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On the Move: The Caribbean Since 1989

On the Move: The Caribbean Since 1989

by Alejandra Bronfman


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781842777671
Publisher: Zed Books
Publication date: 09/30/2007
Series: Global History of the Present Series
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.43(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Alejandra Bronfman is Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University of British Columbia. She has travelled extensively in the Caribbean, and has published several books, including Measures of Equality: Social Science, Citizenship and Race in Cuba, 1902-1940 (2004, University of North Carolina Press).

Read an Excerpt

On the Move

The Caribbean since 1989

By Alejandra Bronfman

Fernwood Publishing and Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2007 Alejandra Bronfman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84813-159-0


Transporting citizenship

By January 1986, Jean-Claude Duvalier's days were numbered. Although his pudgy cheeks and youth had earned him the nickname Baby Doc, the brutality of his rule, the antithesis of childlike innocence, contributed greatly to his downfall. In 1970, Jean-Claude had been named to succeed his father François, who had been "president for life" since 1957. After François (known as Papa Doc) died the following year, Jean-Claude ruled for another fifteen years until 1986, when in the face of political disarray and popular discontent he boarded an airplane for France, where he still resides. The combined Duvalier regime is remembered by many as a devastating and cruel era, one in which a small, corrupt elite clung to their wealth and power while most Haitians fought against extreme poverty and tried to shield themselves from the violence of the notorious Tonton Macoutes, Duvalier's private, brutal police force.

Baby Doc left under inauspicious circumstances. Although he tried to leave surreptitiously, the entire city of Port-au-Prince knew that the airplane that took off at 4 a.m. on 7 February 1986 was his. And they started to celebrate. These celebrations spread quickly to Miami, New York, Montreal, and Boston, where thousands of Haitians had been glued to their radios. They spread more slowly to the rest of Haiti, where communications were less instantaneous. In France, where Baby Doc, his wife Michèle Bennet, and a party of twenty-two others were headed, government officials gritted their teeth and announced that he would be allowed to remain only for eight days.

The former dictator's fortunes crumbled as thoroughly as his legitimacy. He first took up residence in a luxury hotel, a converted monastery near Grenoble. When he arrived, he owned two apartments in Paris and a chateau just outside the city. He and his family lived in a villa in Mougins, near Cannes. Since he owned property in France, officials were forced to allow him to remain there. Initially, he and his wife allegedly spent $168,780 a month on clothing and indulged themselves with baubles such as a $68,500 clock. Several attempts by Haitians to track down and recover the money he was believed to have embezzled led to revelations of extravagant spending but nothing else. Eventually, however, he lost everything; he and his wife divorced in 1993 and she is thought to have kept most of the assets, although the details have never been clear. As of 2003 Jeane-Claude Duvalier resided in a one-bedroom apartment in Paris. The rent, $1,000 a month, was paid by a friend of his girlfriend.

This story begins at the end of this era, when Baby Doc became, if the most notorious, only one of millions of Haitians abroad. Over the next twenty years a succession of military governments and democratic regimes, along with continuous pressure for neoliberal reforms on the part of international aid institutions, both drove Haitians away from the island and made them determined to participate in events from afar. As new emigrants joined established communities abroad and the state abdicated its role as provider of social services, the nature of the Haitian diaspora changed. In the process Haitians expanded and changed the meaning of citizenship: they became transnational citizens. Some observers claim that up to 2 million Haitians, or one-quarter of the entire population, reside abroad, in Canada, the United States, France, and on various Caribbean islands, as well as the neighboring Dominican Republic. In their transnational condition they reflect and reproduce the inequalities that characterized their lives at home. While wealthy emigrants have been enormously influential in domestic politics, acting as proxies for the state in the provision of social services, and wielding power and money in electoral politics, poorer emigrants in search of work cross the Dominican border on an almost daily basis, struggling to take advantage of wage differentials whenever possible. Opposition groups huddle abroad and plan their next seizure of power. The history of the past twenty years cannot be told without attending to those Haitians who have left. Before proceeding to their stories, it may be useful to give a brief account of Haiti's history and post-Duvalier politics.

Haiti was once the wealthiest of the French Antillean colonies, producing more sugar during the eighteenth century than any of the other European possessions. But sugar was produced on the backs of slaves, who at the height of sugar production constituted the majority of the population. A slave revolt in 1791 in the midst of the upheaval precipitated by the French Revolution was followed by a series of struggles and reversals on the island of Hispaniola, the outcome of which was an independent Haiti and the emancipation of its slaves. Suddenly it was the poorest country rather than the wealthiest colony, as much of the sugar production halted, diplomatic recognition by the United States and Europe took years to materialize, and the French demanded reparations for property destroyed during the war.

During the nineteenth century, the country was relatively prosperous, and flexed its muscles with an invasion of neighboring Santo Domingo. Divisions between Haitians who identified as black and those who identified as mulatto continued to shape the political sphere. Mulatto elites tended to control Port-au-Prince and the southern part of the country, while black elites who tended to think of themselves as representing the peasant majority centered their power in the rural areas and the north. Fierce competition over domination of state machinery facilitated the involvement of the United States, as each side invited foreign intervention as a way to further weaken their opponents.

A US occupation between 1915 and 1934 expanded the military and made it a feasible route for upward mobility. In addition, it briefly united the upper classes against the American presence. But it also tightened the financial relationship as the USA controlled the revenues from the customs houses even after they terminated the occupation. The rest of the twentieth century, until 1986, was shaped by the Duvalier regime.

Haiti shares the history of US presence followed by a dictatorship with other Caribbean countries, including the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Cuba. In all these places, US occupations bolstered military institutions and created the trappings of modernization, including roads, schools, and sanitation. The dictators rose up through the military ranks and stepped into positions in which their power depended in part on maintaining high levels of patronage already set in the days of the US occupations. Throughout the cold war they were useful allies, with Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua, Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic and Duvalier staking anti-communist territory for long periods, while Cuba's Fulgencio Batista did so more briefly, until forces led by Castro ran him out of the country.

The Duvalier regime has been variously described as populist, kleptocratic, autocratic, and tyrannical. Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot has written about Duvalier's Haiti as a place where the state and the nation stood far apart from one another. A rapacious state divested the nation of its wealth and felt no compunction or duty to redistribute that wealth. It was a place where an elite few enjoyed enormous privilege at the expense of the vast majority of the poor. The Duvaliers had created a system whereby a handful of families controlled both political offices and state-run enterprises. The industries, such as cement, flour, sugar, and cooking oil, were not efficient, but somehow the families reaped profits. Tax rates were very high, but they targeted the struggling peasantry. Rumors of embezzlement and siphoning off funds begin with the Duvaliers and extend to the elite sector. The large bureaucracy supported what there was of a middle class, a source of loyalty or vulnerability for the regime, depending on its ability to offer living wages. Among the beneficiaries of the state were the Tonton Macoutes, which Duvalier had founded in order to counteract the police force in place and create an apparatus for support and legitimization of his regime. They terrorized the population with violence and repression. The poor had few options. One of the strategies that financial institutions had encouraged Duvalier to follow was to keep wages low and attract overseas operations. Although in the 1970s some experiments with manufacturing yielded positive results and a measure of prosperity, they proved impossible to sustain in a meaningful way. When Haitians found factory work, they discovered that they could not live solely off their wages. Agricultural workers did not fare much better: land distribution was badly skewed, and deforestation and erosion a constant and insurmountable problem. The underpinnings of Duvalier's rule were a virulent anti-communism, which ensured US support, and the total absence of democratic institutions, which, combined with swift and effective repression of opposition, kept him in place until he was able to name Jean-Claude as his successor.

By 1986, however, the Duvaliers were gone. The aftermath was dominated by the meteoric career of Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former priest who entered the political arena not long before Baby Doc left. With his charismatic personality and blistering sermons criticizing the establishment and the status quo, he had gathered widespread support among poor Haitians and aroused the hostility of the elite. For many, a mass conducted in 1985 was the catalyst for the strikes and protests that eventually brought Baby Doc down. By 1989 Aristide's church had been attacked and torched, and he had been ordered out of the country by the nation's bishops, but his supporters had fought successfully to allow him to remain. A year later he was elected president with 60 per cent of the popular vote. Haitians expected enormous changes. The many Haitians who had left over the years watched from abroad and shared those expectations. But his populist outlook and left-leaning policies were too much for a conservative elite with ties to the military, who ousted him seven months later. After three years of exile he was returned to power in 1994 with the assistance of a United States-backed invasion. He served out his term until 1996 when his ally in the Lavalas party and former prime minister René Préval was elected president.

Aristide was re-elected in 2000 (Haitian law forbids consecutive terms as president but allows re-election), demonstrating Haiti's capacity for electoral politics and peaceful transfers of power. But a bitter opposition had formed against him, including former members of the military, which Aristide had disbanded in 1994, Duvalier loyalists, and others generally threatened by his vows to work for the poor. At the same time, the United States had suspended a $500 million aid package in the light of allegations of electoral wrongdoing in the May 2000 parliamentary elections. Aristide apparently sought to address these allegations by suggesting that the senators occupying the contested seats resign, but the USA and international financial institutions continued to withhold aid. In this context the economy was put in an even more precarious situation than ever, as unemployment soared, and the government found itself unable to provide potable water for millions of Haitians or respond to the growing AIDS epidemic. Material discontent was matched by political discontent as Haitians became disillusioned with Aristide, who seemed more intent on attacking his political enemies than in remedying social issues. The opposition, many of whom had gathered across the border in the Dominican Republic, grew increasingly bold, and in late 2003 they marched into Haiti and created a crisis that forced Aristide to leave the country again in February 2004. The interim government ruled without legitimacy in Haiti and abroad, and eventually yielded its power in the elections of early 2006 that placed René Préval at the head of government for a second time, while Aristide joined the ranks of exiles observing from afar.

Early migrations

Haitians have been migrating to the United States for hundreds of years. Many fled to the United States during the upheaval of the late-eighteenth-century revolution that culminated in the abolition of slavery and the island's independence in 1804. The majority of these were wealthy slaveowners, mostly white and some mulatto, who took their slaves with them. In the United States they settled along the east coast, with concentrations in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Charleston, and especially New Orleans. Successive waves of migration took place over the course of the nineteenth century. Haitians established their presence in the United States in various ways. Wealthier Haitians integrated themselves into elite social circles, nuns opened convents, and tradespeople plied their crafts. The wave of migration that followed the Haitian revolution not only increased the numbers of free people of color in many US cities; it also added numerous skilled workers, including masons, carpenters, nurses, and tailors. Some eventually became politically active as well. One of the most influential was Rodolphe Desdunes, whose struggles against racial discrimination led to his involvement in the 1894 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson, the source of the "separate but equal" justification for racial segregation. Rodolphe was an activist and essayist whose Haitian father had come to the United States just before Rodolphe was born. A freemason living in New Orleans, Desdunes challenged the Separate Car Act of 1890, which had legislated separate railroad accommodations for blacks and whites. His colleague and neighbor Homer Plessy subsequently took up the challenge in the famous case against Judge Ferguson in 1894.

During the first US occupation of Haiti (1915–34) the country witnessed a reverse sort of migration: American marines, missionaries, teachers, and anthropologists travelled to Haiti and came back with more knowledge and a mix of fascination and fear of the place. During this period, a rising demand for labor in the Caribbean drove circular migrations, as Haitians left their homes to work on the Panama Canal, on many United Fruit Company banana plantations scattered throughout the region, or in the cane fields in Cuba or the Dominican Republic. This was seasonal labor, and many Haitians fell into a pattern of leaving and returning, year after year. These workers chased wages wherever they might be available.

When François Duvalier's regime began in 1956, discontented or dissident middle- and upper-class Haitians began to leave as well, their departure facilitated by American policies. President Kennedy encouraged those opposed to Duvalier's regime to come to the United States. While the initial wave comprised mostly elite Haitians, the black middle class followed, starting in the 1960s. In 1965, a US immigration act permitted family members to bring close relatives, and many Haitians did so. By the late 1960s 7,000 Haitians had become permanent immigrants, and another 20,000 came with temporary visas.

While President Kennedy had encouraged and welcomed those escaping Duvalier's dictatorship, President Johnson was not so welcoming and developed stronger ties with Duvalier, who shared his hostility to revolutionary Cuba. His efforts to curb immigration only led to an increase in illegal entry, and those Haitians who came to be known as "boat people" began arriving in the late 1960s. With fewer choices about where to land, these people crowded into Miami. Class differences in Haiti continued to be relevant in the United States, as wealthier immigrants put off by the segregationist South tended to settle in northern urban centers like New York, Boston, and Chicago, or French-speaking Montreal, while poorer Haitians had little choice but to stay in Miami once they arrived there.

Debates in the United States over the status of Haitian migrants revealed Americans' deep ambivalence about migration. While some welcomed arriving Haitians, others made it as difficult as possible for them to stay. These conflicts were inevitably entangled with racial issues. Initially, undocumented Haitians were jailed. While their defenders saw them as refugees, their jailers said they were merely illegals. After becoming president in 1977, Jimmy Carter made it easier for Haitians to claim refugee status and thus facilitated the entry of many Haitians. Yet this created political problems for the president as Florida's politicians attacked these new policies. The Immigration and Naturalization Service weighed in on the side of the Florida politicians and their anti-immigrant constituencies. It devised a program that sent Haitians who arrived without documentation back to Haiti, made it nearly impossible for them to claim refugee status, and denied them access to lawyers. In the early 1980s the combined forces of anti-immigration sentiment, pro-Duvalier policies promulgated by Ronald Reagan, and the unrelated but immediately relevant Mariel crisis (which brought thousands of Cubans to the USA and particularly to Miami) worked to reduce legal immigration from Haiti to the United States to a trickle.


Excerpted from On the Move by Alejandra Bronfman. Copyright © 2007 Alejandra Bronfman. Excerpted by permission of Fernwood Publishing and Zed Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1 - Transporting Citizenship
Chapter 2 - Sell it to Save It
Chapter 3 - The Traffic
Chapter 4 -Wired on the Islands
Suggestions for Further Reading

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