Even the most natural of disasters have man-made dimensions. Droughts, tsunamis, and earthquakes do not occur in political and economic vacuums. If Hurricane Katrina had alerted us to this point, Haiti’s earthquake is a tragic reminder.
Just days after the earthquake struck, the US military had commandeered Port-Au-Prince airport, diverting a number of aid shipments from NGOs to the neighbouring Dominican Republic, creating a 48 hour delay in their delivery; priority landing being given to American troops. And while the 82nd Airborne Division was parachuting into the ruins of Haiti’s presidential palace, doctors from Medecins Sans Frontieres were scouring Port-Au-Prince markets for a saw to carry out amputations; such was the lack of medical supplies. All this would come as no surprise to someone who has read Peter Hallward’s contemporary history of Haiti, Damming the Flood. Even in the time of their greatest need, the needs of empire seemed to displace those of the Haitian people.
A professor at England’s University of Middlesex, Hallward is better known for his writings on continental philosophy than for his political analysis. But in Damming the Flood, he has produced a biting history of Haiti, uncovering in detail the imperial machinations behind the country’s economic misery and political turmoil. And importantly for a Canadian audience, the role of our government does not escape his critical pen.
Hallward devotes Damming the Flood’s opening chapter to the first two hundred years of Haitian history. Broad in its sweep, chapter one provides the socio-historical context – including the US invasion and occupation of 1915-1934 and American support for the Duvalier dictatorships – necessary to understand the rise of Lavalas (“the flood” in Haitian Kreyol) and its charismatic leader, the liberation theologian and activist Jean-Bertrand Aristide. A popular movement rooted in Haiti’s poor majority, after winning the 1990 presidential elections Aristide and Lavalas challenged the country’s rich and powerful by starting to “dismantle the structures of military and paramilitary oppression that had dominated life on the island all through the twentieth century”. A coup soon followed as the Haitian elite took revenge on Lavalas. Yet under domestic and international pressure, the Clinton administration restored Aristide to power in October of ’94; but this was just the beginning of a decade long struggle between popular forces and those invested in the country’s status quo.
At the heart of Damming the Flood is Hallward’s quest to understand why the international community, including prominent NGOs, came to see Aristide as a ‘threat’ to Haitian democracy a decade after rallying to restore him to power. Re-elected in 2000 with a landslide majority, Aristide was deposed a second time four years later, escorted onto a US forces plane while Canadian troops secured the perimeter of Port-au-Prince’s airport. This curious turn has much to with a President and party who refused to play by the rules of the neoliberal game and sowed the seeds of a social revolution that threatened US imperial dominance. As Hallward writes, since the slave revolt of 1791 which established the world’s first black republic to the emergence of Lavalas, “Haiti is the place where people broke the chains of imperial domination not at their weakest but at their strongest link.”
Hallward reminds us that at its height, Lavalas represented a movement to change Haiti, to wrest control from an elite who have long colluded with international forces in the exploitation of everyday Haitians, leaving them poor and powerless. That movement now lays lifeless under the dust and rubble, the concrete hopelessness of a Port-au-Prince slum. Its resurrection will be testament to a people who have consistently refused to be history’s victims, despite the disasters, both natural and man-made, they’ve so bravely confronted.
Published in Canadian Dimension Vol 44 (2), March/April 2010