Wednesday, January 20, 2016
Review of "Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti" by Matthew Davidson
Sprague, Jeb. Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012. ISBN: 978-1-58367-300-3. 400 pp.
In Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti, Jeb Sprague examines how Haitian and transnational elite groups sponsored paramilitary violence during the late twentieth and early twenty-first century in order to crush the democratic aspirations of Haiti’s popular classes and forestall democratic and redistributive reform. Sprague details the role that paramilitaries played in the overthrow of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991 and then again in 2004, as well as the larger context in which they have operated. Locating paramilitarism as being just one coercive strategy of many that upper-class sectors have used to “neutralize” (12) democracy, Sprague argues that elite groups turn to political violence when William Robinson’s concept of polyarchy – democracy in which dominant social groups are able to maintain control - fails to take hold. Sympathetic to Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas and Haiti’s popular movements, albeit not uncritical of them, Sprague argues that "it was the popular classes - and those organizing in their interests - who have been and continue to be the primary targets of political violence" (14).
This important book went to print while Sprague was still a PhD candidate at UC Santa Barbara. As part of his research for the book, Sprague analyzed more than 11,000 documents accessed through Freedom of Information requests. He also conducted more than fifty interviews with various officials, victims, and death squad leaders, sometimes at considerable risk to his own safety as the introduction shows. In doing so, Sprague gives us a thorough account of how paramilitary forces have been developed in Haiti, and the networks that support them.
Sprague identifies four waves of paramilitarism in Haiti. The first was the Tonton Macoutes, a militia established by François Duvalier in 1958. Active through the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the Macoutes served the two Duvalier dictators. When Jean-Claude Duvalier fell in 1986 the Macoutes were officially disbanded, but were actually reorganized as attachés instead. This, Sprague says, began the second wave of paramilitarism. During the regimes of Henry Namphy and Prosper Avril, the attachés continued to work with the military, albeit without the uniforms they previously wore. The second wave subsided in early 1991, but the third began later that year after the military seized power in a coup d’état. The military worked closely with death squads such as the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (FRAPH), manned by former Macoutes and attachés, to crush resistance and destroy the popular movements. Democracy was ultimately restored in 1994, but despite President Aristide’s efforts to hold the military and paramilitaries to account for their crimes, paramilitarism remained viable, though largely latent. The most recent wave of paramilitarism emerged in 2000 with the organization of the FLRN (Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Haiti / Front for the National Liberation and Reconstruction of Haiti). This group was closely associated with former members of the FAd’H (the Armed forces of Haiti), and often operated under the guise of being the “new army” (16). After the second coup against Aristide in 2004 these paramilitary groups were sidelined, Sprague says, but many of their numbers have been incorporated into the police force or live comfortably without fear of prosecution.
Though primarily concerned with more recent events, the book begins by detailing the history of political violence against the poor in Haiti. Finding the origins of systemic violence in the genocide of the indigenous inhabitants of the island and in the slave-based economy during the colonial period, the chapter illustrates how dominant groups have tended to rely upon naked violence to maintain their power and privilege, especially when challenged by the subaltern. Sprague also highlights how militias, posses, and other proto-paramilitary forces have been utilized by the powerful throughout Haiti’s past, and how – such as during the American occupation – those forces have also been incorporated into the state. It is in this context that Sprague moves into a discussion of the first and second waves of paramilitarism, describing the violence committed by the Tonton Macoutes and the attachés. Throughout, Sprague highlights the extent to which the United States was complicit in the bloodshed, something which he continues to do throughout the rest of the book.
Chapter Two examines the emergence of popular democracy in Haiti, and the many attempts to reverse or restrict it. Describing paramilitary violence as being part of the elite’s response to an election that they could not control, Sprague considers the 1991 coup against President Aristide and the subsequent targeting of the popular movements. Sprague maps out the Haitian, Dominican, and American opposition to Aristide, detailing the ways that democracy threatened their interests, and the nature of their support for the FRAPH death squad. Yet once Aristide was removed from power and the popular movements subdued, Sprague argues, FRAPH posed a problem for the transnational elite. They struggled to present the de-facto regime as legitimate, and Haiti lacked the sense of predictability and long-term stability that transnational corporations required to do business. Aristide’s momentary return to power in 1994 is partially understood as a negotiated response to this dilemma, though Sprague makes it clear that democracy was restored “with clipped wings” (77).
Chapter Three considers the return of political violence in 2000/2001, just as Aristide was campaigning for a return to the presidency. Detailing the plans for a “preventative coup” (102), Sprague again illuminates the many Haitian and Dominican figures behind the intrigue, as well as the involvement of the U.S. Embassy in the plot. Yet for the moment the concern for stability was greater than the threat posed by Aristide, so embassy officials betrayed the putschists. The plotters fled to the Dominican Republic, where they were protected as they continued to conspire against Aristide. As Chapter Four illustrates, it was there that a band of ex-military men regrouped under the banner of the FLRN.
Supported by the so-called democratic opposition, the FLRN waged an armed campaign against Aristide’s presidency, culminating in the coup of 2004. Chapters Four through Six detail the violence, as well as the response of the government, the popular movements, the opposition, and various international actors such as the United States, various non-governmental organizations, and the Organization of American States (OAS). In doing so, Sprague highlights the hypocrisy of the international observers who condemned the Aristide’s government for alleged human rights abuses while staying silent on the threats faced by the government. He also traces the networks that linked these various domestic and international actors. Ultimately, Sprague suggests that after destabilizing the country, “transnationally oriented state elites operating through the U.S. and its allied apparatuses’ used the situation [they had created] to oust Aristide” (234).
Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti concludes by considering the post-coup period, highlighting the continued attacks on the poor by the paramilitaries as well as their incorporation into Haiti’s police force. This is a dynamic which emerges repeatedly in the book, and Sprague is able to reveal how individuals associated with various paramilitaries or FAd’H were able to infiltrate the police force at various moments, ultimately enabling subsequent waves of paramilitary violence. Sprague also discusses how the paramilitaries fit into the efforts of Haiti’s current President, Michel Martelly, to reinstate the army. On October 9, 2015, Martelly decreed that the Armed Forces of Haiti were to be officially remobilized, so it will be interesting to see what role the paramilitaries play in the reinstated force.
While one may disagree with the author’s politics, it is hard to dismiss Sprague’s findings. The book is well researched, and Sprague’s acumen as an investigator is clear. The theory on which the book rests could have been further developed, however. Sprague relies a little too heavily on William Robinson’s conception of polyarchy when trying to make sense of the moments when violence was not the elites’ preferred tactic. Sprague is devastating when he shows how FRAPH and FLRN were supported by specific sections of the elite, but he is unable to demonstrate the elites’ intent to hold popular democracy at bay through other means. While other scholars have certainly explored that very subject, it would be important to understand how the supporters of paramilitarism navigate between tactics.
Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti is an impressively researched book, and one clearly written with conviction. The popular movements of Haiti have a strong ally in Sprague, who insists that their understanding of events be taken seriously. The study certainly illustrates the merit in doing so. It is a book that illuminates the centrality of violence to global capitalism, but also the power of social movements to organize for social justice and democracy. For anyone wishing to understand the nature of political turmoil and inequality in Haiti, it is a must-read.
Matthew Davidson, University of Miami
*Matthew Davidson is currently a doctoral student at the University of Miami, where he is studying under the direction of Dr. Kate Ramsey. Matthew's research focuses on U.S. empire and public health in the Caribbean during the early twentieth century. Matthew completed his M.A. from Trent University in Peterborough, Canada, where he wrote a thesis on the 1915-1934 American occupation of Haiti. He was subsequently employed as the Coordinator of the Peterborough chapter of the Ontario Public Interest Research Group. Matthew can be reached at email@example.com.