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Damning the Flood – Haiti, Aristide, and the politics of containment by Peter Hallward


Haiti, Aristide, and the politics of containment Peter Hallward

This week Haiti Progrès is proud to present to our readers, an excerpt from the 442 pages book “Damming the Flood – Haiti, Aristide, and the politics of containment” by Peter Hallward. Hallward, a Professor of Modern European Philosophy at Middlesex University is the author of several books including Absolutely Postcolonial (2001), Badiou: A Subject to Truth (2003) and Out of This World: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Creation (2006).

Damming the Flood is published by Verso. It is a must read for all students of the Haitian people’s struggle. Damming the Flood is now available in book stores.


‘’It is better to err with the people than to be right without them’’

Jean-Bertrand Aristide

It took almost two decades for Haiti’s little ruling class and its imperial patrons to devise a workable way of coping with the end of the Cold War. Like other Cold Warriors in Latin America, Haitian dictators François and Jean-Claude Duvalier preserved the dramatic gap between rich and poor through direct military intimidation. Eventually, however, this intimidation began to provoke a movement of popular protest too powerful to control, and in 1990 the Haitian people were able for the first time to rally behind a president of their own choosing. Once this president began to interfere with the interests of the elite, its army got rid of him in the usual way. What was most unusual about Aristide, however, is that in 1995 he then found a way to get rid of this army in its turn. By the time it won the decisive elections of 2000, Aristide’s party threatened to overwhelm both the military and the parliamentary mechanisms of elite resistance, and was finally in a position to push through moderate but significant political change. Deprived of its traditional instrument of repression, Haiti’s elite and its foreign allies now had to develop a more indirect, more humanitarian strategy of containment.

            In many ways, the people (first-world diplomats, IFI economists, USAID consultants, IRI mediators, CIA analysts, media specialists, ex-military personnel, security advisors, police trainers, aid-workers, NGO staff…) who ‘’ spontaneously’’ developed this strategy are entitled to be pleased with the results of their work. Over the course of a decade or so, they managed to back one of the most popular political leaders in Latin America into a corner from which he couldn’t escape. They managed not only to overthrow but also to discredit the most progressive government in Haitian history, and they managed to attack this government in ways that were rarely perceived (by mainstream commentators) as aggressive at all. They managed to disguise a deliberate and elaborate political intervention as a routine contribution to the natural order of things. Ten years after his triumphant return from exile in 1994, Aristide’s enemies not only drove him out of office but into an apparently definitive disgrace.

            It wouldn’t be hard to extract a general destabilization recipe from this most exemplary episode in imperial counter-insurgency. Confronted by a threatening attempt at popular democracy, the Haitian elite and its friends in France and US adopted a predictable but highly effective strategy. They starved the Lavalas government of funds and international credit, obliging it to adopt unpopular economic policies and to cut public sector services and jobs. They developed powerful if not irresistible forms of economic pressure to further impoverish and alienate its supporters. They cast doubt on its democratic legitimacy, equating Haiti’s most popular president with the Duvalier and Cédras dictatorships. They secured and supported sympathetic assets within the security forces, and bought off opportunistic elements within the popular movement. They obliged the government’s supporters to take defensive measures in the face of paramilitary attack, and then characterized these measures as intolerant of dissent. They presented opposition to the government as diverse and inclusive, and valorized these opponents as the embattled victims of government repression. Taking special care to ensure that the government was attacked from both right (business groups, professional associations, civil society organizations) and left (humanitarian NGOs, human rights groups), they sustained a relentless media campaign to present the government as intractable and authoritarian. After a few years of such coercion, even a tiny military insurgency led by notorious criminals and organized by the most reactionary interests in the country was welcomed by most mainstream observers as a ‘’popular insurrection’’ against a despotic regime. If in the end even such insurrection wasn’t enough to get rid of the despot, who then could blame the great powers when they eventually went in to finish the job on their own?

            There is no denying that, under the pressure of such aggression, Aristide and the Lavalas organization made a number of damaging compromises and mistakes. To refuse the demonization of Aristide does not require his deification (underlined by HP). Nevertheless, claims that Aristide was too messianic, or that he encouraged violence, or that he was authoritarian or intolerant of dissent, are not just far-fetched — they are almost a literal inversion of the truth. If his government deserves to be blamed for anything, it is for being too tolerant of an opposition that sought to replace it, too conciliatory in its relations with foreign powers that sought to overthrow it, too complacent in the face of a media that criticized it, too hesitant in relation to soldiers who attacked it, too lenient with the opportunists who sought to abuse it (underlined by HP). ‘’Even the best of our political leaders’’, regrets Patrick Elie, have underestimated the resilience of the Haitian people and their will to hang tough, even under immense pressure. Our politicians need to know that if they pursue a courageous and independent course, a course that risk foreign retribution, then a sizeable minority of powerful individuals will indeed scream in protest and demand that the government back down. But not the majority of the people. The Haitian people are used to enduring enormous hardships, and if they know that they are being asked to endure hardship for the sake of their dignity and autonomy then they will readily endure it. Our leaders need to be more assertive, to be more in tune with the profound feeling of independence that animates the majority of Haitians. If has only ever been the elite who have been willing to cave in to foreign pressure. We need to trust the people’s determination to fight for their rights.

            If Aristide’s government shares some of the responsibility for the debacle of 2004 it is because it occasionally failed to act with the sort of vigor and determination its more vulnerable supporters were entitled to expect. Aristide was right to stand for the presidency in 1990…, he was right to engineer the US invasion that allowed for the demobilization of the army in 1995, and he was right to consolidate his supporters through the development of Fanmi Lavalas. But after rapidly emerging as Haiti’s most popular political organization, Fanmi Lavalas became too inclusive, too moderate, too indecisive, too undisciplined. After gaining an overwhelming popular mandate for radical change, Aristide’s government was too often willing to negotiate with its enemies and too rarely willing to mobilize its friends. Aristide tried to placate opponents that he needed to confront. He may never have drawn the full implications of elite hostility, both in Haiti and abroad: drawn from the beginning into a political war, he tried till the end to govern with the strategies of peace (underlined by HP).

            How much of this responsibility can be fairly attributed to a government that was unavoidably dependent on foreign aid, that remained profoundly vulnerable to foreign intervention, that presided over a precarious and unstable political system, that had little practical control over its economy or bureaucracy and virtually no control over its own security – these are questions that are likely to divide analysts of the Aristide era for the foreseeable future.

            What is more important is the fact that this era, in spite of the astonishing levels of repression it aroused, has indeed opened the door to a new political future. There is little to be gained from judging this opening by the standards of either armed national liberation movements on the one hand or entrenched parliamentary democracies on the other. Over the last twenty years, Lavalas has developed as an experiment at the limits of contemporary political possibility. Its history sheds light on some of the ways that political mobilization can proceed under the pressure of exceptionally powerful constraints.

            Aristide was obliged to govern Haiti in the absence of international sympathy, military support, institutional stability or economic independence: he presided over the inauguration of a process of collective empowerment, not its realization. With an absolute minimum of resources, his governments were able to take significant strides in the fields of education, justice and health. These governments helped to initiate a profound political transition, and in the process encountered the obstacles that any such transition must face. Aristide dealt with some of these obstacles (the army, the closure of the traditional political system, the public exclusion of the poor) more effectively than others (the economic, bureaucratic and cultural hegemony of the transnational elite). The task that falls to today’s Lavalassians is immense. But in spite of all they have suffered, the circumstances in which they will engage with it are in some ways less adverse today than they were back in 2000 or in 1994.

            In the first place, the election of the marassa d’Aristide in 2006 confirmed, in the face of intense coercion, an extraordinary continuity of political purpose. In 1990, 1995, 2000 and now again in 2006, the Haitian people have voted consistently and overwhelmingly for much the same principles and much the same people. Although prosecuted with unprecedented resources and undertaken with the full backing of the UN, the US and the rest of the international community, the attempt to break this continuity during the catastrophic interlude of 2004-05 has failed. In the long run the second coup against Lavalas may prove no more successful than the first. Although there is much to rebuild, popular fidelity to the Lavalas project remains durable and strong and whatever institutional form it takes its momentum will continue to shape Haiti’s political future.

            Lavalas militants have strengthened their position in that future, moreover, by helping to inspire the collective mobilizations that in recent years have brought left-leaning governments to power all across Latin America. Back in 1816, Haiti’s first independence leaders provided crucial logistical support to Simon Bolívar; the leaders of Haiti’s second independence struggle presided over one of the hemisphere’s only popular political mobilizations in the run-up to its new Bolivarian revolution. After years of crippling international isolation, it is now possible to imagine a more assertively progressive government in Haiti working in direct collaboration with supportive governments in Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador… (Underlined by HP). For many years an empty slogan of the far left, calls for international cooperation at both the grassroots and governmental levels are starting to mean something rather different in 2007 than they did a decade or two ago. Members of Lavalas organisations populaires have for many years worked alongside representatives of the more militant PPN; in spite of many obstacles, a stronger version of such collaboration may well manage to mount and win an anti-imperialist campaign for the presidency in 2010. Damaged by its wars of aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq, the capacity of the US to deter such collaboration is perhaps weaker today than at any time over the preceding century. Just as importantly, the capacity of the US or its allies France and Canada to pose as friends of the Haitian people is for the foreseeable future damaged beyond repair (underlined by HP).

            Over the last couple of years the Lavalas organization has also begun to confront some of its own internal limitations, by becoming less dependent on Aristide’s personal charisma and influence, and by purging itself of many of the opportunists who manipulated this influence in the late 1990s. Although it will take several more years to work through the consequences of the 2004 coup, FL leaders who compromised with the interim government have lost most of their power, and younger grass-roots leaders are more prominent now than when their organization was in office. They have learned from Aristide’s example as well as from his mistakes. The combination of disciplined resilience and strategic flexibility that won the election of 2006 suggests that parts of this organization may have emerged from the crucible of repression stronger than before. The fact that Lavalas also remains bitterly divisive is a consequence above all of the fact that it was the only large-scale popular mobilization ever to address the massive inequalities of power, influence and wealth which have always divided Haitian society; that Lavalas has so far managed to do little to reduce these inequalities says less about the weakness of the organization than it does about the extraordinary strength, today, of the forces that preserve inequality.

            Two centuries ago, it took Haiti armies several years and immeasurable effort to wrest its first independence from the slave economy controlled by the great colonial powers of the day. The ongoing struggle to win Haiti’s independence from the contemporary version of slavery has aroused less spectacular but no less implacable opposition from our postcolonial empires. Now as then, Haiti’s liberation struggle has confronted the full range of imperial coercion in its most undiluted and illuminating forms. The first victory was achieved through force of arms over the course of little more than a decade, and it was won by Haitians alone. The second victory will not depend on weapons, it will take longer, and in addition to the remobilization of Lavalas, it will require the renewal of emancipatory politics within the imperial nations themselves.

 Published by Verso,

Forwarded by the Haitian Lawyers Leadership Network

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