Damming the Flood – Haiti and the Politics of Containment

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Book Review: Damming the Flood – Haiti and the Politics of Containment, Peter Hallward (Verso, 2nd Edition, Jan 2011).

Haiti is a country largely ignored by the world’s media and public opinion. It needs a catastrophe, whether a hurricane, cholera outbreak or an earthquake, to bring it to the world’s attention. Thus, an image has been created of a country with extraordinary bad luck, prey to a vicious circle of independent and unrelated tragedies. Peter Hallward’s Damming the Flood is one of the best contributions in recent years to the task of unveiling the ongoing man-made tragedy in Haiti, together with the social, political and economic forces that have shaped it.  It is surely a good thing then that a second edition has seen the light: the first edition, from 2007, was launched in Dublin during a small event in the Irish Aid Centre (co-organised by LASC and Viattores Christi) where I was glad to share a platform with Mr. Hallward. A lot has happened since then, and it is covered in a substantial afterword in this second edition.

The book is unique in that its main focus is the events of 2004 that led to the ousting of President Jean Bertrand Aristide through a bloody CIA sponsored coup and a subsequent UN-sponsored military occupation that has only exacerbated all sort of social problems. Not much has been written about this and indeed, most of the world ignores the fact that what happened in 2004 was a coup; a masterful exercise in the containment of a democratic project, which, through their level of absolute privilege the Haitian elites and their masters in the US considered to be potentially dangerous to their interests. This book is no diatribe, however: it is a well documented, methodical exposure of one of the dirtiest episodes in recent world history. Although the author is not pretending to be neutral -in fact, he makes it very clear that he is taking a position in favour of the pro-democracy movement, personified in the figure of Aristide – this does not affect the scholarly rigour involved in his treatment of facts.

As Hallward says in the introduction, this book is an exercise of de-demonization both of Aristide and of the movement he led, Fanmi Lavalas. Those who still remember the news coming from Haiti from around the time in 2004, will surely remember the image of Aristide being portrayed as a mad dog, a corrupt and crazed autocrat terrorizing his own people, kept in power thanks to armed thugs paid with the millions he stole. Hallward narrates in a captivating style the origins of the movement and how it came to be at the centre of the ongoing Haitian struggle for social justice and democracy, and which has been paramount in Haitian politics for the last 25 years. Therefore, we can understand much better the extreme reactions it provoked among the elites and their traditional supporters and he exposes the systematic media campaign of personality assassination unleashed on him.

He puts in historical context the events in Haitian leading up to the current crisis, starting from independence, exposing how external forces, mostly those of French and US imperialism, together with their local allies in the elite, have shaped the country to serve their narrow and exclusive interests. This is important because the “failure” of Haiti, which is sometimes debated by the international community, is not one of the masses, of the Haitian people, but a failure of those elites and their imperialist masters. This history is also relevant because the events of 2004 are not unrelated to whatever happened before. In fact, Hallward’s main argument is to state that the 2004 coup was the final chapter of a protracted effort by the ruling class to get rid of the democracy movement and establish the neo-duvalierist project without any major opposition. To that effect this opposition was crushed through the use of extraordinary force: at least 10,000 people had been killed since the start of the UN military occupation in June 2004. Its exposure of the dubious (to say the least) role of the UN in the Haitian crisis and the nature of the occupation, which has provided military force to a de facto dictatorship in a country with no army (it had been disbanded by Aristide in 1995), is another good reason to read the book. Particularly in a time when, because of the unilateral actions of the US, a number of liberals are prone to believe that the UN should take a more active “policing” role in the world. This account would shatter anyone’s hopes in that regard…

This new edition provides an additional chapter which updates us with the events in Haiti after and around the earthquake. These fateful events don’t alter the conclusions Hallward arrived at in the first edition; if anything they’re re-enforced and proved right. The speed at which a humanitarian tragedy was turned into an opportunity to further deepen military occupation, allowing the US take over the island, proves that Haiti has not lost its appeal for the “Humanitarian Interventionists” in any way. Also, the widespread acceptance of the occupation as a positive action by most of the world’s media shows that popular perception has come to accept that it is natural to keep Haitians at gun point, even in the most extraordinary and tragic circumstances. Lastly, it sadly proves through the series of logistical blunders, such as the primacy of military over humanitarian aid, the state of neglect in which the victims were abandoned for weeks before they saw any meaningful help (with the exception of understaffed Cuban doctors), and by the fact that most aid which was promised by foreign donors (both agencies and governments) has not been delivered more than one year later, that Haitian people’s lives are a very low priority on the international community’s agenda. This year’s anniversary of the earthquake was one of shame for all the self-proclaimed “friends” of Haiti.

This book is, above all, a damning indictment of the role of imperialism in unfolding the Haitian tragedy. It is the definite exposure of the criminal role in Haiti of the so called “international community” and the old duvalierist guard that really never left power – as dramatically proved by the recent return of Baby Doc Duvalier to Haiti, which is but the latest symbolic step in the restoration of duvalierism in Haiti after its defeat by the masses in revolt in 1986. This year we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the inauguration of the first democratically elected government in Haitian history, when Aristide took over government on February 7th 1991. Yet, the struggle of the masses seems as difficult and uncertain as back then… and probably more so. But as Haitians say, their struggle is one of overcoming seemingly insurmountable difficulties: “After the mountains, there are more mountains”.

My only criticism of the book is that while it exposes imperialism perfectly, it could have been more comprehensive and in depth with the strategy for social change in Haiti. While there is enough there on the debate on the grounds of decisions already made, twenty years later it is still relevant to look back to see if things could have been done differently at one point. Was going into elections in 1990, before having a disciplined and solid force, the right decision? In fact, was going into elections the right decision at all? These issue gets only lightly covered and, in spite of reservations, with an explicit faith in the ballot box as the only possible solution then and possibly now. The revolutionary alternative is dealt with in a reductionist fashion by equating it with guerrilla warfare. Surely this is a debate relevant for the future, and one in which I don’t expect Hallward to provide all the answers, least a revolutionary strategy for the Haitian people. It is the Haitian people themselves who have to come up with their own solution and our best service is to denounce the complicity of our governments in their oppression. But I mention this because Hallward gets into these arguments, and possibly a broader perspective could have been useful.

Another element that could have been explored in more depth, is how Aristide alienated some of his allies unnecessarily and how often he appeared more willing to compromise with the US than with his own potential supporters in the left. This explains to a degree the resentment of elements in the left, which cannot be reduced to “well, they wanted the gravy train, they did not get it, and therefore they got angry” type of argument (which does not mean that this explanation was never the case).

So in terms of strategy and tactics there could have been more done. But as I said, this book was primarily a criticism of the nefarious role of the US, Canada, France, and Latin America in Haiti. And in any case, this constructive criticism does not intend to take any credit away from the author. Hallward deserves credit for writing an accessible book on the 2004 coup that is the true heir to the classic book on the 1991 coup wrote by Doctor Paul Farmer almost two decades ago.

And for this service, the Haitian people will forever be grateful. Ayibobo.

Also, here’s an interview with Peter Hallward about Haiti recorded in January 2011.

Photo taken today, 18th of March, when Jean-Bertrand Aristide addressed supporters after his arrival back in Haiti for the first time since he was ousted in 2004. Photos by taken Sharif Kouddous and posted on twitter. More photos of the event here.

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