In the final pages of his adroit and illuminating 2012 book Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, Laurent Dubois brings Ricardo Seitenfus onto the stage.
In December, 2010, Seitenfus — a Brazilian law professor and the head of the Organization of American States mission to Haiti in the aftermath of its catastrophic earthquake eleven months earlier — gave an incisively critical interview to a Swiss reporter.
The presence of the United Nations troops in Haiti was, Seitenfus said, “wasteful and even harmful” and in service of a bankrupt vision of the nation — the hope of outsiders to turn Haiti into a capitalist country, profiting from exports to the United States. Instead, the country needed to go back to what it once was, a place of subsistence cultures of agrarian self-sufficiency.
Outside “experts” from non-governmental organizations, funded by those who wished to reshape Haiti, were pushy, ignorant and competitive. “There is a malicious and perverse relationship between the force of NGOs and the weakness of the Haitian state,” he said.
For two centuries, ever since the African slaves rebelled and won emancipation in the 1790s and then won independence in 1804 from France, outsiders have been doing everything they could to reshape, to transform, to un-Haitian Haiti. The reason? Seitenfus explained:
“Haiti’s original sin, in the international theater, was its liberation. Haitians committed the unacceptable in 1804.”
“Committed the unacceptable”
It was unacceptable because, in a world of white supremacy, Haiti was a Black country: Black-led, Black-controlled, Black-populated. Within the nation — the western part of Hispaniola Island — there were splits between the lighter-skinned and darker-skinned, between the small elites of affluence and the vast numbers of rural poor.
But, to outsiders, Haiti was the unthinkable — a place where Blacks were in charge.
The history of Haiti as detailed by Dubois is, on one level, the story of seemingly endless waves of attempts by rich white nations and rich white businesspeople to take Haiti in hand and profit from its land, resources and Black citizens. Paraphrasing Seitenfus, Dubois writes:
Two centuries on,…it was clear that outsiders’ efforts to shape Haiti to their own liking were ineffective. If there was hope for improvement, it would come from the realization of the original dreams of self-determination that had launched Haiti into the world.
Two hundred years ago, Seitenfus said, Haiti “illuminated the history of humanity and human rights.” The victory of Black slaves was a landmark in world history, a great step in the broadening of rights to all people.
“Now, we must give Haitians the chance to confirm their vision.”
Vodou and lakou
On another level, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History is a measured and sensitive recounting of the efforts of Haitians to figure out how to govern themselves. It is a story complicated from the beginning by racism (based on the color of skin) and by a high concentration of wealth in the cities and poverty in the hinterland.
The history of Haiti is rooted in the lopsided power of the military, a power that began immediately at the founding of the nation because a strong army was necessary in the face of threats from other countries. It is a story of coup d’états by a succession of generals and a story of national leaders who, with the support of the military, refused to leave office and reigned for decades.
It is also a story of the Vodou religious faith and of the lakou system of rural land use and ownership. While the one ran up against the Catholicism of the elites, the other was a turning away from the bad old days — the plantations of slavery days and any form of farming large tracts using peon-like laborers.
In its most basic sense, a lakou (from the French, la cour, or courtyard) refers to a group of houses — sometimes including a dozen or more structures, and usually owned by an extended family — gathered around a common yard.
But the lakou also came to represent specific social conventions meant to guarantee each person equal access to dignity and individual freedom…
While the lakou system never generated the massive profits that planters and French merchants had gained from the slave economy, it provided the former slaves and their descendants with a relatively comfortable and sustainable life.
“Eager to see Haiti fail”
Like other new nations of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, breaking away from their colonial overlords, Haiti needed to attract allies and win respect from world leaders. But unlike the others, it had an additional burden, as Dubois notes:
No other country had faced such hostility, such resistance, even outright doubt about its very capacity to exist. The racist ideas that saturated the Western world of the time, coupled with the rage and fear that many slaveholders [in other nations] felt regarding black revolutionaries, raised the stakes immeasurably high for Haiti’s early leaders.
Many of those watching them were ready and eager to see Haiti fail.
He also points out that one of the arguments used by those French colonists who had been driven out by the slave revolt was that all European empires had an interest in joining together to crush Haiti “whose, existence, let us be frank, is shameful for all colonial governments.” Dubois writes:
For those who believed, as these planters did, that “slavery is inherent to the black race,” Haiti was an aberration, unnatural and untenable.
In late 1801, a year after gaining control of France with his own coup, Napoleon dispatched a massive military force against Saint-Domingue, as Haiti was then known, still a Black-run French colony since the slave revolt.
He told the expedition leader to co-opt or kill the Black generals in charge and impose the old colonial order:
“Rid us of these gilded negroes, and we will have nothing more to wish for.”
That pretty much sums up the attitude of white world leaders then and now to the idea of Black people leading a nation.
While “gilded negroes” is a phrase steeped in sarcasm, it is, at least, polite.
There is another n-word that was used often regarding Haitians, a word that will appear here because its use says so much about the attitudes of Europeans and Americans.
For instance, in 1912, U.S. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, the three-time Democratic nominee for President, was briefed on Haiti, and said:
“Think of it! Niggers speaking French!”
“As we would call them at home”
In 1850, the New York World referred to Faustin Soulouque — the Haitian president who, a year earlier, had declared himself Emperor — as “nigger Billy Bowlegs.” And it demanded that, if Haiti didn’t pay off small financial claims by Americans, “the big black nigger, the Emperor himself” and his “equally black constables or officers should be severely punished.”
Such American attitudes continued for many decades longer, including during the twentieth-century U.S. occupation of the nation and afterwards.
Smedley Darlington Butler was one of the U.S. Marine officers assigned to put down resistance by rural fighters, known as Cacos. In a memoir, he demeaned the Cacos as “bad niggers, as we would call them at home,” and their leaders as “shaved apes, absolutely no intelligence whatsoever, just plan low nigger.”
Of course, he had the same ideas about the Haitians who were working for the occupiers, such as his domestic servant, Antoine, whom he called an “ape man” and a “faithful slave.”
Such attitudes fueled the actions and decisions of the U.S. for more than a century and, I suspect, still do.
In addition to such racism of American and European whites, there has been the efforts of capitalists to squeeze profit from the country. Those efforts, from the beginning, have sought to take advantage of the weak points in the Haitian government and society — and have sought to make those weak points even weaker.
Dubois makes clear in Haiti: The Aftershocks of History that the Haitian people, particularly their leaders, have made many mistakes. That’s what new nations do, even old nations.
But those mistakes haven’t occurred in a vacuum. They have been magnified by the racist and exploitive involvement of outsiders, even those ostensibly seeking to help the Haitians.
Seitenfus was right to insist that, after two centuries, now is the time that “we must give Haitians the chance to confirm their vision.”
Patrick T. Reardon