Haiti’s Constant Sorrows

Not just the world’s attitude, but Haiti itself, requires enormous change

Barbara McDougall, writing in these pages in 2007, described Haiti as a place “that tugs at the heartstrings.” It does. Even since then, the challenges to this poorest country in the Americas have grown, through natural disasters, political mismanagement and well-meaning but insufficiently effective international efforts to help, notably after the earthquake of January 2010. Haiti fatigue sets in—even before most of us have gathered sufficient knowledge of the country to make considered judgements.

My acquaintance with Haiti goes back many years, but I am acutely aware of how dated it is. The sharply polarized views within Haiti and internationally on what most ails the country and on why large sums of international support have produced such disappointing results further complicate matters, as discussed compellingly by Paul Knox in a 2009 LRC essay. Articulate any opinion on a leading contemporary Haitian figure or challenge, and one is left in no doubt about how contested everything to do with the country remains. The broad outlines of its history (rulers, dates, invasions, disasters of all sorts) emerge readily enough, but interpretation of every one of these factors generates a battleground. There is no politically correct view of Haiti, only variations on and degrees of potentially offending thought and expression on the subject.

Thus, a reviewer ventures into these waters with considerable trepidation.

A few lines on my own Haiti connections. From 1983 to 1986, my brother Anthony was Canada’s ambassador in Haiti, finding the assignment fascinating. He and his young family cleaved readily to Haitians and to their achievements, including impressive ones in the performing and plastic arts. I visited, but found the country disorienting, to a surreal degree. Later, having worked alongside the United Nations Security Council for several years, I returned to school and wrote a doctoral thesis on the UNSC’s experience in grappling with Haiti from 1990 to 1996. It became a book.1 I have tried to keep abreast of Haitian news since then, but so much of it is dispiriting.

Canada plays a leading international role in Haiti, one of the few constants across Canadian governments on foreign policy since 1990. It is the only other independent francophone country in the western hemisphere, and one that has provided many outstanding immigrants to our country. We have championed Haiti’s cause at the UN and contributed disproportionately to peacekeeping and humanitarian operations there. The outpouring of support from Canadians following the 2010 earthquake was remarkable, with Canadians offering more financial support than the Canadian International Development Agency, with its program of matching funds, could at first sensibly spend in the country, given administrative and other bottlenecks there. (Ninety percent of the funding has now been allocated, although 500,000 Haitians remain in temporary shelters.)

In 1986, the craven Jean-Claude Duvalier (Baby Doc) was run out of town—as so often with Haitian leaders, aboard a U.S. military flight. Baby Doc was a mild improvement on his father, the fearsome François (Papa Doc), internationally notorious for the calculated cruelty of his regime, who played cunningly with voodoo, the mystical—indeed in some ways magical—belief system that runs parallel in Haiti to the Christian faiths its inhabitants espouse. The Duvaliers ruled over Haiti for just under 30 years, exacting a high economic price because every other consideration was subordinated to regime survival and inflicting extensive trauma on the country. During the previous 150 years of its existence, following the U.S. as the second independent state to emerge within the Americas, it careened from dictatorship to worse and back again, with brief periods of political enlightenment rapidly snuffed out. This seemingly constant regression was interrupted by an 18-year American occupation from 1915 to 1933 dictated by U.S. commercial interests (then more important than they are today).

Of the books under review, Elizabeth Abbott’s Haiti: A Shattered Nation provides the most history, and it is a history whose legacy weighs heavily on Haiti. This version of her book picks up on a previous one, published in 1988, and also documents the ups and downs (mainly the latter) of Haiti’s economic, social and political development since then. Abbott, of Antiguan heritage and a resident of Toronto with a string of impressive degrees, is a historian who has intriguingly produced a trilogy on celibacy, mistresses and marriage. Her commitment to Haiti and its engaging people is strong.

Abbott kicks off with a couple of chapters on Haiti’s early history, highlighting the fierce struggle of its African slaves for independence from France (of which it was by far the richest colony in the 18th century, offering huge wealth to its plantation owners and colonial overseers in the form of sugar and coffee), and its descent thereafter into misrule compounded by international isolation. She then documents, in some depth, the U.S. occupation. Thereafter she focuses principally on two sets of personalities and their rule of the country: the Duvaliers, to whom she accords pride of place and on whom she is excellent, and Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the firebrand young priest first elected president in 1990 and Haiti’s dominant political figure, whether in country or in exile, since then, whom she treats more cautiously.2

Indeed, the chapters on Aristide and his times, including much international mediation and peacekeeping, are less focused and it is much harder to draw conclusions from them, perhaps due to the myopia from which all contemporary history inevitably suffers. Abbott displays contempt for the neoliberal analyses and prescriptions of former president Bill Clinton (who, since his retirement, is a noted Haiti wonk) and of the economist Paul Collier—which are indeed debatable, assembly industries having been tried before in Haiti, and perhaps insufficient to the scale of the challenge. That said, Clinton and Collier might respond that one needs to start somewhere. Indeed, Paul Farmer, a consistent advocate of Aristide over the past two decades, notes in Haiti after the Earthquake that Haiti has suffered from a surfeit of analysis and too little focus on what is to be done to fix concrete problems there.

Abbott’s book is more an aggregation of text (much of it excellent and for scholars very useful reference material) than a fully integrated and realized project. One hopes, given the depth of her knowledge, her love of the country, her sharp analytical skills and her fluent drafting that she will return to the topic of Haiti in the future, but from the ground up rather than updating an earlier text.

On what is to be done, Paul Farmer, an exceptional figure, who, as a medical doctor, has devoted much of his life to rural clinics in Haiti while juggling academic responsibilities at Harvard and, more recently, diplomatic ones, has quite a lot to say in his book. Farmer’s book focuses on the earthquake that devastated Haiti on January 12, 2010, and its aftermath. Farmer was known to be Hillary Clinton’s first choice in 2009 for the position of administrator of USAID, but he fell afoul of Washington’s Byzantine vetting process, perhaps due to his strong views and statements on Haiti and much else. This volume is something of a curate’s egg consisting of 250 interesting and coherent pages of Farmer’s, mixing policy with more personal perspectives, followed by a mix of “other voices,” including that of his wife, Didi, whose contributions provide urgency, local colour and interesting ideas but do little for the volume’s overall cohesion.

Early in his career, when mostly resident in Haiti, Farmer perpetrated a searing indictment of U.S. depredations in and against Haiti and of Washington’s willing co-conspirators among Haiti’s small but single-mindedly self-serving elite.3 Although still bursting with energy, Farmer is now older and better at assessing coolly the many actors involved in Haiti’s joyless dance with international powers and assistance. He is unsentimental about the aid community, seeing it as a largely self-involved and self-rewarding development “biz.” He radiates admiration for grassroots activism and social development, a great deal of which he has inspired in both Haiti and Rwanda through the splendid health research and advocacy organization he leads, “Partners In Health.”4 Farmer’s narrative, unliterary but compelling, is brilliant at conveying the numbing rituals of relief and development diplomacy, which he has practised in Haiti alongside UN Special Envoy Bill Clinton (portrayed lovingly as an all-purpose morale booster and optimist), both before and after the earthquake. He also dissects the slow international and internal response to Haiti’s outbreak of cholera in 2010 (which was traced in 2011 through genetic research to Nepali peacekeepers serving in Haiti), most notably pointing out the “failure to bring all the tools of our trade to bear on the epidemic.” As a doctor and public health specialist, he knows exactly what needs to be done to prevent the epidemic from developing roots in Haiti, where 7,000 have died and hundreds of thousands have sickened, and in the wider Caribbean, and writes about this with clinical precision.

Farmer moves on to a sophisticated discussion of the difficulties inherent in global humanitarian assistance, particularly the militarization of aid. He laments as lacking in “discernment” critique of delivery of much needed humanitarian assistance by U.S. military aircraft—as if the United States were instead staging a military intervention to determine the country’s political path. The activist in Farmer is now qualified by the senior policy actor in him, and the judgements shift.

Fixing Haiti: MINUSTAH and Beyond, edited by Jorge Heine, a former Chilean cabinet minister and diplomat today serving as a distinguished fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, and Andrew S. Thompson, a professor at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, is altogether more scholarly but also highly readable. It focuses on the many avatars of the UN’s involvement in Haiti, particularly since the creation of the UN peacekeeping force MINUSTAH in 2004, which followed on several earlier ones launched in and after 1993.

This article cannot hope to do justice to the wide range of issues raised with considerable clarity by the editors and their authoritative chapter contributors, including several leading Haitians. Mirlande Manigat, an accomplished social scientist, one of two leading contenders in Haiti’s recent presidential election and the wife of former Haitian president Leslie Manigat, pinpoints the excessively complex and ambitious Haitian Constitution of 1987. She describes the result as a system that “combines the shortcomings of the presidential and parliamentary systems without the advantages of either.” Both of the parliament’s houses are provided with a check on key decisions of the executive, for example on the appointment by the president of a prime minister, which have often paralyzed the country’s beleaguered administration for months on end. Haitian politics give new meaning to the “narcissism of small differences,” with parliamentarians mostly giving free rein to their egotism and to the pursuit of narrow self-interest.

A veteran Haiti hand of Salvadoran nationality, Gerard Le Chevallier, whose life was extinguished in Haiti’s 2010 earthquake (as were those of over one hundred other UN staffers), wearily concludes that while international actors in Haiti need to learn from their mistakes, so must Haitians for whom the stakes are much higher. Haitian mistakes, from Le Chevallier’s narrative, include a very short political-level attention span in addressing deep-rooted economic and social problems and a view of intercourse with international actors as a zero-sum game calling for frenzied horse-trading rather than a quest for optimal outcomes. The editors argue that Haiti suffers from a serious deficit of “civic-mindedness,” exemplified by two absences, that of “a social contract between the state and its citizens” and that of a “constitutionalism that binds Haitians to the rule of law.” Chacun pour soi! The editors note that while Haiti’s civil society is dynamic, often analytically sharp and frequently brave (notably during the 1991–94 years of military rule), it has not been successful in negotiating access to the political process.

There have been some UN successes in Haiti, as documented by several authors, notably in promoting security, particularly in the capital. And while Haitians are prone to view the UN as aloof and ineffective, and to complain about its track record in Haiti, it is likely that the situation there would have become altogether unmanageable for Haitians and for Haiti’s neighbours without the risky, extensive (around 7,000 international staff in 2010) and expensive (US$732 million in 2009–10) UN presence there.

Le Chevallier gives prominence to the emergence of Latin American countries as key international partners for Haiti, alongside the traditional actors most involved, the United States, Canada and France. History comes full circle in this regard, as a newly independent Haiti alone provided support to Simón Bolívar’s struggle to liberate South America from Spain’s colonial grip. Several contributions by Latin American scholars and practitioners are helpful in this regard, including that of Marcel Biato, a senior Brazilian diplomat, who comes off as knowing and as somewhat disabused by Brazil’s experiences in Haiti (which included the suicide of a Brazilian military commander in the service of the UN there). But Brazil’s interest in Haiti is part of a wider pattern. Its significant contributions there are part of a global campaign to increase Brazil’s profile and influence as the balance of international power shifts.

International exasperation with Haiti (when not temporarily overwhelmed by compassion over the natural disasters besetting it) sometimes leads to calls for placing the country under some form of international trusteeship. I am unconvinced. Populations the world over yearn to be free from foreign (and international) domination. The editors advocate “shared sovereignty,” recognizing, as does Haitian-born scholar Robert Fatton in one of the book’s liveliest chapters, that the country has for many years evolved under an uncomfortable form of de facto trusteeship. Ultimately, though, Haitians—particularly the Haitian political class—need to assume full responsibility for the country’s destiny, with international actors playing a clearly secondary role. How else will the country learn to stand on its own two feet, as are today an increasing number of countries in the developing world that also used to be regarded as basket cases?

The masterwork on Haiti’s recent travails remains to be written. But this serious and rewarding book reminds us, as do both Abbott’s and Farmer’s, that everything old is new again, and that in Haiti this is a cycle that must be broken.


  1. See David Malone’s Decision-Making in the UN Security Council: The Case of Haiti, 1990–1997, published by Oxford University Press in 1998.  

  2. The best book I know on the Duvalier regime and all that preceded it is Robert Debs Heinl and Nancy Gordon Heinl’s Written in Blood: The Story of the Haitian People, 1492–1995, in its original 1978 publication from Houghton Mifflin.  

  3. Paul Farmer’s The Uses of Haiti (with an introduction by Noam Chomsky) was most recently published by Common Courage Press in 2003. Whether it is a cri de coeur or rant, depending on one’s view, Farmer applies to his topic a powerful intellect and a formidable sense of commitment.  

  4. Full disclosure: my institution, the International Development Research Centre, modestly funds Partners In Health to distil policy-relevant lessons derived from low-cost ground-level innovation in health service delivery in both countries.