Interview: Before Duvalier There Was Hope

Below, an edited September 2010 interview with Dr. Matthew J. Smith, historian at Jamaica’s University of the West Indies, Mona and author of Red & Black in Haiti: Radicalism, Conflict, and Political Change, 1934-1957 – the first comprehensive history of the post-occupation era, arguing that “the period (from 1934 until the rise of dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier to the presidency in 1957) constituted modern Haiti’s greatest moment of political promise.”

I ordered the award-winning book just in time for it to be delivered before my plane left for Haiti in September of ’09. It goes a long way towards explaining why the Duvaliers rose and clung to power for so long; I can’t recommend it highly enough. I hope other American reporters have read the book as well so we can see start to see some desperatelyneeded decent journalism on Haiti in the establishment media. As Gina Athena Ulysse says, “Yes, we are poor and have a history of political strife, but it’s not innate. And hell no, it’s not because we are mostly black. We are not reducible to our conditions.”

What caused you to write Red & Black in Haiti? What kind of response did it generate – both within and outside in Haiti?

Growing up in Jamaica, I had seen how intense political rivalries create dangerous problems and in many instances lead to violent solutions. I wanted to find out to what extent this history was matched in Haiti, a country which I have always considered to be incredibly similar to Jamaica. An earlier generation of scholars, such as David Nicholls, Michel Hector, and J. Michael Dash had indicated in their work that the tension between Marxists and Black Nationalists in Haiti was a defining feature of the 1930s-1950s. This intrigued me and encouraged me to go further and explore this tension.

The two decades before Duvalier were very transformative for Haiti in terms of politics, but in a much larger sense in terms of culture and history. So much happened in the postoccupation period that deserved careful attention. It was really the beginning of a modern political era in Haiti, one that was defined by an increase in popular politicization.

Yet it had not been given the attention it deserved. The possibility of great positive change seemed very real in this period and Haiti could very well have evolved differently as a result. I also wanted to write a political history of Haiti that did not reduce Haitian politics to a series of failures but to give it rigorous and fair-minded assessment and to show that the radical generation of that era had invested a great deal in improving the welfare of their country.

The response to the book has been generally quite positive and I am grateful for the support the book has received in the Caribbean and North America. It recently was a co-winner of the Gordon K. and Sybil Lewis Book Award from the Caribbean Studies Association. In Haiti people who have read it tell me how much they appreciate it. A Haitian press will be doing a French translation of the book and making it widely available in Haiti sometime in the near future. To have the book find an audience in Haiti is for me a tremendous honor.

Why do you call the uprising that brought down Lescot’s regime a revolution? You describe it as a moment of great promise and hope. How did it unravel? Do you see parallels to the broad-based dechoukaj that pushed out Jean-Claude Duvalier at the end of the 1980s and its subsequent fragmentation?

It is important to first appreciate that moments of upheaval and overthrow have usually been referred to as revolutions in Haiti. Prior to that many of the coups were regarded as ‘revolutions’ whether or not anything revolutionary actually occurred. The events of January 1946 were for the people who experienced them indeed a revolution. For many years following 1946, the anniversary of Elie Lescot’s departure would be publicly recognized as the anniversary of the revolution. It can of course be debatable as to whether there was anything truly revolutionary that came out of it. A Haitian friend once told me it was more properly a revolutionary movement but not a revolution.

But some notable transformations that occurred in 1946 marked the period as a revolution especially when compared to other revolutionary moments before. Estimé’s presidency (1946-50) is perhaps the important. It was the first attempt to really break away from the political traditions of the past. If one measures the strength of democracy on the nation’s investment in the idea that the state acts on its behalf, then the Estimé era was really a watershed for Haiti. It was indeed a period of incredible promise unlike any the country had experienced up to that time.

But a leader with enormous expectations as Estimé had in 1946, in a country that was divided socially and politically is going to be compromised. And indeed Estimé was greatly compromised. He did try at first to find common ground among these various groups so that he could effectively lead. But when he couldn’t get the balance he needed he began to display the authoritarian tendencies of his predecessors. After a transformation as dramatic as 1946 people were intolerant of any sign that resembled dictatorship and the forces that supported him, five years later worked to overthrow him.

There are many fascinating parallels between the post-1946 political landscape and the post-1986 one. For one, consider the two leaders they produced: Estimé and Aristide. Although there is very good reason to compare Aristide with Daniel Fignolé in terms of popularity, charisma, and organization, he also shares interesting parallels with Estimé. Both men came to power on a wave of democratic appeal, had to confront the army and contend with the strong threats from various sides jostling for power, including a new political elite and an entrenched bourgeoisie. In order to save their administrations they both resorted to controversial measures.

An even more obvious parallel is the sentiment both movements evoked for people in Haiti. The dechoukaj of 1946 was seen as an uprooting of the political elite of the 1920s-1940s, and the beginning of a new era in Haiti. People genuinely believed that Haiti could transform into a strong democracy then. But it provided weak solutions for addressing the political divisions in Haiti, which eventually undermined the movement. This failing was costly as it produced François Duvalier and Duvalierism. The dechoukaj of 1986 was a means of trying to erase the system that Duvalier planted in Haiti. But as with 1946, the solutions were weak. The key difference between 1946 and 1986 was the increase in violence and brutality in the post-1986 period. This was partly due to the legacy of brutality that Duvalierism left behind, but also to the abuses of the armed forces.

In your book I was struck by Daniel Fignole‘s leadership of wide swaths of Port-au-Prince’s working class. Fignole wielded considerable political influence, yet he hardly served in any government – his presidency only lasting 19 days. Why is that? Would you characterize his quick overthrow and exile as a US-backed coup d’etat?

Daniel Fignolé was quite simply the most popular political personality of his time. He had incredible reach and a powerful charisma. He was an intelligent man with a deep conviction for his country. He was also the right man at the right time. His critics will make mention of his megalomania. Indeed there was a touch of that with Fignolé, as with many other leaders who command such massive popular support. Haiti has had no shortage of those types of personalities in its history.

But Fignolé brought something different to this history because he was able to channel popular energy into active mobilization and organization. His party MOP was quite unique in Haiti at the time in its outreach. It boasted several newspapers, union support/leadership, rural connections, headquarters, education programs, a social club, and a family paper run by his wife, Carmen.

Fignolé also did not resort to violence. As threatening as his language could be sometimes and as massive as his steam-roller support was, he never commanded it to exact violence on any sector of Haiti. But he did suffer from an enlarged sense of himself and his movement. This prevented him from allying with other radical groups in Haiti, such as the Socialist Party, that could have strengthened the radical movement. Instead, he made several miscalculations that forced him into alliances with people who were determined to bring him down.

The biggest miscalculation of his career was accepting the presidency in May 1957 which resulted in his kidnapping and exile by the army in 1957 after only 19 days in the National Palace. The United States certainly had knowledge of what the army was getting into in Haiti in 1957. And U.S. officials were indeed gravely concerned over what a Fignolé presidency meant to Haiti. But the politics on the ground had much to do with it too. Fignolé could have rejected the offer to be a provisional president and stay in the race. He could have won if he did. But his enemies recognized his weakness and offered him an option that in many ways amounted to political suicide. If he had stepped back and observed the situation more carefully, he would have seen it as a trap.

In general, how would you characterize Haiti’s relationship to its northern neighbor? Did the United States enhance or undermine Haitian democracy during this period?

Haiti and the United States have always shared a strange relationship. There have always been close ties and intersections in both histories since before the Haitian Revolution. As is well-known now, a regiment from St. Domingue fought in the American Revolution in the 1770s. Yet the U.S. was one of the last nations to recognize Haitian independence. So from the beginning there was always this interesting history of support and neglect between Haiti and the U.S. This continued during the Occupation which saw a fair amount of racism and exploitation toward Haiti.

The growth of radical currents in Haiti during the postoccupation was of great concern to the United States during a time when the U.S. was preoccupied with the containment of communism around the world. Because so much of Haiti’s politics of the period was radical (labor, black nationalism, communism etc) American policy-makers feared it would make Haiti more vulnerable to communist infiltration.

Political leaders in Haiti had to come to terms with the heavy presence of the United States in local politics (something that had been going on before and during the Occupation but increased a great deal after it) and sought to adjust their programs and strategies in order to win U.S. support. The U.S. also played a role in influencing the outcomes of the periods of crisis during the years covered in the book – 1930, 1946, 1950, 1957. This served to undermine democracy building in the country. However, while it is true that U.S. foreign policy significantly contributed to the direction that Haiti took to reach Duvalier, there are other factors that cannot be ignored. Local tensions among political actors in Haiti ultimately broke down the promise of democracy, a point the book makes clear.

Can you talk about what common threads, if any, that you see connecting the leftist opposition profiled in your book to today’s Haitian left? For example, is there a continuing disconnect between educated activists and the rural peasantry?

The situation has changed a lot in terms of urban left connections with the rural sectors. One major reason for this is that the rural sectors have become far more prominent through grassroots organizations and community development organizations than during the time covered in the book. The presence of peasant organizations and community-based organizations since the 1980s is an important development.

A major weakness of the leftists of the 1940s was their inability to develop strong regional networks. This is not to say that rural sectors were not politically involved then. They probably were. But the evidence connecting them to the larger movements in Port-au-Prince is not strong. So the fact that activists today include the rural peasantry in their focus is a major difference.

The urban situation has also changed a great deal. During the forties the population of Port-au-Prince was less than half a million people. Today it is edging closer to 3 million. This has had enormous implications for politics in the country, not to mention social and economic standards as well. One unfortunate commonality that remains is the divisions among different political sectors. We saw some of this in the 2004 coup and we are seeing it again with the presidential campaign this year.

There were encouraging signs of unity among political rivals immediately following the earthquake, but that seems to be dissolving now that we are moving closer to elections. Democracy has advanced a great deal since the forties, but the division along with current crisis produces a combustible situation.

The media often talk about Haiti as a failed state or lacking in democratic traditions. In one recent story about Wyclef Jean, the Associated Press concluded, ” Presidents have only rarely completed a constitutional five-year term — most in history have been overthrown, assassinated, declared themselves “president-for-life” or some combination of the three.” What do you make of the mainstream media’s treatment of Haitian history, to the extent that it is referenced at all?

There is a tradition of misinformation about Haiti and its history is often reduced to being simply one of chaotic politics. It is true that Haiti has had a great many short-term presidents. That is undeniable and a part of historical record. But it is easy to highlight the short rule of presidents and the weaknesses of democratic institutions in the country.

I would doubt that any of the overthrown or assassinated presidents expected to be assassinated or exiled when they took the oath of office. There are deeper issues about why democracy has not been successful in Haiti that are never really addressed in media reports. Since the earthquake there have been really abysmal treatments of Haiti’s history in the mainstream media that seems to insinuate that the Haitian Revolution was the root cause of the country’s problems, including the earthquake. I can’t think of any other country that has been subject to this sort of massive misinformation. Some will argue that it is deliberate.

But there is also an element of blatant disregard for proper contextualization when it comes to Haiti. It is almost as if the standards applicable to other countries don’t seem to matter. The Caribbean generally suffers from this but Haiti suffers most. This has come about from nearly two centuries of negative stereotyping of Haiti to the point where the negatives are accepted as part of the reality. So we get reports that fail to do the simple fact-checking on dates and names, or make easy conclusions on some very complicated situations. False information is repeated so frequently that it becomes regarded as facts.

To be fair, the mainstream media did provide a very important service in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake with its around the clock coverage. The attention to Haiti by media outlets via websites, blogs, news reports, and broadcasts was unprecedented. This had the advantage of getting more people interested and involved in offering support to this great human tragedy. But it also presented a unique opportunity for a better understanding of Haitian history. Sadly I don’t think that has been the result.

One good thing that I have noticed is the role of the alternative media. In this age of new media several alternative news sources and journalists have impressed me by including Haiti’s history in coverage of the aftermath of the earthquake. They usually tend to be more careful in avoiding the pitfalls of the mainstream by providing more details and considered assessment.

Does it appear to you that those charting Haiti’s development today understand Haitian history? Do you think the outpouring of charitable giving towards Haiti after the earthquake, most of directed at international NGOs, will have an impact?

That’s a good question. I would agree that there is a limited understanding or even engagement with Haiti’s history on the part of the people leading the recovery project. The view that Haiti is constantly in trouble suits present interests who use the moment of disaster to advance their own agendas. This has always been the case.

My concern with this is that the experiences of the past are seldom recalled in any meaningful way that examines the reasons why past solutions didn’t work. Sympathizers for Haiti’s plight are also guilty of this. There is a tendency among some to see the reasons for Haiti’s problems to be entirely a result of external forces, when the reality is always more complex. The postoccupation is a great example. I should stress, however, that Haitians have always had a very sharp sense of their history. History is everywhere in Haiti. You just have to look at the names of streets in Port-au-Prince to realize the heavy presence of history in the country.

The support for Haiti today can only have an impact with good leadership. One person cannot do this alone especially given the dire circumstances the country is in following January 12. Ideally it would be good to see a coalition of sorts among various political groups and leaders evolving out of the November elections. A leading party or president that acknowledges that the situation is so utterly overwhelming at present, that they will have to work together to ensure that the money is properly accounted for and the rebuilding will be properly monitored. To do so, however, would mean they would have to consciously work to avoid the divisiveness and corruption of the past. In this instance I sincerely hope that history will not repeat itself.

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