Unthinkable

In its time and for a long time after, the Haitian Revolution was “unthinkable." By now the Haitian revolution is thinkable. At Haiti-focused gatherings of foreign-aid donors—the same nations that once colonized dark places—the revolution is invoked as testament to an inherent Haitian spirit, or as evidence that Haiti will rise again. It is as though Haiti’s moment of birth were its last triumph.

Is the failure of Haiti’s most vaunted democratic administration the fault of a flawed leader, or is it a deeper, structural problem?

Image copyright (c) 2010 by Logan Abassi
  • Laurent Dubois. Haiti: The Aftershocks of History. Metropolitan Books, January 2012.

Once upon a time but really not so long ago, Haiti was the Pearl of the Antilles, the best investment opportunity in the world. The scrap of island was claimed by the French, who called it Saint-Domingue, and it produced half the world’s coffee, as well as more sugar than Jamaica, Cuba, and Brazil combined. The bounty changed European palates, predictably, and European politics, unpredictably. As profits from Saint-Domingue swelled the vaults in port cities like Nantes and Bordeaux, the bourgeoisie got restless. As their economic power increased, so did their political aspirations, and Republicanism gained purchase. When the French National Assembly convened in 1789, some 15 percent of its members owned plantations in Saint-Domingue, and many more had profited through its trade.

The revolutionary ideals of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen did not accord with colonial labor practices, to put it mildly; even by the era’s standards, the version of slavery implemented in Saint-Domingue was extreme.  From the distance of a couple of centuries, we can see how the contradiction was resolved: The million people sent from Africa to Saint-Domingue in the eighteenth century were not considered men or women, let alone citizens, but capital expenditures, to be acquired, traded, branded, and replaced. Slaves depreciated at rates suggestive of genocide, and Haitian planters constantly imported more, calculating that it was cheaper to import new slaves than to keep existing ones alive.

The contradiction between revolutionary ideals and plantation practices provided an opening for Haiti’s own revolution, a 13-year-long war for human emancipation that began in 1791. Its success was improbable. Yet the island’s soldiers–dispossessed of kin networks, community, and a longstanding connection to the land—threw back Napoleon’s own army and emancipated themselves. They ushered into being the first black republic, in 1804, and the second republic in the hemisphere, after the United States. Haiti became a postcolonial state well before European colonial empires reached their zeniths. More than a century after Haitian independence, the concept was still too avant-garde for the American secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan. “Think of it,” he said, “niggers speaking French!”

In its time and for a long time after, the Haitian Revolution was “unthinkable,” in the description of the late Haitian scholar Michel-Rolph Trouillot—for how could a system predicated on the non-humanness of blacks acknowledge their agency, let alone their strategic acumen or statesmanship? Outside Haiti, the revolution remained unthinkable for decades even after Secretary of State Bryan’s quip, at least until 1960s African nationalists found inspiration in C.L.R. James’ classic, The Black Jacobins, one of the first major outside accounts of the revolution.

By now the Haitian revolution is thinkable. At Haiti-focused gatherings of foreign-aid donors—the same nations that once colonized dark places—the revolution is invoked as testament to an inherent Haitian spirit, or as evidence that Haiti will rise again. It is as though Haiti’s moment of birth were its last triumph. At the same time, historians inside and outside Haiti have shown the revolution to be more complicated than Marxists or propagandists would acknowledge. Among them is Duke historian Laurent Dubois, whose Avengers of the New World (2004) conveyed the shifting alliances and sometimes opaque ideology that fueled it.

Haiti, however, remains obscure. The usual epithets—failed state, broken state, “Poorest Country in the Western Hemisphere”—tend to constrain vision, and often even to limit the desire to understand. The strangest things are still written about Haiti, as Dubois points out in his terrific book, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History. In the book’s introduction, Dubois relates how, two days after the earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010, the New York Times columnist David Brooks blamed the breadth of its destruction on Haiti’s “complex web of progress-resistant forces,” which he alleged to include Vodou, child-rearing practices, and the inability of Haitians to take responsibility. Like much outside writing on Haiti, Brooks’ column revealed more about its author’s bête noire than about its subject. Brooks wasn’t an exception. For more than two centuries, foreigners have demonstrated that the less one knows about Haiti, the easier it is to project one’s ideas, fantasies, and fears onto it.

Here, Dubois’ Aftershocks, which traces Haiti’s history from the revolution to the present day, is useful. Its intention is to demystify Haiti and historicize its troubles. Like his earlier work Avengers, it’s a narrative history, told through characters navigating larger economic, political, and intellectual forces. Among the most significant of these forces, Dubois contends, was the hostility that Haiti faced immediately after the revolution. It translated into a debt that looked very similar to blackmail, which crippled Haiti and its leaders for years to come. The story is not one-sided, as many Haitian leaders and a large part of its elite found ways to benefit at the expense of the nation. Still, reading it, one concludes that Haiti never won its real independence.


The major achievement of Aftershocks is to spin out the threads—the chains, really—that connect the revolution with the present day. Haiti’s revolution made it the world’s pariah, a status that constrained the choices of its early leaders. Afraid of the very real possibility of reinvasion, they stockpiled munitions and built an impressive array of forts, but Haiti remained threatened by its former colonial master. Eventually, Haitian leaders resorted to buying Haiti’s independence—on credit. They saddled the fledgling nation with an indemnity meant to compensate French planters for their losses, the most valuable portion of which were their slaves. The indemnity set off a cycle of debt that has haunted the nation its entire life. It also set a template for Haiti’s pattern of ostensible sovereignty combined with economic subjugation.

Haiti was effectively driven to penury for achievement of the most basic human right. But the idea of the indemnity came from one of Haiti’s own leaders: the wealthy, nearly white-skinned Alexandre Pétion, who presided over the south of Haiti from 1806 to 1818. Dubois surmises that Pétion may have sympathized with the French planters rather than the formerly enslaved workers, but underscores the difficulty of the new republic’s geopolitical situation. Nine years after the revolution, France still thought of Haiti as Saint-Domingue, its colony. Pétion proposed the indemnity to a French envoy, Dubois suggests, because he believed that official recognition would end Haiti’s political and economic vulnerability by appeasing its former colonizer and opening up the French market to Haiti’s exports.

Haiti became a postcolonial state well before European colonial empires reached their zeniths.

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In contrast, Pétion’s rival, Henri Christophe, received the French envoy with arrest, search, and seizure. Dark-skinned Christophe claimed the north of Haiti, and was a fascinating figure: a former slave who called himself an Emperor and seemed to think of himself as a ruthless, visionary, and beneficent dictator. What he wanted most of all was Haiti’s acceptance in the community of nations. When his search of the French envoy uncovered documents that revealed France’s plans to recolonize Haiti and re-enslave its dark-skinned majority, Christophe executed him, and published the secret documents. Their publication prompted a chastened Pétion to disavow the indemnity idea.

In an outraged letter to the French government, Christophe wrote:

Is it conceivable that Haitians who have escaped torture and massacre at the hands of these men, Haitians who have conquered their own country by the force of their arms and at the cost of their blood, that these same free Haitians should now purchase their property and persons once again with money paid to their former oppressors?

Is it conceivable, Chrisophe had asked, that human beings should have to buy their freedom so many times over, with so many types of currency? It was a serious question that pointed to a fundamental schism: Were Haitians commodities or they were people? Christophe never got a reply. His goodwill ambassador to Europe, the British abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, reported that he had found it “impossible to deliver the message.” By receiving the letter, Clarkson explained, the French cabinet “would be acknowledging the independence of Hayti at the very outset,” which it refused to do.

After Christophe’s death in 1820 and the subsequent reunification of Haiti under Jean-Pierre Boyer, France revived the indemnity-for-recognition offer, but this time, it backed up its envoy with a squadron of warships. The warships went unused, for France had a more amenable leader to deal with than Christophe. In some ways, Boyer resembled Pétion—elitist, light-skinned, and more trusting of the French than he should have been—though he didn’t care as much about the wellbeing of the citizenry as either Pétion or Christophe had.  (“To sow education is to sow revolution,” Boyer is believed to have said.) Boyer buckled easily, almost sympathetically to the French. “Without the counterbalancing presence of someone like Christophe,” Dubois writes, “Boyer in a way represented just what French officials and writers had for years hoped to find in Haiti: a pliant and cooperative elite, ready to work with France to create a new form of external control.”

And so, in 1825, Boyer agreed to the indemnity: 150 million gold francs, in exchange for France’s recognition of Haiti’s independence. Having spent so much on weapons and fortifications, Haiti couldn’t afford to pay the indemnity outright. France simultaneously offered to finance a loan for the entire amount of the indemnity that would allow Haiti to pay it in installments. The terms were usurious: 20 percent of the principal just to loan the money, and a six percent annual rate. Although the original indemnity was gradually negotiated downward to the equivalent of $21 billion in today’s money–a sum about three times the value of Haiti’s 2011 GDP–and paid off in the 1880s, it crippled Haiti for a long time to come. In 1874, the Haitian government took out another loan from France to cover the costs of its indemnity payments. The commissions on this loan were so hefty that the government needed yet another loan just to cover them. Within a few years, the debt nearly tripled, and French bankers set up the Banque Nationale d’Haiti to manage it. By the turn of the century, loan payments ate up half the state budget, and by the 1913-1914 budget year, two-thirds.

Haitian officials were assiduous about servicing the foreign debt, Dubois notes: “In fact, they were so committed to paying off their loans that they found themselves with little money to do anything else.”  They may have lacked the will, too. Like Boyer, who remained in power 35 years, many Haitian leaders believed that empowering the poor would jeopardize their hold on power. Moreover, debt could be personally lucrative. Loan processing became “a kind of racket,” Dubois writes, with bankers rushing to offer high-interest loans to Haiti, often making the government officials who signed them wealthy in the process. The only benefits provided by the Banque Nationale d’Haiti “ultimately accrued to a very small segment of the population with government connections,” Dubois notes, and “the [Haitian] state, always a fruitful prize, became an even greater one.”

“Being Haiti, it turned out, was costly,” Dubois writes. The costs of being Haiti were borne by those who could least afford them—initially, the peasants who grew the coffee and cut the sugarcane that were the country’s main exports. Just as the racist foreign powers prodded Haiti toward instability and failure, the Haitian state and commercial class treated the poor majority as resources to work and exploit. Early rulers believed that Haiti needed an export-oriented, plantation economy to survive, and attempted to impose consolidated land ownership and oppressive labor practices. Even after the Haitian peasantry refused to participate in a plantation economy, preferring to farm their own plots instead, economic repression continued. Though the mechanisms varied through the years—debt schemes, regressive taxation at customs houses, and, later, state-owned enterprises—elite exploitation of the poor majority became a mainstay of Haiti’s political economy.


With its dubious finances and proximity to the United States, Haiti was easy prey during the decades of American foreign expansion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Two American banks bought a majority stake in the Banque Nationale d’Haiti in 1909, at the urging of the State Department. By the 1913-14 budget year, two-thirds of the Haitian state budget was being used to pay off loans. Despite Haiti’s history of on-time repayment, the Americans claimed nervousness about their assets and in 1914, a detachment of U.S. Marines disembarked in the Bay of Port-au-Prince. In one of Aftershocks’ more indelible images, the Marines “proceeded to carry out what can only be described as an international armed robbery.” Straight into the vaults of the Banque (over which, Dubois notes, an American flag already flew), the Marines gathered the government gold reserves and loaded it onto their gunboat.

The ostensible reason for the ensuing 19-year American occupation was to stabilize Haiti and to protect American assets there, but these motives were intertwined with military interests and corporate expansion. Haiti had a strategic location in the Caribbean, ample coastline, and excellent harbors for American warships—all priorities in the lead-up to World War I—as well as its American-controlled railroad, agribusiness corporations, and national bank. In 1915, the United States installed the Haitian senator Phillippe Dartinguenave as president—their second choice, as the first candidate the Americans solicited “refused to become a figurehead” of the occupation. Dartinguenave was more pliable. Once in office, he orchestrated a dummy referendum to revoke the long-held ban on foreign ownership of property. The result of the referendum, in 1918, was 98,294 votes oui to 769 non.

Many previous American accounts of the occupation depict it as a benign, road-building and order-installing affair. In contrast, Dubois emphasizes the occupation’s racism and brutality, especially its attempt to suppress dissent, rout out a peasant uprising, and eliminate civil liberties. Aftershocks’ 100 pages on the American occupation rely heavily on the work of Haitian historian Roger Gaillard, who in the 1980s interviewed elderly occupation survivors. Their testimonies included descriptions of aerial bombardment, forced labor, mass expropriation, summary execution, religious repression, and abuse, as well as widespread coercive sex and lynching. Their memories, Dubois writes, “might have been refracted” through the more recent terror of Duvalierism; even Gaillard sometimes found himself incredulous at the gruesomeness of his subjects’ accounts. But their stories were echoed by Marines themselves, both in the swashbuckling, exoticizing books they published (which still inform tropes about Vodou, zombies, and Haitian sexuality), as well as in military reports and a 1922 US Senate inquiry. What we now recognize as excesses and abuses, the Marines reported with confidence, assured in the righteousness of their mission.

Haiti was effectively driven to penury for achievement of the most basic human right.

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The occupation ended in 1934, but its effects lingered. A 1922 loan issued by the US would stymie the efforts to institute progressive programs and policies for decades. Moreover, by “pacifying” the rebellious peasants, suppressing dissent, expropriating land, and opening Haiti up to foreign corporate interests, the occupation paved the way for the rise of dictator Francois Duvalier in 1957. Supported by the United States as an anti-communist ally, Duvalier warned that “all popular movements will be repressed with utmost vigor.” In an edict that banned groups as innocuous as the Boy Scouts, he wrote “the repression will be total, inflexible, and inexorable.” And it was.

Papa Doc’s violence targeted potential threats to the regime, especially the elite, but because it aimed at terror, it was also random. Foreign observers tended to glom onto the grotesque personality Duvalier cultivated—in search, perhaps, of an “exotic buffoon” or “incoherent madman,”—but it was impossible not to notice Haiti’s economic decline. “Duvalier has performed an economic miracle,” one Haitian told a US journalist. “He has taught us to live without money and eat without food.”

On the eve of Papa Doc’s death in 1971, he installed his 19-year-old son, Jean-Claude as Haitian president-for-life. The terror abated somewhat, but the younger Duvalier developed more sophisticated systems for fleecing the country he governed, and pocketed an estimated $300 to $600 million. When the United States finally withdrew its support for the Duvalier family in 1986, the younger Duvalier headed for the French Riviera with his wife and children. He was 34.


Even taking into account the grotesquerie of Papa Doc’s regime, Aftershocks makes a strong case that Haiti’s current problems are rooted in history and structure. What makes Aftershocks an engaging read is Dubois’ attention to character. Accounts from Haiti’s poor are, probably unavoidably, refracted through those who could read, write, and publish—that is to say, the Haitian elite and foreigners. But Dubois is ever alert to the ways Haiti’s story has been told, used, massaged, appropriated and created by the literate.

Dubois spends a lot of time on Haitian intellectuals. They are a romantic and tragic lot, and Aftershocks sometimes feels like a compendium of Cassandras, martyrs, and exiled patriots dying alone. Among my favorites is Jacques Roumain, the Marxist man of letters whose novel Masters of the Dew channeled the travails and revolutionary potential of the peasantry. It’s a dreamy novel, mad with hope. During the anti-communist purges of the 1930s, Roumain was exiled and imprisoned repeatedly; he died at 37 of weariness, before his masterpiece saw publication or translation by his friend Langston Hughes.

Another of Aftershocks’ compelling figures is the late-nineteenth century lawyer and statesman Anténor Firmin. Dubois lets us imagine Firmin fuming at a meeting of the Anthropological Society of Paris, then under the thrall of racial essentialism, and respond with a critique, The Equality of the Human Races, that presaged Boaz’s by a generation. Firmin returned to Haiti and tried to build a democratic movement, but he failed. Amid political upheaval, he fled to St. Thomas. From there, he sounded repeated warnings to his countrymen about the US invasion he foresaw, urging unity and national cohesion. He found solace in his conviction that any attempt to take over Haiti would fail, because of its revolutionary spirit. “We will resist still,” Firmin wrote in 1905, “the elderly showing the young how beautiful it is to bury oneself in the ruins of the nation rather than to survive its ruin.”


Dubois addresses the last quarter century of Haiti’s history briefly, in a 10-page epilogue, but the historical trends that Aftershocks describes—the preference by foreigners for pliant leaders, the pattern of Haiti’s formal sovereignty but persistent economic subjection—provide a vital perspective through which to view more recent events.

In particular, the story of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the socialist priest who shed the cassock to run for office in 1990, is a stark illustration of the structural trends Dubois describes. Aristide’s election was a watershed. He was the first president of Haiti with democratic legitimacy—two thirds of the 90 percent who turned out for his election voted for him, largely because he promised to return the state apparatus to the people. After less than a year in office, Aristide was ousted in a military coup, seemingly with support from the CIA. He was restored to power by the United States in 1994 only after agreeing to structural adjustments, such as the removal of tariffs on subsidized foreign rice. “When Aristide attempted to resist,” Dubois notes, in one of his few mentions of the former president, “he found himself facing the threat of withheld aid and loans. With the government in tremendous debt, he also had difficulty financing state projects that might have improved the lives of the population.”

Dubois does not mention the similar duress Aristide faced in his aborted second term (2001-4). At the time, the United States and other countries withheld aid to force a controversial, though not very consequential, political decision. Aristide’s second term also ended in a coup, or forced removal by the US (or “kidnapping,” as Aristide himself has called it). The circumstances remain mysterious, and, as Dubois writes, the dispute over the facts and debate swirling around Aristide’s character is “intense and often hyperbolic.” Still, what happened to Aristide is important for what it might tell us about the future of the Haitian state and the possibilities for substantive democracy. Is the failure of Haiti’s most vaunted democratic administration the fault of a flawed leader, or is it a deeper, structural problem?

The other main feature of Haiti’s last 25 years has been the growing presence of the international aid industry. The discourse of development, which prevails in Haiti, is pointedly ahistorical. It takes the present as a starting point and looks forward, sometimes blithely, measuring progress and GDP growth. Development discourse does not look back, but it should.

Foreign aid is not as obviously coercive or violent as the US Marine occupation. Its stated intentions are altruistic. Still, Haiti’s aid apparatus is very powerful, capable of serious harm, and mostly unaccountable to Haitians. It takes on the functions of a state—it allocates resources, sets policy priorities, and shares the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence—but Haitians are not its citizens. Rather, they are  “beneficiaries” with few, if any, rights before it.

In Haiti, the authority of aid most visibly manifests in a UN peacekeeping force of between 8,000 and 10,000 troops. Troops have been in the country since 2004, ostensibly to stabilize the country in the wake of Aristide’s departure. Unlike most countries that host peacekeepers, Haiti is not a post-conflict country; the peacekeepers’ annually renewed mandate stopped referencing Aristide long ago. To many Haitians, it is not clear what the peacekeepers do except intimidate Haitians, visit the beaches, and hire prostitutes. In addition, scientists have traced an epidemic of cholera, which has killed more than 8,000 Haitians over the past two and a half years to inadequate sanitation at a peacekeeping base.

Last fall, a group of international lawyers in Haiti assembled thousands of complaints against the UN peacekeeping force for cholera-related damages, alleging gross negligence and demanding a hearing and reparations. Because there is no established mechanism for Haitians to challenge the United Nations—indeed, it is difficult for most Haitians to get through the door of the UN Logbase—the lawyers were unable to determine where to deposit their complaints. Eventually, they filed with the Secretary General and the UN’s Office of Legal Counsel. Last month, after brooding over the complaint for more than a year, the UN issued a terse refusal to respond to them. I thought of the suit as I read Dubois’s account of the efforts of the British abolitionist Henry Clarkson to deliver Christophe’s protests to the French government. Clarkson discovered that in the eyes of the French, Haiti did not exist. It had no standing. It was unthinkable.

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