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Haiti: The Fall of the House of Aristide

Two hundred years after independence, Haiti continues to be unequally divided between a small, urban, predominantly mulatto elite, many of them descendants of the country’s free colored population, and an overwhelmingly black peasantry settled in the Haitian countryside, a remote powerless adjunct to the “Republic of Port-au-Prince.” Its political culture is equally atavistic. Two years after leading Haiti to independence in 1804, the Emperor Jean-Jacques Dessalines was assassinated, and Haiti split into the mulatto republic of Alexander Pétion in the south and the noir kingdom of Henri Christophe in the north. The governments that followed Haiti’s reunification in 1820 were uniformly authoritarian in character and marked by chronic instability.

In Haiti, according to the West Indian writer Jacky Dahomay, power “obeys an ancestral, despotic logic.”5 The Haitian “character” or mentalité was a topic about which almost every educated Haitian I talked to at any length eventually shared his views, adducing instances of the larcenous nature of its politicians, the profound “foreignness” of the concept of compromise, and other supposedly indigenous traits. Like many stereotypes, these often contained an element of truth. Scholars like Michel-Rolph Trouillot and Robert Fatton, however, have convincingly argued that the authoritarian and corrupt nature of Haiti’s governments from Dessalines to the present is the product not of some intrinsically Haitian character, but of Haiti’s history, and is rooted in the early years of the Haitian Republic.

On the eve of the slave uprising in 1791, Saint Domingue, the French portion of the isle of Hispaniola, was the Caribbean’s richest colony, and the source of one third of France’s foreign trade and of vast fortunes made in rum, sugar, indigo, and coffee. Within thirty years, however, the devastation wrought by Haiti’s twelve-year-long War of Independence, the collapse of the plantation system, ruinous reparations extorted by France in return for recognizing Haiti’s government, and a political embargo enforced by the US, the Vatican, and other great powers all accelerated the destruction of Haiti’s economy and contributed to its rapid impoverishment.

The island’s predicament is rooted in this pervasive scarcity,” Robert Fatton writes. According to Trouillot, the Haitian state as we know it today evolved out of an alliance during the first decades after independence between the military and the rising merchant class, who transformed the government into a machine to recapture the surplus value of peasant agriculture. By the end of the nineteenth century, the customs house and other indirect taxes on coffee accounted for 95 percent of the government’s revenue. Then, as now, the state was Haiti’s primary employer, and taxes on the labor of the peasantry, Haiti’s sole productive class, in addition to enriching Haiti’s rulers, underwrote the rapidly expanding parasitic sector of government employees.

This alliance, however, was inherently unstable: the subdivision of peasant holdings into smaller and smaller plots and the gradual depletion of the soil were accompanied by a decline in agricultural productivity, and the growing urban class of those seeking a place in government eventually outstripped the capacity of the peasantry to support them. It was no longer possible for the governing faction to retain their hold on power without regular resort to violence. Of the twenty-six presidents-for-life, emperors, and presidents who ruled Haiti from 1804 to the American occupation in 1915, all but one were generals or closely allied to the military, and all but one were toppled by rebellions or coups, murdered, poisoned, blown up, or driven into exile.

The result today, Robert Fatton convincingly argues, is a “predatory democracy.” In a country where for generations destitution has been widespread and economic opportunity narrowly circumscribed, the Haitian government remains the primary route to power and wealth. This is particularly so for the cadres of Fanmi Lavalas (“Lavalas Family”), Aristide’s ruling party, many of whom come from the lower middle class and the relatively poor and marginalized petite bourgeoisie—men who might otherwise have spent their lives as village schoolteachers or shopkeepers. The scale of Haiti’s corruption, Fatton reminds us, is “not necessarily proof of utter moral depravity—though it can be—but rather a traumatic response to a social structure that offers little hope for a collective escape from overwhelming poverty.”

With the rise of the Colombian Cali cartel in the 1980s, Haiti’s traditionally corrupt system took on a new dimension. In addition to graft, the use of Haiti as a route for cocaine smuggling opened up a huge new source of money for the ruling clique. Haiti’s southern coastline, 380 miles from Colombia and a ten-hour ride in the lightweight “go-fast” boats employed by the drug cartels, is virtually unpatrolled, and there are few obstacles to anyone’s entering Haiti either by sea or by air. Although during the junta years large-scale drug trafficking by officers in the Haitian army was already well established, since the return of Aristide in 1994, the volume of cocaine, either transported overland into the Dominican Republic or shipped directly to Miami from Cap Haïtien in the north, has almost tripled, from 5 percent of the annual total imported into the US to a peak of almost 15 percent.6 So while the growth of the formal Haitian economy has steadily declined, the recycling of profits from drug trafficking and money laundering has sent the price of real estate in Port-au-Prince’s lusher precincts skyrocketing.

The impact of narcotics money upon Haitian society, while difficult to quantify, has been profound. Mario Andresol, who before seeking political asylum in the US served as the third-highest-ranking officer in the Haitian National Police and was directly responsible for Haiti’s anti-drug efforts, claims that his investigations were constantly thwarted by the intervention of the “Secretary of State, Senators, high officials in the Administration, high-ranking Police officials, Superintendents or Officers. They have emerged or came out from the dark, thanks to the return to power of President Aristide on February 7, 2001.”

Politics has been transformed into an entrepreneurial vocation. In the place of different political parties what Fatton terms “accumulation alliances” have arisen, based on clientship and centered around the charismatic personality of a particular gwo neg (“big man”), engaged in a “criminalized zero-sum game” in pursuit of power.

Many of those who have been enriched by the last seven years of Fan-mi Lavalas government have spurned the old bourgeois neighborhoods and ventured further afield. Perched along the ridges and canyons of Bourdon and Juvenat are their new, handsome-looking, multi-million-dollar mansions, with their transplanted mature trees, opalescent swimming pools, and state-of-the-art security systems. One occasionally hears these enclaves referred to as Cité Lavalas. Were it not for the pigs and goats foraging in the garbage dumped in the ravine below and the rapidly expanding settlement of shacks encroaching on the hillside opposite, you might think you were in the Hollywood Hills.


In December 1995, at the expiration of his first term in office, three years of which he had spent running a government-in-exile from Georgetown, Aristide, prohibited by the Haitian constitution from succeeding himself, stepped down with noticeable reluctance in favor of his hand-picked successor, René Préval. Préval, a close associate, had been described in the press as Aristide’s Marassa—in the Vodou pantheon one of twins between whom there exists an intuitive, symbiotic bond. Although Aristide was persuaded to surrender office, it was soon evident that he was not prepared to relinquish power. As Raoul Peck, director of the prize-winning film Lumumba and minister of culture under Préval, notes in his memoirs, despite the new administration, Aristide, although shielded from public accountability, remained the controlling voice.7

Before Préval’s first year as president ended, it was riven by factionalism. The primary divergence was between the populist wing of the Organisation Politique Lavalas (OPL), whose paramount loyalty was to Aristide, and a social democratic–constitutionalist left led by OPL’s coordinator Gérard Pierre-Charles. The principal indictment against Aristide’s supporters was that by promoting a personality cult they were severely undermining attempts to consolidate and institutionalize Haiti’s fragile democracy and to establish the concepts of pluralism and power-sharing integral to a modern political system.

In November 1996, Aristide and his associates quit OPL to form Fanmi Lavalas (FL). Préval, under mounting pressure from Aristide, withdrew his support from his prime minister, Rosny Smarth, in June 1997, forcing the resignation of Smarth and six of his social democratic colleagues in the cabinet. The collapse of the Smarth ministry marks the end of the last legally constituted government Haiti has had to date. Three times over the next year and a half, Préval nominated a prime minister and each time the OPL-controlled Senate refused to confirm the nominee. At issue was the composition of the Provisional Election Commission (CEP) that the new prime minister would appoint, a group that in Haiti’s increasingly politicized and lawless environment would have a potentially determining impact on the outcome of future elections, and which both the FL and OPL wanted to stack with their supporters. Since both sides preferred the continuing stalemate to the prospect of ceding power, for the next eighteen months, Haiti made do without a prime minister or a functioning government.

The breakdown of the Haitian government forced the World Bank and other international lenders to suspend badly needed aid. The failure of Haiti’s political leaders to reach an accord has seriously eroded the commitment to Haiti by the United States and the international community, whose long-term involvement—financial and otherwise—is essential. And it has critically undermined the belief of the Haitian people in their government’s ability or willingness to deal with the nation’s fundamental problems.

Whatever the political differences between the Lavalas factions, Fatton writes, they were largely overshadowed by personal rivalries driven by what he terms la politique du ventre (the politics of the belly)—the struggle for the acquisition of personal wealth through the conquest and plundering of state offices. Fatton sees the FL–OPL split as the predictable consequence of the Haitian government’s inability, in the face of an aid embargo and a stagnant economy, to continue supporting the growing class of new political claimants. By the winter of 1997, corruption in the Préval administration had become so blatant that at carnival in Port-au-Prince, the crowds, weary of partisan squabbling and disdainful of Haiti’s politicians of all stripes, devoted much of the festivities to lampooning Lavalas bigwigs as grands mangeurs, or “big eaters,” so named because of their propensity for lining up at the public trough.

The struggle for money and a foothold in the Haitian bourgeoisie is unquestionably one of the principal forces shaping Haiti’s authoritarian politics. Moreover, as Fatton says, in the absence of economic growth, this pattern will replicate itself indefinitely. However, to maintain that in this instance the politique du ventre was the determining factor in the FL– OPL split would be to fail to reckon with Jean-Bertrand Aristide himself.

The experience of leading a mass movement in the Eighties and articulating the unspoken aspirations of the Haitian poor left Aristide with a deep sense of connection with the Haitian people—“our relationship is a marriage, a communion, a fusion”—and the conviction, to which many of Aristide’s authoritarian predecessors have been similarly susceptible, that he was the people’s only authentic and legitimate voice. Though out of office, he remained hugely popular, revered by much of the nation. Virtually everyone with a position in government had ridden into office on his coattails, and he made no secret of his belief that their failure to fall into line was a betrayal of the people who had elected them.

  1. 5

    Jacky Dahomay, “The Tyrannical Temptation in Haiti,” Chemins Critiques, Vol. 5, No. 1 (January 2001).

  2. 6

    Mark Fineman, “Haiti Takes on Major Role in Cocaine Trade,” Los Angeles Times, March 29, 2000.

  3. 7

    Raoul Peck, Monsieur le Ministre… Jusqu’au bout de la patience (Port-au-Prince: Velvet, 1998).

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