A passionate and insightful account by a leading historian of Haiti that traces the sources of the country's devastating present back to its turbulent and traumatic history
Even before the 2010 earthquake destroyed much of the country, Haiti was known as a benighted place of poverty and corruption. Maligned and misunderstood, the nation has long been blamed by many for its own wretchedness. But as acclaimed historian Laurent Dubois makes clear, Haiti's troubled present can only be understood by examining its complex past. The country's difficulties are inextricably rooted in its founding revolution―the only successful slave revolt in the history of the world; the hostility that this rebellion generated among the colonial powers surrounding the island nation; and the intense struggle within Haiti itself to define its newfound freedom and realize its promise.
Dubois vividly depicts the isolation and impoverishment that followed the 1804 uprising. He details how the crushing indemnity imposed by the former French rulers initiated a devastating cycle of debt, while frequent interventions by the United States―including a twenty-year military occupation―further undermined Haiti's independence. At the same time, Dubois shows, the internal debates about what Haiti should do with its hard-won liberty alienated the nation's leaders from the broader population, setting the stage for enduring political conflict. Yet as Dubois demonstrates, the Haitian people have never given up on their struggle for true democracy, creating a powerful culture insistent on autonomy and equality for all.
Revealing what lies behind the familiar moniker of "the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere," this indispensable book illuminates the foundations on which a new Haiti might yet emerge.
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Laurent Dubois is the author of 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 Web site, among other publications, and is the codirector of the Haiti Lab at the Franklin Humanities Institute. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
"For eighty years Haiti has been judged," Louis-Joseph Janvier wrote in 1883. Since the birth of their country in 1804, Haitians had been incessantly "accused" by outsiders, and it was time for them to respond.1
A Haitian student living in Paris, Janvier was particularly outraged by a set of newspaper articles by Victor Cochinat, a visitor from the French colony of Martinique. Having spent a scant few weeks in Haiti, Cochinat had penned a cutting portrait of the country's culture, its people, and its politics. Some of his complaints were just those of a grouchy traveler: the porters in the harbor were disorderly and ill-clad, there was no set price for anything, Haiti's capital city of Port-au-Prince was dirty and unpleasant and full of beggars. But Cochinat quickly extrapolated much more. Haitians were lazy and "ashamed" of work, he wrote, which was why they were so poor. They spent too much money on rum. The children of the country were "lively and intelligent," but their parents gave them funny names—instead of Paul or Jacques, they chose the names of Haitian heroes, Greek philosophers, and French writers—and these, Cochinat asserted somewhat mysteriously, "interfere with their intellectual development." He teased that Haitians, having freed themselves from slavery, seemed "enamored" of the whip, using it against their children. Haiti, as he saw it, was a farce, a "phantasmagoria of civilization." It was a nation of "admirals without boats, generals without soldiers," and schools without teachers: a hopeless and absurd place with no future. Its attempt to look like a modern country was nothing more than a "joke."2
Seething, Janvier wrote a sardonic six-hundred-page history of "Haiti and its visitors." Many of these visitors had, like Cochinat, breezed through Haiti and then penned authoritative-sounding condemnations of the entire country. Janvier demanded at least a shred of objectivity. Was Haiti the only country with beggars in the streets? He'd noticed quite a few in Paris. Was it wrong for parents to name their children after great figures, in the hopes that their children would achieve great things? Janvier found himself having to remind his readers that Haitians were real people, living in a real society. They had their problems, to be sure, but they could not be reduced to mere caricatures, presented with no sense of context or history.
Janvier himself knew Haiti's challenges intimately. When he was born in 1855, Haiti was dominated by the unpopular emperor Soulouque, and of the five presidents who had ruled by the time he wrote his book, four were violently overthrown, with the country torn apart by civil wars. Janvier served his nation as a diplomat, a judge, and a politician, trying to confront the forces—both external and internal—that were holding the country back. He also became one of Haiti's great intellectuals; his fourteen books included several novels, a critique of European racism, and the classic study of Haiti's constitutional history. His defenses of his beloved land were eloquent, impassioned, erudite, and often funny.
But Janvier wasn't able to bring much change to Haiti; and he didn't make much of a dent, either, in the overwhelmingly hostile and distorted views held by most outsiders about the country. A few years after Janvier died, yet another Haitian president was overthrown in a bloody coup. The country was then occupied by the U.S. Marines, several of whom wrote popular accounts that portrayed Haiti as a dismal, backward place, full of lazy (if sometimes charming) peasants in the thrall of Vodou. In the decades since then, a succession of economic troubles and dictatorial regimes like that of François "Papa Doc" Duvalier have reinforced the negative stereotypes. When Haiti appears at all in the media, it registers largely as a place of disaster, poverty, and suffering, populated by desperate people trying to escape.
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.3
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.4
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 po...
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