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Review of Elizabeth Abbot, Haiti: The Duvaliers and their Legacy

By Bob Corbett, 1989

This review of Haiti: The Duvaliers And Their Legacy by Elizabeth Abbott (McGraw-Hill Books, pp. 381. New York, 1988) was written in 1989 by Bob Corbett <bcorbett@crl.com>. The author appends this comment: By the way, I do recommend you read this review. The book contains one of the most intriguing and interesting arguments about the Haitian economy that I've ever read, and I try to lay out Abbott's argument in a clearer fashion than she does in the book.

Just three years ago the Duvalier dynasty ended. The general consensus is that while Haiti no longer has the Duvaliers, Duvalierism dominates Haiti. There is much to support this claim. Not only is President General Avril, like his predecessor General Namphy, one who worked himself up through the Duvalier system, but Duvalierist political terror continues in Haiti. In September, 1988 Namphy engineered a Tonton Macoute attack on the church of St. John Bosco. The world was shocked, even Haiti was shocked. This was too much even for Haiti and the Namphy government quickly fell. But memories are short. Francois Duvalier routinely had Catholic Churches attacked in the early 1960s during the phase of his consolidation of power in which he took on and defeated the Catholic Church. Duvalier was himself excommunicated, but eventually was not only reinstated by Pope Paul VI, but given the right to name the Haitian hierarchy and to discipline the Church. Duvalier even had Macoutes among the Catholic priests.

Elizabeth Abbott's book is an attempt to detail the origins of Duvalierism, and to follow its changes in the various periods of the lives of the two Duvaliers. Finally, she explains how the system works today, and what the political infighting is all about.

It is an insider's book. Abbott is married to Joe Namphy, gregarious, fun-loving brother of ex-president General Henri Namphy. Abbott had access to many people from Haiti's wealthier circles and important figures of the political world. She provides a chilling account of the terror that is beyond the imagination of most people. Papa Doc was an active and willing participant in the terror, watching his beloved Macoutes torture victims from behind peep holes in the wall, and running the whole show from his voluntary imprisonment in the National Palace.

Jean-Claude tolerated the system, but was much less active in the day to day running of it, allowing subordinates to have greater authority. But, the system of terror remained essentially the same under both despots.

Perhaps the most startling thesis that Abbott presents is the claim that the real economy of Haiti today and under the Duvaliers is its poverty. Haiti's economy is generally regarded as an agricultural economy with a small but growing manufacturing sector. This economy suffered drastically during the 29 year reign of the Duvaliers. Yet their wealth and the wealth of those whom they chose to allow into their circle grew fantastically. How could this be? If one studies this standard economy of Haiti herself one sees a steady decline from 1959 until the early 1970s. Then Jean-Claude's Jeanclaudism opened the country to foreign reassembly plants and the Haitian economy recovered slightly. Jean-Claude's terror was less naked than Francois' too, and during his rule tourism picked up considerably until it was virtually destroyed by the AIDS scare.

However, Abbott makes clear that the economy of Haiti was not the concern of the Duvaliers. They had a different economy, Le Misere--the misery of Haiti herself. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. She was this before the Duvaliers, except that the gap between Haiti and the other poor countries in the West grew under the Duvaliers. That very poverty was the key note of their private economy. Sell the misery. Foreign governments, religious and humanitarian organizations poured hundred of millions of dollars into Haitian development and relief in the Duvalier years. Foreign Aid became the primary source of national income.

Little of this money ever filtered down to the projects for which it was donated. The Duvaliers and those on whom they smiled, stole the overwhelming bulk of this money. Thus, the economy that mattered to the Duvaliers--the Duvalierist system which is still firmly in place--the economy of Haiti's misery--boomed in relation to those for whom it was intended to boom.

This analysis of the economy of misery is Abbott's the most original and persuasive thesis. But Abbott enjoys the horror tales of Duvalier terror, and there are millions of them. However, it is impossible to separate documented factual cases, or immediate direct interviews with the subjects, from second, third or fourth hands tales and classic myths and gossip. Abbott tends to recite them all as fact.

Regardless of Abbott's tendency to revel in the gossip, she has produced a provocative, informative book. All students and friends of Haiti should read it to help them understand the shaping force that Duvalierism was and is on Haitian society. The Misery is still the central fact of the Haitian economy. Foreign political policy makers and private donors alike must take this into consideration in considering how to deal with Haiti. In recent years private voluntary agencies have managed to distance themselves from the Haitian government and funds donated to such agencies do the little development and relief work which gets done in Haiti. But Haitian governments are all to be suspected. The Duvalierist tradition of The Misery--in the interest of the rich, is still the dominant policy of Duvalierist politics.