The assassination of Haitian president Jovenel Mose on Wednesday was the first slaying of a Haitian leader in more than a century. But the scripts that dominate interpretations of Haitian politics, with its cycles of political upheaval abetted by foreign actors, can seem relatively unchanged over time.
Often lost in this narrative are the root causes of the alienation of the Haitian people from their government. Over and over, the Haitian state and its manipulators have failed to support the democratic aspirations of its people, who have faced mutating but ever-present obstacles in their efforts to create a life based on principles of freedom, dignity and true sovereignty.
The convergence of forces that have shaped Haiti’s history came together in July 1915, when Haitian President Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam was killed in Port-au-Prince by a crowd infuriated by the executions of political prisoners. US President Woodrow Wilson immediately ordered the deployment of the Marine Corps under the guise of re-establishing order.
In reality, a US occupation had been in the works for some time, and what was supposed to be a short-term mission lasted 19 years.
Then came the reign of Franois Duvalier in 1957; trained in US schools, he constructed a powerful dictatorship. He received US support for much of his tenure, as did his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier.
US attitudes toward Haiti
President Bill Clinton ordered troops into Haiti in 1994 to restore deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and two years later, a UN military force arrived and stayed for 15 years.
In the 1970s, a group of Haitian novelists living and writing under the Duvalier regime coined the term “spiralism” to describe how they thought it necessary to tell their country’s story. A spiral is a repetition with a difference, and it captures how the cycles of Haitian political history can sometimes feel.
US attitudes toward Haiti initially grew out of the fear incited by the Haitian Revolution among North American enslavers. The US occupation of the early 20th century led to the proliferation of tales of zombies and other representations that served to obscure the brutality of the military suppression of revolt. While Haiti’s national leaders have always broadcast a powerful anti-colonial message, in practice they maintained a very colonial relationship with much of the population.
They largely continued to see the plantation model, or various updates on it, as the only viable one for Haiti. They refused to support the small-scale agriculture that brought substantial, and often unrecognised, economic benefits to residents by allowing them to maintain their individual and community freedom.
Legitimately concerned with the impact of how the outside world viewed Haiti, leaders and intellectuals celebrated Haiti as an example of Black excellence, but they also frequently denigrated their country’s religious and cultural practices in ways that echoed the racist writings of outsiders. The result has been a kind of stalemate between the rural and urban poor and Haitian elites and leaders, who often turn to support from outside the country to help sustain their power.
Throughout the 20th century, the policies of the Haitian state have generally been shaped by external forces, serving the individual interests of those in power more than reflecting the democratic will of the Haitian people. And the many financial and military interventions carried out with the intention to stabilise the situation in Haiti have only worsened the core problems, since each one has really only deepened the fracture between state and nation.
There is no way, in the end, for democracy to be brought somehow from outside. It has to take root in the particular culture and space of a nation.
Dictating responses and policy
There have been many prominent voices among those involved in humanitarian work or the United Nations’ missions in Haiti, notably American physician Paul Farmer and Brazilian diplomat Ricardo Seitenfus, who in recent years have offered compelling critiques about the failures of past approaches. But at moments like this, there is a danger that dominant structures of thought will end up dictating responses and policy.
In response to the problems in Haiti, there is a seemingly reflexive turn to calls for foreign intervention, and economic proposals that reflect the plantation model, in which Haiti is only there to supply low-wage labour and natural resources: export-oriented agriculture, mining, industrial parks or tourist hotels.
The modes of economic life Haitians have developed for themselves, such as family farms and women-led food markets in cities, are largely ignored and considered unsustainable. This stifles the possibility for true democratic transformation, which as Mamyrah Doug-Prosper and Mark Schuller have written can only happen if we support “the Haitian people’s efforts to tell their own stories and share their own dreams.”
Haiti is at a dangerous crossroads. But so, too, is the United States in its engagement with Haiti. Those who want to break the enduring cycle and promote real democracy in Haiti need an approach that is nourished by a careful, and lucid, engagement with what the past teaches us.
We need to begin by undoing the habits of mind that have trapped us in an unsustainable interpretive cycle, in which easy answers and blaming Haitian culture has too often replaced real analysis that allows for an honest evaluation and critique of the impacts of prior US policies.
And we need to understand that Haitian democracy can ultimately only be carried out by the Haitian population, based on the principles and aspirations that they have developed through their own histories of struggle.
Millery Polyn is the associate dean for faculty and associate professor of Caribbean history at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualised Study. He is the author of “From Douglass to Duvalier: US. African Americans, Haiti, and Pan Americanism, 1870-1964” and the co-editor of “The Haiti Reader: History, Culture, Politics.” Laurent Dubois is a professor at Duke University and author of “The Language of the Game: How to Understand Soccer.”