Saturday, August 4, 2007

Author gives insight into Haitian politics

Book Review: Author gives insight into Haitian politics

Web Posted: 02/19/2006 12:00 AM CST

By Char Miller

Special to the San Antonio Express-News

Notes From the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti

By Michael Deibert. Foreword by Raoul Peck.

Seven Stories Press, $22.95

(Read the original review here)

Thomas Jefferson was aghast: In 1791, Haitian slaves revolted against France, establishing the Western Hemisphere's second republic. The principal author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence feared that this successful Caribbean revolution would foster "a great disposition to insurgency among American slaves," a war that would "never end but in the extermination of one or the other race." To forestall that dread possibility, he cut off all trade to the new state, and refused to extend it diplomatic recognition, expecting to bankrupt its future.

His strategy worked, and a century later Woodrow Wilson sealed Haiti's fate. In 1915, he sent in the Marines, an occupation that lasted until the mid-1930s; the occupiers wrote a new constitution that granted them unilateral power, built an island-wide road system with forced labor, and disrupted Haitian political maturation, reinforcing its crippling colonial legacy.

But Haiti also has been wracked with more than its share of internal torment, as journalist Michael Deibert demonstrates in his gripping first book. A Reuters' correspondent in the capital city of Port-au-Prince from 2001 to 2003, Deibert has a sharp eye for the complicating ironies of history. Not least of which is the way that past brutalities have shaped contemporary behavior. Jean-Jacques Dessaline's bloody reprisals against European slave-owners in the early 1800s found their parallel in the 1950s as Papa Doc Duvalier unleashed a terrifying cycle "of tin-pot despotism and pointless bloodletting." Even once-heralded reformers turned vicious: broad-based opposition to Jean-Bertrand Aristide was part of an enduring struggle "against the two-century tradition of electoral coup d'états."

The complex tale of Aristide's rise, fall and exile, his return and removal is the central focus of "Notes From the Last Testament." A compelling mix of reportage, memoir, social criticism, it offers a searching, if at times garrulous, account of contemporary Haitian political culture.
Aristide had been the people's priest, in the 1980s using his pulpit to defend the defenseless.

Booted out of his religious order, he later wrote: "I did not invent class struggle any more than Karl Marx did. But who can avoid encountering class struggle in the heart of Port-au-Prince? It is not a subject of controversy, but a fact, a given." That insight, and the electoral clout that came with it, powered Aristide into the presidency in December 1990.

By the next September a military junta had forced him into exile, but three years later, courtesy of a Clinton-administration negotiation that was enforced with 25,000 U.S. and international troops, Aristide returned as president.

Deibert masterfully recounts what then ensued: wild swings in the republic's political compass as Aristide and his equally mean-spirited opponents jockeyed for position and power, using the streets and slums as stages on which to assault those arrayed against them. The drumbeat of violence, like machine-gun fire, echoes through his narrative, and as the casualties mount, the former priest bears the brunt of Deibert's angered scrutiny: "Seldom has a leader betrayed the legitimate hopes of so many so thoroughly. In all its essentials — the killing of civilians, restriction of personal and professional liberty, the subjugation of all state institutions to the whim of the executive branch — the Aristide government deserved to be overthrown as much as any in Haiti."

Pushed out by popular protest and international pressure, Aristide's second exile has not brought peace, a conundrum Deibert underscores in his conclusion: "Haiti is populated by some of the more resourceful, hard-working and decent people in the world, despite the face the political culture presents, but they cannot change the country on their own," a hopeful and harrowing prospect.

Char Miller is director of Urban Studies at Trinity University, and editor of "50 Years of the Texas Observer."

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