Papa Doc: The Truth About Haiti Today
In Haiti, as Nassau Senior once remarked of Ireland under English rule, almost all the moral objects are painful. For generations tourists and diplomats used their impressions as proof that a Black Republic must fail. In 1780 the richest colony in the world, where Rousseau’s opera Le Devin du village was a great favorite, independent Haiti had become by 1958 the country with the lowest national income, highest illiteracy rate, and the worst government in the Western hemisphere. Papa Doc looked like the culmination of a century and a half of negro ineptitude.
James Leyburn sought, in his now outdated classic, first published in 1941, a deeper explanation of this failure in the divisive social structure that grew out of independence and in the international isolation that followed it: Washington, as a Southern senator remarked, would not welcome a black ambassador who might give “fellow blacks proof in hand of the honors which await them from successful revolt on their part.”
The struggle for freedom against France was begun by white planters—colonial imitation of the ideas of 1789, just as North Americans had studied British radicals. The whites were massacred in a slave revolt (1791) and it was yellow fever, mulattoes, black slaves, and British soldiers who defeated Napolean’s reconquest and dream of a French Empire in America. “Damn sugar, damn colonies,” he exclaimed; he pulled out of Haiti and sold Louisiana. By stretching history a little it can be argued that it was negro slaves who gave the United States New Orleans.
Once the whites had gone Haiti fell apart into the divisions that have haunted its history: mulatto against black; north against south. Dessalines, the first Emperor, was an illiterate black, mocked by mulattoes for his clumsy dancing. His successor, King Christophe, ruled only in the north; the south went to the French-educated mulatto, Pétion. For a newly independent nation the problem was, as it still is, how to generate the exports on which the prosperity of the old colony was based. Emancipated slaves did not want to go back to work on sugar plantations. Dessalines and Christophe saw that only forced labor could make Haiti rich as well as independent. It was forced labor that built the Citadel of La Ferrière, superb monument to the determination of ex-slaves to resist the return of their masters; now it is a melancholy ruin perched above a poverty-stricken village.
Forced labor and sharecropping did not last. It was Pétion who carried through the first agrarian reform in the Western Hemisphere. Thirty years after independence two-thirds of the population were landowners. On gardensized plots coffee was the only conceivable commercial crop; the production of subsistence crops exhausted the soil. Eroded landscapes—hardly what the Caribbean tourist expects to see from the air—are a sad reminder that prosperity is not always produced by giving the land to those who till it. Haiti cannot conceivably generate the exports to bring even a modest prosperity. One hundred and sixty agrarian …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.