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.

Instead of pursuing desperately needed nation building tactics and social reconciliation after the various massacres that occurred between 1804 and 1806, the revolutionary generals who became heads of state pursued class and color-based politics with a strong emphasis placed on security, total control of large plots of land, and the militarization of their controlled territories. The gains made by Toussaint, despite his sometimes controversial and misunderstood philosophies, would later be totally squandered by the revolutionary leaders of 1804. Seventeen crucial years post-independence were wasted through infighting and divisive politics, as these men were engaged in the structural disintegration of the nation by venturing into a full-fledged civil war until about 1820 or 1821.

Most Haitians were erroneously taught that Haiti was divided into two parts, the North Kingdom and the South Republic. In reality, the country had been divided into four: the North Kingdom, led by Henri Christophe, the Central Republic, led Alexandre Pétion, the South Republic, led by André Rigaud, and the autonomous semi-province of the South-West, which was led by Goman (Jean-Baptiste Perrier). After Rigaud’s death in 1810, the South joined the Central Republic to form the newly established South Republic under Pétion’s leadership that lasted until his death in March 1818. From 1810 until 1820, the country was divided into three, and Goman, a savvy and skilled guerilla leader, formed a strong alliance with Christophe who favored the British over the French.

Pétion was a mulatto who was educated in France and favored French culture. Surprisingly, he is regarded by some as the father of Haitian democracy despite the fact that in 1816 he turned the executive into a permanent post as President for life. He is also viewed as an extraordinarily tolerant father figure who promoted a culture of self-sufficiency yet helped to establish a non-politically inclined and isolated peasantry to work on his acquired plots and subplots of land. Pétion also led a policy known as lése grennen (let it be), where not only vast amounts of land were given to high-ranking officers, but soldiers could also parcel out their land to peasants, allowing peasants to do what they desired with the land. While he was viewed as a “good-hearted father”, the long term effects of his policies not only devastated the export economy, but it gave us the problem of land-tenure that is so prevalent today, with peasants conducting subsistence farming on tiny plots of land.

Christophe was a former black British subject from Grenada who had created a privileged commercial relationship with the British in order to ward off the French. Today, ardent Northerners view him as a disciplinarian, a nation-builder who despised idleness, and who made the North prosperous while creating nobility. To others, Chistophe was a ruthless tyrant who kept Haiti mired in the past and the peasantry chained to the land.

In Selden Rodman’s view, “Petion’s memorial is ‘timeless’ Haiti: the Haitian people still dancing and laughing exuberantly over the right he bequeathed them to be poverty-stricken in freedom. Christophe’s memorial, built of blood, sweat, floggings, and creative passion, is the ruined still stunning palace and the defiant, useless fortress”. This view, while distressing, is indeed accurate in terms of the legacy left behind by these two men. With the exception of a number of constructed schools, there are no formidable institutions that we can speak of that linger from their period of influence. In all, the existence of two competing territories did greater damage than good in the long run for the nation. It eventually took political insurrection and revolt to unify the country under President Boyer in October of 1820.

Despite the early successes of the nation in productivity and prosperity achieved through the harvesting and marketing of its abundant natural resources, the advantages afforded did not translate into sustainable economic development for the nation. There was the unfortunate reality that Haiti did not constitute a single nation to sustain; it existed as two separate and competing entities that killed potential of greatness at its inception.

The myriad complexities associated with the inept politics of territoriality and nationhood in the context of post-colonial governance, destructive dictatorial regimes, and natural disasters have resulted in a catastrophic mismanagement of land that exhausts the very resources that gave economic advantages in the first place. Christophe’s regimented workers despised the system under which they were kept and subsequently revolted. Pétion’s relaxed attitude toward the peasantry created a fragmented system of production that kept landowning peasants from having the means to modernize their agricultural tools. As their families grew, they had to subdivide their lands into tiny parcels while still providing cash crops to the demanding urban markets.

Jared Diamond reflects upon Haiti’s paradoxes by remarking that: “the elite identified strongly with France rather than with their own landscape, did not acquire land or develop commercial agriculture, and sought mainly to extract wealth from the peasants”. Although in truth, the elite did acquire land, they did not work the land. Instead, they created a quasi-sharecropping system that further exploited the poor and contributed to the migration of the peasants toward urban areas where zoning codes were ignored as the population expanded. The events that followed, the War of Independence and the subsequent implosion of the nation haunted Haiti form the 1820s to the 1840s, and the race- and class-based ideologies of the Haitian elite continue to wreak havoc in contemporary Haiti.

Today, the nation is divided between moun andeyò and moun lavil and the landscape of twenty-first century Haiti is far from being independent. Unfortunately, the political elite is still clueless as to how to reconcile the nation with itself and move forward as one cohesive nation.