Haiti Table of Contents

Since the signing of the Treaty of Ryswick between the kingdoms of Spain and France in 1697, the island of Hispaniola (La Isla Española) has played host to two separate and distinct societies that we now know as the nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. At first encounter, and without the benefit of historical background and context, most students or observers find it incongruous that two such disparate nations--one speaking French and Creole, the other Spanish--should coexist within such limited confines. When viewed in light of the bitter struggle among European colonial powers for wealth and influence both on the continent and in the New World, however, the phenomenon becomes less puzzling. By the late seventeenth century, Spain was a declining power. Although that country would maintain its vast holdings in mainland North America and South America, Spain found itself hard pressed by British, Dutch, and French forces in the Caribbean. The Treaty of Ryswick was but one result of this competition, as the British eventually took Jamaica and established a foothold in Central America. The French eventually proved the value of Caribbean colonization, in an economic as well as a maritime and strategic sense, by developing modern-day Haiti, then known as Saint-Domingue, into the most productive colony in the Western Hemisphere, if not the world.

Although the other European powers envied the French their island jewel, Saint-Domingue eventually was lost not to a colonial rival, but to an idea. That idea, inspired by the American Revolution and the French Revolution, was freedom; its power was such as to convince a bitterly oppressed population of African slaves that anything--reprisal, repression, even death-- was preferable to its denial. This positive impulse, liberally leavened with hatred for the white men, who had seized them, shipped them like cargo across the ocean, tortured and abused them, and forced women into concubinage and men into arduous labor, impelled the black population of Saint-Domingue to an achievement still unmatched in history: the overthrow of a slaveholding colonial power and the establishment of a revolutionary black republic.

The saga of the Haitian Revolution is so dramatic that it is surprising that it has never served as the scenario for a Hollywood production. Its images are varied and intense: the voodoo ceremony and pact sealed in the Bois Cayman (Alligator Woods) in anticipation of the slave revolt of 1791; the blazing, bloody revolt itself; foreign intervention by British and Spanish forces; the charismatic figure of François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, his rise and fateful decision to switch his allegiance from Spain to France, his surprisingly effective command of troops in the field, the relative restraint with which he treated white survivors and prisoners, the competence of his brief stint as ruler; the French expedition of 1802, of which Toussaint exclaimed, "All France has come to invade us"; Toussaint's betrayal and seizure by the French; and the ensuing revolution led by Jean-Jacque Dessalines, Henri (Henry) Christophe, and Alexandre Pétion.

Given the distinctive and auspicious origins of the Haitian republic, there is some irony in that the Dominicans commemorate as their independence day the date of their overthrow of Haitian rule. The Dominican revolt, however, came as a response to annexation by a Haitian state that had passed from the promise of orderly administration under Toussaint to the hard-handed despotism of Dessalines and had then experienced division, both racial and political, between the forces of Christophe and Pétion. By the time of its conquest of Santo Domingo (later to become the Dominican Republic), Haiti had come under the comparatively stable, but uninspired, stewardship of Jean-Pierre Boyer. Although viewed, both at the time and today, by most Dominicans as a crude and oppressive state dominated by the military, the Haiti that occupied both eastern and western Hispaniola from 1822 to 1844 can itself be seen as a victim of international political and economic isolation. Because they either resented the existence of a black republic or feared a similar uprising in their own slave-owning regions, the European colonial powers and the United States shunned relations with Haiti; in the process, they contributed to the establishment of an impoverished society, ruled by the military, guided by the gun rather than the ballot, and controlled by a small, mostly mulatto, ruling group that lived well, while their countrymen either struggled to eke out a subsistence-level existence on small plots of land or flocked to the banners of regional strongmen in the seemingly never-ending contest for power. To be sure, the French colonial experience had left the Haitians completely unprepared for orderly democratic self-government, but the isolation of the post-independence period assured the exclusion of liberalizing influences that might have guided Haiti along a somewhat different path of political and economic development. By the same token, however, it may be that Western governments of the time, and even those of the early twentieth century, were incapable of dealing with a black republic on an equal basis. The United States occupation of Haiti (1915-34) certainly brought little of lasting value to the country's political culture or institutions, in part because the Americans saw the Haitians as uncivilized lackeys and treated them as such.

Both nations of Hispaniola share--along with much of the developing world--the strong tendency toward political organization built upon the personalistic followings of strongmen, or caudillos, rather than on more legalistic bases, such as constitutionalism. This similarity in political culture helps to explain the chronologically staggered parallels between the brutal regimes of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina (1930-61) in the Dominican Republic and that of the Duvaliers--François Duvalier (1957-71) and his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier (1971-86)-- in Haiti. Both regimes lasted for approximately thirty years; both were headed by nonideological despots; both regimes sustained themselves in power by employing terror and ruthlessly suppressing dissent; both drew the ire of an international community that ultimately proved incapable of directly forcing them from power; and both left their countries mired in political chaos and internal conflict upon their demise. One may only hope that the unstable situation in Haiti after the fall of the Duvalier regime will resolve itself without further analogy to Dominican history--that is, without a civil war. As of late 1990, however, the outcome of the situation remained extremely unpredictable.

Lieutenant General Prosper Avril took power in Haiti in September 1988, ousting the highly unpopular military regime led by Lieutenant General Henri Namphy. Avril, a product of the Haitian military tradition and the Duvalierist system, initially gave assurances that he would serve only as a transitional figure on the road to representative democracy. Whatever his personal feelings or motivations, however, Avril by his actions proved himself to be simply another corrupt Haitian military strongman. Having scheduled elections for 1990, he arrested and expelled leading political figures and declared a state of siege in January of that year. These actions triggered demonstrations, protests, and rioting among a population weary of exploitation and insincere promises of reform. Despite his public rhetoric, Avril presided over a military institution that perpetuated the Duvalierist traditions of extortion, graft, and price-gouging through state-owned enterprises. At the same time, the military made no substantive effort to address the problem of political violence. By early 1990, Haitians had had enough of promises; many decided to take action on their own, much as they had during the uprising of 1985 that swept Jean-Claude Duvalier from power.

Violent demonstrations began in earnest in early March 1990, ostensibly in response to the army's fatal shooting of an eleven- year-old girl in Petit Goâve. Streets blazed across Haiti as demonstrators ignited tires and automobiles, chanted anti-Avril slogans, and fought with army troops. Avril soon recognized the untenable nature of his position; the United States ambassador reportedly influenced the general's decision to step down in a private meeting held on March 12. Avril's flight from Haiti on a United States Air Force transport added his name to a long list of failed Haitian strongmen, and it left the country under the guidance of yet another military officer, Major General (subsequently promoted to Lieutenant General) Hérard Abraham.

Consultations among civilian political figures produced a provisional government headed by a judge of the Court of Cassation (supreme court), Ertha Pascal-Trouillot, a woman little-known outside legal circles. Judge Pascal Trouillot reportedly accepted the post of provisional president after three other supreme court judges declined; she was sworn in on March 13. Appointed along with her was a nineteen-member Council of State, made up of prominent civic and political leaders. Although the new government announced no clear definitions of the powers of the council vis-à-vis the provisional president, some reports indicated that the president could exercise independent authority in some areas. The most compelling reality, however, was that all powers of the provisional government had been granted by the Haitian Armed Forces (Forces Armées d'Haïti--FAd'H), which would provide the government's only mandate--and perhaps its major political constituency--until valid popular elections could be held.

The Conseil Electoral Permanent (Permanent Electoral Council- -CEP) scheduled local, legislative, and presidential elections for sometime between November 4 and November 29, 1990. The prospects for their successful implementation, however, appeared highly problematical at best. Seemingly unchecked political violence, which conjured up for many the horrible images of the bloody election day of November 1987, presented the major obstacle to free and fair balloting. Negotiations between the FAd'H and the CEP sought to establish security mechanisms that would prevent a recurrence of the 1987 tragedy. Popular confidence in these efforts, however, did not appear to be very great.

In a larger sense, the utter absence of any democratic tradition, or framework, in Haiti stacked the odds heavily against a smooth governmental transition. Economist Mats Lundahl has referred to Haiti as a hysteretic state, "not simply one where the past has shaped the present, but also one where history constitutes one of the strongest obstacles to change." Several conditions prevailing in Haiti gave substance to this definition. Among the wide array of personalistic political parties, only three--Marc Bazin's Movement for the Installation of Democracy in Haiti (Mouvement pour l'Instouration de la Démocratie en Haïti-- MIDH), Serge Gilles's National Progressive Revolutionary Haitian Party (Parti Progressiste Révolutionnaire Haïtien--Ponpra), and Sylvio C. Claude's Christian Democrat Party of Haiti (Parti National Chrétien d'Haiti--PDCH)--displayed any semblance of coherent programs or disciplined party apparatus. The odyssey of the Haitian military, from dominant power before the Duvaliers to subordinate status under the dynastic dictatorship, left uncertain the intentions of the FAd'H under Abraham's leadership. The return of such infamous Duvalierist cronies as former interior minister Roger LaFontant and persistent rumors that Jean-Claude himself was contemplating a return to the nation he had bled dry for fifteen years provoked outrage among a population that wanted nothing so much as to rid itself of the remaining vestiges of that predatory regime. According to some observers, internal conditions had approached, by the late summer of 1990, a sort of critical mass, which, if not defused by way of fair and free elections, could explode into generalized and ultimately futile violence.

In July one of the more responsible political leaders, Sylvio Claude, exhorted Haitians to block the return of undesirables by seizing the international airport outside Port-au-Prince. In a speech on Radio Nationale, he declared, "Instead of letting [the army] go kill you later, make them kill you now." Among the figures targeted by Claude for such action was former president Leslie F. Manigat, not previously considered a controversial figure by most observers. Perhaps in response to such rabble- rousing, the provisional government announced on August 1 that Manigat would be barred from returning to his native Haiti.

In late July, the Council of State issued a communiqué, laying down four conditions that it deemed necessary for holding successful elections. First, effective legal action had to be initiated against those who had participated in the November 1987 attacks and other political murders; second, a general climate of public security needed to be established in order to encourage voters to go to the polls; third, the public administration should be purged of entrenched, corrupt bureaucrats; and fourth, some checks had to be established over the powers of the rural section chiefs (chefs de section), so that the rural population could vote in an atmosphere free of coercion and intimidation. It was not clear what action the Council would take if these conditions had not been met by November.

In the Dominican Republic, events unfolded along a much more predictable path. Although Dominican politics were boisterous, and physical clashes--occasionally punctuated by gunfire--between the members of contending political parties were not unusual, the democratic system established after the 1965 civil war and the United States intervention continued to function with comparative efficiency (especially when compared with that of Haiti). The elections of May 16, 1990, however, demonstrated the manifold weaknesses of this system. The most glaring example of the lack of institutionalization in Dominican politics was that the major contenders for the presidency were the same two men who had opposed each other in the elections of 1966, namely, Juan Bosch Gaviño and incumbent Joaquín Balaguer Ricardo. Despite almost a quarter of a century of relatively free political organization and competition, the two modern-day caudillos, both octogenarians, still sallied into the arena flying their own personalistic banners rather than those of truly established parties. The one party that had displayed some level of institutionalization, the Dominican Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Dominicano--PRD), had split into antagonistic factions--each with its own caudillo--and never presented a serious challenge to the two elder statesmen.

The elections themselves, like most during the post-civil war era, were lively, controversial, and bitterly contested. Despite debilitating national problems, such as a chronic shortage of electricity, rising inflation, and persistent poverty, President Balaguer retained enough support in a presidential race contested by sixteen political parties (some running in coalition) to eke out a narrow victory over Bosch. The final tally showed Balaguer with 678,268 votes against Bosch's 653,423. Like most Dominican politicians before him, Bosch did not accept defeat with magnanimity; he lashed out at Balaguer and the Central Electoral Board, accusing both of fraud during balloting that impartial observers had judged to be fair and orderly. Bosch's early public statements exhorted his followers to stage public protests against the alleged electoral fraud. Early fears of widespread street violence initiated by disgruntled Bosch supporters proved unfounded, however, and Balaguer's reelection was confirmed by the Board on June 12, 1990.

Although it traditionally bends a little around election time, the Dominican democratic system showed few signs of breaking completely. Economic developments, however, will exercise a decisive impact on the nation's future stability. In that regard, Balaguer's reelection could prove to be a storm warning for the republic. At eighty-one years of age, Balaguer reportedly retained his enthusiasm for hands-on administration of government policy. The major economic aspects of that policy, however, did not promise a significant degree of improvement in the short term. Balaguer, since his days as a protégé of Trujillo, has believed in the liberal application of funds to public works projects--the construction of schools, housing, public buildings--in order to boost employment and purchase political support. Such gratuitous expenditures, however, largely served to exacerbate the government's fiscal problems, while masking to only a limited degree the consistently high levels of unemployment prevailing in the republic. Another tenet of Balaguer's economic creed was a refusal to submit to an economic adjustment program dictated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). By ruling out an IMF-mandated program, Balaguer avoided further short-term austerity measures, such as devaluation and price increases on subsidized items; this enabled him to stand on a platform of economic nationalism and to proclaim his opposition to economic hardship imposed from abroad (that is, from the United States, which is strongly identified with the IMF throughout Latin America). In the long run, however, his obstinacy diminished Dominican standing with foreign creditors, and it limited any new infusions of capital needed to sustain the impressive growth of nontraditional exports achieved during the latter 1980s. This, in turn, would hinder the accumulation of foreign exchange needed to finance the imports required to sustain industrial development. Moreover, although an austerity program undoubtedly would pinch still further an already hard-pressed population, it might also help to balance the budget, to stabilize domestic prices, and to boost exports, all highly desirable potential results.

If the Dominican situation demonstrated anything to Haitians, it was that democracy is not a panacea for domestic turmoil. As Winston Churchill observed, it is the worst political system "except for all the others." Since Trujillo's death, Dominicans have struggled to adjust to an imperfect system, under less than ideal conditions; the final outcome of this process is still in doubt. For Haitians, the small step represented by valid elections could be their first lurch along a much longer road to peace and stability.


In the months following completion of research and writing of this book, significant political developments occurred in Haiti. On December 16, 1990, over 60 percent of registered voters turned out to elect political neophyte Jean-Bertrand Aristide president of Haiti. Aristide, a Roman Catholic priest and an advocate of liberation theology, registered an overwhelming first-round victory against a number of opponents. His popular identification as an outspoken opponent of the regime of Jean- Claude Duvalier apparently moved some 67 percent of voters to select Aristide as their leader. More traditional politicians such as Marc Bazin, Louis Dejoie, and Silvio Claude trailed badly, reflecting their lack of appeal beyond the upper and middle classes. Aristide's victory came as a result of what was arguably the first free and fair election in Haitian history.

Right-wing backlash against the election of the radical leftist Aristide expressed itself in a coup attempt led by Duvalierist Roger Lafontant on January 6, 1991. Assisted by a small contingent of army personnel, Lafontant seized the National Palace, took prisoner Provisional President Pascal-Trouillot, and announced his control of the government over the state-run television station. Lafontant's pronouncement turned out to be decidedly premature, however, as loyalist army forces stormed the palace twelve hours later on the orders of FAd'H commander Abraham. Lafontant and those of his fellow conspirators who survived the fighting were captured and incarcerated. The coup also ignited violent street demonstrations in which mobs lynched at least seven people they accused of Duvalierist ties or sympathies. Violence continued in the interim between the elections and the presidential inauguration on February 7, 1991. Particularly intense anti-Duvalierist demonstrations took place on the night of January 26, leaving more than a dozen dead. On the night of February 1, 1991, suspected Duvalierists set fire to an orphanage in Port-au-Prince administered by Aristide.

Aristide's inauguration on February 7, 1991, was a gala event, befitting its historic nature. As expected, the new president delivered a spellbinding inaugural address. In it, he renounced his US$10,000 a month salary as a "scandal in a country where people cannot eat." Although the address was short on specifics of policy, its tone was one of gratitude and support for the poverty-afflicted constituency that had provided such a striking electoral mandate. The address was also conciliatory with regard to the military. Aristide described a "wedding between the army and the people," and hinted that the army would henceforth function as a public security force in order to lessen the threat emanating from right-wing forces such as those directed by Lafontant.

Beyond his rhetorical outreach to the rank and file, Aristide moved quickly to shore up his rule in the face of possible opposition from within the officer corps of the FAd'H.In his inaugural address, he called on General Abraham to retire six of the eight highest-ranking generals as well as the colonel who commanded the Presidential Guard. The appeal reflected Aristide's surprisingly powerful position, based on his overwhelming electoral victory and his demonstrated popular support, which extended even to the ranks of the military. The fact that Abraham complied with the request confirmed the already rather obvious disarray of the FAd'H and the general unwillingness of the institution to reassume political power in Haiti.

On February 9, Aristide proposed René Préval as Haiti's prime minister. Préval, a Belgian-trained agronomist and close associate of the president, was subsequently approved by the National Assembly. Although Aristide won a smashing personal victory in his presidential race, no one party or movement achieved a majority in the assembly. This fact promised a certain degree of stalemate and inertia in the legislative process under the Aristide administration. Such a situation did not seem conducive to the development of programs to deal effectively with the country's many severe problems. At the same time, however, an assembly based on coalition and compromise should serve to check any temptation by the new government toward heavy-handed or even authoritarian rule. In any case, the assembly was a new institution in a new government in what many hoped would be a new and democratic Haiti.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress