Thursday, December 22, 2011

Notes on Red and Black in Haiti

Notes on Red and Black in Haiti

By Michael Deibert

Small Axe 36 • November 2011 • Michael Deibert | 157

Red and Black in Haiti: Radicalism, Conflict, and Political Change, 1934–1957

Matthew J. Smith

Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press,

304 pages



One of my earliest memories of visiting Haiti in the mid-1990s was a trip I took along with a street-hailed cab down to the area near Port-au-Prince’s waterfront where Haiti’s parliament and the old American embassy were located. Being new to the city, I had nowhere in particular in mind that I wanted to see, save for a general idea of arriving at some point at the Episcopal Cathédrale Sainte Trinité to survey the stunning indigenous Biblical murals painted there by artists such as Wilson Bigaud and Philome Obin decades before.

Strolling away from Haiti’s parliament, the Palais Législatif, under a blazing Caribbean sun, I walked through a wide plaza fluttering with the flags of the member countries of the United Nations, a holdover from the time when Haiti hosted a lavish bicentennial exposition from December 1949 until April 1950 to celebrate the two-hundredth anniversary of the founding of Port-au-Prince.

Beyond the plaza, I came eventually to a grassy bluff facing the Bay of Port-au-Prince. There, its walls and foundations broken, graffitied, and chipped away, its grass trampled, and homeless legions sprawling passed out or lounging all around its circumference, I found the tomb of Dumarsais Estimé, the president who governed Haiti during the time of the exposition.

The derelict, melancholy appearance of the tomb—Estimé’s second resting place since being reinterred here by the dictator François Duvalier in 1968—said much about Haiti’s supposed ongoing state of revolution in the years since Estimé served as Haiti’s president from August 1946 until May 1950. Though we did not know it at the time, after the return of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide by a US-led multinational military force in 1994 and the inauguration of René Préval as his successor a year and a half later, Haiti was setting up for another one of the violent, chaotic showdowns that have defined its intense political culture for two centuries, this time one that would result in Aristide’s overthrow and exile in 2004.

At that moment in downtown Port-au-Prince, as since, looking at the crypt that held the mortal remains of one of Haiti’s great leaders I was reminded, as I often am when observing politicians, of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1818 sonnet Ozymandias, in which the poet tells of observing the ruined statue of a king in the desert, bearing the inscription “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!,” as “the lone and level sands stretch far away.”


Among outsiders unschooled in Haiti’s byzantine political and social legacies, the history of the Caribbean nation often appears to be little more than a handful of moments of hope-tinged tumult punctuated by long stretches of disappointment and ruin.

Haiti’s historic 1804 defeat of Napoleon’s forces and the country’s 1915–1934 US military occupation have been reasonably well covered, as has been the twenty-nine-year family dictatorship of François Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier. The 1990 election of priest-turned-politician Aristide, the coup against him the following year, the military operation to reinstate him, and his subsequent overthrow and exile ten years later are eras that have all fallen under the gaze of foreign observers, who have commented on them with varying degrees of interest and expertise. Aside from these moments, foreign commentators on Haiti rouse themselves only in brief, strobe-light flashes of concentration, with each moment of focus treated as if it was a unique and singular event in what has in fact been a tortuously entwined history.

To those who travel the length and breadth of Haiti, chatting with its people in Kreyol in the back of sweltering tap-taps and in its hardscrabble peasant fields, one quickly realizes that the events that occurred during the long interims between these dramatic moments have also played a key role in determining the country’s history, perhaps even more so that the more-familiar moments. It was during these interims, we find, that the seeds of later events were first planted. Haitian historians such as the late Roger Gaillard have long known this, but it is a salient fact of Haiti’s political history that seems to have escaped many foreign commentators on the country.

This is why, with Red and Black in Haiti: Radicalism, Conflict, and Political Change, 1934–1957, the young Jamaican historian Matthew J. Smith brings a welcome new aspect to much of the recent writing on Haiti: genuine scholarship. [1] Covering a pivotal and heretofore largely ignored two decade period in the nation’s development with a wealth of primary sources, Smith’s book shows us, with great import, that the struggle throughout Haitian history to form something resembling a responsive and decent government for its citizens was not just something debated in the realm of a series maximum leaders, but the heritage of a collective struggle made up of actors from different strata of Haitian society, the complex intermingling of which Smith does an admirable job of trying to disentangle.

In a small, poor country where few people can speak or write English proficiently, foreign observers of both the left and the right seem to feel that they have found the perfect canvas on which to outline their own theories and agendas, no matter how little time they have spent in Haiti or how irrelevant their theories may be to the struggles of Haitians as a whole. Academics with political agendas as diverse as Lawrence Harrison and Peter Hallward, callow commentators such as the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Mark Weisbrot and author Naomi Klein, and fulminating media demagogues such as Rush Limbaugh and Pat Robertson have all been guilty over the years of expounding upon Haiti from a position of ideologically motivated ignorance, and their often dilettantish and disrespectful approach is what makes Smith’s book so valuable: it approaches Haiti as a nation like any other, with a deep and rich history worthy of rigorous analysis as opposed to simple, shrill sloganeering. [2]

Though the 1915–1934 US occupation of Haiti happened for a number of reasons, it is hard to overstate just what a dismal, sanguinary level Haitian politics had sunk to preceding it. In the four years before the invasion, no less than five Haitian presidents had been forced from office either by assassination or by coup d’état. While the occupation succeeded (at the dear price of Haiti’s sovereignty) in somewhat bringing the country’s political violence to heel, it did little to address the long-standing tensions and enmities in Haitian society, which briefly receded in the anti-occupation activities of such groups as the Union Patriotique, only to quickly resurfaced once the foreigners had gone away. Smith nevertheless characterizes the post-occupation era then at hand as “Haiti’s greatest moment of political promise. . . . At its outset, black consciousness and an intense cross-class nationalism produced a rare opportunity for lasting political change”.

It was an intellectual and cultural hothouse over which former Port-au-Prince mayor Sténio Vincent, a nationalist who cut his political teeth with the Union Patriotique, presided. Years later, witheringly alluded to by the writer Jacques Stephen Alexis as “an aging Casanova preserved in alcohol,” despite his anti-occupation credentials, Vincent, upon elevation to the presidency, quickly became one of Americans’ closest allies in the region, even as he dissolved Haiti’s legislature in 1935 and ran virtually unopposed in corrupted presidential
elections in May 1935.

Using increasingly thuggish methods in his quest to cling to power, Vincent pushed the political discourse that had been reinvigorated by the occupation to find its outlet in other areas. In exploring the links between Haiti’s cultural development and its political struggles, Smith wisely gives due to a nation that has given the Caribbean arguably its richest intellectual tradition, examining in detail the connections between intellectual and activist discourse in a political landscape that is often reduced by outsiders to mere populism. In one of the many ironies found in Haiti’s history, in the Haiti of the 1930s the appeal of Communism was chiefly to the country’s foreign-educated elite, who returned home determined to try and change what the Haitian writer and diplomat Frédéric Marcelin had in 1904 called the country’s tradition of “civil strife, fratricidal slaughters, social miseries, economic ignorance and idolatrous militarism.”

Jacques Roumain, whose 1943 novel Gouverneurs de la Rosée remains one of the most moving portraits constructed of Haitian peasant life, despite his own bourgeois background became a committed Communist during this time, founding, along with Georges Petit, the Parti communiste haitien (PCH) in 1934 under the slogan “Color is nothing, class is everything.”

Cutting through facile appeals to nationalism characteristic of Haiti’s political class, the PCH’s first national program, L’analyse schematique, dismissed such discourse by concluding that “the arrival to power of the Nationalists [i.e., Vincent] began the process of decomposition of nationalism,” going on to witheringly characterize Haiti’s bourgeois politicians as “valets of imperialism and cruel exploiters of the workers and peasants."

Among the other important historical figures of the Haitian left that Smith rescues from obscurity is Max Hudicourt, a gifted orator and the scion of a well-regarded family from the southern city of Jérémie who could nevertheless move easily among Haiti’s impoverished majority. Jailed with Roumain for his political activity though not a communist himself, Hudicourt would die prematurely under mysterious circumstances from a gunshot wound in 1947. However, in post-occupation Haiti, as the opposition of the largely bourgeois radical left attempted to apply the tenets of global Communism to Haiti’s reality, a handful of black intellectuals were drinking at an altogether different well for inspiration.

Looking to the writer and ethnologist Jean-Price Mars, whose 1928 book Ainsi parla l’oncle was a landmark in the négritude movement in the French-speaking Caribbean, the group referred to themselves as the Griots, after the traditional storytellers of West Africa. Rather than looking to European social-political models to address Haiti’s myriad problems, they instead “demanded a greater incorporation of folk practices, especially vodou, in national life . . . [arguing] that the country’s most basic problem since independence [was] the constant exploitation of the majority of the black inhabitants by a small privileged [mulatto] elite."

Among the Griots' number was a young doctor whom Price-Mars had taught as a student years before named François Duvalier. Arguing that “cultural authenticity defined all other aspects of social life” (ibid.), the Griots concluded that the Europhile outlook made it impossible for mulatto elites such as the Communists to understand the needs of a black country, hence Haiti’s chronic underdevelopment.

In these early years after the occupation, that “greatest moment of political promise” provided outlines of what will become the template of Haiti’s future political dynamic: a ruler with authoritarian tendencies trying to simultaneously bully, corrupt, and seduce opponents into supporting him as he faces a fractured political class made up of left-wing social democrat, right-wing, and populist parties with often negligible levels of public support, while an often avaricious and irresponsible upper class looks on and influences events as best they can when it suits them. Complimenting this situation, then as now, is Haiti’s complicated relationship with the neighboring Dominican Republic, for three decades under the explicitly fascist rule of Rafael Trujillo, and the shifting foreign policies of the United States, which gradually transformed from a Cold War–era doctrine of Communist containment to a neoliberal doctrine of laissez-faire capitalism that did little to stem Haiti’s economic free-fall.

When Vincent was succeeded by Elie Lescot, a consummate political survivor and opportunist, the elite’s grip on the nation’s political and economic mechanisms was thrown into the starkest relief since the end of the occupation. Lescot had served under the occupation-era government of Louis Borno as well as that of Vincent, often in politically sensitive posts such as Minster of the Interior, Ambassador to the Dominican Republic, and Ambassador to the United States, but nevertheless he appears have placed too much faith in the ability of his powerful friends to save what soon became an explicitly colorist dictatorship. In a precursor of other half-baked schemes decades later, the United States sponsored the Société haitiano-américaine de dévelopment agricole (SHADA) in an ill-fated attempted to cultivate rubber in Haiti in an effort that ended up alienating the very peasants it was designed to help.

The overthrow of Lescot—the Revolution of 1946—was an extraordinarily significant moment for Haiti which has thus far received scant attention from foreign scholars writing on the country. Here, Smith presents the time in its full complexity, with important roles played by the Communist left, student groups, and, memorably, French surrealist André Breton in helping to topple a regime. Though Roumain—who had died two years before, at the age of thirty seven—had accepted a minor diplomatic post from Lescot, his writing was nevertheless hugely influential with the young revolutionaries, at the forefront of whom was another one of Haiti’s greatest writers, fifteen years younger that Roumain himself. Jacques Stephen Alexis, who would go on to pen such pivotal Haitian works as Compère Général Soleil and L’espace d’un cillement, made his first appearance in Haiti’s politician conscience during this time, a political commitment which would result in his murder by Duvalierist henchmen after an ill-fated attempt to invade Haiti with some like-minded compatriots in 1961. [4]

Duvalier himself flits in and out of the story of the years before his ascendancy, helping to gradually hone the idea of négritude into noirisme, which the Communists and Marxists, many of them of more comfortable backgrounds than those of the noiristes themselves, viewed as little more than a cover by which the black middle class could seize power. After the fall of Lescot, the two sides stood with daggers drawn, the noiristes depicting Haiti’s radical left as bourgeois usurpers and the left depicting the noiristes as reactionary demagogues with fascist tendencies. And watching all, the Haitian military, personified by the slippery soldier-politician Paul Magloire, serving many Haitian presidents but beholden to none of them.

In my own book, Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti, I argued that much of modern Haitian political history began with Dumarsais Estimé, who stepped into the political maelstrom described above and served as Haiti’s president from August 1946 until May 1950.5 Estimé has indeed been, as Smith writes, “one of the most misunderstood heads of state in Haitian history” (110), despite featuring quite prominently in Island Possessed, the autobiography of the American dancer Katherine Dunham, who lived in Haiti and was Estimé’s lover for a time, and being touched on, glancingly, in a number other histories of Haiti.

Born in Verettes in the Artibonite Valley, Estimé was a former schoolteacher who had risen up the ladder of Haiti’s political establishment to serve in the Chamber of Deputies and, eventually, in the Vincent government. When voted by Haiti’s parliament to become the country’s new president, he was the first black president of post-occupation Haiti. Though not exactly a noiriste himself, Estimé drew his political base from the country’s disenfranchised black majority and sought to ameliorate the suffering by raising Haiti’s minimum wage, by expanding schools and social services, and by creating a series of public-works projects for the chronically unemployed Haitian labor force. Existing as he did outside of Haiti’s traditional political structures, though—representing the black underclass without being a noiriste, speaking for the disenfranchised while shunning the radical left, at odds with the military and the country’s economic elite—Estimé could never have expected an easy ride while in office and indeed did not get one.

“Progressive Haitians expected a revolution with Estimé,” Smith writes. “What they got was a period of unsustainable hope rife with color resentment, ideological polarization and a bitter, occasionally violent struggle for political power among forces inside and outside the government."

With members of the black intelligentsia filling virtually every cabinet post in his government, and with his deep understanding of the struggles of the country’s long-disenfranchised peasant majority, Estimé provided a brief tenure that in retrospect represents a far more genuine attempt by Haiti’s often-cannibalistic political system to come to terms with the needs of its citizens than the far-more-heralded, corrupted, violent, and compromised dual truncated terms of Jean-Bertrand Aristide decades later.

Indeed, the chief flaw of Smith’s book is perhaps that it too intensely focuses on the political machinations in Haiti’s capital, largely ignoring its vast countryside, where armed opposition to the US occupation in the forms of rebellions led by Charlemagne Peralte and Benoit Batraville was strongest, and where the independence of peasants remains a thorn in the side of the capital’s political class to this day. The great untold story of the last decades in Haiti is of the country’s peasantry and the way their lives have continued in recent decades—despite the political battles raging in the capital, despite the failed SHADA program, despite a disastrous program in the early 1980s, funded by the United States and Canada, that succeeded in destroying the 1.2 million Kreyol pigs, and despite the Aristide government’s duplicitous 1995 decision to cut tariffs on rice imports to the country from 35 percent to 3 percent. Largely abandoned by all but a handful of grassroots peasant organizations such as the Mouvman Peyizan Nasyonal Kongrè Papay and Tèt Kole Ti Peyizan, the Haitian peasantry have somehow, against all odds, managed to survive.

Estimé’s attempts to reassert Haiti’s control over its own economy in the face of US economic interests met with a predictably vitriolic response at a time when Washington seemed unable to differentiate any labor or social movement from one that was Communist or Communist-inspired, a particular irony in Haiti, since Estimé would go so far as to outlaw the PCH in 1948.

Representative though it was, Estimé’s government also proved short-sighted on some key matters. Gestures such as the nationalization of Haiti’s banana industry in 1947, while appealing on an emotional level, were so badly managed that United Fruit, the company that had dominated Haiti’s banana industry prior to that time, was back at the helm by 1949, with Haitian banana shipments being used to pay off the massive debt accrued over the two years of state control. Estimé also had the questionable claim to fame of bringing to the center of political power for the first time the particular political skills of François Duvalier, then a young official from Port-au-Prince politician Daniel Fignolé’s Mouvement des ouvriers et paysans (MOP). Duvalier served as Estimé’s director of public health, and continued on in the government after Fignolé, his ostensible boss, resigned.

We see under Estimé, as under Duvalier and Aristide years later, the emergence and gradual expansion of a nouveau riche black political and economic class that benefited from what had often been the prerogative of the traditional elite: political nepotism and corruption. It was a slow transformation and opening of what continues to be a broken political system, but it nevertheless allowed the country’s black majority, in very rare instances, to take a few steps toward access to greater political and economic influence in Haiti, even though those left outside, that is, the majority of Haitians who remained both black and poor, continued to be as disenfranchised as ever. These complex intersections of class and race and political and economic power are among the areas that most often trip up novice commentators on Haiti and it is refreshing to see Smith spend some time examining them.

We now know that the political fortunes of Estimé, like those of his chief rival Fignolé, were doomed amid the splintering of the diverse coalition that helped oust Lescot in 1946, a disintegration in which we find precursors of the violent fraying the occurred after the toppling of the Duvalier dictatorship four decades later. As relations between Estimé and Fignolé turned poisonous, the radical Left, never taken in by appeals to race-based politics, remained deeply hostile to the Estimé government.

As was their wont, the Americans mistook Fignolé’s fiery oratory for that of a communist and were fearful of the MOP’s considerable organizational capacity. Hand in hand with oppressing the MOP, Estimé in turn outlawed the PCH in 1948 and attempted to institute constitutional revisions that would allow him to succeed himself as president in the summer of 1949, provoking a violent student and labor strike the likes of which had helped topple Lescot and would help topple the second Aristide government in 2003/2004. Following Estimé’s ouster by the army the following year, Paul Magloire, the more-or-less unchallenged head of Haiti’s military, ruled from December 1950 until December 1956. This ushered in a period that observers sometimes nostalgically reminisce as a “golden age” for Haiti, a characterization that overlooks the deep sense of bitterness and betrayal that Estimé’s supporters nursed as the country was ruled by a military dictatorship viewed by many as little more than a tool of the elite. Magloire was quite willing to use violence to crush dissidents, particularly among the left and the press and, far from creating a sense of détente between Haiti’s competing political factions, tensions between them continued to fester, culminating, after Magloire’s ouster, with the assumption of the presidency by François Duvalier in October 1957 after a violence-wracked ballot. Smith’s book leaves us on the cusp of the advent of one of the most brutal dictatorships the Americas have ever seen, but, as Smith demonstrates, François Duvalier did not arise out of a vacuum; he was indeed molded and shaped by the political jockeying the occurred after the United States departed in 1934.


I write these lines almost two months to the day after an massive earthquake devastated Port-au-Prince and its environs and left untold tens of thousands dead in its wake. Haiti’s Palais National, which so many successive leaders have struggled to control, lies in ruins, as does the Cathédrale Sainte Trinité, while the Palais Législatif is badly damaged. It is an event that may ultimately prove nearly as pivotal, in its own way, as the overthrow of the French in 1804 in that it has laid bare many of the brutal inequalities and contradictions in Haitian society as never before (as well as the international community’s relationship with the country) and completely reordered the balance of power in what is now a truly stricken land. Haiti’s political class, whose previous battles Smith has detailed so masterfully in his book, has never appeared more unable to meet the needs of its people, even the most basic need of personal physical security. As I traveled throughout the stricken capital and to the countryside in the days after the earthquake, the call I heard again and again from people in markets, in tap- taps, and in tent camps was for a US military coordination of relief efforts in the country, a call that would doubtless stun and sadden the nationalists, were they still alive, that Smith writes about in a book. It is a melancholy statement on how far the Haitian people’s faith in their political class has fallen.

The dysfunctional nature of Haiti’s politics cannot be blamed on a single source; it is rather the product of decades of political and economic miscalculation and ill intention on the part of both Haiti’s leaders and the international community. Because far too much commentary on Haiti at present emanates from the voices of poorly informed ideologues, with little back- ground in Haiti’s tortured political history and even less understanding of and respect for its often politically-charged cultural and artistic traditions, books such as Smith’s Red and Black in Haiti will provide an invaluable sense of historical perspective as foreigners with an interest in helping Haitians on their road to building a responsive, human state wonder how best to aid the country. It is time to disregard forever the ahistorical, irresponsible approach with which foreigners so often approach Haiti, and time for them to try to solemnly educate themselves about its history before presuming to lecture the Haitians themselves on what they should do. Red and Black in Haiti is an invaluable contribution to that end.

Miami, March 2010

1 Matthew J. Smith, Red and Black in Haiti: Radicalism, Conflict, and Political Change, 1934–1957 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009). Hereafter cited in the text.

2 For further thoughts on this phenomenon, see Michael Deibert, “Thoughts on Recent Haiti Commentaries,” Michael Deibert’s Blog, 9 February 2010, http://

3 Robert Debs Heinl and Nancy Gordon Heinl, Written in Blood: The Story of the Haitian People, 1492–1995 (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1996), 313.

4 Despite not focusing exclusively on the topic, Alexis’s 1955 novel, Compère Général Soleil (Paris: Gallimard, 1955) translated into English by Carrol F. Coates as General Sun, My Brother (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1999), still contains what is perhaps the most scathing and accurate depiction of Haiti’s political class that has been written to date.

5 Michael Deibert, Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (New York: Seven Stories, 2005).

Michael Deibert is a journalist, author, and visiting fellow at the Centre for Peace and Reconciliation Studies at Coventry University. His writing has appeared in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, the Miami Herald, Le Monde diplomatique, and Folha de São Paulo, among other publications. In his role at Coventry University, he aids the center in its mission to increase and sustain dialogue on international peacebuliding and development issues, with a particular focus on Africa and Latin America. He is the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (2005).

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