Haiti: the squandered assets
by René Depestre
original source is Le Monde Diplomatique
My name is René Depestre. I am a Franco-Haitian writer little known in my native land. Only once have I taken part directly in its civil affairs, in 1946, when the newspaper La Ruche (the beehive) gave hope that democratic renewal might revive then-comatose human rights. After my generation failed in that fight, I grew other roots to stand firm in many foreign lands; then, as an old man, I settled on French soil. My native country cries for help. But I have no advice to give. From my retirement in France, I do not claim to give instruction to destitute people in the Caribbean. My view of Haiti's ordeal is inspired by humility, respect and understanding for others.
The plea for help that calls me is not the one stricken countr
ies usually send to the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank. Nor is it the alarm bell shrilling outside the White House and the United Nations. What I, and people around the world can hear in their conscience, is the distress of a desolate, isolated third of an island in the Americas. In the bicentenary of their victory over slavery and colonization, Haitians cannot escape painful issues. Two centuries after the slaves of Santo Dominique became free, a milestone in world political and cultural history, Haiti is stuck below the poverty line. Civil violence, political unrest and crime, a squalid landscape and domestic tribulations worsen daily life. The world calls Haiti an endless tragedy of decolonization: millions of Haitians are trapped for life, unable to be themselves.
The IMF or World Bank or UN or the G8's powerful members should not have to respond to this disaster. Haitians have to devise a strategy to win sustained solidarity from international aid donors. The first mutual help must
come from what Aimé Césaire called "the great storehouses of faith, the great silos of strength where, in times of crisis, peoples summon the courage to take things upon themselves and force the future's hand". Haiti has to mobilize to go forward. In opinions, beliefs and expectations, it must radically overhaul the symbolism of its resistance to misfortune. It has worn a monumental mask on history's stage, a mask that implies that Haiti is an unassailable fortress.
Its myth of extreme violence, founded on the idea of race and embodied in the stones of the Laferrière citadel (1), was meant to show the world a prospect of redemption for plantation slaves in the United States. This founding myth was justifiable between 1791 and 1804, during the violent transition from the racist terror of the pro-slavery regime. The myth, contemporary with the Jacobin model of the French Revolution, was meant as a revolutionary model of emancipation. But, as a later myth of black Jacobinism, it went on for 200 years s
haping the conduct of a nation state that had been left incomplete.
Unlike French Revolutionary ideology, which categorized as "republican values" human and citizens' rights, the criminal code, a democratic sense of citizenship, the sovereignty of the people, secularism and individual freedom, Haiti's black Jacobinism became entangled in aimless political violence. In Haiti the wheel of history meant that the institutions and attitudes of Haitian society were geared to the colonial machinery of terror. Haitians remain unable to give up a regressive, reality-distorting ideology whose religious function (which is a form of fundamentalism) locks their destiny into a violent logic.
Under Papa Doc and then Baby Doc Duvalier (1957-86), there was an outright return to the terror of the slave plantations. The state-sponsored tonton-macoutes completed the perversion of Haitians' inner convictions, which were more about race than nationalism. The murderous rituals of the Papadocracy were copied from bo
ssale (2) and Creole nihilism, and for 30 years barred Haitians from democratic modernity.
In the early 1980s, after three decades of this fascism of underdevelopment, it was rumored that destitute and discredited Haiti, escorted by its Papadocratic gravediggers, had reached a nadir of shame and destitution. It was also predicted that the post-Duvalier period would soon founder, since nobody could imagine Haiti rising from its ruins after its destruction by Papa Doc's tribe.
But that view failed to acknowledge the enlightened side of Haitian identity. A French observer once noted that Haitians, black or mulatto, rich or poor, laborer or intellectual, mystic or atheist - always provided that they were not voodoo devotees, their souls not poisonous cacti in Baron Samedi's garden (3) - had in their convictions and conduct, "a treasure greater than the Kimberley diamond mines or all the Middle East's oil fields". He thought they had a unique spirituality, gracefully borne, that could yet return H
aiti to the ideals of justice and freedom that began its saga.
After the debacle of Duvalier fils in 1986, a man of great charisma put this spiritual resource to fertile use: Jean-Bertrand Aristide's Lavalas movement surrounded itself with the first elected political team in Haitian history. It was thought that civic maturity would prevail over reckless populism. Free elections were held in the rubble. The time seemed right for everything to be cleansed of Macoutism. The democratic process was so strong that the army putsch of 1991 failed to sustain its coup: after a three-year forced exile in the US, democratically elected President Aristide returned to office.
I believe the 1994 restoration was a historic opportunity that the political class, irrespective of ideology, should not have squandered. Haiti came so close to altering its tragic course that year: for the first time it was emerging from diplomatic isolation, from the security quarantine enforced by civilized nations on the black revol
ution of Santo Domingo. The dialogue between a small, poor, black state and the imperial white super-state of the US was unexpectedly replaced by a multinational approach to the Haitian predicament. Its chaos was no longer a trivial and colonial-backyard affair between a black republic in the Caribbean and the US.
The UN's member states pondered the case of Haiti. In this democratic forum its misfortunes were analyzed in depth; the world's media looked hard at Haiti too. Haiti enjoyed the understanding and even the sympathy of world opinion. Its political, cultural, moral and material merits became apparent and it was given several hundred million dollars in international financial aid.
To re-establish Aristide in his rightful office, General Raoul Cédras's junta had to be forcibly dislodged. The UN assigned the role of military intervention in Haiti to the US. (Did the specter of the Yankee occupation of 1915-34 hover?) But the US intervention in 1994 was not a colonial expedition, rather on
e of the first beneficial applications of humanitarian intervention, then a fledgling concept in international relations: a Security Council ruling provided UN aid to a people in jeopardy. Within the framework of UN law (bolstered by the regional legal system of the Organization of American States, OAS), the Clinton administration in the US was assigned to help Aristide manage the post-Cédras period democratically. He pledged to work hard, through Lavalas, to rally the nation and serve the law and democracy that Haiti had sought since 1804.
After the end of the cold war the need was felt everywhere to invent a new, worldwide social contract to rectify globalization's many glitches. After communism, creating civil societies around the world would enable the community of nations to meet the challenges of the global market economy. The rudiments of democratic citizenship made available worldwide would give hope to societies in a crisis of decolonization - Haiti's chronic complaint for 200 years.
The dual legal and military authority of the US and UN, in close conjunction with Haiti's burgeoning democratic awareness, enabled a coalition government capable of resolving Haiti's otherwise insoluble problems of law, citizenship and development. Instead of the paternalistic trusteeship system run by the UN since 1945, the new inter-government regime aimed to build in Haiti a pilot project for the waning of national sovereignty caused by globalization. But instead of jumping at the UN opportunity, Haitians reverted to their two-centuries-old tradition of interpreting their tragedy in millions of different ways. Riven by fratricidal hatred and haunted by old demons, they missed their date with history in 1994. The chance to emancipate Haiti was abandoned because of a suicidal lack of self-knowledge.
The Aristide years turned the UN's multi national guardians, who arrived as friends or allies, into bewildered, disgusted observers, discouraged by Haitians' self-destructive gestures. In the face of l
ocal political strife, the UN, the OAS, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the US were powerless to establish the direct, intelligent and inventive cooperation that Haitians needed to change their fate. The clearest indictment of the way we have squandered our historical assets is that a decade after Haiti's plight touched an international audience, sizeable funds lie frozen for want of united, resolute, competent and reliable people to use them (4).
The 1804 declaration of independence is now lost and without meaning. Throughout Haiti's pseudo-national existence, its people - descendants of the first blacks in the Americas to revolt successfully against the abominations of slavery - have displayed themselves to the world as the inhabitants of a small, decaying zombie state. Haiti must now change the symbolism of its resistance to oppression, distorted by the race problems of the plantations. Haitians believe that independence is a military and political victory, more racial than national.
Haitians are a Caribbean people of French and African stock; Haiti has fantastically blended its constitutional charter and ideas on law and citizenship from social and religious ingredients, on an anthropological basis that has proved false and phantasmagorical. Haitian society should be driven by the state, law, secularization of know ledge and behavior, and the initiatives of the market economy. But instead race and improbable religion are omnipresent. Until 2004 the political legacy of Haitian liberation was frozen in the tableau of its foundation as the first modern black republic and the historical cradle of blackness. This legacy, up to and including President Aristide, gave Haitians a poor opinion of themselves.
The mishaps of the Restore Democracy and Aristide-Lavalas operations (1994-2004) compelled Haitians, in Aimé Césaire's words, "to wish for and achieve the impossible against fate, against history, against nature". This exhortation is more topical than ever. Haiti has to take responsibi
lity for what happened to it; it must re-find and re-found its psychological and social impulses. Haitians must reconnect with their wisdom and with their consensual faith in their own creative strength, already tested by the nation's tragic timeline. Few places, after two centuries of tragic errors and spectacular vicissitudes, have maintained a high cultural resistance to the legacy of slavery and colonization while failing to build modern democratic institutions. But in institutional terms, "the Haitian nation has not gelled" (5) or even "it does not exist" (6).
Yet the dreamlike jurisdiction that controls Haiti's imaginary apparatus should produce a culture of dazzling viability, since Haitian culture has not suffered the breakdown to which the state, law and justice have succumbed. Culturally speaking, Haiti is not the most destitute country in the western hemisphere. Despite the political and social chaos dominating democratic aspirations, Haitian arts transmute mundane discontent into a fine a
esthetic. Haiti's wonderful realism helped shape the revolution in world plastic arts in the 1950s and inspired the music and literature of several generations of artists. Its first-rate painters, musicians, poets and writers produce work of global importance. They do not borrow models from outside but draw on the racial experience of the plantation era, live through it again, suffer it again, sublimate it again, alone in that place that Régis Debray called a "nationless state and a stateless society".
Haiti has no oil and no diamonds. If history gives Haiti another chance, will Haiti take it? Halted by the now-dissolved illusion of Aristide and Lavalas, can Haiti use its only resource, its martyred people, for an unprecedented revival? Haitians have missed the nation-state train, and must now catch the high-speed TGV of socially responsible globalization to take their first democratic journey. Toussaint Louverture's 1801 bid for universal human rights, scorned by Napoleon, is now acceptable to the n
ew France, which no longer sees the world through the filter of its old myths.
The new France has embraced the construction of Europe; now it must deal with globalization. The hatred caused by the colonial system has not contaminated the language, ideas or customs of French society. They are values with a universal application and globalization needs them to survive worldwide. Haitians can draw fresh hope in the 21st century from the expectations of the French-speaking world. In Haiti et la France (7), Régis Debray urges Haitians to excel themselves in all fields, backed by the friendship of France, so that they may emerge triumphant from their existential doldrums.
* René Depestre, born in 1926, is a Haitian writer and author of 'Comment appeler ma solitude' (Stock, Paris, 1999)
(1) A fortress built by King Henri Christophe to defend the northern territory in case th
e French returned to the island.
(2) Bossale: the part of African heritage thought to have escaped creolity - the mixing of African and French culture - and specific to the culture of Haiti.
(3) An evil voodoo god.
(4) Read Paul Farmer, "Haiti: short and bitter lives", Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, July 2003.
(5) Claude Moise, La croix et la bannière : la difficile normalisation démocratique en Haiti, Cidhica, Montréal, 2002.
(6) Christophe Wargny, Haiti n'existe pas, Autrement, Paris, 2004.
(7) Régis Debray et al, Haiti et la France, Editions La Table ronde, Paris, 2004.
Translated by Paul Jones
1 post • Page 1 of 1