It started out as one of the most inspiring stories in human history: slaves rebelled against their masters, fought a long, bloody revolution, and took control of an oppressive nation. But since that auspicious beginning, the history of Haiti and its people has been fraught with turmoil. During the last few decades, Alex Dupuy, professor of sociology, has been searching for reasons and sharing his insights with his students and with the world.
Though now a U.S. citizen, Dupuy is a native of Haiti and has witnessed firsthand the schisms in Haitian society. He traces the roots of conflict all the way back to the revolution that ended in 1804 with the declaration of Haitian independence from France.
“The revolution created tremendous animosity between the new state rulers and the wealthy elites, as well as divisions between both of them and subordinate classes,” Dupuy says. “Even though the slaves rose up and liberated themselves, when their leaders came to power they almost immediately created a predatory state structure.”
Leaders of the rebellion took land and became plantation owners themselves, creating a new landed peasantry. The postrevolution government quickly institutionalized these practices and seized land and other assets wherever and whenever it could.
“The new owners rented out parts of the plantations to other former slaves in much the same way that sharecropping occurred in the United States,” Dupuy says. “The workers leasing the land could never get ahead and remained the equivalent of peasants.”
The equation became further charged by what Dupuy calls “color divisions.” The wealthy elite was heavily populated by mulattos and light-skinned blacks; the new political leaders were predominantly dark-skinned blacks. Animosity between the groups quickly grew. As a result, all the divisions became entrenched.
Further exacerbating the situation, other countries did not recognize the new nation. Given the importance of slavery, the colonial powers of Europe had no interest politically or economically in seeing Haiti succeed. The nascent government of the United States was balancing slave states with free within its own borders and was nervous to see a slave population rise up and create an independent nation.
“It took until 1865, after the American Civil War, for the United States finally to recognize Haiti formally, even though the country was virtually in its own backyard,” Dupuy says.
Despite the high ideals of its own revolution that preceded the Haitian revolution, France was no better. The French extracted reparations for lost assets from its former colony. Haiti, which had been the wealthiest colony in the Caribbean, generating more revenue than all the British West Indies colonies combined, became one of the poorest nations on earth.
Decades of instability and rising violence led the United States to occupy the country in 1915.
“This did bring about a certain level of stability,” Dupuy says. “However, it did nothing to change any of the class or race/color issues.”
The American occupation created one big change: a unified modern army that led to the centralization of government, with Port-Au-Prince becoming the seat of power. In 1957, when the military permitted a movement toward democracy, Dr. Fran??ois “Papa Doc” Duvalier was elected to a six-year term as president on the promise of ending the mulatto elite’s hold on economic power. Soon after, Duvalier opened the country to manufacturing, but the economic elite stayed in place and rewarded Duvalier with generous kickbacks.
Duvalier marginalized the army and created his own “Volunteers for National Security,” or Tontons Macoutes. The Tontons Macoutes quickly became a national secret police that terrorized the populace. Duvalier declared himself “president for life.”
The United States viewed “Papa Doc” Duvalier warily. There were even rumors that the CIA had tried to unseat him on two occasions. However, with the Cold War at its peak and Castro controlling Cuba, American Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon tolerated him. After he died in 1971, his son Jean-Claude took power at age 19. Though Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier was reputed to be as ruthless and greedy as his father, the United States provided his government with aid.
“U.S. support did not, however, improve economic conditions in Haiti,” Dupuy says. If anything, workers in the export assembly industries producing for the U.S. market became even more exploited and Duvalier stole more money from the public treasury.”
Deposed in 1986, Duvalier escaped to France, where currently he lives off the hundreds of millions of dollars he took with him. Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected on a reform platform that pledged the elimination of the Tontons Macoutes. But when Aristide ran up against the same class and race/color issues that his predecessors faced, he soon resorted to their practices.
Aristide was deposed in 1991, a mere seven months after he had taken office. He was later returned to office and then deposed again in February 2004 (though he says he was kidnapped, but it seems that he fled the country willingly in fear for his life). A U.S.-backed interim government replaced him; subsequent violence resulted in the arrival of U.N. and French troops trying to keep the peace.
“And here we are, with essentially the same problems that Haiti began with after the revolution,” Dupuy says.
Dupuy has brought clarity to the Haitian situation not just for his students but as a resource often cited in such news outlets as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the BBC, and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.
“The problems of the country seem daunting and intractable, but unless they are solved democratically they will not be solved at all,” he says.
“A leader from one side has to emerge and either give some ground or unify both sides on a major issue,” he adds. “Be it the reach of the government, the exploitive practices of the elites, the presumptions about race–something has to be resolved. Haiti has extensive resources. It has good people. It could be a paradise, a jewel of the Caribbean. But the divisions and perceptions have gone on for so long, I am afraid it will not be easy.”
He sighs and shakes his head.
“Sometimes it seems the Haitian people are their own worst enemies.”