Randall Robinson on Haiti’s Tortured Past, Troubling Present
Reviewed By Theola Labbá, a Washington Post Metro reporter of Haitian descent
Thursday, October 18, 2007; Page C03
AN UNBROKEN AGONY
Randall Robinson, the founder of the social justice organization TransAfrica, has never shied from expressing his views. In “Quitting America” (2004), he declared that the United States had nothing to offer him and other native-born blacks — a realization that drove him to move with his family to the Caribbean nation of St. Kitts and Nevis. In “The Debt” (2000), he argued in favor of reparations to African Americans for the legacy of slavery. In his latest work, Robinson offers a passionate retelling of the history of Haiti and the circumstances surrounding the rise and fall of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Using history, eyewitness accounts and his own role as a monitor for parliamentary elections, Robinson has created a worthy account, in his trademark incensed style, of how American and European policies have harmed, rather than helped, Haiti.
The book opens with Haiti’s beginning as an island inhabited by 8 million Taino Indians when Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492. Three decades later, only 200 Tainos remained. Three hundred years later, freed slave Toussaint L’Ouverture transformed fellow ex-slaves into soldiers and led “the only successful slave revolt ever mounted in the Americas.” Robinson calls it “the most stunning victory won for the black world in a thousand years.”
While much has been written about the slave revolt, Robinson’s contribution is his focus on the revolt’s reverberations throughout the rest of the Americas in an era when slavery permeated the political and social landscape. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, whose ideas were precursors to future foreign policy, were dismayed by how the slave rebellion was progressing and reached out to French political leaders to express their displeasure at seeing “such a spirit of revolution among the blacks.”
Following the successful slave revolt, however, Haiti saw years of instability, with rulers replaced in coups d’etat and military generals appointing themselves leaders. The United States occupied the country for nearly 20 years at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1957, the authoritarian Francois Duvalier was elected president. Known as “Papa Doc,” he would be succeeded by his son, nicknamed “Baby Doc.”
The election in 1990 of Aristide, a poor, populist priest, as Haiti’s president was a watershed moment. Aristide energized millions of poor black Haitians, who for the first time felt that the government might represent them rather than the interests of a coterie of wealthy Haitian families. After a coup attempt and three years in exile, Aristide was elected again in 2000.
Robinson’s prose is often fiery as he lays out his indictment of the colonialists who created the country’s fractured economic and social landscape. Haiti’s successful slave revolt will always be an affront to Western countries, he believes, but should be an inspiration to Africans and African Americans. “Haitians have a culture that slaves once bled to defend. . . . For this, Haitians are reviled by a white world that the rest of us broken souls have long since succumbed to imitate,” he writes.
But Robinson is most appalled at the way Aristide and his wife (he resigned from the priesthood in 1994) were removed from the country in 2004. By far the most gripping and enlightening sections of the book are ones in which Robinson, relying on interviews with Aristide’s helicopter pilot, Frantz Gabriel, describes how U.S. troops whisked Aristide out of the country. Gabriel arrived at the president’s house at 3:30 a.m. on Feb. 29, after getting a call from security guard who sensed that something strange was happening and told him to come.
When he got there, he found the president alone, but soon U.S. officials pulled into the driveway. One walked into the living room and told Aristide, “I’m the one that has to announce to you that you’ve got to go.”
The Aristides were driven to the airport in a convoy of 10 white Suburbans; they boarded a plane and, after some uncertainty as to where they would be taken, were flown to the Central African Republic. Robinson spoke to Aristide nearly daily after the forced exit and traveled to Africa along with Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) to find out what had happened.
In recounting these events, Robinson often takes on a crusading tone, using words such as “abduction” and “kidnapping” to describe Aristide’s departure. These are more than opinions to Robinson; they are his truth, but with his urgent tone, he risks alienating the kind of reader he may want to edify, someone ignorant of Haiti’s unusual history as a rebel slave colony.
Nevertheless, with his strong eye for detail, Robinson manages to illuminate a tragedy that the rest of the world experienced only through news reports and photographs — if it paid attention at all. Describing his visit with Waters to the Aristides in exile, he writes, “At the bottom of the stairway, we saw the president and Mrs. Aristide standing side by side in shadow waiting for us. Their faces wore small, guarded smiles. Tired and emotionally drained, they appeared, nonetheless, composed and dignified.”
Three years later, unanswered questions still haunt Robinson. Why has no one in the U.S. media investigated Aristide’s claims that he was wrongfully removed and forced to resign? Why was he spirited out of his country and never told where he would be taken? Robinson has written this book because he wants to invite more people to search for the answers.