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Haiti: The New Violence

Consider the case of CARE. Few organizations are doing more to help the people of Haiti. CARE is running a pre-school education program, constructing community water systems, planting trees, advising peasant farmers, and, most importantly, providing meals to 350,000 people a day. Nonetheless, CARE’s trucks have been hijacked with such regularity that the organization has had to ask the government for help. “I know of no other country in the world where we allow the host country’s army to come near our trucks,” said Virginia Ubik, the American in charge of CARE’s program in Haiti. “Here, soldiers routinely go out as guards.”

To some extent, the attacks can be explained as the desperate acts of a hungry people. Even before Duvalier’s fall, relief facilities were sometimes raided by starving peasants. In recent months, however, the attacks have taken on a distinctly political tone. The major private aid agencies are run by Americans, and most rely on AID for funding. As anti-American sentiment rises in Haiti, these highly visible organizations are bearing the brunt. Today CARE, which relies almost entirely on AID for its $15 million annual budget, is strenuously seeking to broaden its base of donors. “We appreciate the support of AID, but we don’t represent the US government,” Virginia Ubik told me. “It would be healthier if we were truly international.” Many other humanitarian groups are following suit.

Even if we take account of the American factor, however, the attacks on humanitarian organizations seem bizarre, even pathological, symptoms of a strange national disease. After all, relief organizations have done much good in Haiti; without them, many more Haitians would die of tuberculosis, drop out of school, go hungry. One would expect Haitians to want more help from the outside world, not less.

Yet it may be that the very size of the foreign presence in Haiti has contributed to the problem. The AID mission, for instance, is larger than most ministries of the Haitian government; in fact, the agency acts as something of a shadow government. Even AID, however, is dwarfed by the network of foreign non-government groups active in Haiti. The country is host to as many as eight hundred private voluntary organizations, all crammed into an area the size of Maryland. The PVOs are so numerous that AID recently had to create an entirely new one—the Haitian Association of Voluntary Agencies—just to look after them. CARE alone, with a staff of 239, employs more people than AID does.

Arlin Hunsberger, project director for the Pan American Development Foundation, an AID-funded PVO active in reforestation, finds the sudden growth in PVOs disturbing: “A lot of programs are ill-conceived and poorly carried out. It’s nauseating to see some of the stuff that goes on in the name of humanitarian response.” The Haitians, he adds, “have to be a tolerant people to tolerate all the foreign groups here.”

That tolerance may be at last wearing thin.


In 1949, a statue of Christopher Columbus was erected on the Port-au-Prince waterfront to honor the man who “discovered” Hispaniola, the island Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic. To many Haitians, however, Columbus’s visit seemed less an act of discovery than one of invasion. One night shortly after the fall of Duvalier, some of the young men carrying out dechoukaj uprooted the two-ton monument and pitched it into the sea. Pas de Blancs en Haiti, they wrote on its pedestal—no more whites. The adjoining Quai Colomb was renamed after Charlémagne Péralte.

Haiti’s changed attitude toward Americans is only part of a much larger reckoning. The country’s latent nationalism, suppressed for so long, is finally coming to the fore. In the process, Haiti is rediscovering its self-esteem. Forced to endure the most wretched poverty, Haitians nonetheless feel a sense of historical and cultural distinctiveness. Haiti was the world’s first independent black nation, and Haitians do not easily let outsiders forget it. Haiti has its own language, Creole, which, dismissed by some as a bastard tongue, is a vital, protean language with deep roots in Haiti’s past. Haiti may be economically backward, but it has produced some of the world’s greatest folk art. Even tap-tap drivers vie with one another to produce the most visually captivating vans, making Port-au-Prince seem a giant museum on wheels.

Although the practice of voodoo has diminished in recent years, it continues to hold sway in the countryside, providing peasants spiritual shelter from the harshness of the world. With its spirits, drumpounding ceremonies, and black magic, voodoo links Haitians to their African past. Voodoo “is the spiritual blood of Haiti, a rebellious reaction against French Catholicism vying with the African beliefs imported by the slaves,” write Bernard Diederich and Al Burt in their book Papa Doc: The Truth About Haiti Today. “It is a religion tailored for the Haitian, geared to his life and spirit.”2

The sense of apartness felt by many black Haitians is heightened by their country’s extreme social and economic divisions. Haiti is not only one of the world’s poorest nations, it’s also among the most inequitable. Less than 1 percent of the population owns 45 percent of all national income. Much of that wealth is controlled by a small community of café-au-lait mulattoes. Spawned centuries ago by miscegenation between white aristocrats and their black slaves, the mulattoes have deftly managed to preserve their privileged position; indeed, a Haitian’s station in life is often determined by the proportion of café and lait running through his veins. Mulattoes together with many rich blacks congregate in Pétionville, the fashionable suburb of Port-au-Prince that is more like Miami and Paris than the rest of Haiti.

Haitian history can be read as the continuing struggle of poor black masses seeking to break free of their exploiters, foreign and domestic. The story begins with Columbus himself. His arrival prepared the way for Spanish colonialists who proceeded to wipe out the island’s indigenous Arawak population. That, in turn, made necessary the importation of slaves from West Africa, the first of which arrived a mere eighteen years after Columbus’s visit. The Spanish eventually gave way to the French, but the change in master made no difference in black suffering. Eventually a half-million slaves worked in Haiti’s sugar-rich fields, helping to make it the world’s most lucrative colony.

In 1791, the slaves revolted, inaugurating a long period of upheaval and anarchy that would not only drive out the French but devastate the country. Toussaint L’Ouverture, the great slave leader, battled the French with a scorched-earth policy, torching plantation homes, sugar estates, even whole cities. Before he could finish the job, however, he was kidnapped and transported to France; there he was thrown into one of Napoleon’s dungeons and left to rot (a fate few Haitians have forgotten). The task of emancipation fell to another ruthless nationalist, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who finally drove out the French in 1804. Haiti’s first constitution, promulgated the same year, stated that “no white man will set foot on Haitian soil as owner or master.”

Independence did not put an end to the bloodshed and suffering. Haiti during the next century was ruled by a succession of thugs, tyrants, and imbeciles; revolution and rebellion became routine. It was during this period that the basic pattern of Haitian governance was established: those in power enriched themselves, extracting all they could from the defenseless peasantry.

The Duvaliers eventually perfected the traditional pattern. In organizing the Tontons Macoutes, they found a way to institutionalize the cruelty inherent in Haiti’s political system. Under the Macoutes, Haiti became a land of incessant blackouts, arbitrary arrests, massacres, torture, and executions. During the fourteen years of Papa Doc’s rule, as many as 50,000 people were killed. Throughout, the gap between rich and poor widened. François Duvalier, a devotee of black-nationalist philosophy called noirisme, cut back the power of the mulattoes, but, far from giving power to the black masses, he simply supplanted the light-skinned elite with a dark one. Even that change did not last. His son Baby Doc energetically encouraged the mulattoes’ return to power—a development confirmed by his marriage to Michèle Bennett, daughter of a mulatto businessman.

With Duvalier gone, the state has lost its monopoly of violence. This is evident in Haiti’s soaring crime rate. Under Duvalier and the Tontons Macoutes, Haitians felt safe walking through Port-au-Prince at all hours of the night. Throughout the capital, walls are now going up around the homes of the well-to-do, and some neighborhoods have hired private guards to patrol their streets.

The upsurge in hostility toward outsiders should be seen in the same light. As nationalist sentiment increases, Haitians have become increasingly aware of the extent to which white foreigners control their affairs. And with that awareness comes resentment. Broadly viewed, the violence directed at Americans and other foreigners seems a primitive eruption of nationalist anger, an urgent, twisted assertion of independence and self-identity.

The freighted nature of the foreign presence in Haiti is nowhere more apparent than in the activities of Protestant missionaries. Of the six thousand Americans in the country, nearly a thousand are evangelicals—a ratio of almost one missionary for every six thousand Haitians. The missionaries began coming to Haiti in the 1960’s, when Papa Doc, concerned about the activities of radical Catholic priests, welcomed the more conservative Protestants. Today they continue to find Haiti attractive because of its convenient location, less than a two-hour plane ride from Miami, and its voodoo-practicing population, which offers a ready pool of converts.

Virtually every Protestant denomination is represented, from Baptists and Methodists to Nazarenes and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Jimmy Swaggart and Jerry Falwell provide funds for work here, and Mormons are arriving in growing numbers. “Per capita, Haiti is probably the most evangelicized country in the world,” one AID official says.

Most of the Protestant groups combine relief work (funded primarily by AID) with old-fashioned proselytizing. Although Protestant aid programs are theoretically open to all comers, in practice they are used as enticements to conversion. Matters are not improved by the missionaries’ brand of theology. Whereas Catholic priests—most of whom are Haitians—recognize the power of voodoo and seek to incorporate it into their rituals, Protestant missionaries mostly denounce it as paganism and seek to eradicate it. An intense backlash against the Protestant presence is the predictable result. Père Aristide, for one, recently denounced Protestant pastors as espousing a “Mafia and CIA theology that blocks the historic march of change in Haiti.”

Missionaries, consultants, development experts, economic advisers—Haiti in recent years has received a steady procession of such visitors, all bearing aid, advice, and promises. Despite it all, the country remains the poorest in the hemisphere. “Since 1970, we have received so much aid,” Jean-Claude Bajeux, a prominent Haitian intellectual and a leader of Konakom, a large grass-roots organization, told me. “The result is that we are now poorer, and the dysfunction in society has increased. The aid, instead of helping the country, has helped only a few people.”

Bajeux, a balding man of fifty-six, had recently received some death threats and for the past few weeks had slept at a different house every night. At any moment, he felt, the army might come to get him. For Bajeux, it all seemed familiar. In the early 1960s, Bajeux’s entire family—prominent mulattoes—were massacred by Papa Doc. He escaped only because he was out of the country at the time. For twenty-two years Bajeux remained abroad, most of the time teaching at the University of Puerto Rico. After Baby Doc’s fall, Bajeux, anxious to help rebuild his country, was among the first exiles to return, but sadly Haiti’s politics were reverting to form. Bajeux held the United States accountable. “Jean-Claude Duvalier was put into power by the Americans,” Bajeux told me. “Now they’re backing the CNG.”


I’m confident that the overall image of the United States in Haiti is positive,” Richard Holwill of the State Department told me. “Much of this anti-Americanism is specifically designed to manipulate US policy. Much of it comes from people who have a vested interest in attacking the United States.” Holwill added: “A lot of people who are calling for elections are in fact opposed to them. There are strong currents on both the far right and far left that would like to abandon the electoral process.”

On that last point, at least, Holwill is right. Many people got rich under the Duvalier system and see no reason to change it. Their capacity for disruption was demonstrated on October 13, when a presidential candidate was gunned down on the steps of police headquarters in Port-au-Prince. Yves Volel was delivering an anti-government speech when several men—believed to be plainclothes police—came up and shot him. Volel died clutching a copy of Haiti’s new constitution, a document filled with eloquent guarantees of free speech and assembly.

Whether those guarantees become more than a piece of paper depends in part on what happens on November 29. The election poses some awesome problems. Haiti has not had a census in decades, so there are hardly any voter registration lists. Some Haitians live in regions so remote that they will not be able to make it to the polls; those who do will not, in many cases, be able to read their ballots. The potential for fraud is thus immense.

Even more serious, however, is the climate of terror that has settled over the country. The murder of Yves Volel, together with the brutal killing of another candidate in August, has had its effect on the remaining contenders. How fair can an election be when candidates must worry that each rally might be their last? On November 2, the office of the electoral commission was set on fire hours after it had disqualified a dozen Duvalierist candidates from running, including Clovis Desinor, a close associate and one-time finance minister of Papa Doc. The attack suggests how far the ancien régime will go to preserve its position.

In view of the mounting violence, it’s remarkable how many people want to be president of Haiti. The job may well be the most unenviable in the Carribean, but some two dozen candidates are seeking it. Most are cautiously centrist in their politics and have not made a strong impression during the campaign; as a result, few have managed to establish much of a popular base. Leading contenders include Marc Bazin, the former World Bank official; Sylvio Claude, a Christian Democrat who spent much time in Baby Doc’s jails; and the human-rights activist Gérard Gourgue.

Whoever emerges on top will face some frightful problems. In the first place, Haiti’s new constitution, adopted earlier this year, places strict limits on the powers of the president. This is understandable, in view of the country’s experience under the Duvaliers. Even the stongest-willed leader, however, could find himself encumbered by legal restrictions to the point of paralysis.

Haiti’s next leader will also have to contend with a public rubbed raw by repression. Obviously thirty years of a brutal dictatorship are not readily overcome in two or three. Manhandled by their secular leaders, Haiti’s poor have instead turned to the Catholic Church and priests like Jean-Bertrand Aristide. With his fervid, Armageddon-like pronouncements, Père Aristide has shown remarkable skill at expressing the people’s anger; he has not yet proved capable of channeling it. Haiti today is potentially explosive. Will Aristide, like Toussaint L’Ouverture, set fire to the country in order to save it?

Finally, Haiti’s president will have to contend with the United States. No government in Haiti can function without sizable infusions of American aid. In return for its dollars, Washington will surely make certain demands. More exports, for example. Further liberalization of the economy. Continued austerity. More incentives for the private sector. In short, the United States will demand a continuation of the policies of Leslie Delatour. Unfortunately, that will probably mean more factory closings, more rice wars, more unemployment.

American policy in Haiti suffers from one great weakness: it leaves the status quo intact. If Haiti needs anything, it is far-reaching social and economic change. The main brake on Haiti’s progress has been its gross inequality. Many of the country’s deepest problems—its pervasive illiteracy and superstition and violence—have their source in longstanding disparities of wealth and status. Any poor country that has a suburb as rich as Pétionville and slums as wretched as the bidonvilles seems fated to a future of destitution and instability. When the gap between rich and poor is so great, democracy will have a hard time taking root.

November 4, 1987

  1. 2

    McGraw-Hill, 1969, p. 359.

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