In Canada, with its imperial adventure in Afghanistan, its aid workers who speak in suspiciously counterinsurgent terms of “restoring peace and stability” and achieving “progress,” and its continuing belligerence toward First Nations communities protesting for the right to live without uranium poisoning, it should not be surprising to see how much of the mass media sidesteps ongoing Canadian participation in the aftermath of its involvement in the transnational coup in 2004 that removed Haiti’s popularly elected leader, Jean Bertrand Aristide. The hypocrisy of drawing attention to this, while juxtaposing it with stories of the prime minister bleating about the need for democracy in China, would obviously be too much even for our excellent window dressers. Also astounding would have been any official attempt to explain how Haiti, as one of the first virtual redesign projects of the new period of globalized reconquest, as a virtual United Nations protectorate annexed to the political schemes of France, the U.S, and Canada, could be experiencing food shortages and food riots. “Democracy,” at the point of a foreign gun, overseeing starvation: one might suspect that “people” are getting used to such bizarre contradictions nestled together, especially as it seems to be the norm of globalization (after the passing of the euphoria of satellite broadcasts of images of the earth seen from the moon).
But we do have some good window dressers in Canada — after storming Haiti, the Canadian government chose a Haitian immigrant to be the new and current Governor General of Canada, another elegant and well spoken lady with a history of professional work in the media, an alleged former Quebec separatist, now officially representing the Queen of England. It really is rich, one could not make such stuff up, with such multilayered ironies interlaced with schemish mendacities.
What is promising is that the very word “globalization” in anthropology seems to have been surrendered, and replaced either by “imperialism” and/or “transnationalism.” Discussion of “global flows of culture” no longer seems interesting, or relevant, or even sensitive, in moments such as these.
14 August 2008
A new account of Haiti’s recent history shows how the genuinely radical politics of Lavalas and its leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, proved too threatening to the country’s wealthy elite and their foreign backers.
Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment
Peter Hallward, Verso, 480pp.
Noam Chomsky once noted that “it is only when the threat of popular participation is overcome that democratic forms can be safely contemplated”. He thereby pointed at the “passivising” core of parliamentary democracy, which makes it incompatible with the direct political self-organisation and self-empowerment of the people. Direct colonial aggression or military assault are not the only ways of pacifying a “hostile” population: so long as they are backed up by sufficient levels of coercive force, international “stabilisation” missions can overcome the threat of popular participation through the apparently less abrasive tactics of “democracy promotion”, “humanitarian intervention” and the “protection of human rights”.
This is what makes the case of Haiti so exemplary. As Peter Hallward writes in Damming the Flood, a detailed account of the “democratic containment” of Haiti’s radical politics in the past two decades, “never have the well-worn tactics of ‘democracy promotion’ been applied with more devastating effect than in Haiti between 2000 and 2004”. One cannot miss the irony of the fact that the name of the emancipatory political movement which suffered this international pressure is Lavalas, or “flood” in Creole: it is the flood of the expropriated who overflow the gated communities that protect those who exploit them. This is why the title of Hallward’s book is quite appropriate, inscribing the events in Haiti into the global tendency of new dams and walls that have been popping out everywhere since 11 September 2001, confronting us with the inner truth of “globalisation”, the underlying lines of division which sustain it.
Denounced by Talleyrand as “a horrible spectacle for all white nations”, the “mere existence of an independent Haiti” was itself an intolerable threat to the slave-owning status quo. Haiti thus had to be made an exemplary case of economic failure, to dissuade other countries from taking the same path. The price – the literal price – for the “premature” independence was truly extortionate: after two decades of embargo, France, the old colonial master, established trade and diplomatic relations only in 1825, after forcing the Haitian government to pay 150 million francs as “compensation” for the loss of its slaves. This sum, roughly equal to the French annual budget at the time, was later reduced to 90 million, but it continued to be a heavy drain on Haitian resources: at the end of the 19th century, Haiti’s payments to France consumed roughly 80 per cent of the national budget, and the last instalment was only paid in 1947. When, in 2003, in anticipation of the bicentenary of national independence, the Lavalas president Jean-Baptiste Aristide demanded that France return this extorted money, his claim was flatly rejected by a French commission (led, ironically, by Régis Debray). At a time when some US liberals ponder the possibility of reimbursing black Americans for slavery, Haiti’s demand to be reimbursed for the tremendous sum the former slaves had to pay to have their freedom recognised has been largely ignored by liberal opinion, even if the extortion here was double: the slaves were first exploited, and then had to pay for the recognition of their hard-won freedom.
The story goes on today. The Lavalas movement has won every free presidential election since 1990, but it has twice been the victim of US-sponsored military coups. Lavalas is a unique combination: a political agent which won state power through free elections, but which all the way through maintained its roots in organs of local popular democracy, of people’s direct self-organisation. Although the “free press” dominated by its enemies was never obstructed, although violent protests that threatened the stability of the legal government were fully tolerated, the Lavalas government was routinely demonised in the international press as exceptionally violent and corrupt. The goal of the US and its allies France and Canada was to impose on Haiti a “normal” democracy – a democracy which would not touch the economic power of the narrow elite; they were well aware that, if it is to function in this way, democracy has to cut its links with direct popular self-organisation.
It is interesting to note that this US-French co-operation took place soon after the public discord about the 2003 attack on Iraq, and was quite appropriately celebrated as the reaffirmation of their basic alliance that underpins the occasional conflicts. Even Brazil’s Lula condoned the 2004 overthrow of Aristide. An unholy alliance was thus put together to discredit the Lavalas government as a form of mob rule that threatened human rights, and President Aristide as a power-mad fundamentalist dictator – an alliance ranging from ex-military death squads and US-sponsored “democratic fronts” to humanitarian NGOs and even some “radical left” organisations which, financed by the US, enthusiastically denounced Aristide’s “capitulation” to the IMF. Aristide himself provided a perspicuous characterisation of this overlapping between radical left and liberal right: “Somewhere, somehow, there’s a little secret satisfaction, perhaps an unconscious satisfaction, in saying things that powerful white people want you to say.”
The Lavalas struggle is exemplary of a principled heroism that confronts the limitations of what can be done today. Lavalas activists didn’t withdraw into the interstices of state power and “resist” from a safe distance, they heroically assumed state power, well aware that they were taking power in the most unfavourable circumstances, when all the trends of capitalist “modernisation” and “structural readjustment”, but also of the postmodern left, were against them. Constrained by the measures imposed by the US and International Monetary Fund, which were destined to enact “necessary structural readjustments”, Aristide pursued a politics of small and precise pragmatic measures (building schools and hospitals, creating infrastructure, raising minimum wages) while encouraging the active political mobilisation of the people in direct confrontation with their most immediate foes – the army and its paramilitary auxiliaries.
…Hallward’s outstanding book is not just about Haiti, but about what it means to be a “leftist” today: ask a leftist how he stands towards Aristide, and it will be immediately clear if he is a partisan of radical emancipation or merely a humanitarian liberal who wants “globalisation with a human face”.