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Politics

Haiti Curse

19 February 2004

Why Is Haiti Cursed?

By Gwynne Dyer

Haiti’s trip to the brink of civil war began last September, when Amiot Metayer, the leader of a gang of street thugs called the Cannibal Army that enforced President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s will in the northern city of Gonaives, threatened to reveal details of the murder of opposition figures. It was presumably in connection with some quarrel over the division of the spoils, but Metayer was promptly murdered. His widow then conducted a voodoo seance in which his soul appeared and identified his killers: local supporters of President Aristide.

Thereupon the Cannibal Army switched sides, changed its name to the Gonaives Resistance Front, and started killing Aristide’s prominent backers in the city. Meanwhile in the capital, Port-au-Prince, non-violent demonstrators protesting Aristide’s rigging of the 2000 elections were being murdered by government-backed vigilantes known as chimeres (monsters): 45 were killed between September and January. Then on 5 February the former Cannibals seized control of the whole city of Gonaives, killing and mutilating over a dozen policemen.

Since then they have seized more towns in the north and been joined by various unsavoury figures from former regimes like former police chief Guy Philippe and former paramilitary death-squad leader Louis-Jodel Chamblain. Aristide denounces them as ‘terrorists’ while his own thugs continue to attack the non-violent protests of the civilian opposition in the capital.

Just change the names, and Haitians have been here countless times before: there has been only one peaceful and more or less democratic change of president in the country’s 200 years of independence. Nowhere else in Latin America comes close to matching Haiti’s dismal record of violence, poverty, corruption and oppression — and yet Aristide was supposed to be the man who finally changed all that.

A former priest who commands a devoted following among the poorest of the country’s poor, Aristide was elected president in 1990 after the overthrow of the Duvalier family’s 29-year dictatorship. He was overthrown himself by the army only seven months later, was returned to power by 20,000 US troops in 1994 — and proceeded to go bad. Foreign aid was squandered, democratic rules were abused, vocal opponents were harassed, silenced or killed, and street gangs loyal to Aristide were granted a monopoly on local crime in return for defending his rule.

It’s awful, but it’s also what HAitians have come to expect. Eighty percent of Haiti’s ten million people are unemployed and the average income is $3 a day. The trees are long gone and the rich soil is eroding away into the sea at a frightening rate: much of the population survives only because of food aid. Average life expectancy is 53, the rate of HIV/Aids infection is the highest outside Africa, and most Haitians would like nothing better than to leave their country and live elsewhere. They know — or at least they believe — that it never gets better for long in Haiti.

But why is Haiti so much worse than anywhere else in the Americas? Other countries in Latin America have had terrible dictatorships and serial coups in their pasts, but have managed to move beyond them. Other countries in the region have lived through lengthy US military occupations and emerged without fatal damage to their national pride and culture. Other Caribbean islands also have populations of predominantly African origin, but they are peaceful, democratic, relatively prosperous places.

Haiti’s great crime, for which it is still being punished, was to be the location of the one great and successful revolt by African slaves. It was France’s richest colony when the slaves who grew the sugar, inspired by the egalitarian principles of the democratic revolution that had just toppled the monarchy in France, rose in rebellion in 1791 and killed a thousand white planters in a single night. British, Spanish and French armies failed to suppress the twelve-year revolt, and in 1804 Haiti became the world’s first black-ruled republic.

But practically everyone who had not been born a slave had been killed or fled by then, and Haiti was shunned by the rest of the world, where slavery was still legal. (The United States didn’t recognise it until 1862.) People whose parents or grandparents had been taken as slaves from Africa and whose only common language was that of their former slave-masters, who had been denied any education and who had no social structure beyond that of the slave barracks, were left to create and run a country without resources or friends. They made a hash of it, and that burden still weights on their descendants today.

When slavery was abolished throughout the British empire by law in 1832, or by war in the United States a generation later, there was at least some help available for the former slaves. More importantly, they were still living in complex, modern societies that gave them models of how things are done as they tried to rebuild their lives as free men and women. Haitians had none of that, and they are still paying the price two centuries later. It doesn’t excuse how Aristide has misused the opportunity that he was given, but no matter how or when he goes, the prognosis is still not good.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“Just…rule”)