Chris Harman


Haiti: Pawn in their game

(March 1986)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 85, March 1986, pp. 18–20.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

MOST PEOPLE’S image of the Duvaliers’ Haiti came from Graham Greene’s novel, The Comedians. It was of a capricious, blind, irrational tyranny. A society where thugs in dark glasses have a license to kill at will, with neither supporters nor opponents of the regime safe from random murder. A regime without any apparent purpose besides the maintenance of the tyranny itself, in a land of unbelievable poverty. All this wrapped up in voodoo superstition – and under the benevolent gaze of Uncle Sam.

It seemed a monstrous aberration even among the barbaric tyrannies of the US’s Central American backyard, something which the normal categories of political analysis could not cope with.

There was an element of truth in this picture. François Duvalier – ‘Papa Doc’ – did rule by the unpredictable use of terror against anyone who might potentially be opposed to him. But simply to state that says very little about the regime he established. It does not explain how it came into existence or how it managed to last longer than any other in the 180-year history of the state. Nor does it provide any understanding of the possibilities open in Haiti now.

The starting point for any serious analysis has to be the tragic dilemma which confronted the people of what was then the French colony of Saint Domingue when they first won their freedom in the world’s only fully successful slave revolt.

Saint Domingue had been the jewel of the Caribbean, the centre of world sugar production and possibly the wealthiest colony in existence. Its trade was greater than that of the fledgling USA, and it accounted for two thirds of French imports.

But its wealth depended upon the cultivation of the sugar plantations by slaves. By the late 1780s 40,000 a year were being dragged to the colony from Africa. Such were the rigours of the forced labour they undertook that they died much more quickly than they reproduced themselves: only the importation of even more slaves could have kept the sugar exports flowing.

This was something slaves who had freed themselves through a dozen years of bitter warfare would never succumb to.

The early rulers, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Dessalines and Henri Christophe, tried to get sugar production going again by using military force to compel the ex-slaves to work on the plantations as share croppers. But this was too much like slavery for the mass of people to tolerate. They fled the plantations to till small plots of land for themselves in the mountains, and after the death of Christophe in 1820 the whole plantation system collapsed.

But with it also collapsed any possibility of sustained economic development.

From that point on 95 percent of the country’s population lived by tilling individual plots of land, too small for the application even of the plough let alone of more advanced techniques. They were cut off from even the small towns and provided most of their own food. They traded the few coffee beans they grew by the laborious method of walking miles to the nearest market. They had no incentive to improve the land – quite the opposite.

When all other means failed they could make some sort of living for themselves by cutting down bits of the forest even though this caused continual erosion of the land.

The conditions of the ex-slaves turned small peasants might have been tolerable if they had been left to themselves.

The young state was continually threatened from outside: the very existence of a country run by slaves who had risen up and slaughtered their masters was an abomination to colonial powers intent upon subjecting most of the rest of the world to their rule. And so from the beginning there was an inevitably high level of militarisation.

The immediate foreign threat was removed with French recognition in 1826. But the price of that recognition was immense: as twelve French warships steamed into Port au Prince harbour, the Haitians were told they had to pay an indemnity of 150 million francs.

This was the beginning of a burden of debt that was to plague the country for more than a century.

In the late nineteenth century each of the great powers saw the chance of preying upon Haiti’s weakness. French, British, German and American warships would threaten the ports the moment Haitian courts resisted the claims of businessmen from those countries: the US alone sent warships into Haitian harbours twenty times between 1860 and 1915.

The years 1908-15 saw German and American interests battling it out in the classic imperialist manner to get control of Haiti’s banking system and customs revenues. German merchants financed coups by Haitian soldiers and politic and the German fleet made a visit in 1912.

But the US soon upstaged them, marines made a full-blooded landing in 1915 and occupied the whole country for 19 years, killing 2,000 resistance fighters in the single year of 1919.

But it was not only an external burden that had to be carried by the mass of small peasants. The Haitian state had within it, from the very beginning, a very well entrenched ruling class.

The old white slave-owning class had fled or been massacred. But this still left intact a class of mulatto (i.e. descended from white fathers and black mothers) land-owners who had owned a third of the plantations before the revolution. Although the mulattoes only constituted about five percent of the population (and not all of them were rich), they tended to have a monopoly of the skills needed to administer the state.

Alongside them there emerged in the new state a highly privileged group of blacks, particularly from among the officers of the revolutionary army, who expected to emulate the life styles of both the mulattoes and the ruling classes of Europe.

But the ruling class, whether mulatto or black, soon found its possibilities for accumulating wealth were constrained. Externally it was continually squeezed by the pressure of the great capitalist powers. Internally, the system of small land-holdings destroyed any possibility for making profitable investments in agriculture and prevented the creation of any appreciable market for manufactured goods.

Some of the mulatto families did do well out of control over internal trade. But for most of the ruling class there was only one guaranteed way of getting wealth: by gaining control of the state treasury. Politics in Haiti from the death of Christophe right through to present day became a question of competition between rival elements within the ruling class to get control of government funds.

From this followed a characteristic pattern. Presidents would come to power with promises of ‘reforms’ and ‘democracy’ and then resort to all sorts of repression in an effort to hold on to office while they built up their personal fortunes, until overthrown by tumultuous revolutions, coups and civil wars.

The only ideological element that was traditionally involved in such politics was that based upon the division within the ruling class between mulatto and black.

The mulattoes would claim, in a quite racist way, that they alone were civilised, cultured and fit to rule. They would paint a picture of Haiti’s history in which every good – including the revolt against slavery itself – had been due to the actions of mulatto heroes.

The black section of the ruling class would counter-claim that they represented the overwhelming majority of the population and that it was blacks such as Toussaint, Dessalines and Christophe who established free Haiti.

It is very important to note that the number of people involved in these vicious and often bloody arguments was quite small. They were the arguments of the urban elite, of a grouping which even today is estimated to amount to no more than 30,000 people out of a population of five million.

The chasm between the elite and the mass of the population was enormously wide.

Ninety percent of the population still lived in the countryside, farming plots of land that tended to get smaller and less productive as population pressure grew over time, had never been far from the area of their birth, spoke Creole instead of French, were completely illiterate and maintained their own cultural identity through the practice of the voodoo religion their slave forebears had brought from Africa.

Very occasionally groups of peasant fighters would be paid to join the battles within the elite. But for most of the time the only effect of the politics of the ruling class upon the masses was the negative one: it foreclosed the possibility of anyone ever finding a way of breaking out of the vicious cycle of impoverishment.

The inter-war years saw two small changes to this overall situation. The American occupation was so crude that it led a number of intellectuals to try to overcome their separation from the vast mass in the countryside.

A Noiriste (black cultural) movement developed among them which attempted to understand the Creole, voodoo traditions of the peasantry and which sought to explain the political divisions between mulatto and black in terms of class (and, indeed, the beginnings of a black urban working class).

The political significance of these changes was shown in 1946. An attempt by the incumbent president to extend his term of office led to a strike by students and sixth formers that spread to the civil service. After military intervention, elections were organised.

All this was true to past form. But this time the elections themselves involved a new factor – the activity of non-ruling class groups in the cities. The Noiriste intellectuals (among them François Duvalier) showed they could mobilise the black middle classes. And the school teacher Fignole showed he could organise urban worker support through his populist, anti-communist Movement of Workers and Peasants.

The victor, Estime, promised a reform programme. He was bitterly opposed by the mulatto section of the ruling class. But this only increased his appeal to radical and Noiriste elements. Even the Communist Party announced it was dissolving itself in order to back the government. And François Duvalier used positions in the health and labour ministries to build a degree of popular support for himself (for instance, among the chauffeur guides’ union of Port au Prince, one of the strongest organised sections of workers).

In fact, Estime’s government proved incapable of turning its words into deeds. He soon reverted to the old methods of arresting opponents, closing down newspapers and rigging elections. The military intervened once again in 1950, running elections in which one of the leading generals, Magloire, got 99 percent of the votes!

The new regime sought to rule in the traditional Haitian pattern. It based itself on a section of the mulatto elite, ignored the newly politicised urban middle classes and banned their parties. The president himself showed a rapacity that was outstanding even by Haitian political standards, accumulating a personal fortune estimated at between 12 and 28 million dollars. This lost him the support even of the mulatto elite.

His attempt to extend his period of rule produced a repetition of the events of 1946. Secondary school students began strikes which spread until the capital was paralysed.

The president fled, to enjoy his wealth abroad. But the movement against him involved a mass of diverse elements – the rival mulatto and black sections of the ruling class, the black urban middle class, and the new sections of urban workers, with dozens of opportunist politicians forging shifting alliances as they sought to get state power (and the state treasury) into their own hands.

A period of bloody strife followed which lasted for several months. The politicisation of the urban masses meant that neither section of the ruling class could consolidate its hold any more. But the underdeveloped character of the Haitian economy meant that neither the urban middle class nor the urban working class could challenge their hold on its own count.

François Duvalier was the politician who benefited from this state of affairs. He managed to play his opponents in the black electoral camp off against one another until, when a presidential election was finally held, it was a simple choice between himself and a representative of the mulatto elite, Dejoie. Given that Duvalier had the support of the black middle class, the black working class and the army, he was bound to win.

Duvalier was not the candidate of Haitian business interests – his opponent was. Nor was he the nominee of the US embassy. He was an opportunist politician, who would engage in radical rhetoric while balancing between rival forces so as to rise above them all.

Once in office, he manoeuvred very cleverly to consolidate his power and to destroy all potential sources of opposition.

He worked with the head of the army to round up supporters of political rivals. Then he very carefully undermined the base of the head of the army by mobilising junior officers against him. He turned his fire against the mulatto business community, but cultivated the Syrio-Lebanese businessmen who ran about half the country’s internal trade.

He carried out a vicious campaign of intimidation against one of his opponents who had political support among the urban workers, but was careful to do nothing to upset the unions until this campaign was over – and then smashed the unions as well.

He bought US support by getting the US Marine Corps to train the Haitian forces, but was prepared for a temporary break with the US when it tried to control his actions.

He got Catholic Church support by dropping his old Noiriste anti-clericalism until the late 1950s when he destroyed its political independence by arresting priests and deporting the primate; but he was quite happy to come to an agreement with the Pope six years later which gave himself a say in the appointment of bishops.

However, it was not just clever manoeuvring which gave him his power. The reason he was able to manoeuvre so easily was that he established a new political base.

He could break apart the small urban elites who had always dominated Haitian politics in the past because he mobilised against them a key section of the great majority of the population who were black, Creole speaking, illiterate peasants.

The 10,000 or so members of the notorious paramilitary force, the Tontons Macoutes, came from the traditionally most influential rural stratum, the better off peasants who could command the allegiance of their fellows and often held positions as voodoo priests. Duvalier, by providing them with a licence to kill, provided them with a means of advancing their own positions and tied them to his regime.

‘Tontons Macoutes were an organ of repression, but they were also a means of recruiting support throughout the country.’ (Nicholls, Haiti from Dessalines to Duvalier, p.–215)

They provided a nationwide network of Creole speaking supporters who could, for the first time since the days of the independence, constitute an organic connection in each village with the French speaking national centre of power in Port au Prince.

Of course, for the mass of people in the villages things did not improve at all under Duvalier. If anything, average living standards declined as a bigger population scratched at a decreasingly fertile soil. But bitter experience had taught Haitian peasants that the presence of this or that government in Port au Prince did not make much difference to them. They

‘were shrewdly aware that their lot under a succeeding regime [to that of Pap Doc’s] would probably be no better. And so he could enjoy their “benevolent neutrality”.’ (Nicholls, p.–215)

It was this which enabled Papa Doc easily to withstand all attempts to remove him – either from representatives of the old elite, from groups of left wing guerrillas from Cuba, or from opponents enjoying US sympathy based in the neighbouring Dominican Republic. It also enabled him to do what no previous Haitian president had been able to do – to ensure a smooth succession for his own nominee (his son, Jean Claude or ‘Baby Doc’) in 1971.

Baby Doc survived much longer than most commentators expected. But he began to encounter a growing number of problems.

The land hunger in the countryside led to a growing wave of emigration, both to Port au Prince, which grew in population from 250,000 to nearly a million in 20 years, and abroad (chiefly to the US).

Attempts to cope with this by reliance on US aid led to increasing US and IMF demands that the aid be used efficiently. Attempts to placate such criticism by giving government positions to non-political ‘technocrats’ led to a slight relaxation of the old terror, allowing very muted criticism of the regime into newspapers and pamphlets.

Finally, Jean Claude allowed his own greed to sway his political judgement. He boosted his personal fortune by marrying into one of the wealthiest of the mulatto ruling class families, the Benets. But this upset his own black middle class supporters.

They feared that from now on the rake-off from controlling the state would go to the old, traditional rulers and not to themselves. Even members of the Tontons Macoutes began to say that they were ‘not prepared to fight for a mulatto government’.

Attempts by the government to go over the heads of the Macoutes and to appeal to the rural masses with radio programmes in Creole further increased such tensions. The old Duvalierist paper Panorama began, for instance, to criticise the government for ‘treason’ to the ideas of Papa Doc.

Eventually the point was reached at the end of November last year when a movement could begin to develop somewhat similar to those that overthrew unpopular presidents in 1946, 1950 and 1956. Young people demonstrated in the north west town of Gonaives ‘against hunger and injustice’. Police shot four dead and the regime shut down a Catholic radio station for reporting the incident.

But five weeks later there were more demonstrations in the town and through the month of January these spread throughout the island, with student and school student strikes spreading to the shopkeepers who would close their premises in sympathy.

For the first time in 29 years, the power of the Tontons Macoutes was not sufficient to terrorise the shopkeepers into reopening.

Jean Claude was eventually given his marching orders by some of those who had been closest to him. They feared that the revolt against his rule would turn into a revolution. There is no doubt they were advised in this by the Americans.

The new regime is very much Duvalierism without Duvalier. The army and the police are still under people who rose to the top under the old regime, and they are doing their best to protect the members of the now dissolved Tontons Macoutes from popular vengeance.

The calls of these murderers for ‘moderation’ are echoed by a powerful section of the Catholic Church, which is now using its position as one of the few legitimate focuses of discontent under Baby Doc to try to prevent an eradication of everything he stood for. And the American embassy, apparently, is advising the new government to call quick elections before any left wing organisation has the chance to get off the ground.

It is by no means clear how successful such attempts to re-establish the situation will be. Reports suggest that the unrest is far from over.

The great danger must be of a rerun of the old cycle of Haitian politics, with a period of unrest and rebellion simply serving to bring to power a new demagogic ruler who will then disillusion all the hopes placed in him. No doubt in both sections of the ruling class, in the urban black middle class and in the better off section of the peasantry there are already would-be politicians grooming themselves for this role.

But even in an impoverished economy like that of Haiti, changes take place, gradually, over the years, that produce new political possibilities. Not only has Port au Prince grown massively since Papa Doc took power 29 years ago, but within it there is now a sizeable industrial working class (about 60,000 strong).

It is, of course, very small compared with the total population of over five million. But it is much larger than either section of the ruling class and comparable in size with the urban black middle class. If it could attract around it older, non-industrial sections of workers (dockworkers, bus and lorry drivers etc.) it could make a very big impact in a period of acute political crisis, drawing behind it sections of the peasantry.

Whether this happens will depend, in part, on the degree to which Haitian socialists, who see organising such workers as the priority, emerge into the open.

What can be said is that if this does not happen, the future for Haiti is likely to be grim, despite the end of the Duvaliers.

Last updated on 27 October 2019