An educated reader, seeking to expand their understanding of Haitian history, will likely not be expecting a light romp through the centuries. The first half of this book covers from Haiti’s war of independence in 1804, up until its occupation by US forces in 1914. This was a nation born out of the world’s first successful slave revolution. It was surrounded by powerful slave-owning nations who took turns invading with the intention of reintroducing slavery. Those efforts were repelled with great loss of life on all sides.
In addition to external enemies, the majority of the population was oppressed internally by successive military dictatorships. These regimes functioned from the very inception of an independent Haiti until the US invasion. The original leaders of the revolution, Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, became despotic. They created a tiny, wealthy elite of Haitians, by holding agricultural workers in a state of semi-slavery and forcing them to remain on plantations. Anyone attempting to escape was punished severely. Rebellions were crushed mercilessly.
Laurent Dubois manages the difficult assignment of presenting multiple points of view that currently exist within Haiti regarding that nation’s early history. The author presents equally the thoughts of patriotic apologists who felt that money from plantations was necessary for defense against invasion; and the depictions of suffering under this semi-slave condition. Of course, all ideas are not equal. Louverture and Dessalines committed a grave injustice when they forced people, who fought and sacrificed for freedom, to work the plantations. An obvious solution would have been to offer the euphemistically-named “cultivators” more money to remain on the land; but this solution would not suit the greed of the dictators or the elite.
The second half of the book examines the early 20th Century up until 2012. It begins with the US invasion of Haiti in 1914, which initiated a 20-year occupation. This period was marked by violent suppression of Haitian revolts for freedom, individual acts of brutality against black citizens by racist white soldiers, and the policies of forced labor. A moment of hope occurs in the narrative when Haitian resistance finally breaks the grasp of US domination, and Haiti is regained by the Haitians. But euphoria quickly reverts to terror, with the re-emerging pattern of dictatorships. These bring with them modern, Orwellian trappings: control through propaganda, secret police, torture of opposition and murder for the slightest (even unintended) provocation. The Duvalier dictatorships represent the last of this harrowing period, ending in the 1980s. They are followed by Aristide’s election, and a depiction of Haiti’s condition into the 21st Century. That condition is not a happy one, even without the presence of frightening despots. The country remains in poverty with all of the associated problems of health, housing, nutrition and education. The environment is unforgiving, with natural disasters and depleted soil, creating an unfriendly situation for human habitation. “State institutions are weak and largely unresponsive. And the population has no control at all over foreign governments and organizations, which in many ways call the shots in contemporary Haiti” (Dubois, p. 365).
Throughout the book, Dubois maintains a stubborn optimism. He invokes the persistence of the Haitian citizenry: “Generation after generation, they have demonstrated their ability to resist, escape, and at times transform the oppressive regimes they have faced” (Dubois, p. 369). Hearkening back to the nation’s birth, he states “out of a situation that seemed utterly hopeless, they created a new and better world for themselves…if it happened once, perhaps it can happen again” (Dubois, p. 370). What else can he do? As an author who has invested both years and emotion in a project, delving deeply into a devastating history of slavery, dictatorship and poverty, he has two choices: He can intone a splendidly jejune “tomorrow is another day,” or find a high ledge for an air dance. One can empathize with the choice he has made. However, a reader, whose investment is considerably different, may experience a more reserved enthusiasm based on her perusal.
Dubois, Laurent. Haiti. The Aftershocks of History. New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC. 2012.