Saturday, 27 December 2008

A Review of Three Recent Books on Haiti

by Jeb Sprague
NACLA


The ProPheT and Power: Jean-BerTrand arisTide, The inTernaTional CommuniTy, and haiTi by Alex Dupuy, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006,
258 pp., $30.95

An unBroken agony: From revoluTion To The kidnaPPing oF a PresidenT by Randal Robinson, Basic Civitas Books, 2007, 304 pp., $16.95

Damming The Flood: haiTi, arisTide, and The PoliTiCs oF ConTainmenT by Peter Hallward, Verso, 2008, 442 pp., $29.95

Four years after the second ouster of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected presi- dent, three books exploring the 2004 coup have appeared, ranging widely in their interpretations of events.
Aristide rose to power in 1991 with a popular movement called Lavalas (the Flood), formed after the collapse of Jean-Claude Duvalier’s dictator- ship in the late 1980s. As president, Aristide worked closely with Lavalas, instituting programs to promote lit- eracy, improve health care, and in- clude the country’s poor in national politics. But after eight months in of- fice, Haiti’s military overthrew him. A military junta ruled until 1994, when the Clinton administration in- tervened. Unable to ignore Aristide’s legitimacy, globalizing elites—from the United States and elsewhere— worked to manage a political transition from a military to a civilian gov- ernment, a transition in line with the neoliberal doctrines of the day.

Once returned to office, Aristide was able to serve out only his short remaining time. Although he was forced to drop the state tariffs that offered some protection for Haitian agriculture, he was able to disband Haiti’s military and refuse the privati- zation program pressed upon his ad- ministration by international financial institutions. Soon out of office, Aris- tide returned to office in 2000 after a successful presidential campaign, this time with a more militant and grass- roots movement called Fanmi Lava- las (Lavalas Family). The movement, which promoted the political mobili- zation of Haiti’s urban and rural poor, became the bane of much of the coun- try’s elite and middle class. Many of the professionals and elites who had once seen Aristide and the original La- valas movement as a vehicle for their own political longevity now saw in its new incarnation a class threat to be opposed at all costs. In Aristide’s sec- ond term, his Fanmi Lavalas govern- ment clashed with both national and transnational elites seeking to regain power over the Haitian state. He was finally overthrown again, in February 2004, but in a much more complex and covert manner.

Alex Dupuy’s The Prophet and Power, one of the first books on the 2004 coup to appear, is a historical narrative based mostly on secondary sources. Dupuy argues that Aristide, a onetime icon of democracy, had by 2004 become “discredited, cor- rupted, and increasingly authoritar- ian.” Dupuy, a professor of sociology at Wesleyan University, faults not only
Aristide and the Fanmi Lavalas move- ment for Haiti’s downward spiral, but also the Group 184, an opposition organization composed of the Haitian bourgeoisie and backed by its for- eign allies. But the book is skimpy on primary-source research or any direct perspective from Haiti’s poor, the base of Aristide’s support to this day; in- stead, it relies heavily on the perspec- tives of NGOs and journalists who are mostly anti-Aristide.

Dupuy offers little evidence to sup- port his bold claim that Aristide had transformed into a power-hungry, messianic figure complicit in violence and comparable to his dictatorial pre- decessors. “Aristide made the situa- tion worse for himself by unleashing the chimes [young men from slums] who went on a rampage in the days preceding his departure,” Dupuy writes, “thereby reinforcing his en- emies’ claims that the country would be plunged into a bloodbath unless Aristide was removed.” To back up this statement, he cites a 39-page Am- nesty International report that focuses almost exclusively on violence perpe- trated by anti-Aristide forces and in- cludes only one paragraph on abuses by Aristide supporters. Moreover, Du- puy uses the word chimes to describe young slum dwellers, some of them members of street gangs, who came to the defense of the beleaguered gov- ernment; the term is frequently used as a slur by elites to demonize and dis- parage Aristide supporters.

The effects of a U.S.-, Canadian-, and French-led embargo on foreign aid (upon which the Haitian state is almost completely dependent) dur- ing Aristide’s second administration get short shrift in Dupuy’s historical survey, as do Aristide’s social-invest- ment programs, which provided lit- eracy and health care programs for Haiti’s poor for the first time in the country’s history. And he largely ig- nores the post-coup wave of violence against Lavalas supporters, which he could have described using sources such as the November 2004 Miami University Human Rights Report au- thored by U.S. immigration attorney Thomas Griffin. While it is true that Lavalas partisans committed acts of violence, they were far fewer than those of the anti-Aristide ex-military rebels or the police and UN troops during the interim government. Yet Dupuy’s discussion emphasizes Lavalas violence and culpability throughout.

This is quite a contrast to Ran- dal Robinson’s An Unbroken Agony. Founder of TransAfrica and the Free South Africa Movement, Robinson has been a strong force in the U.S. peace and justice movement for many years, producing such works as Quit- ting America and The Debt. His newest book combines a passionate defense of Aristide, a discussion of Haiti’s re- bellious history, and an investigation into the events surrounding Aristide’s second ouster.

As a close family friend to Aris- tide and his wife, Robinson makes no apologies for his defense of the ousted president. He describes the popular support that the Aristide government had as it attempted to improve quality of life for the poor, even as it was de- stabilized and attacked from all sides. The author acknowledges that he be- came personally involved, attempting to call Aristide and his wife, Mildred, on the night of the ouster—working to arrange an interview for NPR’s Tavis Smiley. He recounts U.S. officials’ arm- twisting interventionism, his astonish- ment at the manipulative reporting of a corporate journalist covering a Lavalas demonstration, and many of the murky aspects surrounding Aristide’s departure.

But the author’s lack of any critique of the Aristide government, especially its disorganized response to the ex- military rebels, is problematic. Instead of training a dedicated cadre of sup- porters who might have acted in tan- dem with the elite police corps to fight the few hundred ex-military rebels, the government relied on small bands of untrained supporters and police who met the anti-Aristide fighters in piecemeal skirmishes. Pro-govern- ment forces in the center and north of the country were overcome one at a time by the ex-military, which kept its forces together, and the U.S. Army Special Forces, backed by powerful foreign embassies in Port-au-Prince, finally removed Aristide from power.

In Damming the Flood Peter Hall- ward argues that the government’s supporters, who made up the majority of the population and had democrati- cally elected their president, deserved a more vigorous and coordinated armed response. Hallward, a philoso- phy professor at the U.K.’s Middlesex University, provides a trenchant work of political philosophy backed by sec- ondary sources along with primary- source findings from a wide variety of interviews and readings. Supportive though sometimes critical of the La- valas political project—whose mo- bilization he calls “the decisive event of contemporary Haitian politics”— Hallward depicts in great detail how a loose coalition of elites, foreign states, and donor-civil society groups worked in tandem to demonize the move- ment, leading to the 2004 ouster. As he points out, this broad and long-term campaign distinguished the coup, in many ways, from past U.S.-sponsored overthrows in the region. Although he never uses the terminology, it could be described as a project of transnational

hegemony. The destabilization cam- paign was not the result of one autono- mous nation-state’s policy taking aim at Haiti, but was a synchronized effort by cooperating states and institutions bolstered by a global elite’s consensus against popular democracy.

Hallward also seeks to project ways in which the populist Lavalas and its leftist allies might well succeed in the future—Haiti’s next presidential elec- tion is in 2010—while acknowledg- ing the movement’s successes, such as its mass moblization of the poor, and failures, for example, that some cor- rupt officials and enemies penetrated its highest circles. His book is clearly ahead of the pack in its political delib- eration and inquiry.

Jeb Sprague is a Ph.D. student in sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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