Within Haiti’s long history lies promise for its future
By Manolia Charlotin, Editor
Jan. 19, 2012
Historian Laurent Dubois’ latest novel Haiti: The Aftershocks of History provides a rich narrative of the island’s long history, with a particular focus on the 19th and early 20th century. Dubois, a professor of Romance Studies and History at Duke University, is the author of the critically acclaimed Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution.
What sets Aftershocks apart from many recent historical narratives is not only the periods covered, but the extensive use of materials from Haitian scholars including luminaries such as Thomas Madiou, Roger Gaillard, Anténor Firmin, Dantès Bellegarde and Georges Anglade (to whom the book was dedicated).
The Boston Haitian Reporter recently connected with Dubois for an interview:
BHR: What were you trying to accomplish with this new book?
Laurent Dubois: The goal of the book is to share the long history of democratic involvement in Haiti – to document the political practices, to think of the social history of democracy. When it comes to Haiti, many people search for examples outside of the country to offer solutions. Its long history provides important insights to what can be done now, for the country to move forward.
BHR: Aftershocks focuses mostly on the 19th and early 20th century. Why did you choose these periods of history?
LD: The 19th century has multiple narratives. Haiti was a better place in many aspects, for people of African descent in the western hemisphere. There was a long history of debates in the public sphere, of political opposition, and many attempts to create a better functioning democracy. The ignorance of Haitian history is so great, that providing basic information – of major cultural and intellectual contributions – is seen [at times] as subversive.
BHR: What lessons can be learned from this critical historical period?
LD: For one, the 19th century economic model benefited the majority of the population, for the most part. The economy was a draw to many migrants. There’s a reason why many were coming to Haiti and very few leaving Haiti. Yet, one of the things I find challenging about the early history is the thinking of founding leaders as mythical figures. That is you don’t engage with them as deeply as they deserve sometimes. Starting with Dessalines, there’s this idolism. He’s talked about as a brilliant military leader, not an intellectual, a thinker.
BHR: As you say, the founding leaders, Dessalines, Christophe, Pétion and Boyer were more complex than they are usually portrayed when talking about Haitian history.
LD: What’s important [is] to realize is that they really grappled with things that Haitians are still dealing with today. They were thinkers.
BHR: Did the first 40-year period of military-political style of the founding regimes, set a mold, set a foundation for Haitian politics?
LD: Yes. It did. However, we can’t downplay the importance of the imminent threats the founders faced. Also, it can be said that they had a choice, a model, from the Haitian revolution itself. The revolution was a participatory event over several years. There are lots of ways for the military to exist within the Haitian society. However, there’s a big difference between 19th century military and the 20th century central army. And keep in mind, the other post-independence in the 1934, those movements helped overthrow the prior regimes.
BHR: So much of your source material comes from Haitian scholars.
LD: Yes… I wanted to provide readers with the insights from the great Haitian thinkers and scholars… It’s important to me because history is meant to be an open process. History should be an open dialogue. I try to make an abstract point in a more approachable. If you give people the notion that Haitians have been struggling with the perennial questions
of how to make their country, these narratives can give you a sense of complexity, to try to confront the narratives that are damaging to Haiti. There’s an absence of knowledge about Haitian scholarship… The notion of the politics of knowledge comes to mind.Also, for example, African American historians have long known that if you let others tell your history, they won’t do it as well. If you want to understand the history of the modern world, you have to understand the Haitian history. I see this history as fundamental. This book also includes the positive links within the US and Haiti relationship. Telling those stories show that there is positive ways to engage. I do think the way you tell the past has an impact on how you connect with the present, how you envision what’s possible.
BHR: Did the first democratic movement of the 1830-40’s fail?
LD: The reformers brought the changes to the government. It seems that some of the reform generations
held back drastic, radical change because it would have had an effect on them. I think you do get these cycles that Haitian leaders, feel that Haitian population is not quite ready for true democracy. This happens, not only in Haiti. Once people start getting mobilized, that there is an acceleration of hopes… and then certain groups tries to contain the effect, the economic order. I don’t see Haitian history as an endless cycle. I wanted to emphasize that there were all these reformist movements. To make an actual history, by which I mean is really complicated. Its not really about villains and heroes. It’s about the way human society struggled to move forward. Then you can kind of relate to it today.
BHR: One of the startling facts you present is that the first national bank in Haiti Banque Nationale was actually a French institution.
LD: That was really a crippling thing too because it never really allowed the Haitian government to set its own economic policy. It’s also good to note that a lot of the people of the government had compromising relationships and these allegiances the elites had to foreign merchants, was not necessarily a good for the Haitian people.
BHR: Boyer did not fight with the revolutionary side. Did that play a role in the way he governed?
LD: Well, most of the revolutionaries fought on the side of the French. But Boyer was an extreme case. I think he believed that Haiti’s prosperity was tied to France. What’s more fascinating is that the differences between the founding leaders were quite small. They never made a radical change to the plantation model. All the ruling elites had a similar political vision. The kind of labor codes, approach to land ownership was just about the same.
BHR: Let’s fast forward to the epilogue, which documents post-Duvalier era.
LD: From ‘87-’94, so many military interventions, we still haven’t seen the realization of what could have occurred. Even people who are sympathetic to Haiti, have a simplistic view of this period. You have to understand the longer view, to really grapple with this recent history.
BHR: In the epilogue, you also draw the conclusion that the current aid scheme is not working.
LD: You’re not going to see change in Haiti, until we really take stock and think about the structural challenges. The earthquake provided an opportunity to re-think the aid. And with all the NGOs, it’s not healthy to have so much fragmentation. But a larger scope of evaluation, there should be a space to have a discussion parallel that explores the broader picture.
To really ingrain the idea, if things are going to work it should line up with what Haitians want for their country. We can’t ignore what Haitians have learned historically through their own experiences.
BHR: Do you have a favorite Haitian proverb or saying?
LD: Chen gen kat pat men li pa kouri kat chemen. A dog has four legs but he can’t run in all four directions. It’s simple, but I think it’s applicable in terms of history.