Haiti: A saga of democracy, sovereignty and State ruleMonday, July 19, 2021
BY ANTHONY BOGUES
THE brutal assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Mo´se pitchforked Haiti once again into the world news headlines. The typical condemnation of the political murder of the nation's leader has been followed by a plethora of news reports and commentary, which often reads like a grisly murder mystery of the whodunnit variety.
Stories swirl around whether the mercenary Columbian ex-soldiers, who honed their skills in the almost 50 years of counter-insurgency wars of Columbia, were hired to protect Mo´se or to murder him.
Some of the late president's bodyguards, particularly the head of security, Jean Laguel Civil, are to be investigated. Where were they when the murder happened? There are also reports about investigations into the activities of Dimitri Herard, the head of the general security unit at the national palace.
As the political vacuum opens up there has been open jockeying for State political power. The interim prime minister, Claude Joseph, declared martial law and is publicly assailed by another politician, Ariel Henry, who was previously appointed by Mo´se but had not yet assumed office.
The character of the reporting, the, at times, subtle and, other times, open calls by elites, internally and externally, for foreign intervention reinforces the Western image of Haiti that was first created in the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution – a black country unable to govern itself. So powerful is this image that many thoughtful, progressive individuals outside of Haiti quietly say to themselves, “Ah, Haiti!”
A HISTORY OF POLITICAL INSTABILITY AND DIVISIVENESS
However, in this moment, we need to recall context. Events are never devoid of history. They carry within them seeds of the past.
So, it is not that there is no history of political violence and formal State instability in Haiti. Political leaders have been assassinated before. What has been unsettled in Haiti for hundreds of years, and is at stake now as well, are the issues of sovereignty and democracy.
Sovereignty has a long history in Haiti but it has two aspects to it. The dual Haitian Revolution — the first against racial slavery and the second for political independence — occurred between 1801 and 1804. In this revolution the radical abolition of racial slavery, consolidated by Toussaint L'Overture's 1801 constitution, created a historic breach with the then-dominant world order of European colonisation and the social system of racial slavery.
Years later, in the 1830s, to achieve formal international recognition as a State, the Haitian political class had to pay to France more than US$20 billion as a result of a French demand for “reparations” of property lost during the revolution, including the bodies of slaves. This demand bankrupted the Haitian treasury.
If the dual revolution ended slavery and created the first black independent State in the Americas, it did not open a democratic space. There are many possible reasons, one of which was the real fear that the island would be invaded by colonial forces and racial slavery would be re-established.
The revolutionary army in Haiti quickly became an elite class and opened a new political terrain in the country. The State (this elite class) separated itself from ex-slaves and there emerged two forms of sovereignty – a formal State sovereignty, with all the ritual paraphernalia, and another form of sovereignty in which the ordinary people lived their lives — a kind of Maroon sovereignty. The Haitian writer Jean Casimir has described this situation as an “ independent State without a sovereign people”. From as early as the 1840s, a mere generation after political independence, there emerged a political formation calling itself an “army of sufferers”, led by Louis Jean-Jacques Acaau. They demanded “Rights, Equality and Liberty!”. It is interesting to note that some observers at the time called it a “black socialist” movement.
The movement was unsuccessful and the Haitian State continued on its path of separation from the mass of the population, with many of its members robbing the public coffers.
CLASS CONFLICT ANDáPOLITICAL VIOLENCE
At the State level there was also conflict between the black elites and the mulattos, a conflict rooted in the French colonial social classificatory system of 128 gradation of colours and the fact that mulattos controlled vital sectors of the economy.
When the USA occupied Haiti between 1915 and 1934 as part of its imperial Monroe Doctrine, in which the Caribbean was seen as part of America's backyard, there was resistance. Its most important figure, the guerrilla leader Charlemagne PÚralte, was murdered by the American military.
As the gap between sovereign State and sovereign people widened, it generated forms of State violence, which for years was the governing political order. In 1957, in the middle of Cold War politics and intense military US intervention in the region and with US and internal military backing, the Duvalier regime was installed. By 1964 “Papa Doc” Duvalier declared himself president for life.
The late Haitian scholar Michel-Rolph Trouillot once noted that the Duvalier regime distinguished itself by a “new kind of State violence”, breaking all the codes. He observed that it was the kind of violence that struck “spatially defined social entities” (cities, villages, communities), where exception was the rule and necropolitics its governing form.
The formation by Duvalier of the Tonton Macoute group as his own secret police of terror added another feature to this new enactment of State violence. In this new constellation no class nor individual was immune. The practices of terror and death were regularised throughout the society. The Duvalier regime marked a nodal point in the life of the Haitian State. Aided and abetted by US and others, this structure of political violence continues to dominate Haitian society.
NARCO TRAFFICKING, ILLEGAL ARMS, AND GANGS
As the jostling for State power between various elite factions continued, two things emerged which are crucial to understanding the recent events. The first are the ways in which elements of the State opened Haiti to narco trafficking. In the late 1990s the Caribbean became a central node in the international circuit of drug cartels. Haiti was no exception, with the only difference being that in many Caribbean islands the drug links were inside communities and led to the formation of “dons”, whereas, in Haiti, aspects of these links ran through individuals associated with arms of the State. Allied to this was the illegal trafficking of arms. All this combined to create a situation where questions were asked about some elements of the State and their relationship to international crime.
The second element is linked to the formation of gangs. Here the situation is much more complex. In some communities the formation of armed groups, who now have access to weapons, is fast becoming a feature of Haitian life. It seems that many political figures have ties to some of these gangs. In other words, the practices of Duvalier's previously dreaded Tonton Macoute (paramilitary unit) have now morphed into the methods used by politicians to create links with armed gangs in order to discipline communities.
All of this occurs within the context of neoliberal economic policies, which continue to drive Haitian poverty, so that many Haitians live on less than US$2 a day.
Anthony Bogues is a professor of humanities and critical theory director at the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, professor of Africana studies at Brown University, visiting professor and curator at University of Johannesburg, and senior visiting research fellow at the International Institute of Social History (Amsterdam). Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
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