Patrick Sylvain

Duvalier’s Macoutized Nostalgia

Patrick SylvainPatrick SylvainAs the country rapidly disintegrated into institutionalized chaos, with Port-au-Prince, the epicenter of disorder, Haitians of a certain dispositions are always complaining about yesteryears of “order” that never were.

Order is often confused with lawfulness.

The nostalgia for “order” under the Duvalier regimes have always been a problematic reading, forgetting that the reign of terror that brought about fear, did not cultivate respect in an ethical way. I am referring to an ethic of civility for the nation, and for citizenship, one that would establish a sustainable order because the nation have had viable institutions that raised and sustained ethical beings, not predators. The order that the Duvalier regimes imprinted upon the land was one of sheer terror, a colossal madness unleashed like a ticking bomb. Each government since 1986, wired their own fuses and imploded the nation to the chaos that has Duvalier asking, “What have you done with my country?” Read more

Martelly is ill-equipped to lead Haiti forward

Patrick SylvainPatrick SylvainThe relative jubilee over Michel Martelly’s victory in the Haitian presidential elections after the statistical rearrangements by the Organization of American States soon after the primaries in March 2011 that had placed Martelly in second place was seen as a political intervention. Such intervention allowed him to square off against Mirlande Manigat, a conservative constitutional law professor and a former first lady who appeared distant from the social suffering of Haitians and even remotely out of date when compared to the flamboyant Martelly who was well coached and extremely ambitious to attain the pinnacle of Haitian power. Read more

Loving Freedom, Loving Haiti, Repairing the Environment

Patrick SylvainPatrick SylvainChildhood treks, I conjure up memories of happiness as I experienced the countryside at times with my father, and at other times with my older cousin, who were both too happy to replenish themselves with fresh air while also taking time to meditate under their own favorite trees, or simply contemplating nature. They, separately, yet at around the same time, made me appreciate a green environment.

Although they are both departed from my existence, they nevertheless are still implanted in my memory. Just like my father or my cousin, the trees that imprinted my psyche with awe for a reverence of nature are no longer present on a vast part of the land that we once trekked. My eyes captured the giant presence of silk-cotton trees, fig trees and logwood trees. The trees of my childhood can only be seen when I travel to other countries like, Jamaica, Dominican Republic and Saint Lucia. Once there, I’m always nostalgic for what we once had in abundance. Read more

Haiti: A Wobbly Cauldron Supported by Three Legs

BHR 3-12BHR 3-12The March edition of the Boston Haitian Reporter.Following the demise of the Duvalier dictatorship in 1986, Haiti enlisted a series of measures to heal the wounds of its venomous past. A new, more democratic constitution was written in 1987, Aléxandre Pétion’s red and blue flag was hoisted to re-invigorate the republic, and an electoral process was attempted to establish a representative democracy. Unfortunately, in Haiti, where power is traditionally lopsided, the practice of institutionalizing participatory democracy is often overtaken by leanings toward winner-take-all mentalities and practices. Despite preventive actions, the landscape unwittingly inclines toward dictatorship and corruption.

One fundamental problem with governance is the fact that Haiti has never been fully democratic. The subjugation of the masses has been perpetuated by not only the policies and practices of Haiti’s elite (both political and economic) but also by members of the international community. Foreign hands are perpetually mired in the workings of the nation’s governmental, economic and social affairs, often to their own benefit, as they propel Haiti to an unstable future. Read more

Our national identity in limbo

Patrick SylvainPatrick SylvainTwo hundred and eight years ago, brave Haitians declared an end to slavery, giving birth to a new nation where each person was a human being. Tout moun se moun. This move advanced the notion of human rights for the first time in modern history, and was a vast departure from the values that were held in high regard during French colonial rule.

While at its inception, the revolutionary ideals of the newly formed nation called Haiti held great promise, the reality as understood today detracts from this plesant image. Still, our rituals and their symbolic associations mirror these revolutionary ideals. For example, soup joummou, the New Year’s and Independence Day celebratory pumpkin soup, signifies the communion of equals through the consumption of the once forbidden delicacy reserved for the colonial masters. Today, as family and friends gather around the dinner table, we are clearly proud of our freedom and accomplishments, yet know that there are countless Haitians who are hungry, sleeping under tents. Two hundred and eight years after independence, many Haitians live in abject poverty and have no rights as humans. Read more

Martelly, the consolidation of power, and the tailoring of Iron-Pants

Patrick SylvainPatrick SylvainPresident Martelly declared education and fighting corruption among his highest priorities in the reconstruction of Haiti. Simultaneously, he extended a participatory hand to some of the country’s former leaders — known human rights violators, drug traffickers, and corruptors. For some reason, Jean-Claude Duvalier and former President Aristide are held in high regard by Martelly and have been sought by him, in this, the first year of his presidency.

Martelly’s overtures to political leaders can simply be read as symbolic, which, in a country like Haiti that has historically been mired in exclusionary politics can result in personal and political triumph. Martelly’s embrace of both friends and foes automatically garners him political points that his predecessors have failed to earn. Whether his political embraces and and maneuverings are genuine or not is absolutely irrelevant; what is important is the how his presidency has been perceived during this period of power consolidation, the most critical for any government. Read more

‘I am Haitian, not a Creole, and I speak Haitian’

BHR October 2011: Click to download full PDF of this month's edition.BHR October 2011: Click to download full PDF of this month's edition.Haitians are sometimes baffled when I tell them that I do not speak Creole (Kreyòl); rather, that I speak Haitian, the language of a politically and culturally established independent nation. Once I explain my position, they either agree with my reasoning or they completely reject it, and revert to their default beliefs. For many Haitians, the ‘Creole’ notion is a significant problem, and it is old.

The entire Caribbean region became a constructed space once the Spanish colonizers who decimated the original inhabitants brought in West African slaves. Shaped by European economic needs, the region became an initiate of the first systematic process of globalization, linking the “New World” to new markets – a system entrenched to the point that a restructuring the physical landscape of the region was rendered. Differentiated social class structures were established as the aristocratic Spaniards (who wanted to distinguish themselves from the various grades of descendants born in the colonies) referred to colony-born Spanish descendants as “Criollos”.

From the outset, the term “Criollo” became a social marker for otherness, describing un-pure Spaniards. As other European countries joined the colonial quest, they too applied the Spanish term to their own descendants. “Criollo” became “Criole” for the French during their conquests of the Americas in the early 1600’s. Read more

‘I am Haitian, not a Creole, and I speak Haitian’

Haitians are sometimes baffled when I tell them that I do not speak Creole (Kreyòl); rather, that I speak Haitian, the language of a politically and culturally established independent nation. Once I explain my position, they either agree with my reasoning or they completely reject it, and revert to their default beliefs. For many Haitians, the ‘Creole’ notion is a significant problem, and it is old.

The entire Caribbean region became a constructed space once the Spanish colonizers who decimated the original inhabitants brought in West African slaves. Shaped by European economic needs, the region became an initiate of the first systematic process of globalization, linking the “New World” to new markets – a system entrenched to the point that a restructuring the physical landscape of the region was rendered. Differentiated social class structures were established as the aristocratic Spaniards (who wanted to distinguish themselves from the various grades of descendants born in the colonies) referred to colony-born Spanish descendants as “Criollos”. Read more

100 Days: Bloated Promises and Dangerous Games

Patrick SylvainPatrick Sylvain
As an individual who is at the apex of symbolic political power, President Michel Martelly lacks sufficient material and procedural power to be an effective president, even if his desire is to truly transform Haiti. He is removed from the sphere of power itself, which is that of a political party within the chamber of parliamentary power where deals are made on a basis of give and take, or at its worst, plain political corruption instituted in the Haitian body politic. Given the level of material damage, and the absence of institutions that are needed to bolster democracy and sustainable growth in the country, one would think that the political class would rise above the morass that has dragged Haiti into the political and economic gutter and try to create a new political atmosphere for the safeguarding of the nation. Instead, the arrogance expressed by Martelly and members of Parliament has increased the repugnancy of Haitian politics. Read more

A Legacy of National Disunity

Patrick SylvainPatrick Sylvain

Fighting for power at the expense of the nation is nothing new in Haiti. A paternalistic state that has thrived on totalitarianism and corruption, Haiti’s history as a cohesive political nation was short lived.

And today, Haiti cannot be fully considered a viable political nation, despite having a constitution, a parliament, a judiciary and an executive. Haiti’s peril is due to not only the refusal of the West to compensate for its carnivorous colonial past and lingering market-driven need for dominance, but also to its own self-imposed post-slavery military culture and the divergent political views linked to the colonial affiliations of our founding fathers. Read more

From Independence, Betrayal, to Civil War

Patrick SylvainPatrick Sylvain

“The Haitian Revolution was accomplished on the one hand by slaves who were fighting primarily for the right to own themselves; and on the other by men, half free, who were contending primarily for the other half of freedom—their rights as French citizens. …They found themselves under the necessity of forming a political organization before they had grown into social being or had developed the consciousness of national life. Their consciousness was purely military, and the army was with them the nation.”
— Theophilus G. Stewart, 1914

The Haitian revolution, while notable for its accomplishment of defying the supremacy of racial injustice, also brought forth the notion that human beings should have the right to live as they so desire. It shattered the concept of total control imposed from without that had been situated within the European dominated system of Atlantic Slavery.

At the same time however, the Haitian revolution revealed the contradictions espoused by a systematically and brutally oppressed people who themselves sought power and self-rule. It clearly showed how the sword could serve as an instrument to both oppress and to liberate. Read more

Is this the authentic face of Toussaint L'Ouverture?

Toussaint L'Ouverture portrait by Girardin: Recently discovered, this portrait is believed to be the only historically accurate painting of the Haitian leader.Toussaint L'Ouverture portrait by Girardin: Recently discovered, this portrait is believed to be the only historically accurate painting of the Haitian leader.“Images are not arguments, rarely even lead to proof, but the mind, craves them, and, of late more than ever, the keenest experiments find twenty images better than one, especially if contradictory; since the human mind has already learned to deal in contradictions.”
— Henry Adams, A Law of Acceleration

If there is one important historical figure from the early nineteenth century who has been consistently misrepresented through imagery, it would have to be Toussaint L’Ouverture. One would think that as a minimum, someone of his ilk and significance to Haitian history and the overall contribution to humanity’s fight for equality, freedom and dignity, a proper physical representation of his figure would be easily accessible. However, that has not been the case.

As we know, images are powerful tools. Unfortunately, they are often conjured and perpetuated by the victors of history, and are thus prone to reimaging and propaganda. Predictably, the essence of Toussaint over the years has suffered a vast distortion and vilification that has been seared into our minds as we remember him as a figure that was either homely and diminutive, or at times ostentatious and imposing – perhaps misrepresentative of his legacy.

In March of last year, after Haiti’s tragic earthquake, a friend of mine, researcher, Mario Valdes, whom I had the opportunity to work with at PBS Frontline, emailed me a photograph of what may be the only historically accurate painting of Toussaint, shattering any and all previous notions I held about his physical appearance and affect. Read more

Martelly's election: Shades of populism and authoritarian rule

Patrick SylvainPatrick SylvainOne could consider Michel Joseph Martelly’s recent election a sequel to Graham Greene’s The Comedians.

It seems as though everything in Haiti is either a comedy or tragedy; the political emergence of a popular singer known for his superficial and sexually explicit lyrics is more than anything, akin to a stage comedy, a momentous farce. Michel Martelly, despite his lack of political experience and training/education, is now expected to serve as Haiti’s Head of State, and lead a nation in a perpetual state of crisis, lacking institutions and qualified civil servants.

BHR 4-11BHR 4-11For the past few decades, the derision of ethics, justice, education, and national character could only produce a political candidate that mirrors the ideals of the society at large. Martelly’s ascension to power is a by-product of the society’s ills and entrenched crises, but it is also the repudiation of Préval’s failed presidency and politics of silence that displeased and alienated the already disenfranchised population.

Leading up to the election, much of the population, at least those who voted, carried pictures of Aristide while simultaneously sporting the number “8” (to symbolize Martelly). In any logical realm, those two figures would be incompatible (despite their populist driven campaigns).

As a matter of fact, Aristide and Martelly represent politically antithetical points of view. After all, Martelly openly supported Aristide’s ouster from power in both 1991 and 2004. Also, he is a strong supporter of the re-establishment of the military that Aristide banned from operation. The intersecting point between these two charismatic figures however, is the fact that populism resides strongly in the realm of Haitian popular representative democracy. Read more

Ertha Pascal-Trouillot: Unsung heroine of democracy

1990 meeting: President Ertha Pascal-Trouillot, left, meets with former U.S President Jimmy Carter on Saturday, Dec. 15, 1990 at the National Palace in Port-au-Prince. Carter came to Haiti as an observer for the Dec. 16 national elections. AP Photo/Scott Apple1990 meeting: President Ertha Pascal-Trouillot, left, meets with former U.S President Jimmy Carter on Saturday, Dec. 15, 1990 at the National Palace in Port-au-Prince. Carter came to Haiti as an observer for the Dec. 16 national elections. AP Photo/Scott Apple

It is not ironic that a country like Haiti, historically mired in strong-man culture, may have had its only moment of structured rationality and governance under the leadership of a woman.

In fact, in the years following the ouster of the Duvalier regime, one can say that the death of Haiti’s nascent democracy commenced precisely at the moment of the illegal and authoritarian arrest of Ertha Pascal-Trouillot, provisional President and Supreme Court Judge, by Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Read more

Slavery: The Toll that Still Rings

Patrick SylvainPatrick SylvainThe narrative that proclaims that slavery is a thing of the past and therefore must be forgotten or silenced, is a dangerous and a counter-productive account that is useful only to its benefactors. Likewise, the narrative that claims that Haitians won the war of independence and curtailed the course of slavery is also counter-productive.

The truth is that the institutional mechanisms that once enabled slavery and its associated principles are an entrenched part of the Haitian reality and are codified in the letters of the law. Read more