From Sun Apr 11 10:15:07 2004
Date: Sun, 11 Apr 2004 07:55:08 -0500 (CDT)
From: Bob Corbett <>
To: Haiti mailing list <>
Subject: 21225: Esser: Aristide and Govt of the night (fwd)

From: D. Esser

Aristide and Govt of the night (part 1)

By Selwyn Ryan, Trinidad & Tobago Express, 11 April 2004

The leaders of Caricom have so far taken a principled stand on Haiti and must be applauded for it. One hopes they do not capitulate to pressure from the Bush regime and give diplomatic recognition to the illegal and illegitimate regime that has been installed by the American-led coalition of the willing. If they were to do so it would be a disaster for a majority of the Haitian people and for Caricom member states that have only recently shown the world that there is a democratic formula for getting rid of deeply entrenched corrupt regimes. If one can use votes to expel the Birds from their aviaries of avarice, one can do the same to expel Aristide if he is indeed guilty of all the sins with which he is charged.

I have on occasion been asked to explain why Haiti has found it so difficult to master some of the modalities that allow for peaceful regime change such as have been the norm in the Anglophone Caribbean. To answer this question, one would have to traverse 200 years of Haitian history which is clearly not possible in the limited space and time which is available to this column. We will thus have to offer capsulised explanations with apologies to those who are more expert on Haiti.

When crises arise, many Cassandras shrug and say well Haiti will always be Haiti. That phrase is however meant to imply different things depending on who makes it and in what context. Eurocentrics tend to claim that the problem has to do with Haiti's African cultural realities from which it is said Haiti has never been able to escape. In this view, Haiti—aka as West Africa in the Caribbean—has not been able to make western economic and political institutions work because it has remained isolated by a spiritual curtain and has never had the benefit of sustained colonisation and modernisation as have other Caricom states, notwithstanding its physical presence in the region. Some would in fact argue that it was a mistake to have made Haiti a full member of Caricom.

Afrocentric critics argue that Haiti will always be Haiti because of what the French, the Americans and the British did in the years after 1804 to crush the world's first black republic. In this view, Haiti was robbed, raped and terrorised for 200 years by western imperialism in general and American oppression in particular and that Haiti never had a chance against that assault. According to this view, Dessalines' victory over the French in 1809 was a Pyrrhic one and the Dessalines boast that he had given the French cannibals blood for blood and had avenged America was an idle one. Some analysts of this school hold that the Africans of Haiti had only been lightly tinged by French civilisation and that they were real nigs under the surface. They were imperfectly socialised.

There is yet a third explanation given for the Haitian tragedy, viz, that Dessalines and his successors consciously destroyed what the French had left behind including the plantation system and the system of forced labour. The Revolution also destroyed its sons and daughters—close to half a million of them. There were thus neither the human nor infrastructural resources on which to establish the foundations of a modern state.

Let us explore more fully these two explanations that are conventionally offered for Haiti's tragic predicament. Let us look first at the argument that culture is the only possible explanation for Haiti's unending tragedy. Those who offer this argument about the tenacity of culture point to voudun and its effect on the Haitian thought process and its political culture. Western academics and journalists like Lawrence Harrison and Robert Rotberg consistently make this argument. Rotberg tells us flatly that Haiti is not ready for representative government.

Interestingly, this argument is also held by some of Haiti's hougans or voudun practitioners. In a recent interview with Maring Jimenez, a journalist writing for the Canadian Globe and Mail, Edward Jean-Louis sought to locate Aristide's collapse in the world of the spirits. According to Jean-Louis, Aristide came to power with the aid of the voudun priests and the loas (spirits) who protected him. Aristide mysteriously escaped several assassination attempts and became widely known as a Mistic According to Jean-Louis, Aristide had mystical protection and physical protection. He had the spirits walking with him. But then he offended the voudun priests and the spirit world.

Another hougan, Phillipe Castera, agreed with Jean-Louis. He claimed that voodoo is and has always been part of Haitian politics. It was used by L'Ouverture and Dessalines to rally slaves during the Haitian Revolution, by Papa Doc and Baby Doc to sustain his Palace to Cemetary regime Duvalier and by Aristide himself. As he put it, the National Palace is filled with the spirits of the ancestors.

Aristide, it is said, understood that voudun is part of the Haitian consciousness and that he used the visible and invisible symbols of the religion as part of his efforts to mobilise support—his own symbol was the rooster. According to reports, Aristide was syncretist as most Haitians are, and was initiated by the priests and made many references to voudun symbols in his speeches. Some claim that he was known to have a voudun shrine in his home.

According to this line of discourse, Aristide, like Duvalier, knew that without voodoo, there was no order, and that without order and stability there can be no government. There is a government of the day—the borrowed western forms, and a government of the night which is informed by the principles and practices of vodun.

Aristide's problem then, at least according to this line of analysis, is that he lost the battle for the government of the night. The Cannibal Army which once backed the rebel priest had since turned against its erstwhile leader. Their god—Ogun Feray—and then symbol-the black cross of the dead-had prevailed.

This then, and not the US and France and their neo Duvalierists allies in Haiti, is what was responsible for Aristide's spectacular collapse. He had lost the mandate of the spirit world. The government of the night ultimately triumphed over the government of the day as it has always done in Haiti. Regime Restoration is thus impossible, however it might be resourced and rationalised.

Those who seek to explain the Haitian tragedy by reference to external factors often begin their discourse with a discussion of the circumstances that gave rise to the Haitian Revolution and what followed. Slave holding regimes of 18th century never forgave Haiti. Haiti had to be punished and made to pay reparations in cash and kind for her historical impertinence for turning history up side down. In 1824, the French monarch, Charles X demanded that Haiti cough up 150m francs in reparations. He also insisted that customs duties on French imports be halved—all as indemnity for losses sustained by French planters. The Haitian elite, anxious to escape the diplomatic and economic quarantine imposed against her, reluctantly capitulated.

Haiti was once one of the wealthiest economies in the new world. It in fact used to be known as the Pearl of the Antilles. By 1789, it supplied three-fourths of the world's sugar. CLR James (Black Jacobins) noted that 1,597 ships called into Haiti's ports in 1789, a greater number that called at Marseilles. Many Frenchmen, including creoles, became wealthy and the phrase rich like a creole was frequently heard in France.

In this perspective, Haiti was made poor because it was diplomatically quarantined and economically gouged by a vengeful and frightened Europe and America. As one French foreign minister wrote to American President Monroe ,the existence of a Negro people in arms, occupying a country it has soiled by the most criminal of acts, is a horrible spectacle for all white nations. There are no reasons to grant support to these brigands who have declared themselves the enemies of all government. Monroe agreed. We can never acknowledge her Independence. The peace and safety of a large portion of our union forbids us even to discuss [Haiti]. It should be noted that the 1824 demand by the French monarch, which incidentally the Haitian President was given a mere four hours to accept or else, was not the only demand that was made. Over the 19th and early 20th century, gunboats frequently appeared in Haiti's harbours demanding indemnities of one kind or another.

The Germans, the Americans, the French and the British all participated in this shameful practice of occupying and looting the Haitian treasury. What was euphemistically called gunboat diplomacy was really piracy and buccaneering, modern style. Haiti never had a chance. According to this version of Haitian history, Haitians have been kidnapped and frog-marched by Americans for two centuries before Aristide who personifies the Haitian Resistance. All that has changed is the dramatis personae and the fact that the last coup was soft rather than hard as so many have been in the past.

—To be continued