| It started out as one of the most inspiring stories in human history: slaves rebelled against their masters, fought a long, bloody revolution and took control of an oppressive nation. But since that auspicious beginning, the history of Haiti and its people has been fraught with turmoil and division. During the last few decades, Alex Dupuy, professor of sociology, has been searching for reasons why, and sharing his insight not just with his students but the world.
Though now a U.S. citizen, Dupuy is a native of Haiti and has witnessed first hand the schisms in Haitian society. According to Dupuy, the roots can be traced all the way back to the revolution that ended in 1804 with the declaration of Haitian independence from France.
“The revolution created tremendous animosity between the new state rulers and the wealthy elites, as well as divisions between both of them and the subordinate race and classes,” Dupuy says. “Even though the slaves rose up and liberated themselves, when they their leaders came to power they almost immediately created a predatory state structure.”
Dupuy says the leaders of the rebellion who took control of the country also began taking the land of their former owners. But instead of dividing it up among the rest of the former slaves, they became plantation owners themselves, creating in their wake a landed peasantry. The government that was installed post-revolution quickly institutionalized these practices and seized land and other assets wherever and whenever it could.
“The new owners rented out parts of the plantations to other former slaves in much the same way of share cropping occurred in The United States,” Dupuy says. “The workers leasing the land could never get ahead and remained the equivalent of peasants.”
In addition, the wealthy elite who managed to weather the revolution began exploiting the new peasant class as if they were the old slave class. The equation became further charged by what Dupuy calls “color divisions.” The wealthy elite was heavily populated by mulattos and light-skinned blacks; the new political leaders were predominantly dark-skinned blacks. Animosity between the groups quickly grew. As a result, all the divisions became entrenched.
Further exacerbating the situation, other countries did not step up to recognize the new nation. Given the importance of slavery to the colonial powers of Europe, it was in their political and economic interests to see a weakened Haiti. Much of Europe had no interest politically or economically in seeing Haiti succeed. The nascent government of The United States was balancing slave states with free within its own borders and was nervous to see a slave population rise up and create an independent nation.
“It took until 1865, after the American Civil War, for The United States to finally formally recognize Haiti, even though the country was virtually in its own backyard,” Dupuy says.
Despite the high ideals of its own revolution that preceded the Haitian revolution, France was no better. The French demanded reparations for lost assets from the new leaders of its former colony. The new post-revolutionary French governments continued with the demanded reparations for the lost assets from the former colony, and withheld formal recognition like a ransom until reparations were finally paid in 1843. By then Haiti, which before its revolution had been the wealthiest colony in the Caribbean generating more revenue than all the British West Indies colonies combined, was now among the poorest nations on earth. During the 19th Century and into the 20th century, Haitian governments came and went rapidly, often bringing with them varying levels of oppression. In 1915, the situation became so violent and tenuous that The United States occupied the country.
“This did bring about a certain level of stability,” Dupuy says. “However it did nothing to change any of the class or race color issues.” The one big change that did come with the American occupation was the creation of a unified mordern army that led to the centralization of government, with the capital city of Port Au Prince becoming the seat of power. After the U.S. forces left in 1934, the new governments in Haiti were made and unmade by the strengthened Haitian military. However, in 1957, when the military permitted a movement toward democracy, Dr. Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier was elected to a six-year term as president on the promise of ending the mulatto elite’s hold on economic power. Soon after, Duvalier did open the country up to manufacturing, and bauxite mining, and coffee production, all under the auspices of multinational corporations. The economic elite stayed in place and Duvalier took generous kickbacks from everyone involved. Duvalier also quickly marginalized the army, closed the military academy and created his own “Volunteers for National Security,” or Tontons Macoutes. The Tontons Macoutes quickly became a national secret police that terrorized the populace and maintained the old standards. Within a few years, Duvalier declared himself “president for life.” The United States viewed “Papa Doc” Duvailier with a wary eye. There were even rumors that the CIA had tried to unseat him on two occassions. However, with the Cold War at its peak and Castro controlling Cuba, American Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon ultimately made decisions to tolerate Duvalier. After he died in 1971, his son Jean Claude took power at age 19. Though Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier was reputed to be as ruthless and greedy as his father, the cold shoulder of the United States slowly thawed and by the early-1980s the U.S was openly providing aid and support to the Haitian government. “U.S. support did not improve economic conditions in Haiti, however,” DuPuy says. “In fact, if anything workers in the export assembly industries producing for the U.S. market became even more exploited and Duvalier stole more money from the public treasury.” Duvailier was deposed in 1986 and escaped to France where currently he lives off the hundreds of millions of dollars he took with him. He was ultimately replaced by Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was elected on a reform platform that pledged the elimination of the Tontons Macoutes and the ways of Duvailer. But when Aristide ran up against the same class and race color issues that his predecessors faced, he soon resorted to the same practices as his predecessors. Aristide was deposed in 1991 a mere seven months after he had taken office, returned to government and then deposed again February 2004 (though he says he was kidnapped, but it seems apparent he fled the country willingly in fear of his life). He was replaced by a U.S.-backed Interim Government, and since then Haiti has been cast into turmoil which has resulted in the arrival of U.N. and French troops who are trying to keep the peace. “And here we are, with essentially the same problems that Haiti began with after the revolution,” Dupuy says. Dupuy has brought clarity to the Haitian situation not just for his students but as a resource often-cited in such news outlets as The New York Times, The Washington Post, the BBC, and the News Hour with Jim Leher. As for solving the problems of the island Dupuy is not optimistic., but he says that the solution is not entirely difficult.
“The problems of the country seem daunting and intractable, but unless they are solved democratically they will not be solved at all,” Dupuy says. A leader has to emerge who can unify the conflicting factions of Haitian society,” he says. “Be it the reach of the government, the exploitive practices of the elites, the deep-seeded inequalities, the presumptions on race – those are the issues that have to be resolved. Haiti has extensive resources. It has good people. It could be a jewel of the Caribbean. But the divisions and perceptions have gone on for so long, I am afraid it will not be easy.” He sighs and shakes his head. “Sometimes it seems the Haitian people are their own worst enemies.”