Showing posts with label Imagining Haiti. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Imagining Haiti. Show all posts

Wednesday, June 25, 2014


by Asselin Charles

            Through the interstice between the relentless broadcasting of the horrific film of the January 12 earthquake  and the  spectacle of voracious profit seekers now thronging to their devastated country,  a gift from the Fates may have finally reached beleaguered Haitians. It is a moment of synchronicity  that forebodes well for Haiti, that is, if we heed its significance . You have no doubt heard the news that the only known official print of Haiti’s Declaration of Independence was found a couple of weeks ago at the British National Archives. I will not speculate on the possible esoteric meaning of this fortuitous event. Still, what better sign from the lwas than the serendipitous discovery of the nation’s founding document at this lowest of moments in a two-century history punctuated by countless low moments? Synchronicity  indeed.  Just when  Haitians were feeling rather daunted by the enormity of the reconstruction task, oscillating between bouts of passivity induced by post traumatic depression and  surges of  manic activity to address both the present and  the future,  comes to miraculous light this document that two hundred and six years ago signaled to a hostile world the birth of a free nation of New World Africans and that today means to remind us of our right to existence. It is as if the ancestors were commanding us to revisit the past, to return to the source,  in order to regain a sense of  our raison d’être  and to rediscover the terms of the collective historic mission that we have yet to fulfill: the construction of  a truly independent and sovereign nation for the sons and daughters of Africa living on this half of an island in the Caribbean.  
Let us start then with an inventory of things as they are, with a survey of this present that has to be acted on  if Haitians are to fulfill the promise of the nation’s founding  document, to accomplish the mission given by the ancestors to us, their descendents.  The aftermath of the earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince and a few provincial cities has been painful for Diaspora Haitians to behold. The pathos of the suffering of our people and the devastation of the urban landscape have been crushing to the spirit and to the soul. At the same time, the perceived impotence and incompetence of our ruling elites  overwhelmed by the situation to the point of  muteness and paralysis have filled us with not a small measure of shame. It was our collective failures writ large.
The January 12 earthquake acted as a magnifying lens that made evident to all the rather sorry state of Haiti and Haitians today. What television screens, print media stories, radio reports, and internet articles and pictures gave the world and Diaspora Haitians to see was this dispiriting spectacle: tens of thousands dead;  hundreds of thousands injured;  a devastated urban landscape; over a million homeless and displaced persons; a dazed population in dire need of shelter and food; a powerless and virtually absent national government whose functions were practically taken over by the U. S. military, first responders and disaster relief workers from dozens of foreign countries, hundreds of international NGOs, and various and sundry missionaries. Much of this was a matter of perception, of course, for the international media, Western in particular, did wallow in what Margaret Kimberley calls “the pornography of suffering” (Margaret Kimberley, “Freedom Rider: Pornography of Suffering,” BAR 3 April 2010).  Nevertheless, even discounting the sensationalism of a media traditionally used to representing Haiti through stock images of misery and backwardness, the reality of Haiti today challenges both the Haitian people and foreigners who wish the country well.  
The unvarnished reality of Haiti is this. It is the least developed country in the Caribbean region and, though one may object to the excessive recourse to the cliché, with its GDP per capita of only $1,300 it is truly the poorest country in the Americas. The statistics pertaining to life expectancy, education, health, food security, and other indicators of well being rank Haiti at number 146 among the 177 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index. But if the poor of Haiti are really poor, the rich are indeed very rich. In what must be one of the most skewed socioeconomic pyramids in the Americas, 1% of the population, about a dozen families control more than half the wealth of the country.  Such a dire economic landscape no doubt explains the country’s high rate of emigration (7.7%, according to the UNHDI) and the readiness of 67% of the population to leave the country, according to a 2007 U. S. Government sponsored survey. In the meantime, the Haitian population relies for its economic survival on the remittances of the large Haitian Diaspora to the tune 1.2 billion dollars annually and on the services of some 10,000 NGOs (Edmond Mulet)  and Western aid agencies. The government, for its part, functions largely thanks to loans and donations from Western governments and the usual international financial institutions. Economically dependent, the country is also politically dependent, being a virtual United Nations protectorate and for all practical purposes a neo-colony with three metropoles—Washington, Paris, and Ottawa. Finally, the country’s dependency is also cultural inasmuch as the nation’s formal cultural parameters are controlled by an alienated ruling elite and educated middle class. Indeed, members of these social strata, for whom francophonie usually trumps negritude, evidence a deep cultural insecurity. Living a perfect storm of post-colonial contradictions regarding race, class, language, and culture, they are  historically incapable of inventing solutions to Haiti’s problems and of realizing the national community imagined by the founders.
            How did this first Black Republic, a nation founded on the ideals of liberté, égalité, and  fraternité get to this point? How did we bypass our founding principles and fail in the collective mission articulated by the revolutionaries of 1804 for their generation and for subsequent generations-- the construction of a nation of  free, equal, and fraternal Negroes, politically independent and economically autonomous? It is a case of history interrupted. For historian and novelist Roger Dorsinville, the Haitian historic project came to an abrupt end in 1806 with the assassination of the father of the nation, Jean-Jacques Dessalines for his determination to build a nation on the principles enunciated in the Declaration of Independence and the 1805 Constitution (Marche arrière I). For my part, I date this interruption of the history of Haiti to 1825, the fatidic year in which President Jean-Pierre Boyer accepted the terms of the Ordonnance de Charles X, wich engaged the nation to pay the former colonizers and slave owners reparations for their lost property, Black slaves included, to the tune of 150 million francs or (21 billion in today’s dollars). Boyer’s capitulation mortgaged the nation’s future economic development.  Instead of financing much needed services and investments, the country would devote  60% of its budget to the repayment of that debt for the next century and a half.  Moreover, the reparation debt constituted a symbolic and actual repudiation of the founding myth, of the collective narrative of origin, thus opening the gate for the repeated interventions of the imperialist West (U. S., France, Germany, earlier and Canada in the last twenty years) in the internal affairs of the country, the stranglehold of international capitalism on the nation’s resources, and the beginning of our addiction to foreign loans and donations.  
The betrayal of the nation’s founding ideology continued apace after Boyer. In 1860,  President Farbre Geffrard signed a Concordat with the Vatican. The terms of this treaty  were  to become a most effective vector of cultural alienation, embedding resilient centrifugal contradictions within the Haitian ideology. The Concordat made Catholicism the official religion, legitimizing the social repression of Vodou and other manifestations of traditional beliefs, while the wholesale importation of the French educational system, the management of which was entrusted to French clerical teachers, would ensure the further alienation and colonization of the Haitian mind for generations. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, then, Haiti has been ripe for a profitable collaboration between the national oligarchy and foreign neo-colonialist and imperialist powers in the economic exploitation and political control of the Haitian masses. Thus the conjunction of the inconsistencies of the ruling elites, the post-colonial social and cultural contradictions of the middle classes, the effectiveness of the Western powers’ political control over the country’s government for the last century and a half, and the  insertion of Haiti in the exploitative and unequal global economic system, would ensure the failure of the nation to carry out the mandate of the Declaration of Independence, to accomplish the three goals of the collective mission set by the founders when they wrestled control of this half-island hallowed with their blood and their sweat from the slave plantation owners: self-definition, self-determination and self-sufficiency.
            We got to this present state of affairs then  through the betrayal of history. To escape from the present and build a future in which we regain our collective agency, we need to learn again the meaning of self-definition, self-determination, and self-sufficiency; we must reconnect with history before the great betrayal and revisit those days when there were giants in the land.  Comme les lamantins retournent à la source,” to quote Senghor’s simile for the negritude poets’ imaginative return to the ancestral past, like the manatees swimming back to the fountainhead whence they came, we need to  return to the prelapsarian past of the revolutionary period and the first two decades of independence and drink from the spring of the texts, utterances, policies, and actions of these world historical figures—Boukman, Toussaint, Dessalines, Christophe, Petion—whose lucid vision and understanding of nation building still have the power to inspire us as we seek to construct the future. We must return to the past to allow ourselves to be possessed by the spirit that animated the founders as they conceived and pursued the time-hallowed, unchanging, unchangeable goals of any self-respecting national collectivity: self-definition, self determination, self-sufficiency.
            Some voices have been raised to express doubt about the relevance of the past in the construction of Haiti’s future. They argue that one cannot build a twenty-first century nation with an eighteenth-century blueprint or that the past cannot be used to shoehorn the present into some unknown and unknowable future. In other words, Haitians should let the past alone. All these arguments about the irrelevance of the past evidence a deep misunderstanding of human beings. We are creatures of memory; we are what we remember, individually and collectively. To those who underestimate the capacity of the past to shape our present and our future, we need only oppose Santayana’s warning  that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. To those who deny the relevance of the past to our thoughts and actions, we need only evoke Faulkner’s observation that “The past is not dead; in fact, it is not even past.”
            The point is worth reiterating then. We risk further failure if we ignore the original principles on which the nation was founded. We must envision the future of Haiti and act to realize it within an ideological framework that is consistent with the imperatives of self-definition, self determination, and self-sufficiency. At this juncture, it should be clear that the country’s continuing stagnation, regression even, is due to the fact that all the formulas of political, social, and economic development applied so far have not taken into account these imperatives. Current efforts at reconstruction will fail for the same reasons. The same director following the same script and using the same actors can only make the same film. Emphasizing almost exclusively material reconstruction and giving inordinate power of agency to the international community, essentially the United States, and even inviting a protectorate status, rebuilding plans seem conceived to maintain the social, political, and economic status quo; they will not midwife a socially progressive, politically independent, and economically self-sufficient Haiti. Under the circumstances, at this moment of both crisis and opportunity, it remains for  the generation entrusted with the task of creating a new Haiti to heed Frantz Fanon’s admonition. They must discover their mission and fulfill it, and that mission is none other than the original mission articulated by the founders: the creation of a Black nation, independent, and capable of meeting the needs of its citizens.  
  1. The imperative of self-definition     
The first duty of this generation of nation builders is to remind themselves of who and what we are. They must respond to the imperative of self-definition, the first sine qua non of nation building.  
Self-definition means not only a people’s understanding of who and what they are to one another and in the world. The notion encompasses as well a people’s understanding of their collective raison d’être, of the reason why they are together. While historically dynamic, a people’s self-definition rests on the twin pillars of national existence, which Santayana identifies as a shared myth of collective origins and a shared myth of collective mission. It is around these two myths that a national community is imagined, providing, as Anténor Firmin argues in The Equality of the Human Races,  a consensually adhered to reason for being together and acting together. In the absence of such a consensus about identity, there can only be collective paralysis.
One of the factors of Haiti’s current paralysis may well be this lack of consensus about the nation’s identity. The ideological revolution Jean-Price Mars sought to initiate in 1925 as he tackled the elite’s “bovarysme collectif,” the cognitively dissonant propensity of a society to define itself as it is not, this ideological revolution has failed. There is today great confusion among the educated middle class and the socioeconomic elites with their centrifugal modes of thought, in which francophonie always trumps negritude. Members of these upper strata of society consistently define themselves in contradistinction with the Haitian masses. It has often been observed that there seems to exist two nations in Haiti made up of two antagonistic polities: an outward looking, Westernized, Europeanized, Americanized elite with a Creole flavor, and the great majority, unrepentantly Black, resolutely New World African, Creole speaking, and Vodou practicing. This lack of identification with the majority of the people may well explain the lack of empathy of the ruling elites and their refusal to acknowledge a common destiny with their countrymen and act  for the common good.
It is precisely this eventuality that Jean-Jacques Dessalines had sought to prevent. Recognizing in the ideological legacy of the just abolished slave colonial system the seeds of confusion, alienation, and antagonisms that could impede the progress of the new nation, Dessalines formally established the parameters of the identity of the citizens of independent Haiti. To the waffling fuzziness of  today’s elites’ self-definition—Afro-Latins, Latin-Americans,  Francophones, Arabs, Milat, French, Americans, Canadians, depending on the time of day---, it is meet to oppose the transcending clarity, lucidity, simplicity, and indeed elegance of this article of the 1805 Dessalinian Constitution: “All Haitians shall henceforth be known as Negroes.” And this all encompassing designation brought together all the citizens of the new nation, including those of European ancestry.  Blood, metaphorically speaking, and belonging.  Members of the same family—racial, cultural, national--, have mutual obligations, are responsible for one another, and are obligated to live fraternally, as the motto of the nation reminds us. Recognition of blood, again, metaphorically speaking,  and belonging also entails the  obligation of social and economic equity, the sharing of the collective resources. Hence Dessalines’ famous protestation to the grasping new elites opposed to his plans to distribute the country’s wealth, the old colonial properties, to the ordinary soldiers of the war of independence and ordinary citizens of the nation: “Et nos frères dont les pères sont en Afrique, ils n’auront donc rien.” In the new Haiti waiting to be born, the new generation of founders needs to return to the Dessalinian  definition of Haitian identity, for it provides a foundation for  the social cohesion necessary for undertaking collective action and will serve as a constant reminder of the obligation of social and economic equity among all members of the same family, which parenthetically is Dessalines’ metaphor of the nation (Articles 3 and 14 of 1805 Constitution).
  1. The imperative of self-determination
The Haitian nation was created by Black revolutionaries, self-emancipated colonial plantation slaves, in response to the historic imperative of self-determination. The Oath of Bois-Caiman, which launched in 1791 the revolution that would triumph twelve-years later, articulated clearly the motivation of the revolutionaries. As Boukman reminded the assembled conspirators against slavery, their mandate came from the Black gods themselves who, unlike the gods of the Whites, wanted our freedom. The Declaration of Independence itself contains the most cogent definition of self-determination: “Osons être libres par nous-mêmes et pour nous-mêmes” (Let us dare to be free by our own agency and for ourselves). Self-determination then is synonymous with autonomous agency, the capacity to be subject rather than object of history, to control one’s collective destiny. As the text of the Declaration of Independence makes clear, this means that the nation and its citizens will brook no foreign masters and intend to control the land and its resources. Dessalines, Christophe, and Pétion, all understood that self-determination is non-negotiable and that a free nation must be ready to defend its independence. Such is the meaning of the clause in the Dessalinian Constitution that speaks to this readiness: “At the first firing of the alarm gun, the cities will disappear and the nation rise” (Article 28). Such is the meaning of Christophe’s Citadelle that stands in defiance of time as in symbolic challenge to those who would re-enslave the nation. Such is the meaning of Petion’s strategic support to Simon Bolivar, the liberator of South America. Finally, self-determination is a people’s  right to collective intimacy, the right to be left alone, when the nation so wishes. 
A survey of the Haitian landscape today suffices to show that the nation has lost its self-determination; it is no longer in control of its destiny; it is no longer master of its soil. As patriotic Haitians have been repeating over these last few years, Dessalines must be turning over in his grave. The land left to his descendents is under military occupation. Subservient to foreign governments and institutions, the government, presumed emanation of the people, does not have the power to decide and act primarily or exclusively in the national interest.  Constantly subject to foreign military intervention, to the political interference of  foreign governments, to the solicitude of armies of foreign aid workers, and to the ministrations of foreign missionaries, the nation has lost the right to be left alone and to the  collective intimacy that are part of the imperative of self-determination.
The restoration of the nation’s self-determination as conceived and articulated by the founders  must be one of the highest priorities  of the new Haiti. Without self-determination there is no collective agency, no capacity to set the course of the nation, to plan strategically, to devise policies, and to act in the transcending interest of the nation. Understandably, this is a tall order, for in the current geopolitical context, a small country like Haiti living in the shadow of powerful nations and powerful international institutions  has little elbow room to maneuver. Nonetheless, the generation entrusted with envisioning and remaking Haiti will succeed in restoring the nation’s sovereignty if they show the great patience, diplomatic skills, and marronage skills that enabled the founders, against all odds, to wrestle independence from a powerful colonialist and slaving West, to create a nation out of a people who had dared to be “libres par nous-mêmes et pour nous-mêmes.
  1. The imperative of self sufficiency
Self-determination  empowers a people to seek self-sufficiency by mustering and using the diversity of resources it needs to live fulfilling material, social, and spiritual lives. Such a capacity is predicated upon the population’s control over national resources, material and otherwise, and its production capacity. This imperative of self-sufficiency the founders understood quite well. Thus Toussaint Louverture’s  efforts to restore the prosperity of Saint-Domingue through a series of measures affecting plantation agriculture and the working conditions of the newly freed slaves, were intended to ensure the colony’s self-sufficiency as he plotted its autonomy. Similarly, Dessalines’ land distribution plans were inspired by his concern for social and economic equity certainly, but also by his wish to foster a self-supporting and productive citizenry.   And Christophe’s economic development program, an inspired mix of adapted education, industrialization, public works projects, planned agricultural production, and trade with England and the United States, made of the northern kingdom a showcase of productivity, proving how inspired leadership can foster a people’s self-sufficiency under the most difficult geopolitical conditions.
Clearly today’s Haiti is a cosmic distance away from achieving economic self-sufficiency. The chief reason for this is the  absence of a  national leadership willing and capable of imagining ways of extracting Haiti from the neo-liberal economic order and the neo-colonial system in which the country has been locked for at least a  half century. With the brain drain that has been depriving the nation of its skilled professionals, workers, and intellectuals, and with a compradore bourgeoisie and a business class satisfied with being importers, currency speculators, and agents and subcontractors of multinational manufacturers, instead of inspired nationalist entrepreneurs investing in sustainable development initiatives, the country is not about to become self-sufficient. For the generation charged with refounding Haiti, the pursuit of self-sufficiency in these times of global capitalisme sauvage will require the intelligence of a Toussaint, the vision of a Christophe, and the firmness of a Dessalines. Most of all, it will require the courage to move away from all those earlier models, chief of all the foreign aid model of development. Indeed, as Dambisa Moyo persuasively argues in Dead Aid (2009),  her study of development aid in Africa, this foreign aid model, far from fostering  economic self-sufficiency, has been proven counterproductive and cultivates dependency and a cargo cult mentality.
            For all this to come to pass, however, for a self-defined, self-determined, and self-sufficient Haiti to rise from the ashes of her post-Boyer history, like the Christophean phoenix, Haitian leaders and the Haitian people must regain the collective will to power that animated the founders. This will to power involves a sense of the dignity of one’s people, a belief in the possibilities of one’s people, and an intransigence with respect to one’s people’s right to self-determination.  Only such manifestation of the collective will to power can impose respect from the Other. All the founders understood this, and thus spoke a discourse of power to the world whenever they spoke in their people’s name. Consider Toussaint’s famous letter to Napoléon Bonaparte, “du premier des Noirs au premier des Blancs.”  Or Toussaint in 1801 signifying his displeasure to the US Secretary of State James Madison via the latter’s envoy to Saint-Domingue, Tobias Lear, because then President Jefferson, by not writing directly to him, had not shown all the diplomatic respect due to his person as leader of Saint-Domingue. (Just try to imagine a Haitian leader today speaking in this manner to a Western head of state).  Consider Christophe’s response to General Leclerc’s demand that he surrender the city of Cap-Français to the French expeditionary forces: “If you set foot in this city, I will burn it to the ground, and even on its ashes I will fight you.” Heroic discourse, discourse of power.  Consider Christophe’s mantra often repeated to various interlocutors: “I will make of this people a great people even if I have to break its back to do so.” Consider the symbolism of the Citadelle, time defying, indestructible, a stone manifestation of the Haitian people’s will not simply to endure but to achieve the greatness of those people who have learned to master historical time and  dared, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, to be “libres par nous mêmes et pour nous-mêmesper fas et nefas.
            The new generation of nation builders must learn again to exercise the will to power, to break out of the Stockholm syndrome that continues to feed the subjugation of the Haitian nation. The new founders must relearn the language of power in which the generation of the original founders were so fluent. The new nation builders must reject the language of submission and dependency. They must eradicate from Haitian public discourse the entire lexicon that speaks to Haiti’s current subaltern status and that includes  such words and phrases as “foreign aid”, “international cooperation”, “francophonie”, “donor countries”, “pays amis d’Haiti”, and so forth. Such words and phrases invite domination, paternalism, disrespect. The new founders must resolve to speak the language of collective agency, of self-determination, of self-sufficiency, in brief of collective power, the only language that will, accompanied by action, bring respect to the Haitian people.
Foreign observers, particularly Western observers, are sometimes puzzled by the resilience of Haitians, by their pride, their sense of dignity, their refusal to lay down their arms and renounce the struggle to find a place in the sun, and despite occasional bouts of discouragement under the repeated blows of history, their faith in the future. Whence this unshakeable faith in the future? It is rooted in our awareness of the past accomplishments of our people. We know and remember our history; our narrative is a narrative not of mere survivors but of victors. This same awareness of history has as its corollary an understanding of history as an open system. Notwithstanding Hegel and his confused disciple Francis Fukuyama, there is no end of history. And since there is no end of history, all futures are possible. In his poetic masterpiece, Notes on a Return to the Native Land, the late great Martinican poet Aimé Césaire saluted Haiti as the place where “Negritude stood up for the first time to proclaim its humanity.” We, Haitians, also embrace Césaire’s faith in a brighter collective future for us in the world. We share with the poet of Negritude this one life sustaining, unshakeable certainty, that the Haitian phoenix will rise from its ashes,

for it is not true that the work of man
is finished
that we have nothing to do in the world
that we are parasites in the world
that we have only to accept the way
of the world
but the work of man has only begun
and it remains for man to conquer all prohibitions
immobilized in the corners of its fervor
and no race has a monopoly
of beauty, of intelligence, of strength
and there is room for all at the rendez-vous
of conquest and we know now
that the sun turns around our earth,
lighting the portion of land
demarcated by our will alone
and that every star falls from sky to earth
at our limitless command.

     (Notes on a Return to the Native Land)

* This  paper was meant to be read, with the intention of rewriting it later for publication. I never got around to it. Unfortunately, I can't do that at the moment. I delivered this paper at the  The Alexandrian Society of the Department of History Symposium: Slavery, Revolution and Freedom: Haiti and the Atlantic World (14 April 2010) at the Virginia Commonwealth University.