Wednesday, September 26, 2012




       In January of 2010 an earthquake hit Haiti that killed somewhere between 60,000-316,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands. Overnight, news programs and internet sites blew up with stories about the island. They covered not only the immediate natural disaster but paraded every person that had ever looked sideways at Haiti to provide an opinion. Though Haiti is rarely front page news these days, it continues to pop up in news stories about the cholera epidemic, Hurricane Isaac, and the UN. Throughout, Haiti has been defined by terms such as diseased, evil, poverty stricken, lazy, and hopeless. Lots of people are involved in charities, NGOs, and mission trips to save Haiti. Reddit even organized some successful donations. Yet, few people really know much about actual Haiti. In a series of weekly posts and discussions I'd like to help change that.
       I plan to go through some of the major topics that I think are very misunderstood or just really interesting. The outline of my course is below, but I'm happy to adjust if anyone has specific requests. My first post will be Wednesday and the lesson will remain open for questions and discussion until next Wednesday when the subsequent lesson is posted.
  • History of Haiti - It is really more interesting (and messed up) than you'd think 
  • Vodou/Voodoo - Strong female leadership, it permits homosexuality, and no sin? No wonder Pat Robertson hates it. 
  • The People - Being Haitian is more than just being poor and living in a tent city. Learn about daily lives, gender, jobs, and relationships. 
  • The Republic of NGOs - The international presence in Haiti or in other words what happened to that $10 you texted after the earthquake? 
  • Top Hats, Skeletons, and Zombies - What to Haitians actually believe about the spirits of the dead and zombies? 
  • Haiti's Future - Hope, tourism, and education. What might actually help?
       This will be part of the new History of Ideas Academy courses. The idea is that scholars, experts, and academics can use this opportunity to teach about what they study in a format that is interesting and accessible to the average person. This week we'll start the first two courses: Haiti Today and Hindu Religion and Indian Mythology. I hope you'll follow both. This teaser is a chance to see what the course will offer, make comments, and request anything related to the topic that you're interested in. Once it begins you can follow the entire course or just check in on the week you find most interesting. You can check the right hand side of the HOI subreddit at any time to see what courses are going on.
       The format of my course will be a post each week on the relevant topic along with links to photos I've taken and suggestions for further reading. Then, just like a live lecture, the post will be open to questions and discussion on Reddit. But we'll stretch it over a few days so that both readers and I have time to respond. Please be sure to comment on the appropriate Reddit post so that we can hold the discussion within the History of Ideas subreddit
       And in case you're wondering, here are my credentials. I'm a PhD anthropology student working on Haitian Vodou (Voodoo) practitioners in Haiti and America. I already have a MA in anthropology and have spent the past four years working with Haitian Vodouisants and traveling to Haiti. Anthropology stresses a holistic approach meaning that to fully understand anything going on in a community you really need to look at history, economy, politics, religion, kinship, language, etc. in order to put it in context. Looking at just one aspect out of context can result in a flawed understanding of the situation and poor decisions if you're trying to fix it (as is evidenced by some of the UN, USAID, and NGO approaches in Haiti.) I believe that anthropological approaches can be truly beneficial for organizations that want to make a difference in Haiti. After all, you have to understand what is wrong before you can fix it. But more than that, Haiti is an interesting and beautiful place that is incredibly misrepresented in the popular media. Come learn about the first free black republic in the world, an island that was once the richest colony in the world, a complex and beautiful religion, and a fascinating culture.

[HoI] Pearl of the Antilles (Haiti Today 1/6)



You can find the outline for the course here. Please post all comments, requests, and questions in the Reddit post rather than the blog. That way we can continue our discussion within the History of Ideas subreddit.

History of the Pearl of the Antilles 
Alternate title: How dafuq did Haiti get here?

                The island of Hispaniola, as it was originally called, was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492. The island was inhabited by the Taino who called the island Haiti/Ayiti, which meant Mountainous Land. Columbus was impressed with how good the locals had it – only a few hours of work a day and the rest spent relaxing, playing, and visiting with friends. Good old Christopher was a pretty awful human being, though, and he quickly enslaved the Taino, took their resources, and brutally killed many of them. Many of the survivors of his rule died from smallpox so that the Spanish soon realized they would need another source for slaves. Conveniently for them (though quite unconveniently for the slaves) Europeans had discovered slave sources in Western Africa and they began shipping in enslaved peoples to work the land.

                Spain initially claimed the island, but France decided it wanted a piece of the pie and went for the old squatters’ rights argument. In 1697, Spain gave in allowing France to officially take over the Western half, which they called San Domingue. France focused on sugar and it paid off big time. It exported more sugar than all of the British colonies combined and more coffee and rum than all the colonies of Spain. In short, San Domingue became the richest colony in the West Indies and a huge cash cow for France. However, this profit came at a steep price. Unlike many other colonies, San Domingue did not focus on reproducing the slave population but rather on constantly replacing it since most slaves could not survive the harsh conditions long enough to raise children. In fact, the average life expectancy for a slave in San Domingue was 21 years. Despite these difficult material conditions, social mobility was more flexible in many French colonies for two reasons: the Code Noir (France’s legal code for slavery) provided a way for slaves to make their own money and purchase freedom and the popularity of plaçage in which male French colonialists kept mulatto women as mistresses. The children of these arrangements were usually granted freedom, and eventually the free people of color became an important merchant middle class in Haiti during colonialism called the affranchis.

                At the time of the revolution, 90% of San Domingue’s population were enslaved and 2/3 of these slaves had been born in Africa. This is why the Haitian revolution is often called an African revolution and a good reason why so many African traditions and cultural aspects were retained. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, it is important to note that about 40% of those slaves came from the Kongo. Why does that matter? Well there was a big civil war going on in the Kongo at that time over who would be the next Christian King or Queen of the nation. Both sides captured one another’s soldiers and sold them to slave traders in exchange for resources. (Side note: most slaves were not sold for weapons, but this is one case where the old stereotype holds true.) Some scholars such as Linda Heywood and John Thornton have suggested that this meant many of the Kongolese slaves in Haiti were trained soldiers. So not only did you have an island where 500,000 people (90% of the population) were enslaved in a very brutal form of slavery but up to 200,000 of those might have been trained and very angry soldiers. Second, it is important to look at the demographics of the rest of the population. There were about 31,000 whites, some of whom were successful plantation owners (gran blans) and some of whom were just merchants (petit blans.) There were also about 28,000 affranchis, some of whom were in direct competition to the gran blans as plantation owners themselves. Therefore, the affranchis were not necessarily on the side of the slaves but rather you had an island with three populations all pitted against one another. It was a ticking time bomb. And in 1791, it exploded.

                August 14, 1791, elite slaves from plantations in the northern plain gathered on the Lenormand de Mezy plantation at a place called Bois Caiman to plot a revolt. They held a Vodou ceremony where they sacrificed a black pig and a slave named Boukman prayed for success. Folklore holds that Boukman’s prayer went, The god who created the earth; who created the sun that gives us light. The god who holds up the ocean; who makes the thunder roar. Our God who has ears to hear. You who are hidden in the clouds; who watch us from where you are. You see all that the white has made us suffer. The white man's god asks him to commit crimes. But the god within us wants to do good. Our god, who is so good, so just, He orders us to revenge our wrongs. It's He who will direct our arms and bring us the victory. It's He who will assist us. We all should throw away the image of the white men's god who is so pitiless. Listen to the voice for liberty that speaks in all our hearts." While this prayer is very likely not what he actually said, it does reflect the anger and search for justice that many slaves must have felt being ripped from their homes, enslaved in horrible conditions, and being forcibly baptized into Catholicism.

                The rebellion in the North soon spread like wildfire and was incredibly violent, but it was not initially well organized. This was in part because some original leaders such as Toussaint Louverture originally wanted to work with France rather than fight. Louverture was born a slave but gained his freedom at age 33 and became a well educated affranchis. He joined the revolution early on rising up from being a doctor to a military commander in a short amount of time. Once the island was fairly secure, he reached out to Napoleon to try and broker a deal. The goal was not to become free from France – just to gain freedom for slaves and become equal citizens. He shocked the French by writing incredibly eloquent letters that justified the revolution using the same philosophies that justified the French Revolution (hence the nickname for him and the other revolutionary leaders as the Black Jacobins.) Unfortunately for him, Napoleon was not the least interested in losing the workforce for his prized colony that was going to pay for his empire’s expansion. So in 1802, sneaky Napoleon sent his brother LeClerc to the island where he lured Louverture in with a dinner invitation, kidnapped him, and then forced him into exile where he died. Unfortunately for Napoleon, however, due to a combination of yellow fever and military losses he was never able to regain control of the island despite the thousands of troops he threw at Haiti. Without his cash cow and with other military engagements looming, Napoleon made the decision to sell the Louisiana Purchase at a famously good price. In 1804, the military leaders of the Haitian revolution declared the island free and independent. Thus, Haiti became the first free black republic in the world.

                However, becoming a free black nation through a slave uprising in a time when African slaves were awfully popular in the Western world doesn’t happen without consequences. It scared American and European countries, who refused to acknowledge the new nation and maintained an embargo until 1863. France also demanded that Haiti pay restitution of 150 million gold francs to the plantation owners who lost their land, slaves, and sugar cane or else they would invade again. Allowing for inflation and the insane interests rates France charged, this came to $22 billion, which was a crippling amount to the new nation. But they paid it back. Oh it wasn’t easy. By 1900, 80% of their GDP went towards payments. And to do this they often had to take out loans from other countries. Yet, by 1947, they had paid it all off. But, by then they were also the poorest nation in the western hemisphere.

               Now this is not the sole reason Haiti is poor. But it is a very important factor. And I think it is a bit mindblowing that while in America people discuss the US government paying reparations to descendents of slaves in Haiti descendents of slaves had to pay France reparations for their own freedom. 200 years after the revolution, Haitian president Aristide demanded that France’s president Chirac return the money. Not too surprisingly, these requests were denied.

               After the revolution, racial and political tensions were still problematic. Henry Christophe declared himself King of Haiti and took over the North, while another military leader Alexandre Petion took over Southern regions. (Also, little known fact, but Petion provided refuge and help to Simon Bolivar. And, in 1820, Haitians assisted Greece in their struggle for independence against Turkey. This continued a tradition begun in 1799, when 750 Haitians fought in the American revolution.) Christophe instituted a brutal feudal system while Petion maintained a republic, which is why when Petion died no one in the South wanted Christophe to take over. Instead they elected Jean-Pierre Boyer. When Christophe became ill he committed suicide and Boyer took over not only the North but the entire island, liberating Santo Domingo from Spain.  But the payments Boyer agreed to make to France for their freedom were disastrous for the economy and he had to flee to Jamaica when the people revolted. By the 1860s, Spain regained the DR and Haiti began its history of electing and appointing presidents that rarely lasted long and were often corrupt.

               For example, in 1915, President Sam made the unpopular decision to execute 167 political prisoners. The angry populace overtook the French embassy where he’d fled, killed him, and then tore his body to pieces in the streets. The US decided to use this as an excuse to occupy Haiti and President Woodrow Wilson sent 3,000 marines to control the island. They spent 19 years controlling every aspect of the government, not even allowing the Haitian flag to fly at the capital, which was why guerilla forces outside the cities attempted to regain control. They were never successful and thousands of Haitians died in these skirmishes.  The Catholic Church also used this opportunity for an Anti-Superstition Campaign aimed at wiping out all Vodou practices. People were forced to burn their religious icons and altars. They renewed these campaigns a few more times after the US left. However, the US did build a lot of infrastructure and brought stability to the island.  Today the Haitian people remember the US occupation with a mix of feelings. Some see it as just another way that Haiti has been colonized, used, and disposed of by the West. Others wish the US would return and make Haiti into a territory like the Philippines and Puerto Rico. After all, the US has continued to play a heavy hand in Haitian politics ever since.

               In 1934, the US officially left Haiti and they were able for the first time in 19 years to fly their flag and elect their own leaders. However, on the other side of the island Rafael Trujillo Molina had just recently taken control of the Dominican Republic. He institutionalized antihatianismo (anti-Haitian sentiments i.e. racism) and made it part of the school curriculum. Ever since colonization, the border between the two nations had been porous with families straddling the lines and people freely moving between both countries for work. In October of 1937, Trujillo ordered the ethnic cleansing
 of every Haitian living in the Dominican Republic. The borders were sealed and for five days ethnic Haitians within the Dominican borders were actively hunted down and murdered with machetes, guns, and clubs. Haitians sometimes call it the Parsley Massacre because soldiers would hold up a sprig of parsley and ask people what it was. The Spanish word for parsley is perejil, but most Haitians cannot trill the “r” in the word. If someone could not pronounce it correctly, they were killed. At the end of five days 38,000 ethnic Haitians were murdered, some of whom had been born in the Dominican Republic. President Roosevelt and the current Haitian president eventually convinced the Dominican government to pay reparations of $30 a victim, though most of that never made it to the families. Trujillo remained in power.

               In 1957, a medical doctor named Francois Duvalier was elected on a populist and black nationalist platform. It is important to note that in Haiti there is a social divide between the mulattos and blacks, the two local racial types. Mulattos claim heritage from the French colonials and typically are better educated, well off financially, and use French to differentiate themselves from the masses. They are the social and political elite. Blacks make up the majority of Haitians both in the cities and countryside. They tend to be less well educated, poorer, and speak Haitian Kreyol. It would be easy to assign our own racial understandings to these classifications, but in reality it is more complicated than that. They have more to do with class than genetics. A local proverb goes, “Neg rich se mulat, mulat pov se noua" meaning a rich black man is a mulatto and a poor mulatto is black. I’ll talk more about this in another post, but for now it is sufficient to understand that there is a fair amount of resentment from the lower class against the elite upper class. Duvalier was highly educated, but came from the black class and therefore it was a big deal for the people when he was elected in a landslide. Unfortunately, Papa Doc (as his patients had fondly called him) turned out to be an evil dictator.

               Now I’m an anthropologist and I don’t use the world evil often. But if Papa Doc wasn’t evil when he was elected he sure became it. In 1958, he turned the military into his own personal army to ensure he retained power and appointed all new chiefs of staff that were loyal to him. He kicked out all foreign born bishops (which initially got him excommunicated) thereby removing any influence from the Church. In 1959, he created the Tonton Macoute a rural militia named after a boogeyman from stories used to scare children into behaving. People joined for a chance to have power for the first time in their lives. This led to the Tonton Macoutes not only carrying out the violent political whims of Papa Doc but also establishing their own little dictatorships in the countryside. Opponents were burned alive, stoned, forced to rape their own mothers, and their corpses displayed as a warning to others. Papa Doc had also studied Vodou as an outsider when he was younger, and he used this knowledge to convince the people that he had a dangerous spiritual power (in local terms he practiced with the left hand meaning he was a sorcerer.) In 1963, he rigged his illegal re-election and in 1964 made himself President for Life. It is estimated that around 60,000 Haitians were killed during his reign for crossing his path.

               Papa Doc died in 1971, but he passed on his dictatorship to his son Jean-Claude Duvalier AKA Baby Doc who was only 19 at the time. He preferred being a playboy to being a politician, though he did ease some superficial aspects of his father’s regime. He turned over most of the decisions to his father’s advisors and instead focused on his $3 million USD wedding to a mulatto woman. Neither the price tag nor the choice of wife was seen favorably by the people. Things continued to go downhill for Baby Doc from there. In 1978, the US government decided that to prevent the swine flu from affecting American pigs they had to kill all of Haiti’s black creole pig population. Peasants in Haiti used the pigs as walking savings accounts – a pig could pay for a child’s education, a new house, or any number of other life events. Overnight their investments disappeared and the breed, which was well suited to the island, is gone for good. In the early 80s, AIDs became a huge problem in Haiti, especially since most people had no access to doctors. I'll talk more about AIDs later, but it was devastating to the island. Finally, the people had had enough and began large scale revolts. In 1986, Baby Doc fled to France where he lived in exile. For a while.

               Elections in 1987 were fraught with violence, but in 1991 a former priest named Jean-Bertrand Aristide was democratically elected. He had been a strong social advocate for the people and a liberation theologian and therefore an enemy of the Duvaliers and the Catholic Church. Before his term even began, a former Tonton Macoute attempted to claim the presidency. Within a few months Aristide was run out of Haiti by a coup d’état. The coup regime stayed in power in part due to violent repercussions against Aristide supporters and in part due to their lucrative relationship with the Cali Cartel. In 1994, with the help of the US, the coup regime backed down and Aristide returned but he was only allowed to finish out the remainder of his term. He was re-elected in 2001, and instituted a number of reforms that helped the poorer class to the anger of the elite and the US textile companies who opposed raising the minimum wage. However, some argue he often did this through less than democratic means. In 2004, Aristide claimed that the US showed up in the middle of the night to force him to resign and whisk him away to exile. He and many of his political allies found a safe haven in South Africa and he remained there in exile. For a while.

               In January of 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti killing somewhere between 60,000 and 300,000. Why the disparity? Well, mostly because the hardest hit areas were slums and shanty towns in Port-au-Prince. These buildings never had a chance of surviving the earthquake, and many were built right on top of another. Afterwards, it was difficult for agencies to figure out how many people had lived in the destroyed areas just by looking at the structures and most people were not registered in any way. The streets overflowed with bodies to the point that mass graves were dug and the dead unceremoniously dumped. Not that there were many other options, but it violates religious beliefs and prevented many people from knowing for sure what happened to their loved ones. Plus, no one kept count of the bodies buried. The Haitian government claimed the dead numbered more than 300,000, but the USAID later conducted polls of surviving neighbors and determined the number should be somewhere around 60,000. The same 2011 report also used polling of neighbors to determine the displaced number was around 895,000 rather than 1.5 million and those living in temporary camps 375,000 rather than 670,000. There were accusations that the Haitian government exploited international aid using inflated numbers. The Haitian government claims that their numbers are correct, and that since aid from the US is based on such numbers there is a conspiracy about a conspiracy to avoid giving more aid. In the end we’ll probably never know about the true number of dead, but regardless of the final tally it was absolutely devastating to the nation.

               Then, in a bizarre turn of events, in 2011 Aristide and Baby Doc both decided to return to Haiti. Baby Doc was arrested, but so far has not been tried for any of his crimes. Everyone was nervous that they would try to interfere with the presidential election, but nothing happened. Today both former presidents are residing in Haiti and the world is waiting to see what they are up to. Until then, we’ll just have to watch and wait. Meanwhile, Haiti faces a serious cholera epidemic, the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac, a lack of housing, heavy handed influence from other countries and NGOs, and (as always) corrupt politicians.

I will leave details about the aftermath and reconstruction for another post. But to understand the contemporary situation in Haiti, I believe it is important to understand the country’s history. Though my sketch is simple and obviously leaves out some things, I hope it sets the stage. If there is anything missing that you would like to know more about just ask. Next week I’ll talk about the Vodou religion and how it is lived by the people. But for now I’d like to open this up to questions, requests for clarifications, and discussions which I welcome you to post here. Also, below you’ll find a list of books for further reading if you’re interested in doing your own scholarly work.

Further Reading and Sources

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. (1995) Silencing the Past: Power in the Making of History. Boston: Beacon Press.

Fatton, Robert Jr. (2002) Haiti’s Predatory Republic: The Unending Transition to Democracy. Lynne Rienner.

Dupuy, Alex. (2007) The Prophet and Power: Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the International community, and Haiti. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Dupuy, Alex. (1989) Haiti in the World Economy. Westview Press.

Wilson, Samuel Meredith (1990) Hispaniola: Caribbean chiefdoms in the age of Columbus. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama

Hallward, Peter (2007) Damming the Flood: Haiti and the Politics of Containment. London:Verso

All photographs are my own taken during trips to Haiti and the writing is my own. If you would like to reproduce this post whole or in part please contact me first. Thanks!