, paid him a visit and shot him dead where he stood. After several unsuccessful attempts to breach the walls and locate Sam, after burying their dead, at least 80 men stormed the French legation and dragged Sam outside, where he was hacked to pieces. The telegrams sent by Robert Beale Davis, the junior chargé d'affaires at the U.S. Embassy during this period, go from worried ("French legation threatened and a forcible entry") to surreal ("Mob invaded French legation, took out president killed and dismembered him"). With the grotesque public murder of Guillaume Sam, and the subsequent landing of the marines from the USS Washington at Bizoton early in the evening of 28 July, the U.S. occupation of Haiti began.
That the United States only hazily understood the country it was to rule, and the corrosive racism that would inform that governance, was testified by the startled reaction of Woodrow Wilson's secretary of state William Jennings Bryan upon being briefed at the time of the invasion, whereupon he exclaimed: "Think of it! Niggers speaking French!"
Under the command of U.S. Navy Rear Admiral William B. Caperton, the Americans seized Haitian government funds and put them into an account under Navy control, and they would continue to control customs and the Haitian budget through domination of the central bank, as they had done before the invasion. The bank's entire gold reserve – around $500,000 worth – was spirited away to the vaults of City Bank in New York. Under intense U.S. pressure, Philippe Sudré Dartiguenave, the mulatto head of Haiti's senate, was elected president and shortly thereafter the government was forced to sign, virtually at gunpoint, the so-called Haitian–American Convention, a treaty affirming the U.S. right to choose a customs director and customs employees, form a new security force, develop the country's natural resources and exert total discretion when it came to deciding Haitian affairs of state. The terms were a humiliation which caused a predictable uproar and resulted in the imposition of martial law at the beginning of September 1915. That autumn, the Marines decimated Bobo's caco loyalists at the battles of Fort Dipitie and Fort Rivière (Bobo himself fled the country) and perhaps thought, naively, that armed resistance to the occupation was at an end.
Coming from a nation where violent white supremacy was still the rule of the day, that mindset infected the interactions of the Americans with their new colonial subjects, and when Caperton was replaced as the occupation's face by Colonel Littleton Waller in May 1916, things grew worse still. Waller's chief concern appeared to be what the people of his native Virginia "would say if they saw me bowing and scraping to these coons," and he and aids such as Smedley Butler were remembered in Haiti as "torturers without scruple." The virulent racism of the occupiers came as a shock to the country's high-born mulatto elite.
"The Americans have taught us a lot of things," Ernest Chauvet, the publisher of the Haitian daily Le Nouvelliste, told the American author William Seabrook during the latter's visit to Haiti at the height of the occupation. "Among other things they have taught us that we are niggers. You see, we really didn't know that before. We thought we were negroes ... You can't pick an army of occupation from the social register or drill them with salad forks ... But if they generally regarded us as human beings ... there wouldn't be all this added, unnecessary mess."
Though Waller's tenure was relatively brief – he was replaced in 1917 by Colonel John H. Russell, a far less abrasive character – the changes wrought on Haiti were deep and long-lasting. The U.S. drafted a new constitution which eliminated the bar on foreign ownership of land that Dessalines had initiated, and saw it approved in a questionable plebiscite in June 1918. The U.S. also established the Gendarmerie d'Haïti, which would eventually form the core of the re-born Haitian army, the Forces Armées d'Haïti or FADH. During the course of the occupation, the U.S. would oversee the construction of over 1,000 miles of roads, over 200 bridges and airfields in all departmental capitals and would revive the nation's moribund telephone system.
Declaring Port-au-Prince "one of the most attractive" towns in the Antilles, the British author Alec Waugh wrote when he visited the country in 1929 that "Haiti is one of the world's pleasant places," before going on to wonder "will history repeat itself? Will the road across the arid valley of Gonaïves crumble into a bridle path? Will the peasant be afraid to come down into Port-au-Prince? Will the green lawns of the Champ de Mars straggle on to the puddled and untended roads?"
How were these fine projects enacted? In July 1916, the Marines brought back the hated corvée system, last practiced during the time of Henri Christophe, which consisted of compulsory labor on public works projects. Often, the gang-pressed nature of the corvée seemed little different than slavery, and the system generated particular animosity in the Plateau Central, where the peasants had been living a simple but, for their needs, adequate life in relative isolation from the tumult of the capital. They now suddenly found themselves worked like beasts of burden by American and Haitian overseers. At Post Chabert, the U.S. Marines built a despised plantation-like complex where, 1922 U.S. senate hearings stated, "a prison farm is in operation."
Charlemagne Péralte, a military official from a part-Dominican family resident in Hinche in the Plateau Central, had been arrested there for his alleged part in a raid and put into a corvée in Au Cap charged with sweeping the streets. As an educated man of means with links to Bobo, Péralte naturally could not accept such a fate and, shortly after being transferred to Cap, broke free and launched a rebellion. For more than a year, Péralte and his deputy Benoît Batraville would lead their bands of rebels across the north, the Artibonite and the Plateau Central. Péralte would be betrayed and killed by a U.S. Marine in November 1919, his body displayed and photographed in a kind of Haitian pietà in Cap afterwards. Batraville met the same fate the following year.
The main voice of civil opposition was the Union Patriotique, a cadre of Port-au-Prince intellectuals and opportunistic politicians. A series of mulatto presidents succeeded one another – Dartiguenave was followed by former foreigner minister Louis Borno and former Port-au-Prince mayor (and Union Patriotique member) Sténio Vincent – but, as is often the case in Haiti, events in the halls of power of the capital were overtaken by events in the provinces. In December 1929, at the village of Marchaterre, near Les Cayes, students, coffee farmers and dock workers took to the streets to denounce the occupation amid cries of "Down with misery!" They were soon joined by hundreds of peasants from nearby Torbeck. During the protest, U.S. troops opened fire on the crowd, killing a dozen and wounding 23. It was the nadir of the U.S. occupation in Haiti, and by 1934 the foreign troops were gone.
The reverberations continued to echo, though. As the historian Matthew Smith notes, the American occupation proved a catalyst for both "black consciousness and an intense cross-class nationalism [and] produced a rare opportunity for lasting political change."
That opportunity would crash on the rocks of Haiti's age-old color divide, though. In one of the many ironies found in Haiti's history, in the Haiti of the 1930s the appeal of Communism was chiefly to the country's foreign-educated elite, who returned home determined to try to change the medieval iniquity that they still found all around them. The author Jacques Roumain, whose 1943 novel Gouverneurs de la Rosée remains one of the most moving portraits of Haitian peasant life, despite his own bourgeois background became a committed Communist during this time, co-founding the Parti Communiste Haïtien (PCH) in 1934 under the slogan "Color is nothing, class is everything." Cutting through facile appeals to patriotism, the PCH's first national program, L'analyse schematique, dismissed such discourse by concluding that "the arrival to power of the Nationalists [i.e., Sténio Vincent] began the process of decomposition of nationalism," going on to witheringly characterize Haiti's bourgeois politicians as "valets of imperialism and cruel exploiters of the workers and peasants."
Drawing from an altogether different well for inspiration in the person of writer and ethnologist Jean Price-Mars, whose 1928 book Ainsi parla l'oncle was a landmark in the négritude movement in the French-speaking Caribbean, a group of black intellectuals referred to themselves as the Griots, after the traditional storytellers of West Africa. Rather than seeking European social-political models, they instead looked to the country's African traditions, especially vodou, as a way to counter the exploitation of the black majority by the privileged mulatto elite. Among the Griots' number was a young doctor named François Duvalier whom Price-Mars had taught as a student years before, and who, along with others, would eventually transform négritude into noirisme, an ethos of black power.
When Sténio Vincent – whose tenure was marked by a ghastly 1937 pogrom against Haitians living in the Dominican Republic – was succeeded in 1941 by Élie Lescot, a consummate political survivor and opportunist, the mulatto elite's grip on the nation's political and economic mechanisms was thrown into the starkest relief since the end of the occupation. Lescot had served under the occupation-era government of Louis Borno as well as that of Vincent, often in politically sensitive posts such as minister of the interior, ambassador to the Dominican Republic, and ambassador to the United States, but nevertheless appears to have placed too much faith in the ability of his powerful friends to save what soon became an explicitly colorist dictatorship. In a precursor of other half-baked schemes decades later, the United States sponsored the Société Haitiano-Américaine de Développement Agricole (SHADA) in an ill-fated attempt to cultivate rubber in Haiti in an effort that ended up alienating the very peasants it was designed to help.
Excerpted from "Haiti Will Not Perish"
Copyright © 2017 Michael Deibert.
Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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Table of Contents
Acknowledgments Abbreviations Map of Haiti Prologue: Storm Clouds 1. Istwa (History) 2. Les Blancs Débarquent 3. Operation Baghdad 4. Deceptions and Delusions 5. The Return 6. Give Us Peace or Rest in Peace 7. Uneasy Neighbors 8. Lavi Chè 9. Plots and Revelations 10. Douze Janvier 11. The Republic of NGOs 12. Plague 13. Tèt Kale 14. In the Kingdom of Impunity 15. Open for Business 16. A Disaster Foretold 17. When They Are President, They Will Understand Me Epilogue Notes Bibliography Index