In the wake of the July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, Haitian writer Yanick Lahens revisits the history of the island, addressing its fractures, but also seeing a reason for cautious optimism.
Not wanting to respond in the heat of the moment to the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, I declined requests to speak with journalists. Typically, a real-time reaction forsakes nuance, resulting in an answer that severs the event from the deeper factors that caused it. The inevitable shortcuts taken to summarize an event for "front-page news' tend to compound the reservoir of cliches and prejudices that exist around it, despite any attempts otherwise. And when an event worthy of the front page takes place in Haiti, the temptation is even greater to dive into such an abyss.
There's a reason for that. Haiti, more than any other place, has the capacity to boggle the minds of those unable or unwilling to stretch outside of their intellectual comfort zone. This emblematic island nation challenges and disturbs all at once. And yet, those who have not grasped the place Haiti holds in modern history — in its very birth and subsequent transatlantic influence — will only see the fire, poverty and bloodshed. They will only see another coup d"état, and they will only see black skin.
What happens in Haiti must always be placed in conversation with its inescapable history, summarized quickly around its unthinkable independence in 1804, when the country thwarted slavery, colonialism and nascent capitalism, and at a time when the Western powers were preparing to consolidate their world empire. Independence made Haiti the first country of the South, and subsequently the mold and template — I cannot stress this enough — of North-South relations.
Haiti understood before everyone else. Placed in quarantine (today we would call it embargo) by the colonialist powers of the time, the country was forced, as a condition to ending its political and economic isolation, to pay reparations for profits lost to the former French colonizers of Santo Domingo. This would place a heavy burden on Haiti from the beginning, dragged down by a steep mortgage that would send the country spiraling into a debt it wouldn't be able to pay off until the middle of the 20th century. And yet, during its difficult period of isolation, Haiti still helped Simon Bolivar liberate five Latin American countries and even inspired Greece to gain its independence.
Independence made Haiti the first country of the South.
Writer Laurent Dubois, in Les Vengeurs du Nouveau Monde (Les Perséides, 2006), noted that in 1801, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson was already thinking about what would happen should Santo Domingo achieve independence, which he feared would set a bad example for the other slave-holding countries in the region. In a conversation with delegates from France and England, he laid out conditions of engagement: "Not allowing blacks to own ships will be enough." In essence, Jefferson ceded Haiti the right to exist as a large village of maroons, but there was no possibility of accepting it into the concert of nations.
You may shrug and tell me that this happened long ago. But since then? Alas, the spirit and even the very words of this statement have persisted and infiltrated the policies that the great powers enforced on Haiti throughout the 19th century and up to the present day.
U.S. President Bill Clinton, a Democrat and in keeping with Jefferson's vision, did not bat an eye when referring to Haiti as the "backyard," implying a location where garbage is dumped. Donald Trump, the latest Republican president, stooped lower, remorselessly referring to the country as a "shit hole." The former eliminated Haitian rice production in the 2000s by forcing the Haitian market to accept subsidized, and therefore much cheaper, American rice. The latter, seeking the Haitian vote against Venezuela, promised unconditional support for the authoritarian regime of the late president.
But how was all this possible, you may ask? Well, it was made possible due to the complicity of the political and economic sectors that have ruled Haiti since independence.
The departure of the colonizers brought about a double shift that resulted in two different approaches to government and societal organization. The majority of the Bossales, the men and women who had just arrived from Africa, radically rejected the plantation system and liberal economic logic. Throughout the 19th century, they built an original culture that incorporated a common language and religion, prioritized the lakou (the common dwelling) as a basic community space, emphasized the cultivation of gardens and shared everything down to the last piece. It was a culture that would be protected from the beginnings of the neo-colonial project. The rural environment is referred to in everyday language as "the country outside."
Artists performing during a ceremony in honor of slain Haitian President Jovenel Moise — Photo: Orlando Barria/EFE/ZUMA
The other group was made up of the Creoles, many of whom were revolutionary leaders and others who accepted and adopted colonial traditions after independence, namely, the French language, the Catholic religion and Western legal foundations. With the two cultures constantly at odds, the chaos truly began with the failure to integrate the state model of the Creoles, across the country, and, as the sociologist Jean Casimir specifies, with the international community's negative view of the Bossale. Now, the country must find a way to build a community out of a centuries-old conflict.
Many of Haiti's struggles since the 19th century originate in this specific disconnect. Back-to-back international and internal crises throughout the 20th century progressively weakened the country's institutions, leading to long-standing distrust in government and placing a large swatch of the population into poverty without any structures intended to offer support, all of which was reinforced in 2010. Global and local crime syndicates have taken advantage of and co-opted these weak institutions. The licit and the illicit ended up merging, establishing corruption as a mode of governance, a process that eventually led to the shocking assassination of President Moïse.
Some may be quick to highlight the international aid Haiti has received over the years. But this aid perverts those who give as well as those who receive. When the aid does not simply feed corruption on both sides, a substantial portion of it goes back to the donor, leaving the recipient dangerously dependent, even if a few organizations, thank God, escape this model. The aid given after the 2010 earthquake is a perfect manifestation of this dysfunction.
As rapid urbanization unfolded and the centrality of the Creole language spread through various media and social networks, a youth has risen up, eager to stake their claim as the "country within" by showing the world their desire to fully exercise their citizenship, and build community and institutions. It is this young and new "country within a country" that has, with their bare hands, fought back against the unconstitutional referendum project supported by the international community. And they have managed to do this, as the young philosopher Edelyn Dorismond points out, despite the serious assaults on symbolic architecture; despite the massacres orchestrated by gangs, instruments of the powerful; and despite widespread imprisonment and the general exhaustion of so many.
We Haitians must save ourselves from reductive narratives.
It was these young people who were preparing to do the same, to fight against the widely contested elections that were supported by the international community. In the face of such obstacles, building community and democracy will take persistence and time. A lot of time. It will demand the construction of a new political order and fresh representation. There is no speedy solution or quick answer.
We Haitians must save ourselves from reductive narratives whose harmfulness lies in their ability to trap us in sad emotions, as Gilles Deleuze says. It is natural, and we will feel sadness, fear, hopelessness. But let us also remember, using the guiding light of history, how to make room for clear-mindedness and strength and draw from familiar joy. Let us not be defeated twice.
Contrary to what is conveyed in international or even national media, there is hope in the projects that are at work. One is the ecological community project in the lower northwest region, which is building a multifunctional park in a working-class neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. Others are artistic endeavors, agricultural activities, building an efficient university, creating innovative models for schooling. All these initiatives share one key point in common: They have been able to integrate the people in their approach. In contrast to our collective misfortunes, they are unfolding far away from the "front-page" sound and fury.
In the Failles, the novel which I wrote in 2010 in the aftermath of the earthquake, I repeatedly asked myself how to write without "exoticizing" misfortune and tragedy. Let's refuse to deny our suffering, but let us not indulge in self-flagellation or use our misfortune as a means of profit. Because if there is misfortune, it is not only Haiti's, it is the misfortune of the first world, the second world, the third world and the fourth world. It is the misfortune of our dominant world-model. It is not exotic; it is the misfortune of all.
*Yanick Lahens is a prize-winning novelist and essayist from Port-au-Prince.