Haitian Essay

A Haitian citizen, registering to vote for the first time.
Photo: Two Tone Productions

By Robert Fatton, Jr.

To understand Haiti’s history — only ten of its 48 presidents have served out their terms and there have been only two peaceful electoral transitions since the beginning of the republic over 200 years ago — it is critical to look at the material and historical circumstances of the colonial period. The country’s authoritarian tradition is rooted in the legacies of French colonialism and the plantation economy. Based on slavery, this economy created a real dilemma for Haiti’s early leaders, a dilemma that was never resolved satisfactorily.

There has always been a very clear link between Haiti’s economic structure and its political system. Immediately after gaining independence in 1804, the country’s leaders desperately needed to restart a devastated economy — not only to feed their people but also to provide for a strong military to ensure the young country’s independence against the very real threat of invasion. The great powers of the time — defenders of white supremacy and the architects of the colonial system — abhorred the first successful black revolution against slavery and feared its consequences for their empires.

But Haiti’s economy was dependent on agricultural exports, primarily sugar, which required plantation production and thus coercive forms of labor. Haiti’s founding fathers — Toussaint, Dessalines, Christophe, and Pétion — faced a cruel choice: how could they reconcile the promise of emancipation and the former slaves’ aspirations to become an independent peasantry with the drastic labor discipline that the plantation economy required? If they supported the former slaves, they would condemn the country to material underdevelopment. If they promoted an immediate economic recovery, they would have to impose military discipline — thus emasculating emancipation itself.

They chose the latter, and though their attempt to restore the plantation system was not completely self-serving, the top officers participated in — and benefited from — a grossly unequal redistribution of land, which established them as a new class of planters. So at the very beginning of independence, a real class society crystallized, opening a wide gulf between the people and a militarized state serving the few.

Along with the issue of class, there was also a standing question of color. Even under the French, mulattos had enjoyed more status, privileges, and wealth than the black majority, and this reality carried over into the new republic, continuing to generate political tensions and conflicts between the two groups. Color has been exploited for political ends throughout Haitian history.

The former slaves, who wanted to own some land and subsist independently on it, simply refused to put up with the attempted restoration of the plantation economy and with it a new servitude. They abandoned the estates, becoming what they’d been when they resisted slavery: “marrons” — individuals suspicious of the state and fleeing its authority. Freedom, for them, came to mean freedom from any central authority, representative or otherwise. Gradually, the plantation system collapsed, and Haiti became a republic of peasant proprietors bent mostly on subsistence production.

Paradoxically, the rise of this peasantry hindered whatever chances there might have been to build a productive economy. Agriculture declined, not just because peasant smallholders kept subdividing the land but also because the state failed utterly to provide significant incentives for peasant production. Peasants — “moun andeyo,” people “without” the system — were taxed and marginalized but not represented. Their plight embodied the country’s material stagnation and acute patterns of class exploitation.

Even while failing their people materially, the overwhelming majority of Haitian leaders have claimed to embody the people’s — and indeed God’s — will. With rare exceptions, Haiti’s constitutions, beginning with Toussaint L’ouverture ‘s 1801 Charter, have ratified the providential authoritarianism of a single all-powerful individual. Toussaint set the tone for future generations, shaping political customs and expectations and legitimating the idea of personal rule, by declaring himself Governor General of the island “for life.”

But even authoritarianism has been a response to the country’s material scarcity and unproductive economy. Since poverty and destitution have always been the norm, and in such a class-divided society private avenues to wealth have always been rare, politics became an entrepreneurial vocation, virtually the sole means of material and social advancement for those not born into wealth and privilege. This is known as “la politique du ventre,” the “politics of the belly.”

Those holding political power have used any means available to monopolize the spoils and maintain their positions of privilege and authority. Relinquishing office peacefully has always been extremely costly, difficult, and rare. Not surprisingly, compromise has been extraordinarily uncommon and the army, for most of Haiti’s history the institution with a monopoly on violence, has played a decisive role in resolving — and instigating — political conflicts.


When François Duvalier took power in 1957, he challenged and undermined the army (which, as a potential rival for power, he distrusted) by creating a paramilitary organization, the “macoutes,” which became the vehicle of a despotic order. Duvalier had some popular legitimacy based on a populist, demagogic ideology of “negritude,” a form of black power. But black power — in this instance, Duvalier’s claim to defend the people against the interests of the mulatto elite — was a cover that merely masked the ascendancy of a black elite over the poor majority. Duvalier’s regime failed to generate any improvement in Haiti’s economic or political life, and its tyranny sparked a massive exodus of Haitians to other shores.

When Duvalier died in 1971, his son Jean-Claude assumed the presidency for life. Promising an economic revolution and a political liberalization, he stopped the worst excesses of the “macoutes,” tolerated some dissent, and rehabilitated the army as an institution. The country experienced a short period of economic development and hesitant democratization, but by the early 1980s his policies — known as “Jean-Claudisme” — and the economic gains they produced had been exhausted. Massive corruption and state predation won out over liberalization, and repression became the rule again.

Yet that liberalization had contributed to the emergence of an increasingly assertive civil society, and many nongovernmental organizations — including the radical, Liberation Theology-informed wing of the Catholic Church, known as Ti Legliz (little church) — began calling for social justice and human rights. After dissent and growing mass protests forced Jean-Claude Duvalier to flee the country in February 1986, a wave of national optimism and euphoria buried temporarily Haiti’s lasting conflicts, but a series of confrontations between the army and the new popular movements soon ensued, with the military aborting the 1987 elections and seizing power following sham elections in 1988.

Under Duvaliers, the army had become a profoundly divided institution, and it soon faced internecine struggles, which generated a series of coups and countercoups. Finally, under massive domestic and international pressures, the military allowed civilian elections. Led by the charismatic, prophetic messianism of Father Jean Bertrand-Aristide, the huge majority of poor Haitians became “Lavalas” — an unstoppable flood. Elected in a landslide, Aristide assumed the presidency on February 7, 1991, embodying the hopes and aspirations of the “moun andeyo.”

Haiti’s political and military elites found Aristide’s brand of politics thoroughly unacceptable, and barely seven months after his inauguration, Aristide was overthrown in another bloody coup. From exile, he managed to sustain his domestic popularity and mobilized international public opinion against Raoul Cédras’ military dictatorship, returning in 1994 backed by a force of 20,000 American troops.

But Aristide had changed immensely. Constrained by the overwhelming American presence and by the demands of international financial institutions, he began collaborating with former enemies to implement policies that he had hitherto rejected. And though he engineered the country’s first peaceful electoral transition of power (relinquishing the presidency to René Préval in 1996), he’d become increasingly Machiavellian, remaining the power behind the throne.

Aristide’s Lavalas party was plagued by internal struggle, and he did little to transform the inherited authoritarian tradition. He armed young unemployed thugs, the Chimères, to intimidate the opposition, and he resisted making meaningful political concessions. While voicing a radical rhetoric, he followed neoliberal strictures of structural adjustment, and his regime was incapable of resisting the temptations of corruption, despite its promise of “peace of mind and peace in the belly.”

Finally, Aristide’s own Chimères turned against him, eventually joining forces with former soldiers and death squad leaders and sealing his political fate. That these armed insurgents, some former members of the disbanded and despised military, found little popular resistance in their march to power symbolized Aristide’s ultimate failure. The triumph of the guns proved once again that the old Creole proverb, “Konstitisyon se papye, bayonet se fe” — A constitution is made up of paper, but bayonets are made up of steel — defined Haitian politics.

But this time the army had no monopoly on the means of violence. Different political groups formed a number of armed gangs over which they had uncertain control, gangs who shifted allegiances for financial gain. Former “macoutes” who had subsequently joined the Cédras junta’s brutal “attachés” and the paramilitary organization Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (FRAPH) reemerged to form new death squads and criminal “Zinglendos” bands. Narco-traficants established their own violent syndicates.


MINUSTAH (the multinational U.N. peacekeeping force) and the interim government of President Alexandre and Prime Minister Latortue have failed to curb criminal activities, and they have themselves used repressive means against Aristide’s supporters while tolerating the abuses of right-wing paramilitary groups. Under these conditions, a meaningful national reconciliation is unlikely even if parliamentary and presidential elections are held at the end of the year as promised. It is difficult to see how such elections can settle Haiti’s enduring crisis. Given the climate of insecurity and the weak and divided electoral commission, it is hard to believe that an environment favorable for free and fair elections exists. With many areas of the country under the armed control of gangs and former military, patterns of systematic intimidation and fraudulent vote counting are to be expected. Moreover, even if logistical problems were to be resolved, Lavalas participation remains a question mark — and without it, the electoral process would be a rather meaningless ritual, with little legitimacy. Given the constellation of internal and external forces, it is likely that power will return to the most reactionary elements of Haitian society, that the army will be reestablished, and that the ugly realities of the past will reappear dressed in new garb.

But it is also a fact that the international community has neither the will nor the interest to effect the transformations required for establishing an equitable and democratic Haiti. The powers that be have no appetite for long-term ventures in state building; the costs are simply too high, especially for a country like Haiti that has no strategic value and no significant natural resources. This is not to absolve the local Haitian ruling class, but to indicate that it is not alone in its resistance to social change and equity.

The current situation invites pessimism, but Haitians have always struggled against all odds. Things have happened in Haiti that are absolutely incredible, given the conditions. That the revolution occurred at all is incredible, that slaves could revolt and in fact abolish slavery — defeating Napoleon’s best generals. Had I been a Haitian at that time, I would have told the revolutionaries, “You must be crazy.” But they did it.

And of course there were all kinds of consequences, some of which led to this current situation, but the revolution itself shows that even the most complicated situations can find a solution, that something can happen that may defy the logic of its time.

Robert Fatton, Jr. is a Professor of Government and Foreign Affairs in the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia.

Tags:democracy, Haiti

Haitian Revolution Essay

In 1791 revolution broke out in the French colony of Saint Domingue, later called Haiti. The Haitian Revolution resounded in communities surrounding the Atlantic Ocean. One of the wealthiest European outposts in the New World, the Caribbean island's western third had some of the largest and most brutal slave plantations. Slave laborers cultivated sugar, coffee, indigo, and cotton, and they endured horrible death rates, requiring constant infusions of slaves from Africa. In 1789 roughly 465,000 black slaves lived in the French colony on the island, along with fewer than 31,000 whites. In addition, there were about 23,000 free blacks and mixed-race people called gens de couleur, who might own land and accrue wealth but had no political rights. In 1791 this tense racial situation exploded. The French Revolution (1789-99) led to a civil war in Saint Domingue that had a bewildering array of desertions, betrayals, massacres, and invasions. Throughout the convoluted course of events, two larger trends emerged: First, the ideals of the rights of man extended further and further into Haitian society; and, second, slaves rejected their bondage and became committed to their freedom. In May 1791 the French Convention granted political rights to gens de couleur whose parents were born free, but this act only seemed to create even more agitation, antagonizing whites and opening up new possibilities for slaves. By the summer, slave uprisings had broken out in various parts of Saint Domingue, and royalists began to organize in opposition to the republicans of the French Revolution. In reward for their service in defending the republic, the French government extended political rights to the gens de couleur, regardless of birth, in April 1792. In the meantime, all sides began to recruit slaves into their armies, promising freedom to those who fought as soldiers. The war became more complicated in 1793 when the British invaded Saint Domingue. The Spanish, who had a colony on the eastern two-thirds of Hispaniola, also entered the fray by supporting armies of escaped slaves, including a force under the command of an ex-slave named Toussaint Louverture. Pressed on all sides, commissioners from republican France, led by Leger Felicte Sonthonax in the northern part of the colony, began to extend freedom and citizenship to every slave in summer and autumn 1793. Inspired by this application of the rights of man, the French National Convention abolished slavery in all French possessions on February 4, 1794. This action transformed the conflict. Louverture abandoned the Spanish and began to fight for the French and the freedom of his people. Over the next couple of years, Louverture consolidated power on the island and created rigid rules that compelled ex-slaves to work on plantations so as to make the island productive again. In 1795, because of events in Europe, the Spanish signed a peace treaty that ceded their colony on the island to the French. In 1798...

Loading: Checking Spelling


Read more

The Justified Haitian Slave Revolt Essay

1050 words - 4 pages "On January 1, 1804, Haiti declared independence, becoming the second independent nation in the West and the first free black republic in the world" ("History, par 11). This triumph followed the long and violent Haitian slave revolution in which Haiti, specifically the island of Saint Dominique suffered from. After the enlightenment the Rights of Man act provided equality among all Frenchmen, including blacks and mulattos. Fury rose in the...

The Revolution That Never Happened Essay

1284 words - 5 pages 1789 marked a historic year in the struggles against slavery in the French colony of Saint-Domingue. The French Revolution played an important part in influencing the Haitian Revolution of 1791; it gave way to the Haitian Revolution which consisted of many other separate revolutions that occurred at the same time. Saint-Domingue, now known as Haiti, had the most wealth in terms of crops that could be excavated by black slaves. Toussaint...

Haiti: A Troubled People

1377 words - 6 pages Haitian culture is a mixed native Indians, African slaves, and French and Spaniard settlers. After Haiti gained its independence there was much political and economical turmoil. When Haitian immigrated to the United States, many became doctors, teachers, social workers, and professionals. Although there was Haitian success stories there are more stories of failure and hopelessness because of the worry of being deported and the racism that they...

Race and the United States Occupation of Haiti

1415 words - 6 pages The United States foreign expansion after the Civil War was characterized by an intensified interest in establishing political and military control in the Caribbean and the Pacific. One of the most important nations in the Caribbean was the French colony of Saint-Dominigue which would later be named Haiti following a slave rebellion resulting in the Haitian Revolution. Saint-Dominigue became the single richest colony in the western hemisphere,...

Misinterpretation of African Based Religions: Vodou

2091 words - 8 pages There is absolutely no human group which does no react to the changes, disturbing events and crises which the dynamics of history introduce into the physical or cultural context to which the group belongs. Any quick change, an internal or external conflict whatever, produces a crisis. To each crisis, society responds by slowly developing new forms and new means to bring about balance within the limits of the particular cultural group. Sometimes...

The Influence of Toussaint Louverture on American Abolitionists

2899 words - 12 pages With the advancement in irrigation technology by French engineers and the increase in the popularity of sugar, the French colony of Saint Domingue became one of the worlds largest sugar producers. With sugar came problems for the many enslaved Africans that were forced to provide manual labor for the colony's sugar harvesting efforts. Oppression, violence, inequality (of a caste-like system), and many other hardships led to hard...

The Haitian Relationship With the Dominican Republic

2867 words - 11 pages The Haitian Relationship With the Dominican Republic The Haitian revolution had tremendous repercussions in the social, political and economic arenas of the world, but especially for the relationship with the neighboring nation of the Dominican Republic. In order to understand the development of the Dominican-Haitian relationship after the Haitian revolution one must examine how the two colonies of Hispanola dealt with each other before it....

A Century in the Development of Haiti (1915 to 2014): Foreign Domination Serving Foreign Interests

2113 words - 8 pages US intervention in Haiti exacerbated poverty and inequality within the past century stifling Haitian democracy and independence. These relations have adversely affected the economic and social life as well, creating the conditions which Haiti currently faces. I have chosen to start in the year 1915 because that is when US Marines began their occupation of Haiti. I have ended in modern day because the US’s relations with Haiti have continued to be...

Revolutions Around the World

1248 words - 5 pages During the late eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century, the colonies of the New World, and countries of the Old World, were undergoing revolutions and reforms. In North America, the United States created an economic and political powerhouse; the modern world’s first major nation to become a democracy. The Haitian Rebellion dramatically inspired other slaves and people to rise above government and be given the rights to freedom. The...

Haitian Homes and Way of Life

1493 words - 6 pages Haiti was the first and only country in the history of civilization whose independence is the result of a successful slave rebellion (Haiti Interesting Facts). Haiti’s beautiful geography, deep history, interesting people, diverse lifestyle, and complex society are very fascinating topics. Geography Haiti has many interesting and beautiful land formations. It is located on the Western part of the island Hispaniola. Haiti is covered in mountains....

Revolutions: The History and Implications

1600 words - 6 pages A great revolutionary once said, “The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall.” The revolutionary in this quote, Che Guevara, epitomizes the notion that revolutions are not a random occurrence but rather a continuous push for a fundamental change. In the framework of revolutions that have occurred in the world, most notably those that have occurred in Britain, America, France, and Haiti; one realizes that...


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *