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Histoire d'Haiti Review

The terror which the Tonton Macoutes spread is one of the best shown elements of the book

The terror which the Tonton Macoutes spread is one of the best shown elements of the book

It is hard to describe Haiti’s history in terms other than depressing or tragic. For the better part of a millennia it has been the site of some of the greatest brutality which has reigned on Earth: from before the European colonization when the Tarawaks were replaced in a genocidal conquest by the Caraibes, to the brutal days of piracy, to the unparalleled extent of suffering of the world’s preeminent slave colony in the 18th century, the incredible suffering and death of the War of Independence, the vicious regime of the Duvalier dictatorship, and hammered by earthquakes and hurricanes which have occasioned hundreds of thousands of deaths. Haiti has simply not been able to catch a break from a history of brutal and dismal sadism and terrible misfortune. Catherine Eve Roupert's Histoire d’Haiti gives a glance at the suffering of these periods, but it primarily focuses on the political side of Haiti’s history with only a modest social component, and is very limited in terms of Haiti’s economic and cultural history. This undermines some of its possibility to be a universal history, although it is still a good reference for Haiti’s politics.

Histoire d’Haiti does cover Haiti’s history constantly, but it focuses on two specific periods: the independence war against the French, and Haiti under and since the Duvalier dictatorship. These are the times which most marked Haiti’s self-image: throughout the book there is the line of Haiti as the first black republic in the New World: whatever else Haiti’s sad history might have occasioned, this accomplishment is something which cannot be alienated from Haitians. And clearly the scars of Duvalier’s dictatorship still rankle deeply in Haiti, in the legacy of terror, pain, and misery inflicted on the Haitian people, and in bringing to light the deep divisions between the mulatto and black population of the country.

The political side is most present in this, and it helps to give a better understanding of the complicated allegiance and political factions present in the Haitian Revolution. A prominent example of this is Toussaint L’Ouverture, who rose to command one of the black rebel groups in Haiti, then Saint-Domingue, allied with the Spanish against the French on the side of the monarchy, and then allied with the French republicans against the Spanish, British, and French monarchists, gaining absolute control over the island. This ultimately led him to defacto independence until the French invaded once more and expelled him. The same goes with understanding the factional battles associated with the French return, or the complex struggles between whites, gens du couleur (freed blacks and mulattos), and ultimately blacks. Or after the end of the War of Independence, when for the century following Haitian politics was marked by a dizzying number of governments coming to power, succeeding each other, engaging in coups, and unseating each other. The intricate details associated with this political struggle receive a star place, and some of the political factional motivations behind it are covered, such as the military’s role. The same can be said about the Duvalier dictatorship, with the rivalry between different groups such as the military, Tonton Macoutes, mulatto business elites, etc.

One great facet is the institution and regime of foreign aid to Haiti, principally derived from the United States, Canada, France, and to a lesser extent other parties such as Germany. The projects, the successes, but above all else the limitations are good components of the book, as well as the power which this gave foreign regimes over the Haitian government, as they were – and are – able to freeze Haitian foreign aid in response to Haitian internal developments. This has been often used in protest of Haitian military governments after coups.

But it is a shame that more of Haiti’s rich cultural history is not explored. For example, it brushes at times on the topic of Haitian writers and intellectuals, such as the writer Jacques Stephen Alexis of the magical realism literary movement who was killed by Duvalier’s regime in the 1960s. But it doesn’t go any further in this regards: similarly it only has the briefest covering of the ideals of négritude in Haiti, and whence they came: this is doubly bizarre in that Duvalier’s regime was heavily based upon it with statues to the ideal of the négritude, which served as a justification for elements of his rule. That it doesn’t receive a more extensive coverage analyzing it is a shame. Or what of voodoo? Voodoo is an essential component of Haitian religious and spiritual practices, in a merger between Catholicism and African religious practices, and yet it is almost entirely neglected in the book other than discussing some of its political uses under the Duvalier dynasty. Daily life and a portrait of the people is another missing facet, since there could be far more about how Haitian people experienced daily life on the island, as farmers or the urban poor: the main portrait which exists is of some of the members of Haiti’s elite.

Also while it does cover Haiti’s political history well, the interests of the different factions in recent times and their inspirations could have been much improved upon. A recurring theme of Haitian governments since the fall of the regime of Baby Doc is the continued influence of the Tonton Macoutes and other hold-over institutions from Duvalier, which still agitate for violence and have been a major challenge for Haitian governments to deal with and to maintain stability. What is the motivation of these neo Tonton Macoutes: is it an allegiance to the old Duvalierist ideology, a grasp to maintain power, their old sadism, cultivation by political rivals of governing factions? The stakes at the heart of the political struggle between different factions could be much better explored.

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Histoire d’Haiti provides a good look at Haiti’s political landscape over the previous few centuries, and a good understanding of its general history. But it misses much of the content of Haitian society and its spirit. Other works are required to flesh out an understanding of the country and its development, even if Histoire d’Haiti is a good opening.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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