Can Haiti Change?

Sidney W Mintz. Foreign Affairs. Volume 74, Issue 1, January 1995.

A Historical Challenge

Every nation is unique; no two are identical. But Haiti is in a class by itself, not because it is the hemisphere’s poorest country or because no one there before President Jean-Bertrand Aristide had ever been elected by popular vote. Poverty and a lack of electoral politics, after all, typify societies spread across a substantial portion of the earth’s surface. What makes Haiti unique is that no other nation in world history has ever been created by slaves. Those slaves wrested their weapons from the hands of their masters and then threw the masters out. What Spartacus was crucified for failing to do, the Haitian people did. Haiti’s uniqueness inheres in that historical experience, and some features of it still figure in its political present and allow for predictions about its future. Of course background facts do not tell us what to do about Haiti. But not knowing them has led to some plans for Haiti that make relatively little sense of what is possible.

Haiti’s current crisis, then, is historical. Even while conceding the very real importance of scanty resources, dilapidated infrastructure, and popular exhaustion, the forces that have helped keep Haiti immobilized (if not immobile) were in place soon after independence. In 1915, when the United States occupied Haiti for the first time, it strengthened those forces. Whether that mistake is repeated is the challenge of the latest American intervention. It is difficult to be anything but pessimistic. Haitian stability will depend on fundamental economic change—change in the distribution of power to make economic decisions. That change seems extremely unlikely, not least because it will require time. For the current American intervention to accomplish anything more lasting in Haiti than feeding the hungry, repairing electric generators, and fixing roads will take the kind of extended commitment that a restless American electorate—and a tired Haitian people—may lack.

But looking ahead is difficult; looking back is far easier. What one sees in the past are a number of forgotten relevancies. They have to do with what Haiti once was, and with what its people did about it. So let’s put predictions aside for the moment and look back.

Genesis of a Revolution

It is strange, but true, that Haiti has never been forgiven by the West for refusing to tolerate the social and economic structure European intentions had installed in what was at the time a supremely profitable, seventeenth-century French colony. In 1791, the colony of St. Domingue, ceded to France by Spain in 1697, was the epicenter of a tropical new world. That world had been created by European empires to provide their citizens—especially large new urban laboring populations—with novel foods such as sugar and molasses, and “soft drugs” such as rum, coffee, and tobacco. Novelties in 1700, these were things with which Europe’s laboring masses would soon become infatuated. It turned out to be convenient to produce such goods—at enormous profit to bankers, slave traders, plantation entrepreneurs, and the state—by combining factors of production from three different locales. Caribbean land had belonged to American Indians; the labor, most of it African, had belonged to the slaves themselves; the know-how, managerial skill, military power to take and hold colonies, and initial capital all came from Europe.

What the planters, most of them only recently wealthy and powerful, accomplished in the Antilles reverberated powerfully in imperial Europe. During the period 1650-1850, the Antilles became one of the world’s key economic areas, a cockpit of international struggle. We are told that just about every critical naval battle during nearly two centuries was fought over Caribbean land. Such passion made good economic sense; the islands, fertilized with the labor, sweat, and blood of slaves, were like gold mines; the gold was agricultural. Not for nothing would Voltaire, commenting on the exchange of Martinique and Guadeloupe for Canada in 1763- -imagine, those two tiny islands for Canada!—argue that Canada was, after all, only “a few acres of snow.” The Antilles, on the other hand, could produce sugar, together with all those other miraculous healers of torment, such as rum, tobacco, and coffee, that could accompany it.

In the case of French St. Domingue (the western third of the island of Espanola, today’s Haiti), the combination of cheap land, African labor, and European capital was richly productive. More than 864,000 enslaved Africans were imported into the colony by 1791, all but a handful of them after 1697; the entire French fleet was profitably occupied with the St. Domingue trade. Production figures for sugar, molasses, rum, and coffee (as well as indigo and cotton) were astonishing; by the mid-eighteenth century, French St. Domingue had become the zenith of the Atlantic slave system.

But there were odd consequences. Unlike other plantation colonies, St. Domingue developed a distinctive social structure of its own. What made it so special was the swiftly emerging class of spirited, vigorous, and clever free people (gens de couleur) and their descendants. These people were intermediate in color, status, and power, and socially, situated between the grands blancs (large planters) on the one hand, and the vast mass of enslaved Africans (their majority African-born) on the other. They were also called “freed people” (affranchis), which was inaccurate; many were really the second- or third-generation descendants of freed slaves. The figures for this group are not highly reliable, but they give us some idea of the social order. In 1790 there were supposed to be slightly more than half a million people in St. Domingue, of whom 452,000 were slaves, 40,000 were whites (divided among planters and tradespeople and menials of limited means), while 28,000 were gens de couleur or affranchis. The poor whites were outstripped socially and financially by the gens de couleur, who amply competed with the grands blancs in their lifestyle, orientation to French culture, and sophistication.

But where did these in-between people come from, in less than a hundred years? The answer to that question must be sought in the culture, family life, and domestic habits of the French themselves. There is no doubt that the free people, the gens de couleur, were mostly the children (and descendants) of the unions of planters with their female slaves. Such offspring were not unusual for the Caribbean. But the children of these unions (in contradistinction to most other cases) were frequently recognized by their fathers, sent to France to be educated, and empowered to inherit. In time, they themselves often became owners of great quantities of land and slaves. It has been claimed that at the outbreak of the revolution in Haiti in 1791, a third of the land and a fourth of the slaves in that unhappy colony belonged to free people of color. Even conservative estimates accord them a fifth of each, land and slaves. These affranchis were true creoles, in the older meaning of that word: something of the Old World, born in the New. Neither Europeans nor Africans, they swiftly adjusted as a class to their status as non-European, slave-owning, and power-holding people. Many saw themselves as culturally French.

Perhaps it was inevitable that, in the second half of the eighteenth century, whites of all ranks in the colony united to find ways to curb the power of free people of color. Indeed, by the time of the French Revolution, a contest for political advantage raged between blancs and gens de couleur. But before their struggle ended it became irrelevant—the slaves revolted. We must understand that the affranchis were leading no movement for the freedom of persons of African descent—we have no touching pictures of franchise; sons in the arms of their African mothers. Affranchi interest in civil liberty centered mostly on their own rights in relation to whites; that was the struggle upon which they and the whites were focused.

As of 1791 it no longer mattered; from 1791 until 1804, a seesaw revolutionary war destroyed much of the plantation economy and countryside and, in substantial measure, uprooted the European planter class. The French were driven out; nearly all Europeans went with them. But not all the free people of color; many fought on the side of the revolution. On January 1, 1804, General Jean Jacques Dessalines proclaimed victory. The revolution was triumphant and freedom had come.

Victory Costs

A great deal has been written about what was wrong with that freedom. Some of it is even convincing, though it often seems moved mostly by a desire to prove that Haiti always gets what it deserves. But no matter what is said of the Haitian Revolution, it cannot be understood for what it meant to the future, except in the context of the other revolutions of its time. This was, above all, the only revolution of those first three—American, French, and Haitian—that freed the slaves. In view of the sloganeering that has typified the other two revolutions ever since, that simple fact merits reflection.

What the Haitian revolutionaries fought for also deserves thought. Every American schoolchild knows today about taxation without representation, tossing tea into Boston harbor, vowing to choose liberty or death, and the horrors of monarchy. But the freedom the Haitian slaves were after was not of a kind with which either American or French revolutionaries dealt seriously. The Haitian slaves were interested in less stirring issues—such as not being someone else’s property, not being flogged, not being denied a family or the right to testify in court, not being raped, tortured, murdered, or sold. Yet the Haitian Revolution had no standing (so to speak) in Europe. Most of its leaders could not write well (if at all). Few had any formal education. None could appeal directly to friends, college chums, or political allies in Europe. Accordingly, no members of the European nobility rushed to St. Domingue to stand at the side of its revolutionary leaders, as had Kosciusko, von Steuben, Lafayette, and others, in the North American instance. Those guys simply didn’t show up for the Haitian revolution; figuratively speaking, no European or North American has shown up for it since.

It followed that there was a price for winning. Or rather, there were prices. In 1804, a free and independent Haiti was launched in a not even the Haitians full of the colonies of white European slave-holding states, among them the most powerful nations in the world, for which reason the Haitian people had to be punished. Punishment took the form of substantial indemnities to be paid to France, in exchange for acknowledgment of Haiti’s independence. Why the Haitians, who had driven out the French by the sword, should have had to indemnify the French to win their recognition is still absurd; but it was done. Diplomatic and commercial isolation of the new nation was not hermetic—there was, after all, money to be made—but all the slave-holding states were appropriately delicate in their dealings with Haiti. In 1825, 21 years after Haitian independence, Senator Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina whispered that Haiti’s freedom could not even be discussed in the United States, so as not to disturb “the peace and safety of a large portion of our union.” Recognition by the United States did not come until 1862; the Vatican, ever cautious, did not sign a concordat until 1860. The American Revolution had threatened the crowned heads of Europe; it is easy, then, to imagine what the revolution of half a million enslaved Africans had threatened. The political freedom of like (that is, free and white) persons who had been colonial was repellent enough. That unlike (that is, enslaved and black) persons should lay identical claims on the international order was considered intolerable. The second price was the creation of what was for its time a new sort of polity. The remaining people of means in Haiti began to interlace their families connubially with those of the victorious military in order to impose civil order, according to their standards. A grasp of what that polity may have been like is not provided by comparisons with either France or the United States, whose postrevolutionary situations posed different challenges altogether. It was a world all its own.

Standing Still

It was in those early years of Haitian independence that the bourgeoisie (the term is truly inappropriate in its original sense here, since these were people who would never risk money of their own) learned to siphon off every productive effort of the agrarian masses to enhance their personal consumption—and it has always been a consumption that results in zero expansion of domestic production. Credit merchants and moneylenders, import and export commission buyers, storekeepers and processors and tax collectors positioned themselves astride the economy of distribution and exchange, even while the newly free were becoming independent cultivators.

There were efforts at first to garner the labor of the ex-slaves by coercion. The Emperor Christophe had imposed order in the north by reinstalling the plantation system, and for half a dozen years, his regime prospered, but the empire ended in 1820 with his silver bullet. Indeed, the plantation system never really returned to Haiti, despite a U.S. attempt to remake Haiti as a sugar producer during the occupation (1915-34), and yet again (this time for rubber), early in World War II. Haiti’s uniqueness in this regard also figures. It is one of the few places in the New World where plantations worked, but where they disappeared while still profitable to people in Europe.

Elsewhere in the Caribbean, freed people were forced back into plantation labor after emancipation by a happy mixture of contrived land scarcity and contract labor immigration, the two jaws of post-emancipation planter power. But these devices couldn’t be applied in Haiti. With all its faults, it was a free country. It was also an impoverished country. By the time the Haitian Revolution ended, the plantation system lay nearly in ruins; many thousands had died, thousands of others had fled. In the absence of the coerced labor of nearly half a million slaves, Haiti’s resources were largely limited to the land itself, and the freely given labor of its people. No other country in modern times has confronted freedom under such discouraging circumstances.

While the United States began its sovereign career with the highest percentage of college graduates of any country in the world, Haiti began its national life with most people illiterate, with nowhere to expand except Spanish Santo Domingo—and indeed they tried that—and with limited natural resources other than land. No one was disposed to immigrate to Haiti. In the United States, on the other hand, land resources seemed utterly inexhaustible, as long as there were Indians to pen up. Expansion into new lands was feasible, and large numbers of newcomers were readily attracted from elsewhere.

Had the plantations been restored in Haiti, they could have produced wealth. But those who would have done the work could not be driven back onto the plantations. In truth, then, Haiti was a totally unexpected societal achievement; but nobody, including the Haitians, really knew it. Lacking coercible labor and any economic class prepared to raise productivity at a risk to itself, Haiti could only stand still. Being Haiti, it stood still in its own way.

Squatting on the land by ex-slaves and government land partition began soon after the revolution, but especially under President Alexandre Petion (1807-18), who distributed or sold more than 150,000 hectares, much of it to military officers. His successor, President Jean-Pierre Boyer (1818-43), sought in vain to tie rural labor to large holdings by means of his famous Rural Code; but he also ended up selling off land, beginning around 1825.

Over time, Haitian rural society became typified by what were at first the large farms of ex-officers, the smaller farms of ex-soldiers, and the scattered holdings of thousands of freeholders and squatters. Homesteads (lakou) were built around patrilineal, patrilocal stem families (ideally, a man and his wife, their sons, their sons’ wives and children), who produced coffee for export, numerous products for the local markets, and the lion’s share of family subsistence. A religious system that involved ancestor worship in a distinct variant form, vodoun (called ‘voodoo’ by foreigners), tied land, family fate, and the African past together by seasonal ceremonies, ancestral invocations, and propitiatory rituals.

Though violence marked changes in government from nearly the very beginning of sovereignty in 1804 until the U.S. occupation, and 1843 even brought a kind of revolution, the countryside remained relatively stable from the 1830s through the rest of the nineteenth century. Ragtag regional armies would march to seize central power, then repeatedly make their peace with the center. Such struggles were chronic, but they had relatively little effect on the daily life of most Haitians. It as a century when the Haitian people were able to enjoy some prosperity, based on the expansion of small-scale agriculture. Only toward the end of the century did population growth begin to overtake available land, so that the size of average holdings would decline more sharply.

It was in the absence of overwhelming coercion that the Haitian people had created the only truly post-Columbian peasant society in the New World. The land reform that Latin America would later clamor for had been achieved here a century earlier. But the eventual economic fate of the society was grimly predictable because no encouragement to raise productivity—other than regressive taxes—originated with the ruling class. The Napoleonic legacy of equal inheritance would mean smaller average holdings each generation, as long as population increased. The peasant “class” of Haiti was not really a class, but a stratified subsystem of landholders, plus a growing number of the landless. Most labor was carried out on a familial basis, or by means of cooperative groups made up of relatives and neighbors. Little if any farm labor was done for wages, even by the landless, during most of the century. Though there was enough pressure on the land to cause local disturbances, those who were called “peasants” (habitants) were, as a whole, politically inactive. Indeed, in their long-standing lack of interest in a national politics, Haiti’s peasants remind one of Marx’s comment that a peasantry is organized only in the sense that potatoes in a sack are organized. For all intents and purposes, political activity was concentrated in the capital. The Haitian rural masses expected little from their government—and they got less. But they were taxed in every way that a city-bound, aristocratic, and authoritarian ruling class could think of, which is still the case today.

What Really Divides Haitians

Perhaps no aspect of Haitian history confuses us more than the physical appearances of its people. Haiti is supposed to be divided by “color,” but that is certainly inexact. It may be closer to the truth to say that there is wide situational variability in consciousness of color and that for many people lightness is symbolically important. For North Americans, the issue of color raises special questions of perception. Both North Americans (and in a different manner, Europeans, too) think they can see Haiti better if they keep track of what everybody’s “color” is. But the truth is that in Haiti nothing makes things murkier than misperceptions of the social significance of color.

The emergent ruling group in Haiti after the revolution was surely lighter in complexion than the Haitian population’s average complexion at the time—that is, lighter than were the foot soldiers of the revolutionary armies. But that group was also probably no lighter on balance than the color of the average population called “black” in the United States—and more likely darker. What “color” people are must be seen as part of a perceptual whole that is a good deal larger, and includes hair type, nose type, lip type, eye color, ear size, and other physical features, such as amount of body and face hair, and body type. But it also includes things that are not “physical” in the same way, such as the appearance of one’s siblings and their in-laws, one’s wife and her family, and so on. Yet more important, it is not at all certain that “color” figured in that early emergence of a ruling group half so much as did education, military record, and personal connections with the people. It is not that “color” and other physical denotata were irrelevant. But they were not then, nor are they now, so neatly defining that social groups can safely be described in terms of them.

Color aside, in looking at how Haitian social structure works, it is useful to take its historical development into account. The bulk of the Haitian people are rural (though less so now than ever before), agricultural (though agriculture has been declining for at least half a century), and illiterate. Their language is Creole, which is not mutually intelligible with French and, until the last twenty years or so, was rarely written (and never read). Their religion is a form of ancestral cult, though they view themselves as being Catholic (as well, rather than instead); these days, a growing number of people in the towns are Protestants, usually in nonecumenical denominations.

A modest minority—no more than ten percent—speaks and reads some French an has twelve or more years of education, lives in cities, works in professions, service trades, and the government, and attends Catholic (and Protestant) services. Such people differ quite dramatically from those described above. They will probably be somewhat disdainful of vodoun; they may refer condescendingly (or quite venomously) to the poor; and their feign disinterest in questions of cultural origin—that is, what is or might be “African.” Often the gap between such people and other Haitians seems absolutely unbridgeable; in certain ways, it is. At the same time, though, Haitian culture is a more clearly definable system, top to bottom, than is American culture. There are no real ethnic divisions in Haiti; everybody understands and speaks Creole; everybody eats the same kind of food; everybody dances the same way (or knows how to). Hence the content of “being Haitian” is widely shared, even if the life and fate of Haitians varies (as it does) from quite rarefied luxury to terrible misery and suffering. Without some attention to such features of Haitian life—making comparisons with the United States is not instructive—there can be no basis upon which to ask questions related to social policy. Some observers have said that Haiti is divided into two castes; that is inaccurate. Haiti is divided by economics, language, education, religion, and ideological awareness.

The Perception Gap

North American politics with regard to Haiti has always sprung, first of all, from inattention. How could the North Americans have been expected to take seriously a nation that entered the modern world in 1804 populated entirely by—need I write the word out to make the point, or does it come easily to mind? This tiny land, born of a struggle for liberty that anticipated a comparable struggle in the United States by nearly a century, had nothing the United States wanted (except, perhaps, a harbor or two). Why the United States actually occupied Haiti in 1915 is still debatable. It has never been established whether the Americans arrived in order to protect Chase National Bank assets, to halt mob violence, or to prevent the German community there from extending its influence at a time when war with Germany seemed more and more likely. Whatever creating a modern the case, we stayed nearly twenty years and accomplished relatively little. Americans eagerly sought opportunities for investment in Haiti (Franklin Roosevelt was particularly zealous), but were profoundly discouraged by the average Haitian’s lack of interest in expanding average his consumption. The American financial adviser was clear: “The peasants, living lives which to us seem indolent and shiftless, are enviably carefree and contented; but, if they are to be citizens of an independent, self-governing nation, they must acquire, or at least a larger number of them must acquire, a new set of wants.”(1) In fact, it is maddening to us, who believe that increasing one’s standard of living (measured, of course, by what people buy) is a universal good, to have to confront a people who fail to share that belief.

As the American occupiers undertook to “develop” Haiti, many peasants were conscripted by force into road-building crews, with the connivance of local politicians, and the effects were terrible. In resisting such oppression—and the Haitians fought back—they suffered thousands of casualties. Corvee labor clearly brought back images of slavery. Yet the Americans were angered and hurt by the apparent unwillingness of the Haitians to accept a North American conception of what was desirable and good.

Numerous anecdotes convey the feeling tone of the occupation; just one will do. When Franklin Roosevelt’s friend John McIlhenny (of the Tabasco sauce family) attended a luncheon in honor of Haitian President Philippe Sudre Dartiguenave, he later told Roosevelt he hadn’t been able to eat much. He was so impressed, he said, by the Haitian secretary of agriculture who sat opposite him that: “I couldn’t help saying to myself that that man would have brought $1,500 at auction in New Orleans in 1860 for stud purposes.” This is, after all, only a (thoroughly documented) anecdote; but it speaks to the enormous gap between North American perceptions and Haitian realities. There have been positive evaluations of the U.S. occupation, during which schools, hospitals, roads, and an agricultural school were built, a police force and army trained, and the national budget put right. These accomplishments were real. But some of the most negative achievements were of a human kind. As the occupation identified those persons in the society with whom we thought we could deal—who talked our language, literally or figuratively speaking—it sent a message to ordinary Haitians.

The occupation had the effect of increasing government centralization, and of making it more efficient. By creating a modern army, it changed Haitian politics forever. The armed forces became the one way—other than the priesthood—for poor Haitians to rise within the system. There is no doubt that U.S. measures in the period 1915-34, and the care shown the Haitian military since, have been of crucial importance to the perpetuation of traditional power.

Pick a Side

Now we Americans are back; and the situation is as murky as before. That any Haitians at all wanted us in there is a good measure of the desperation that daily and viciously arbitrary thuggery could inspire among poor decent people. But what seems clear is that our estimates of the capacity of the Haitian masses to act always in a manner we would consider fittingly democratic means that we choose to ignore Haiti’s history and recent suffering. President Clinton has urged Aristide not to incite class warfare. But it needs to be fully understood that the existing terrible asymmetry of economic power in Haiti is just what has kept the vast majority of the Haitian people utterly defenseless for centuries. There is no need to incite class warfare; the present situation is the outcome of 200 years of a war of attrition against the people by a ruling class. U.S. rule early in this century confirmed, sustained, and underwrote that asymmetry. U.S. power now is being called upon to maintain it anew. Under such circumstances, President Aristide is clearly constrained in what he is able to do. Indeed, he may end up doing things rather differently, if he is made to feel that the time he has—apart from the end of his term—is minimal. In certain ways, then, the hard decisions become ours.

Under the best of circumstances, Haiti cannot be changed structurally without some yielding of power by the haves. The rural sector cannot be expected to increase its own productivity without massive, long-term assistance. Using its traditional techniques, the peasantry needs to be educated as well as helped. The nation has become food-importing in recent decades because it systematically plundered it own people. The national infrastructure is in tatters. The origins of these difficulties lie in the past; but not all of them are by any means solely Haiti’s fault.

In today’s world, even the reconstruction of Haitian society on a peasant basis cannot restore the country. Haiti’s rulers have siphoned off surpluses for two centuries without contributing even minimally to the education of the people or the growth of new sources of income. Rulers who profit from stasis are disinclined to risk change. What has passed for change before now in Haiti—extracting blood plasma, making sausage, selling peasants to the Dominican Republic’s sugar industry—is a measure of the daring and patriotism of those rulers. Unless there is to be some investment in Haiti’s human capital, real change will prove impossible. If it is to be our policy to sustain at all costs the present distribution of economic power in Haiti, hardly anything can be done that could have a long—range beneficial political consequence. In that case it behooves us to make this clear, and to face the international assessment of our policies. What ought not be permitted is to sustain a constellation of forces that will lead inexorably to renewed terror upon our departure, and to call it impartiality.