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The Lost Years

Red and Black in Haiti: Radicalism, Conflict, and Political Change, 1934-1957Red and Black in Haiti: Radicalism, Conflict, and Political Change, 1934-1957 by Matthew J. Smith

Reviewed by Madison Smartt Bell
The Nation

The large segment of the Haitian population that is unable to read or write inhabits an oral history culture, which produces, when looking into the past, a curious foreshortening. First comes the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804, the only successful slave revolution in history and an event with whose fundamentals practically all Haitians are reasonably conversant. Then there's a compressed, indeterminate period of confused and repetitious instability, ending with President Woodrow Wilson's decision in 1915 to use the collection of outstanding American and French loans as a pretext for installing Marines in Haiti to prevent the election of an anti-American president. Following the close of the US occupation in 1934 is another indeterminate period of confusion, ending with the erection of the Duvalier dictatorship, a pere et fils monolith that, in its iron duration from 1957 to 1986, still stands taller than anything else on the Haitian historical horizon except for the founding revolution. (Jean-Claude Duvalier assumed power upon the death of his father, Francois, in 1971.) This foreshortening effect is not without certain advantages; ordinary Haitians tend to feel much more immediately connected to the events of their nation's origin than we in the United States do to ours. Yet how Haiti got from the radicalism of the revolution to the corrupt and bloody Duvalier regime, and thence to the ever more desperate conditions of the present, still tends to be a matter of mystery, both to Haitians and also to outside observers.

In recent years, in large part because of the vogue for postcolonial studies, many more Anglophone historians of Haiti have been drawn to the Haitian Revolution. The American occupation has also been reasonably well examined, as has the Duvalier regime, while the cyclical rises and falls, from 1990 to 2004, of the once and future President Jean-Bertrand Aristide have been practically drowned in ink. But with the exception of the Duvalier period, these well-studied eras all involve Haiti's critical and sometimes violent interactions with foreign powers; the nation's politics get far less attention from non-Haitian analysts. With Red and Black in Haiti, Matthew Smith intends to remedy that neglect, in part, with a minutely detailed examination of the period from 1934 to 1957, when Haiti emerged from the years of US occupation and moved, inexorably or not, toward the Duvalier dictatorship.

In the Haitian context, black often stands for African and red for milat, the Haitian word for people of mixed European and African blood. This color symbolism dates to the declaration of independence in Gonaives on January 1, 1804, when Haiti's first head of state, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, ordered the white band to be removed ceremoniously from the tricolor of the vanquished French and the red and blue bands to be sewn back together to create a new and uniquely Haitian flag. The flag alteration represented the eradication of the white race as a concept and suggested a new, firmer unity of the black African and milat populations. Indeed, the Constitution issued by Dessalines in 1805 stated, "The national colors shall be black and red." (Smith uses the statement as the epigraph to his introduction.) Under Dessalines, the Haitian flag was modified accordingly, but subsequent rulers restored the red and the blue. Duvalier pere, who inhaled a great gust of inspiration from Dessalines's remarkable ruthlessness, brought back the black-and-red flag after seven years of rule, as Smith reminds us in his conclusion.

The postoccupation period lacks the clarity of such symbolism. Viewed in extreme close-up, it can be a bewildering welter of evanescent mini-movements, groupuscules, political parties and publications mutating almost too rapidly for the eye to follow. Smith tries to order the confusion by devoting a chapter to each presidency of the period: Stenio Vincent (1934-41), Elie Lescot (1941-45), Dumarais Estime (1946-50) and Paul Magloire (1950-56). He also traces persistent trends across these four successively collapsing administrations and follows the longer trajectories of certain significant political actors, notably the populist labor leader Daniel Fignole, in whom Smith finds a considerable but limited resemblance to the latter-day Aristide. The silhouette of Francois Duvalier drifts deep in these turbulent waters, like the shadow of a shark whose fin only rarely breaks the surface of events.

The US occupation brought Haiti a superimposed stability and considerable progress in infrastructure development, but at the price of enormous national humiliation. The Marines imported Jim Crow segregation and drafted labor with a press-gang system called the corvee, which resembled slavery to an alarming degree. Whether the United States intentionally added a layer of insult by staffing the Haitian mission with white Southerners has been much discussed; in fact, given that reflexive racism was universal throughout the United States at the time, it hardly mattered if the Marines in Haiti were Southern or not. For a nation founded by African slaves who had expelled their white masters in a violent revolution, the racist paternalism of the US presence was hard, if not impossible, to swallow; there was indeed some armed resistance to the occupation, but it was expeditiously repressed by the Marines.

As Smith reports, a movement toward a restoration of black pride had been stirring in Haiti before Franklin Roosevelt ended the US occupation. But Haiti, styled a "black republic" by outsiders, was never monochromatically that. In the United States, until quite recently, race has been perceived in rigid black and white, thanks to our inheritance of a British slave system that legally defined anyone with as little as one-sixteenth African blood to be a Negro. Haiti emerged from the French slave system, which recognized persons of mixed African and European blood as a third race: mulatre or, more politely, gens de couleur. These children were likely to be acknowledged by their white fathers, and sons were given an education, often in France. By 1791 the colored population was almost as large as the white, and the gens de couleur owned substantial property, including slaves, though under colonial rule they had no political rights whatsoever. After the success of the revolution, and with the benefit of an enormous head start in education, as well as the accumulation of wealth and the experience of managing labor and capital, the colored population evolved into the core of today's Haitian elite.

From the revolution forward, this mostly light-skinned elite successfully concentrated most of Haiti's wealth, while conserving the French language (as opposed to the French-African Kreyol spoken by the majority of the population) and as much of French culture as possible. Over time, the status of the milat became a matter of class as well as pigmentation; Smith prefers the Kreyol word because, unlike the purely racial English term "mulatto" or the French mulatre, it encompasses class. Though class mobility has not been unknown, the race/class-based cleavage of Haitian society remains very deep and is thus an essential facet of Smith's study.

The Constitution produced in 1805 by Dessalines abolished the very idea of race, at least rhetorically, by defining all Haitian citizens as black -- a description extended not only to the colored minority but also to the few Europeans (doctors, notaries and the like) whom Dessalines spared and permitted to remain in Haiti on the grounds that they might be useful to the new society. This constitutional clause was an extraordinarily progressive measure on the part of a dictator better remembered for his ruthlessness. However, it wasn't much honored by Dessalines's successors. Following Dessalines's assassination in 1806, political rule was gradually secured by milat leaders Alexandre Petion and Jean-Pierre Boyer (who like Dessalines had played significant military roles in the revolution). The nucleus of the elite continued to consolidate, and this group eventually realized that its position would be safer and more profitable if the tremendous black majority was left mostly to its own devices.

But a strictly racial explanation of postrevolutionary social cleavage can't account for the kind of cultural divisions noted by the anthropologist Gerard Barthelemy. As of 1791, 800,000 slaves had been brought to the colony from Africa, and the success of the revolution permitted them and their descendants to carry on African folkways with little significant interruption. On the other side of the divide were not only the well-educated, property-holding gens de couleur but also a fair number of Creole (meaning born in the colony) blacks, with a sometimes considerable degree of European acculturation. Toussaint Louverture, without whose catalytic role the revolution could never have happened, is the supreme representative of this group. Creole blacks were bound by race to the African-born majority, but their social, political and economic interests were often closer to those of the colored elite.

Vastly outnumbered as it was, and continues to be, by the black majority, the colored elite could neither rule nor protect its property without the cooperation of black representatives in government -- and those representatives would not play their part unless they were given some share of real power. Over time the elite formed an uneasy power-sharing arrangement with an emerging black political class. In the first years after the revolution the factions in power discovered, somewhat painfully, that there was no way to compel the black majority to return to plantation labor, and eventually they simply turned their backs on that majority. Indifference was more or less reciprocal. The black majority, called "African" during the revolutionary period, gradually became known as moun andeyo (outsiders, country people), gwo zotey ("big toes," for the fact that most went barefoot) or simply peasants. They had their own language, Kreyol, and their own culture, revolving around the vodou religion, often fused with Catholicism. The infrequent attention they received from the state was likely to be hostile.

Tensions between the black nationalist political class and the milat elite have driven the political cycle in Haiti for two centuries, and the postoccupation period Smith chronicles is a microcosm of them. Though the popular majority has frequently been instrumental in installing new regimes, it has always been induced to do so through the same familiar dance of seduction and abandonment. Rarely has any genuine populist obtained a substantial grip on national power, and no such leader has ever held power for long. Real democracy, even the idea that the Haitian state should serve the interests of the Haitian people, is a goal desired by many, detested by some and as yet achieved by no one.

Viewing Haiti's domestic politics through conventional Marxist or other radical-left lenses has seldom proven fruitful for theorists or political actors on the scene. To the extent that Smith concentrates on orthodox radicals and the movements they attempted to found, he is compelled to tell a story of their failure to gain durable purchase on the realities of the Haitian world. The Haitian masses -- moun andeyo -- stubbornly decline to be herded into the categories chosen for them by either right-wing repressive governments or left-wing activists. An indigenous Haitian populism does exist, but it will not conform to imported ideology or political practice.

A Communist party formed in Haiti in the early 1930s included formidable intellectuals like Max Hudicourt and Etienne Charlier, and also one of Haiti's finest novelists, Jacques Roumain. Stenio Vincent's regime took their activities seriously enough to imprison Roumain and Hudicourt for a time and later to drive them into exile. But Roumain, Hudicourt and other leaders of the Parti Communiste Haitien (PCH) sprang from the elite, and Smith reports that "the scant evidence of the early mobilization activities of the communists suggests that the following was very small and strongest among more privileged students primarily drawn to Marxist ideas out of curiosity."

Meanwhile, another social movement was emerging, more discreetly, among a different group. Both the white occupiers and the Haitian elite tended to dismiss popular Haitian culture, and especially its connections to vodou, as a haplessly barbaric superstition. Then in 1928, the writer Jean-Price Mars published Ainsi parla l'oncle, which began "to integrate popular Haitian thought into the discipline of traditional ethnography," thus treating it as a cultural asset and making it a basis for a new "cultural nationalism." Mars and his students, who included Lorimer Denis and the young Francois Duvalier, enjoyed elite prerogatives of education and intellectualism but were culturally closer to the black Haitian majority. In 1938 Duvalier and Denis founded a quarterly called Les Griots, with the poets Carl Brouard and Clement Magloire fils, and through it undertook a sort of roots-recovery mission. As Smith explains, they argued that "vodou as the spiritual expression of the Haitian majority should be 'embraced by all Haitians.'" Alienation from the Eurocentric attitudes of the light-skinned elite (which were personified by the first two postoccupation presidents, Vincent and Lescot) was intrinsic to Griot thinking, and cultural nationalism evolved rapidly toward black nationalism, labeled either noiriste or authentique. Intellectually and artistically, the noirisme of the Griots expanded into the pan-African negritude movement, which began in France in the 1930s and soon became influential throughout the Caribbean.

Intellectual noirisme advanced discreetly in a Haitian political climate governed by supreme indifference to the popular black majority. Vincent -- "a milat intellectual who grew up without many of the privileges of others in his class," according to Smith -- did his best to completely ignore the horrific massacre of thousands of Haitian peasants by the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo's soldiers and paramilitaries along the Dominican border in 1937. Vincent's indifference was so acute that it outraged even some of his own military commanders, who could have stopped at least part of the slaughter if Vincent had authorized them to do so. The scandal eventually brought down Vincent's administration, though not before he had taken the brief, desperate measure of declaring it a dictatorship.

Vincent's successor, Elie Lescot, a milat who sprang from a middle-class family in the north of Haiti, governed during the period of World War II, pursuing the interests of the elite without much regard to consequences for the majority. In partnership with the United States, he expelled peasants from more than 100,000 hectares of land, razing their homes and destroying more than a million fruit trees in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to cultivate rubber on a large plantation scale. There was also the notorious "anti-superstition campaign" of 1942, which (though enforced by the military) was instigated less by the state than by the Catholic clergy -- even though Catholicism had coexisted with vodou peacefully enough for most of the century and a half since independence. Enough hounfos (vodou temples) were wrecked, drums destroyed and sacred trees cut down to put all the practitioners of the persecuted religion (the sum total of the black majority) in a mood for retribution.

At the same time, Daniel Fignole joined the noiriste movement, publishing criticisms of Lescot and the light-skinned elite in movement publications such as Chantiers and Le Reveil. A member by birth of moun andeyo, he had the talent and good fortune to win a place in one of Port-au-Prince's superior high schools, and later he taught mathematics in several of them, winning influence over groups of students who were avowed Marxists (though Fignole was not). In the charisma of Fignole (reminiscent of the charisma of Aristide), Denis and Duvalier saw a chance to bring home to the black majority the ideas of black nationalism the Griots had been quietly incubating. Black nationalism, they thought, could be a means of empowerment for that majority.

The overthrow of Lescot's government began with a student strike and demonstration -- the student leaders thought of themselves as Marxists but were perhaps more immediately influenced by French Surrealism in the person of Andre Breton, who had spent some time in Haiti in 1945. The students were soon joined by striking workers in Port-au-Prince -- the labor groups that became Fignole's power base. Vodou drumming was heard in the hills above the capital as various bourgeois enterprises burned. At the onset of the strike police tried to beat the students into submission with batons, and eventually a couple of dozen people were killed. But Lescot's administration apparently lacked the will (later to be found by Presidents Magloire and Duvalier) to conduct a murderous repression. Lescot fled Haiti on January 11, 1946, as control of the government was assumed by a military junta including Magloire.

Smith calls this tumult "the Haitian Revolution of 1946," and the election that followed, like the founding revolution, brought a member of the black majority to the helm of the state, though not the man advocated by the most powerful organization of the left: the Mouvement Ouvrier Paysan, founded by Fignole and joined by Denis and Duvalier during the 1946 elections. (The Mouvement's acronym, MOP, was meant to have the Anglophone implication of a clean sweep.) Fignole threw his support behind Demosthenes Petrus Calixte, deploying his remarkable gift for oratory in radio broadcasts and his ability to mobilize the black majority onto the streets of the capital (a technique called woulo konmprese, for steam-roller). But this was not a general election; despite popular pressure for Calixte, two ballots in the Senate elected Dumarsais Estime instead. Furious and alarmed at this outcome, Fignole, Duvalier and Denis went briefly into hiding for fear of reprisals; but they were soon placated and reassured by offers of posts in Estime's administration. The noiristes accepted Estime as one of their own.

The reformist fervor of 1946 dwindled into disappointment over the four years of the Estime presidency. Despite a genuine will to "improve social conditions" and increase "black middle-class access to state power," Smith writes, Estime's administration could not root out a deeply entrenched system of corruption in government. Tensions between government and the unsatisfied populace grew so sharp that Estime resorted to repressive measures -- unsuccessfully, as he had lost the support of the army. In 1950 he was overthrown by a military coup led by Magloire, who as president, Smith writes, "was determined to eliminate all forms of radicalism." Magloire was fully willing to implement state repression, which he termed kansonferisme ("iron-pants-ism"); but it was his successor in military dictatorship, Duvalier, who not only refined and elaborated the techniques of state terror but practiced them with such pre-emptive ruthlessness that the totality of his grasp on power remains unsurpassed by any head of state in Haitian history. The most sincere and significant populist figure of the period, Daniel Fignole, served as provisional president between Magloire and Duvalier -- for less than three weeks, until he was forced into exile by a US-endorsed military coup.

Exactly what Smith intends by his book's striking title is left to the reader to ascertain (at least till the very end of the work). The colors red and black have one implication in casino gambling (to pick a random example), another in the iconography of left politics, where red is often associated with communism and black with anarchy. The Haitian political scene offers plenty of anarchy in a pure, unorganized and nonideological form, but if Smith means to contrast that whirlwind with the generally unsuccessful adventures of orthodox Marxist politics in Haiti, he does not say so.

In the penultimate paragraph of his book, Smith speaks of an "era of red and black, defined by a struggle between Marxists and noiristes, milat and black, and state and civil society." The indecisiveness of Smith's grappling with the title phrase is symptomatic of a limitation of this book, which is almost overwhelmingly thorough, exhaustive and authoritative in its assembly of facts but comparatively tentative in its conclusions (which come at the end of each chapter, labeled as such). At times one wishes for a synthetic, bolder (perhaps riskier) interpretation of this wealth of information, in the manner of, for example, Alex Dupuy (The Prophet and Power) or Michel-Rolph Trouillot (Haiti: State Against Nation). But so many people have been confidently dead wrong about Haiti so many times that Smith has every right to be cautious. It is a country easily misunderstood, and one has to look for a very long time, at a dismayingly vast array of material, to begin to understand what one is seeing.

Madison Smartt Bell, a novelist, is the author of Toussaint Louverture: A Biography (Pantheon).

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Toussaint Louverture: A Biography...
    Used Trade Paper $10.50
  2. Haiti: State Against Nation: The... Used Trade Paper $17.00
  3. Red and Black in Haiti: Radicalism,... New Trade Paper $37.75

2 Responses to "The Lost Years"

    s h a r o n August 11th, 2009 at 7:06 am

    Very interesting (if dauntingly complex) review by Smartt Bell. It's worth the effort. Sometimes, I feel the reviews trump the book, especially considering that one could expend over $60 for the hardcover version of this book...

    Sydney Noel March 21st, 2011 at 9:54 pm

    Haiti has such a very rich, tragic yet beautiful history that is so unique and every way. It's heart wrenching to see that the people oh Haiti never get a government that really want the betterment of the country and its population.

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