Haiti’s Fallible Hero

Conferring sainthood on Aristide does not confront the country’s deepest problems.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the elected president of Haiti, was deposed in February 2004 by several converging forces. Armed insurgents—a combination of criminal gangs and former army officers, some of them convicted human rights abusers—swept through the north of the country almost unopposed. Key members of Haiti’s tiny economic elite supported the insurgents and mounted a concerted political campaign against Aristide both inside and outside the country. Well-placed people in the governments of the United States, France and Canada colluded with the president’s opponents, and others were indifferent to his fate. Having been warned that a “bloodbath” was about to occur and that foreign powers would do nothing to stop it, Aristide resigned shortly after midnight on February 29. He was flown into exile on a U.S. military aircraft.

Aristide’s forced resignation was a disgrace—a betrayal of the hopes awakened among Haitians after the fall of the dictatorship under Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986, and a mockery of the democratic principles so often affirmed in inter-American diplomacy. Aristide, a charismatic Roman Catholic priest and socialist who is revered among Haiti’s desperately poor majority, was first elected in 1990, deposed by the army just seven months into his term, restored to power by the United States in 1994 and elected again in 2000. The 2000 presidential vote was an inadequate test of his support, since most potential candidates declined to run. Nevertheless, Aristide drew massive crowds to his public appearances, and if an election were held today he would almost certainly win. Only a handful of opposition figures—who themselves enjoyed little evident support—suggested that he was not the country’s legal president. Yet the Bush administration, using the pretext of election irregularities, cut off official foreign aid to Aristide’s government. It then encouraged his opponents to unite, blocked assistance from international financial institutions, stood watching as the initially comical insurgency gathered strength and refused to force the opposition to accept a power-sharing deal that both Aristide and Secretary of State Colin Powell had endorsed. Finally, it joined with France and Canada in suggesting, none too subtly, that the president consider stepping down. Aristide’s pleas for foreign support against the insurgency—a couple of hundred soldiers would have sent a sufficiently strong message—went unheeded.

Canada’s performance in this wretched drama was very poor. Denis Paradis, who was secretary of state for Latin America in Paul Martin’s Cabinet, has acknowledged hosting a meeting of representatives of several governments early in 2003 at which Aristide’s removal from office was discussed. In February 2004, Canada sent another minister, Denis Coderre, to Port-au-Prince as part of the international delegation charged with working out a power-sharing arrangement. Coderre publicly affirmed that Aristide was Haiti’s legitimate president—yet after the overthrow, he told the House of Commons that sending troops to back him against the insurgents would have meant taking sides. Once the Americans had decided to pull the plug, Canada was left in the dark. Martin later admitted that he had no knowledge at the time of the circumstances in which Aristide wrote his letter of resignation and was whisked out of the country.1

Once Aristide was gone, the United States, Canada, France and Chile were only too happy to send troops to Haiti. The stated purpose was to establish order so that a caretaker government could be installed pending the convening of elections. But the multinational force and its United Nations–led successor failed to stop attacks by the Haitian police and other armed elements on Aristide supporters in the slums of Port-au-Prince, the capital. (Some have accused the foreign troops themselves of carrying out certain targeted attacks.) The interim government ruled, in a manner of speaking, until elections in 2006 brought to power Aristide’s ally, René Préval. Préval, who also served a term as president from 1996 to 2001, has sought to forge alliances to bring a semblance of government to his near-destitute country, but four hurricanes and the world food-supply crisis have dealt serious setbacks to his efforts.

The events of 2004 galvanized support for Aristide among anti-imperialist activists in Canada, the United States and Europe, as well as condemnation of their governments. Haiti fits easily in any critique of American global domination. Moreover, Aristide’s overthrow can be seen as the latest chapter in a story that began 200 years ago, when Haiti’s slaves seized their freedom from France by force and founded the world’s first black-majority republic. They were never forgiven for challenging the world order of the day, and it is hardly a coincidence that their descendants inhabit the poorest country in the Americas. A determined band of researchers and polemicists seeks to affirm Aristide’s continuing legitimacy and promote support for his political organization, Fanmi Lavalas.

Peter Hallward is one of the most articulate of these voices. A professor of modern European philosophy at Middlesex University in London, Hallward until five years ago was known primarily as a writer on French post-war thinkers such as Gilles Deleuze and Alain Badiou. Now, in Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment, he presents the results of two research visits to Haiti, as well as interviews and correspondence with Aristide and other key players. Hallward is well known to Canadians who follow Haiti; last year he spoke in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal, and at the annual meeting of the Canadian Association for Latin American and Caribbean Studies in Vancouver.

Hallward starts from the premise that Haiti has been in a state of class warfare from birth. A tiny elite—at first a reconstituted plantation-owning class, later a mixture of landowners, merchants, industrialists and intellectuals—has kept the threat of violent repression clear and present, to forestall any notion of rebellion by peasants, workers and the vast lumpenproletarian underclass. This elite has close links to politically well-connected individuals and foundations in the United States, Canada and France, on whom it relies to ensure that the governments of those countries respect its interests. Foreign intimidation and domination—first by France, then by the United States—continues in the present century, marked by the imposition of structural adjustment policies that favour export production over domestic self-sufficiency and private over public investment. As a result, there is a yawning chasm between rich and poor and an annual per capita income of less than US$400.

The feckless dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier was ousted by the army in 1986, under intense pressure from a movement whose chief constituents were grassroots community groups known as organisations populaires and the ti legliz, the community-based Catholic church. Aristide, a charismatic priest who worked with street children, surged to the forefront as Haitians embarked on a campaign of dechoukaj.

For Hallward, by the time Aristide began his second mandate in 2001, Lavalas—now known as Fanmi Lavalas, or Lavalas Family—had become “a mechanism for popular political empowerment” with “no rival in the whole of Haiti’s history.” But Aristide was in difficulty from the start of his term. Foreign aid was suspended, yet he was under pressure from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to implement policies that many of his followers opposed. He had abolished the army in his first term, and the police were in disarray. Foreign governments and foundations were funding his opponents, pushing them toward a united front. Increasingly, he relied for support and security on slumlords and leaders of gangs known as chimères, whose allegiance was prone to shift. His detractors say he doled out weapons to these lieutenants with instructions to use them against the elite. Hallward devotes several pages to rebutting these allegations, and argues persuasively that they are significantly exaggerated—although he acknowledges that some Aristide allies were guilty of political killings. What is important, he says, is that Fanmi Lavalas retained “enduring strength in the poorer neighbourhoods” and that this “was the real target of pro-coup forces in and after 2004.”

Damming the Flood is a Fanmi Lavalas manifesto, an eloquent argument for the movement as the only means by which Haitians are likely to achieve true self-determination. It is only incidentally a book about Haiti. If you relied solely on these 360 pages, you would not know what Haiti looks or sounds like, nor would you have much sense of what it is like to live there. You would not be able to visualize the bare brown hills, stripped of wood for fuel; the rich rice fields of the Artibonite valley; the dark, cramped dwellings squeezed along impossibly narrow alleys in Port-au-Prince’s slums. You would be ignorant of vaudou, Haiti’s politically significant popular religion.2 You would know almost nothing about the devastating environmental consequences of Haiti’s peculiar forms of exploitation. You would be unaware of its rich artistic traditions—the popular music and the folk paintings that express political feeling and personal consciousness.

Hallward makes no apology for this. “I have no special interest in the peculiarities of Haitian society,” he writes, adding that Damming the Flood is “purely and simply a political book.” But the difficulty is not merely that he is oblivious to Haiti’s distinctiveness. Even when surveying his chosen field, he narrows his gaze sharply. There are Haitians who do not share his views about the importance of Fanmi Lavalas and have chosen to act accordingly. They form other political groups; they make alliances; they keep their distance from Aristide. For Hallward, these people were either bought off, politically misguided or rotten from the start. Intellectuals who were persecuted by the Duvalier regime but found it impossible to work with Aristide are excoriated as opportunists whose true bourgeois colours eventually bled through. The anti-Aristide workers’ organization Batay Ouvriye is guilty of “a distorted sense of betrayal and resentment.” Leslie Voltaire, a former presidential chief of staff, is accused of “collusion” for agreeing to serve on a post-Aristide interim ruling council, even though no evidence is offered that he used the position to betray the departed president. Many of these people are voted off the island by Hallward because they received money from U.S. and other foreign foundations. He refrains from noting that some prominent American backers of Aristide were paid consultants for his government.

Hallward reserves a special vat of bile for foreigners who dip their toes in Haiti’s turbulent waters. Aid workers and non-governmental organizations are trashed along with police trainers and military personnel as “allies” of the elite who participated in a “humanitarian strategy of containment,” then “managed not only to overthrow but also to discredit” Aristide’s government. Human Rights Watch, whose meticulously researched reports are generally beyond reproach, is accused of providing “moral justification for regime change” by saying that failure to curb violence by Fanmi Lavalas supporters raised “serious human rights concerns.” Charles Arthur, a British activist who works with peasant and labour organizations and sharply criticizes foreign governments and the Haitian elite as well as Aristide, has let his judgement be “coloured” by “profound contempt” for the ex-president. Foreign news organizations are derided for using the “well-worn editorial tactic” of endorsing foreign intervention in the weeks before his overthrow—yet foreign intervention was exactly what Aristide himself was calling for at that time. The only non-Haitians left undrenched by this torrent of vitriol are a handful of writers, activists and aid workers who appear to share Hallward’s feelings about Aristide and Lavalas.

Only now and then does Hallward acknowledge that strategic choices made by Aristide may have exacerbated his difficulties. His mistakes were not sufficient reason for him to be deposed, but some of them may have been decisive, and they must be faced head on in any serious analysis of his performance. As Hallward says, Aristide “did not make enough of an effort to keep critical groups of his constituency on board” and was “too tolerant of the corrupt opportunists who forced their way into his entourage.” He also lacked a strategy for persuading Haitians that the compromises he was forced to make with foreign interests, such as allowing free trade assembly zones on the border with the Dominican Republic, were justified. Similarly, it is only at the end of the book that Hallward addresses squarely the “internal limitations” of Fanmi Lavalas as a political organization. For all its popular support, it has not yet transcended its allegiance to Aristide. Its challenge now is to accelerate its evolution from a mass movement organized in response to specific problems into a political force—a party, if you will—with a coherent strategy for gaining, holding and exercising political power.

All of which means little if the only test of political relevance is held to be the ability to win elections. There is no doubt that Aristide and Fanmi Lavalas are able to do that. But in a democracy, political power and political leadership depend on much more than electoral support. Scattered through the history of the last 30 years in the Americas are many stories of charismatic leaders who believed, mistakenly, that the requirement to engage in politics ended on election night, and all that was left to do was rule. Brazil’s Fernando Collor, Peru’s Alberto Fujimori, Mexico’s Vicente Fox: each in his way, and with different results, foundered on these shoals. Aristide did not have their hubris, but he seemed drained by the continuous interest balancing that everyday politics requires, even of those pursuing transformational projects. Moreover, his timing was sometimes bizarre. Under siege toward the end of 2003, he persisted in pressing Haiti’s US$21 billion claim against France for restitution of the “compensation” extorted in 1825 for property seized during the war of independence. The claim had merit, but by raising its profile at that moment, Aristide undoubtedly assured France’s hostility in the crisis of 2004. It was no coincidence that French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin was the first to suggest his time was up.

Hallward sees no political error here. That kind of judgement, much like his disinclination to take seriously any Haitian who is not associated with Lavalas, is hard to fathom—until Damming the Flood is read in conjunction with his theoretical work. It turns out that bipolar politics are Hallward’s stock-in-trade. Drawing on his favourite French thinkers, he argues in a 2005 essay for a “politics of prescription”—a philosophical posture that privileges action over analysis of its potential consequences is by its nature divisive, abhors consensus and necessarily contains what Hallward calls an “authoritarian or intransigent aspect.” He dismisses all talk of a “third way” and scorns as antipolitical any action based on “compassionate response to the spectacle of suffering.” For him, “neither pity nor fear has any place in politics.”3 Seen in this context, Hallward’s aversion to anything that smacks of negotiation or compromise—what the rest of the world calls politics—becomes easier to understand. So does his uncritical acceptance of Aristide’s claim to “lead only as the voice or instrument” of the people.

Here Hallward appears to be setting the bar for political achievement rather high, and not just for Haitians. But consider how he raises it even higher in the final lines of Damming the Flood. Victory over “imperial coercion,” he declares, will require not only the “remobilization of Lavalas,” but “the renewal of emancipatory politics within the imperial nations themselves.” Perhaps Barack Obama knows what this means, and has a plan to carry it out. Nevertheless, if I were a Haitian I do not think I would be putting my chips on major political change in North America and Europe. Instead of making enemies at every turn by celebrating the politics of division, I would be trying to build alliances outside Haiti to get unpayable debts cancelled and to obtain the right kind of aid with the right kind of conditions. Inside, as tough as it may be, forging the broadest possible political consensus would seem to be the best bet.


  1. As a Globe and Mail reporter and columnist, I spent four weeks in Haiti in February–March 2004. In a column published four days before Aristide’s departure, I called for Canada and other nations to send a multinational force to bolster his government against the insurgents. To my knowledge, I was the first Canadian journalist to do so. Nevertheless, readers should know that some commentators accuse the Canadian news media of complicity in Aristide’s overthrow, and that I am not spared in their analysis.  

  2. Hallward’s index contains only two references to vaudou, both tangential.