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Peter Hallward on Haiti: read an excerpt from the new Afterword to Damming the Flood

Clara Heyworth12 January 2011

Published as a new and updated edition to mark one year since the earthquake that devastated Haiti, Peter Hallward's Damming the Flood: Haiti and the Politics of Containment should be considered the book on the region. To reiterate why, here is an exclusive excerpt from the book's new Afterword, entitled "From Flood to Earthquake," in which Hallward states,

In these intolerable circumstances, nothing short of popular remobilization on a massive scale, more powerful, more disciplined, more united and more resolute than before—nothing, in other words, short of the renewal of genuinely revolutionary pressure—holds out any real prospect of significant change for the majority of Haiti's people.

"From Flood to Earthquake" by Peter Hallward.

Just before 5 p.m. on Tuesday, 12 January 2010, Haiti's capital city and the surrounding area were devastated by the most catastrophic earthquake in the history of the hemisphere. The scale of the destruction was overwhelming. According to the best available estimates, around 200,000 people perished and more than 300,000 suffered horrific injuries, leading to many thousands of amputations. Stories told by the bereaved defy summary. Some 200,000 buildings were destroyed, including around 70 percent of the city's schools. More than half a year after the disaster in which they lost their homes and virtually all their belongings, around 1.5 million people continue to live in makeshift camps with few or no essential services, with few or no jobs, and with few or no prospects of any significant improvement in the near future.

Although the earthquake has no precedent in Haitian history, the factors that magnified its impact, and the responses it has solicited, are all too familiar. They are part and parcel ofthe fundamental conflict that has structured the last thirty years of Haitian history: the conflict between pèp la (the people, the poor) and members of the privileged elite, along with the armed forces and international collaborators who defend them. If the 1980s were marked by the rising flood that became Lavalas, by an unprecedented popular mobilization that overcame dictatorship and raised the prospect of modest yet revolutionary social change, then the period that began with the military coup of September 1991 is best described as one of the most prolonged and intense periods of counter-revolution anywhere in the world. For the last twenty years, the most powerful political and economic interests in and around Haiti have waged a systematic campaign designed to stifle the popular movement and deprive it of its principal weapons, resources and leaders. The January earthquake triggered reactions that carried and that are still carrying such measures to entirely new levels.

So far, this ongoing counter-revolution has been grimly successful. Rarely have the tactics of divide and rule been deployed with such ruthless economy and efficacy as in Haiti 2000–2010. A small handful of privileged families are now wealthier and more powerful than ever before; once the post-quake reconstruction begins in earnest, in early 2011, they are set to become wealthier still. More than a million homeless and penniless people, by contrast, are likely to spend the reconstruction years in a sort of squatters' limbo, as foreign technocrats, multinational executives and NGO consultants decide how best to rebuild their city. The majority of their compatriots will remain destitute and forced to endure the most harrowing rates of exploitation in the hemisphere. The majority also know that if current tendencies prevail, their children, and their children's children, can expect nothing different. Today, with the battered remnants of the Lavalas movement more divided and disorganized than ever before, with the country firmly held in the long-term grip of a foreign  "stabilization'' force, the majority of Haiti's people have little or no political power. At the time of writing, in late summer 2010, many foreign observers of the Haitian popular movement were struck above all by a widespread sense of resignation and impotence. For the time being, it looks as if the threatening prospect of meaningful democracy in Haiti has been well and truly contained.

In these intolerable circumstances, nothing short of popular remobilization on a massive scale, more powerful, more disciplined, more united and more resolute than before—nothing, in other words, short of the renewal of genuinely revolutionary pressure—holds out any real prospect of significant change for the majority of Haiti's people. Of course, this is precisely the prospect that those who have managed the country's recent political development, and who are managing its post-earthquake reconstruction to this day, are most determined to avoid. Just a few days after the immediate trauma of 12 January, it was already clear that the US- and UN-led relief operation would conform to the three main counter-revolutionary strategies that have shaped the more general course of the island's recent history: (a) It would foreground questions of security'' and stability,'' and try to answer them by military or quasi-military means; (b) it would sideline Haiti's own leaders and government, and ignore both the needs and the abilities of the majority of its people; (c) it would proceed in ways that directly reinforce and widen the immense gap between the privileged few and the impoverished millions they exploit. Even a cursory review of the first six months of reconstruction in 2010 should be enough to show that the ongoing application of these strategies is best described as an intensification of the measures that have undercut the power and autonomy of Haiti's people over the two preceding decades.

The basic political question in Haiti (as in a few other places), from colonial through post-colonial to neo-colonial times, has always been much the same: How can a tiny and precarious ruling class secure its property and privileges in the face of mass destitution and resentment? In Haiti (as in a few other places), the elite owes its privileges to exclusion, exploitation and violence, and only quasi-monopoly control of violent power allows it to retain them. This monopoly was amply guaranteed by the Duvalier dictatorships through to the mid-1980s, and then rather less amply by the military dictatorships that succeeded them (1986–90). But the Lavalas mobilization threatened that monopoly, and with it those privileges.

As I have tried to show in the main body of this book, what has happened in Haiti since Aristide was first elected in 1990 should be understood first and foremost as the progressive clarification of this basic alternative—democracy or the army. It's not hard to see that unadulterated democracy might one day allow the interests of the numerical majority to prevail, and thereby challenge the position of the elite; in such a situation, only an army, or the equivalent of an army, can be relied upon to guarantee the "security'' of the status quo. Crucially, the democratic mobilization that took shape in the 1980s in opposition to dictatorship and neoliberal  "adjustment'' was strong enough to overcome and indeed eliminate the domestic armed forces arrayed against it. It was able first to uproot Duvalier and his Macoutes (in 1986) and then, after a long army crackdown that killed another thousand people or so, to overcome direct military rule (in 1990). Much of the momentum of this mobilization survived the murderous coup of 1991, and Aristide was finally able, at great cost, to disband the army in 1995. When Aristide then won a second overwhelming mandate in the elections of 2000, the resounding victory of his Fanmi Lavalas party at all levels of government raised the prospect, for the first time in Haitian history, of genuine significant political change in a context in which there was no obvious extra-political mechanism—no army —to prevent it.

In order to avoid this outcome, the main strategy of Haiti's little ruling class all through the past decade has been to redefine political questions in terms of "stability" and "security,'' i.e. the security of the wealthy, their property and their investments. Mere numbers may well win an election or sustain a popular movement but, as everyone knows, only an army is equipped to deal with insecurity. The abundantly armed "friend of Haiti'' that is the United States knows this better than anyone else.

In this context, the defining event of contemporary Haitian politics remains the intervention that was designed to restore longterm "security'' by killing off the Lavalas mobilization once and for all: the coup of 2004. If the most popular thing that Aristide ever did was to disband the army that deposed his first government, perhaps the most significant achievement of the 2004 coup was to return effective political control to a military force.

In the absence of an available domestic option, the 2004 coup gave power to a foreign army: first a US–French–Canadian invasion force, and then a UN pacification force. (The next time the people of Haiti had a chance to express their opinion, in the elections of February 2006, the main military and political leaders associated with this coup scraped no more than 1 or 2 percent of the vote.) As anyone could have predicted, Aristide's Fanmi Lavalas, the party elected with a landslide in the last elections to be held in unoccupied Haiti, has been blocked from participating in all subsequent elections, in 2006, in 2009 and now again in 2010. Its leaders have been scattered or imprisoned, and its main spokesman remains in involuntary exile on the other side of the world. If Haiti's international minders succeed in preserving this pattern of exclusion, it looks as if Haitian democracy is now finally set to proceed in line with the imperial expectations that were so rudely thwarted twenty years ago, when the local voters chose the wrong man and the wrong agenda.

In and after 2004, the only way to persuade these voters to accept the coup and its consequences—the systematic and explicit reassertion of foreign and elite domination of their country—has been to ram it down their throats. Ever since the coup, Haiti has been under international military occupation. Year after year, from 2004 through to 2010, at an annual cost (at around $600m) larger than the entire national budget during the pre-coup years, thousands of foreign troops have patrolled the country and obliged its people to accept the end of the Lavalas sequence. During these years, the UN authorities behind this extraordinary "stabilization mission'' have resorted to levels of violent coercion without parallel in UN operations anywhere else in the world. They have been reinforced by thousands of rearmed and retrained Haitian police, along with thousands more private security guards hired to protect wealthy families, their businesses, and the foreign contractors and NGOs they do business with. Dozens of anti-occupation demonstrations held on the streets of Port-au-Prince during these years have had little or no political effect.

You might have been forgiven for thinking, a year ago, that only an earthquake could loosen this armed grip on the country.

To read the Afterword in full, please purchase a copy of the new edition of Damming the Flood, or watch this space ...