Haiti, Now and Next

Reckoning in Haiti


The catastrophic earthquake in Haiti has, quite literally, turned many of the buildings of the Haitian state into rubble. As several colleagues on this forum have already suggested, re-constructing the Haitian state, and doing so in a way that helps assure that the state will be able to address the serious problems in Haiti, is clearly a priority. The current political order in Haiti, with it’s dispersed power that resides in various poles – the U.N. mission, the “Republic of the NGOs,” foreign governments and their representatives, the different ministries and poles of authority in the Haitian state, and a wide range of civic and religious institutions – has shown its limits in many ways during the past years, and during the recent catastrophe.

At the same time, of course, Haitian society has remained remarkably organized in the face of the magnitude of the catastrophe. People have mobilized, often quite effectively given the limited resources at their disposal, to rescue neighbors and friends, to find solace, and to gather together to begin to plan for the future, while others have left the city to seek solidarity and assistance and family in the countryside. If a similarly catastrophic event – resulting in no state infrastructure, no communication, no active security forces, and overwhelming destruction of the built environment – took place in a North American city, the level of social chaos would likely have been, it seems to us, much greater than it has been in Haiti. That is probably in part because of the ways Haitian society is largely independent from, and indeed in some ways in opposition to, the state.

This is a moment of reckoning for the Haitian state, but it should also force us to grapple with the longer history of state and society in Haiti. For we need to both admit and think about the fact that state-building has in fact been a focus of a great deal of effort and attention in Haiti for many decades, indeed longer than that. The calls for reform and reconstruction, in other words, have been part of Haitian politics for much of the 20th century. And yet the Haitian state continues to operate in a very problematic way within society. How might today’s calls find a different outcome, and create a different future, than others that have come before? And how can history inform our understanding of what should happen next?

It is, we would submit, useful to go back to the beginning. From the moment of its official creation with independence in 1804, those who have embodied and spoken for the Haitian state have confronted a very particular set of circumstances. On the one hand, the existence of Haiti was predicated on a radical refusal, and a radical break, with French colonial control, and with slavery. That refusal of control is the bedrock, the foundational “social contract” of Haitian political life, and one that no Haitian politician has ever been able to truly reject, at least openly.

At the same time, however, the Haitian Revolution brought together, and at times powerfully unified, very different currents of political aspiration. The motor of the revolution throughout its history was the resistance of the enslaved, a majority of them African-born, who drew on their own experiences on both sides of the Atlantic in developing and struggling to create a “counter-plantation” system. This was a refusal not just of French control and chattel slavery, but also of the plantation system itself, and involved the creation of a very different way of living, one focused on production for oneself and for surplus within a local market.

But within the leadership of the revolution, which was composed both of individuals who were already free from slavery before it took place and of formerly enslaved individuals who rose into the high ranks of the military, many were committed to the maintenance of the plantation economy, and focused on the need for Haiti to continue to have outlets in the global market. While they refused French control and colonial racial hierarchy, they also believed it was necessary for independent Haiti to occupy an economic niche that represented continuity with colonial Saint-Domingue.

Both groups developed their political projects and their vision for the future in a context deeply constrained by the situation within Haiti and beyond it. In a sense, they had no option but to pursue the approaches they did. And both approaches were driven by very strong, and quite justifiable, fears and hopes. Those who refused the plantation model and created something else in its place did so because they rightly understood that any form of plantation labor, even paid, would be exploitative and deeply constrain their autonomy in ways they found unacceptable, especially given the recent memory of slavery. Those who wanted to maintain the plantation system, though, saw that if Haiti did not have a source of foreign exchange it would be deeply weakened. If they had in mind their own profits, they also had a serious and well-justified concern about defending Haiti from the prospect of invasion and developing a strong state in the face of such a possibility. Although these fears might seem, in retrospect, unfounded, in fact the early 19th century saw an outpouring of pamphlets and proposals in France from individuals convinced that the nation could re-conquer its former colony and return it to its previous state as a productive plantation colony.

The contrasting and indeed contradictory social and economic visions which shaped Haiti’s nineteenth century are best understood when situated within the broader story of post-emancipation societies in the Americas. In all the societies where plantation slavery existed, emancipation failed to fully deliver on its promises. In the U.S., Brazil, and in the Caribbean, the abolition of slavery didn’t bring full equality and dignity to former slaves and their descendants, who continued for generations to face extreme forms of political, social and economic exclusion, as well as structural inequalities that shape these societies to this day. In some ways the situation in Haiti paralleled the broader failures of post-emancipation societies in the Americas. Elites in Haiti, like elites in other countries, marginalized the majority of descendants of slaves and continued to exploit their labor when possible and to exclude them from political and economic control.

The descendants of slaves, however, struggled in many ways successfully to refuse the forms of economic exploitation the elite sought to carry out, insisting on and constructing in their own communities a social order predicated and passionately insistent upon equality. And they were able to construct a social order in the countryside in which their quality of life was in fact significantly better than that of descendants of slaves in other societies. They owned land, produced for internal and external markets, and experienced a cultural autonomy and social dignity largely refused people of African descent in other societies in the nineteenth century.

But Haiti’s elite also faced a particularly challenging set of circumstances, one that distinguished their situation from that of other elites in the Americas. First of all, while all of the difficulties and challenges of creating a post-emancipation society burdened post-independence Haiti, most of the capital accumulated through a century of extremely profitable plantation agriculture ended up outside of the nation, in France as well as North America, which profited enormously from trade with the colony. In most other societies, the economic inequalities that shaped the lives of the formerly enslaved and their descendants existed within a broader economic matrix that encompassed the fortune of their former owners. In Haiti, while there were some former plantation owners of African descent among the post-independence population, for the most part the planters and merchants who had profited from slavery had either died or fled, and much of the capital produced by the plantation complex had in any case accumulated in French port towns and in Paris among merchant and planter families. The Haitian Revolution also destroyed towns and plantations and left perhaps 100,000 residents of Saint-Domingue dead. The nation not only faced the challenge of building a new order on the ashes of a plantation system, but did so in a context in which they inherited the legacies of massive and violent labor extraction without inheriting any of the capital that this extraction had produced.

Haitian leaders also had to deal with the fact the very existence of their nation was seen by many foreign leaders as a serious, and seditious, threat. Although responses were far from uniform – some British abolitionists championed Haiti and worked with Henri Christophe to set up schools in the country – no nation acknowledged Haitian independence for two decades after its independence. Haiti’s early regimes, meanwhile, poured a great deal of money into the construction of an impressive series of forts built along the spines of the mountains of the country, meant to assure that the Haitian army could withstand and ultimately repel a new invasion on the part of the French. This sapped the already limited resources of the new state. After a series of unsuccessful negotiations between Haiti and France, during which the French proposed on several occasions that they actually retake some form of control over their former colony, in 1825 the leaders of a the Haitian government proposed a deal in which they would pay an indemnity of 150 million francs (later reduced to 60 million) in return for recognition from France. They were, with some reason, optimistic about the potential productivity especially of the coffee economy in Haiti, and saw the deal as a way of securing better access to the global market for plantation products.

Because of this deal, Haiti not only inherited the burdens of a century long process of extraction, but actually had to then pay their former colonizer for the right to be recognized as independent. This money went to placate former planters, who had long lobbied the French government for a reconquest of Saint-Domingue, and instead received payments from the French government for what they claimed to have lost during the revolution. What they had lost, of course, most of all – what comprised the greatest part of their investment in Saint-Domingue – were human beings who, now citizens of an independent nation, were made to bear the burden of paying an indemnity to the French.

Since the Haitian government could not pay at the time, they took out loans – helpfully offered by French banks – and entered into the spiral of debt so familiar to post-colonial nations in the 20th century, which has continued to this day. Combined with the fact that economic elites were, not surprisingly and certainly not uniquely, focused on extracting the maximum profit from their own holdings, this created a situation in which state institutions and the elites who controlled them heavily taxed rural production as well as coffee exports produced largely through peasant agriculture, with much of this money going to service the debt for the indemnity rather than going into the construction of infrastructure within Haiti itself. While coffee production in fact thrived impressively during the 19th century – St. Marc coffee was the high-end gourmet coffee of its day – the profits from that production were sapped and diverted from projects within Haiti itself.

This story is important not simply because it illuminates some of the reasons for poverty in Haiti, but also because it helps us understand what the state has been, and perhaps might become, in Haiti. Both the functioning of the colonial state and that of different regimes in post-independence Haiti gave many in the country good reasons to see that state mainly as a source of actual or potential exploitation rather than as a source of support or a site of actual representation. Twentieth century experiences in Haiti, notably the U.S. military occupation of 1915 to 1934, tended to confirm the suspicion that in many ways it was best to avoid the state. Though politics in Haiti have long been predicated upon appeals by political leaders to represent and speak for the masses, the conduits through which the demands of the population could actually profoundly shape the functioning of the state remained relatively limited, and popular demands often found themselves thwarted or expressed in uprisings rather than through procedural processes. None of this, of course, was particularly unique to Haiti, but it took on a particular form there with important consequences.

Why tell this story now? It is, it seems to us, crucial that we begin to think in a very historical way about the Haitian state, and see to what extent that can help us think about what it actually is and how it functions. Whatever will be built in Haiti will have to be built from its existing institutions, governmental and civic, and will have to be rooted in and make sense within the political landscape and vision of Haitians, which has been shaped and refined through their historical experience. The experience includes, we would argue, all that is necessary for the construction of a better future, so history can be both an inspiration and a caution. The remarkable social organization demonstrated in the wake of the earthquake suggests one of the impacts of the history of the Haitian state, which is that Haitians have largely become extremely adept at functioning without its assistance, even in times of catastrophe and crisis. Obviously, it would be better if they didn’t have to. But the fact that they do, and in some ways prefer to in the actually existing situation, is telling.

In a sense, the argument about how aid should be deployed and channeled in Haiti will very likely follow the two paths it has long followed. While many advocate forcefully, and for good reason, that the major effort should be in the establishment of a functioning Haitian state that could most effectively deliver necessary services, many others are skeptical that this can be accomplished. In the meantime, the “Republic of NGOs” is driven by the idea that people desperately need certain services – health care, nutrition, legal representation, agricultural assistance – and that in the absence of a Haitian state capable of delivering these services it is a moral responsibility to deliver them. Each approach is, in its way, completely logical and completely correct. They are also, theoretically and practically, incompatible. But we live right now, and what we face now is a massive crisis, a toll of suffering that is difficult to even know how to count, or name.

As we try to grapple with the overwhelming disaster and what looms ahead, with the many mountains to climb in the coming years, we’ll need historical clarity and imagination. How can we assure that Haiti can rebuild both as quickly and as effectively as possible? Whatever the approaches taken, whether they are channeled through the Haitian state or through NGOs, they will only be successful in the long term if they are predicated upon the empowerment of the Haitian people to reconstruct their world in ways that promise to respond to their pressing and long-deferred aspirations. This empowerment could take different forms. One crucial zone of action is in the area of language. Notwithstanding the Constitution, which acknowledges Kreyòl as an official language, French is and will likely remain for some time the primary language of the state, as the language of education and the judiciary system in Haiti. While the expanded use of Kreyòl in official contexts is unavoidable and necessary, it is also true that spreading mastery of French will expand access to power and institutions in Haiti, and therefore the enfranchisement of the population.

Giving people more access to communication will also assist the recovery effort. Projects to distribute cell phones and make their use affordable would, in fact, have an immediate and useful impact on reconstruction efforts, allowing people to communicate, strategize, and act. And the more reconstruction efforts can depend on and draw on the knowledge and skills of a broad swath of the population, the better they will work. If there were some way, for instance, to funnel building materials into the market in Haiti at affordable prices, not precisely as donations but as a heavily subsidized infusion of such materials, particularly lumber, this would allow the many who are skilled carpenters and builders to provide shelter for the many who have lost it. These structures would be built much more quickly, and perhaps more effectively, than might be done otherwise, and with the benefit of allowing people to do paid work and participate directly in the reconstruction of their neighborhoods.

A new kind of state and political order will emerge in Haiti only if the people are empowered. And they need to be empowered as they are. If far too many are poor and illiterate, they are no less ready to think and act for the future, just as their ancestors did during the Haitian Revolution. That revolution began an irreversible process that has constituted the political and social organization of Haiti today, which is the only foundation for the future.



Jean Casimir is a Professor at the Université d’Etat d’Haiti and former ambassador to the United States, and author most recently of Haïti et ses élites: L'interminable dialogue de sourds (Presses de l’Université d’Etat d’Haïti, 2009). A selection of his writings is at: http://www.jhfc.duke.edu/wko/dossiers/1.3/contents.php.




Laurent Dubois is Professor of History and Romance Studies at Duke University, and author of Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (Harvard, 2004) and Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France (University of California Press, forthcoming 2010).


More on Haiti at The Immanent Frame, the Council's blog on secularism, religion, and the public sphere.

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Published on: Wednesday, February 03, 2010