September 6th, 2005
Unfinished Country
Essay: Haiti's Authoritarian Tradition

A Haitian citizen, registering to vote for the first time.
Photo: Two Tone Productions

By Robert Fatton, Jr.

To understand Haiti’s history — only ten of its 48 presidents have served out their terms and there have been only two peaceful electoral transitions since the beginning of the republic over 200 years ago — it is critical to look at the material and historical circumstances of the colonial period. The country’s authoritarian tradition is rooted in the legacies of French colonialism and the plantation economy. Based on slavery, this economy created a real dilemma for Haiti’s early leaders, a dilemma that was never resolved satisfactorily.

There has always been a very clear link between Haiti’s economic structure and its political system. Immediately after gaining independence in 1804, the country’s leaders desperately needed to restart a devastated economy — not only to feed their people but also to provide for a strong military to ensure the young country’s independence against the very real threat of invasion. The great powers of the time — defenders of white supremacy and the architects of the colonial system — abhorred the first successful black revolution against slavery and feared its consequences for their empires.

But Haiti’s economy was dependent on agricultural exports, primarily sugar, which required plantation production and thus coercive forms of labor. Haiti’s founding fathers — Toussaint, Dessalines, Christophe, and Pétion — faced a cruel choice: how could they reconcile the promise of emancipation and the former slaves’ aspirations to become an independent peasantry with the drastic labor discipline that the plantation economy required? If they supported the former slaves, they would condemn the country to material underdevelopment. If they promoted an immediate economic recovery, they would have to impose military discipline — thus emasculating emancipation itself.

They chose the latter, and though their attempt to restore the plantation system was not completely self-serving, the top officers participated in — and benefited from — a grossly unequal redistribution of land, which established them as a new class of planters. So at the very beginning of independence, a real class society crystallized, opening a wide gulf between the people and a militarized state serving the few.

Along with the issue of class, there was also a standing question of color. Even under the French, mulattos had enjoyed more status, privileges, and wealth than the black majority, and this reality carried over into the new republic, continuing to generate political tensions and conflicts between the two groups. Color has been exploited for political ends throughout Haitian history.

The former slaves, who wanted to own some land and subsist independently on it, simply refused to put up with the attempted restoration of the plantation economy and with it a new servitude. They abandoned the estates, becoming what they’d been when they resisted slavery: “marrons” — individuals suspicious of the state and fleeing its authority. Freedom, for them, came to mean freedom from any central authority, representative or otherwise. Gradually, the plantation system collapsed, and Haiti became a republic of peasant proprietors bent mostly on subsistence production.

Paradoxically, the rise of this peasantry hindered whatever chances there might have been to build a productive economy. Agriculture declined, not just because peasant smallholders kept subdividing the land but also because the state failed utterly to provide significant incentives for peasant production. Peasants — “moun andeyo,” people “without” the system — were taxed and marginalized but not represented. Their plight embodied the country’s material stagnation and acute patterns of class exploitation.

Even while failing their people materially, the overwhelming majority of Haitian leaders have claimed to embody the people’s — and indeed God’s — will. With rare exceptions, Haiti’s constitutions, beginning with Toussaint L’ouverture ‘s 1801 Charter, have ratified the providential authoritarianism of a single all-powerful individual. Toussaint set the tone for future generations, shaping political customs and expectations and legitimating the idea of personal rule, by declaring himself Governor General of the island “for life.”

But even authoritarianism has been a response to the country’s material scarcity and unproductive economy. Since poverty and destitution have always been the norm, and in such a class-divided society private avenues to wealth have always been rare, politics became an entrepreneurial vocation, virtually the sole means of material and social advancement for those not born into wealth and privilege. This is known as “la politique du ventre,” the “politics of the belly.”

Those holding political power have used any means available to monopolize the spoils and maintain their positions of privilege and authority. Relinquishing office peacefully has always been extremely costly, difficult, and rare. Not surprisingly, compromise has been extraordinarily uncommon and the army, for most of Haiti’s history the institution with a monopoly on violence, has played a decisive role in resolving — and instigating — political conflicts.


When François Duvalier took power in 1957, he challenged and undermined the army (which, as a potential rival for power, he distrusted) by creating a paramilitary organization, the “macoutes,” which became the vehicle of a despotic order. Duvalier had some popular legitimacy based on a populist, demagogic ideology of “negritude,” a form of black power. But black power — in this instance, Duvalier’s claim to defend the people against the interests of the mulatto elite — was a cover that merely masked the ascendancy of a black elite over the poor majority. Duvalier’s regime failed to generate any improvement in Haiti’s economic or political life, and its tyranny sparked a massive exodus of Haitians to other shores.

When Duvalier died in 1971, his son Jean-Claude assumed the presidency for life. Promising an economic revolution and a political liberalization, he stopped the worst excesses of the “macoutes,” tolerated some dissent, and rehabilitated the army as an institution. The country experienced a short period of economic development and hesitant democratization, but by the early 1980s his policies — known as “Jean-Claudisme” — and the economic gains they produced had been exhausted. Massive corruption and state predation won out over liberalization, and repression became the rule again.

Yet that liberalization had contributed to the emergence of an increasingly assertive civil society, and many nongovernmental organizations — including the radical, Liberation Theology-informed wing of the Catholic Church, known as Ti Legliz (little church) — began calling for social justice and human rights. After dissent and growing mass protests forced Jean-Claude Duvalier to flee the country in February 1986, a wave of national optimism and euphoria buried temporarily Haiti’s lasting conflicts, but a series of confrontations between the army and the new popular movements soon ensued, with the military aborting the 1987 elections and seizing power following sham elections in 1988.

Under Duvaliers, the army had become a profoundly divided institution, and it soon faced internecine struggles, which generated a series of coups and countercoups. Finally, under massive domestic and international pressures, the military allowed civilian elections. Led by the charismatic, prophetic messianism of Father Jean Bertrand-Aristide, the huge majority of poor Haitians became “Lavalas” — an unstoppable flood. Elected in a landslide, Aristide assumed the presidency on February 7, 1991, embodying the hopes and aspirations of the “moun andeyo.”

Haiti’s political and military elites found Aristide’s brand of politics thoroughly unacceptable, and barely seven months after his inauguration, Aristide was overthrown in another bloody coup. From exile, he managed to sustain his domestic popularity and mobilized international public opinion against Raoul Cédras’ military dictatorship, returning in 1994 backed by a force of 20,000 American troops.

But Aristide had changed immensely. Constrained by the overwhelming American presence and by the demands of international financial institutions, he began collaborating with former enemies to implement policies that he had hitherto rejected. And though he engineered the country’s first peaceful electoral transition of power (relinquishing the presidency to René Préval in 1996), he’d become increasingly Machiavellian, remaining the power behind the throne.

Aristide’s Lavalas party was plagued by internal struggle, and he did little to transform the inherited authoritarian tradition. He armed young unemployed thugs, the Chimères, to intimidate the opposition, and he resisted making meaningful political concessions. While voicing a radical rhetoric, he followed neoliberal strictures of structural adjustment, and his regime was incapable of resisting the temptations of corruption, despite its promise of “peace of mind and peace in the belly.”

Finally, Aristide’s own Chimères turned against him, eventually joining forces with former soldiers and death squad leaders and sealing his political fate. That these armed insurgents, some former members of the disbanded and despised military, found little popular resistance in their march to power symbolized Aristide’s ultimate failure. The triumph of the guns proved once again that the old Creole proverb, “Konstitisyon se papye, bayonet se fe” — A constitution is made up of paper, but bayonets are made up of steel — defined Haitian politics.

But this time the army had no monopoly on the means of violence. Different political groups formed a number of armed gangs over which they had uncertain control, gangs who shifted allegiances for financial gain. Former “macoutes” who had subsequently joined the Cédras junta’s brutal “attachés” and the paramilitary organization Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (FRAPH) reemerged to form new death squads and criminal “Zinglendos” bands. Narco-traficants established their own violent syndicates.


MINUSTAH (the multinational U.N. peacekeeping force) and the interim government of President Alexandre and Prime Minister Latortue have failed to curb criminal activities, and they have themselves used repressive means against Aristide’s supporters while tolerating the abuses of right-wing paramilitary groups. Under these conditions, a meaningful national reconciliation is unlikely even if parliamentary and presidential elections are held at the end of the year as promised. It is difficult to see how such elections can settle Haiti’s enduring crisis. Given the climate of insecurity and the weak and divided electoral commission, it is hard to believe that an environment favorable for free and fair elections exists. With many areas of the country under the armed control of gangs and former military, patterns of systematic intimidation and fraudulent vote counting are to be expected. Moreover, even if logistical problems were to be resolved, Lavalas participation remains a question mark — and without it, the electoral process would be a rather meaningless ritual, with little legitimacy. Given the constellation of internal and external forces, it is likely that power will return to the most reactionary elements of Haitian society, that the army will be reestablished, and that the ugly realities of the past will reappear dressed in new garb.

But it is also a fact that the international community has neither the will nor the interest to effect the transformations required for establishing an equitable and democratic Haiti. The powers that be have no appetite for long-term ventures in state building; the costs are simply too high, especially for a country like Haiti that has no strategic value and no significant natural resources. This is not to absolve the local Haitian ruling class, but to indicate that it is not alone in its resistance to social change and equity.

The current situation invites pessimism, but Haitians have always struggled against all odds. Things have happened in Haiti that are absolutely incredible, given the conditions. That the revolution occurred at all is incredible, that slaves could revolt and in fact abolish slavery — defeating Napoleon’s best generals. Had I been a Haitian at that time, I would have told the revolutionaries, “You must be crazy.” But they did it.

And of course there were all kinds of consequences, some of which led to this current situation, but the revolution itself shows that even the most complicated situations can find a solution, that something can happen that may defy the logic of its time.

Robert Fatton, Jr. is a Professor of Government and Foreign Affairs in the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia.

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