Haiti and the pathos of history

President Moïse’s assassination is a new spin on a familiar story for Haiti. And yet, despite the fact that the country's politics has been plagued by destabilising political assassinations, the liberating promise of its revolutionary past lives on.

A print of a scene from the Haitian revolution in 1791. Credit: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
A print of a scene from the Haitian revolution in 1791. Credit: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In the early morning of Wednesday 7 July, the president of Haiti, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated by a group of armed commandos. According to the president’s wife, her executed husband was left riddled with bullets before he could cry out for help. The details of the story are still emerging, but the circumstances of Moïse’s death appear to be very strange indeed: twenty-eight gunmen, most of whom were Colombian, had been in the country since early June before committing last week’s attack. They apparently entered Moïse’s private residence without being stopped by the president’s own armed security garrison, possibly by pretending to be officers from the United States Federal Drug Enforcement Administration. The Haitian police forces have arrested a sixty-three-year-old Haitian doctor who lives in Florida on suspicion of orchestrating a coup. The president’s wife, who is recovering in hospital in the United States, accuses shadowy figures of trying to seize power in the country.

The murky assassination is a new spin on a familiar story for Haitians – the history of their country is littered with such political deaths. The titanic hero of Haiti’s founding revolution, Toussaint Louverture, was treacherously seized by the French in 1803 and died while imprisoned in the mountains of Jura. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, one of the nation’s founding fathers and the first ruler of the newly-independent Haiti from 1805, was deposed by his leading generals and murdered shortly after declaring himself emperor of the young country, in 1806. One of these generals, Henri Christophe, in turn declared himself king over northern Haiti – but in 1820, facing a military rebellion against his government, he committed suicide.

These echoes from Haiti’s early history haunt the present. President Moïse’s fate fits into a national past that has been plagued by political violence. Of the sixty or so leaders – including presidents, military dictators, and emperors – who ruled Haiti between 1805 and 2005, thirty have been assassinated, overthrown, or otherwise died in mysterious circumstances. Jean-Bertrand Aristide had the dubious honour of being ousted twice, in 1991 and 2004 respectively. A nation born in the flame of revolution, Haiti has proved to be extremely difficult to govern.

It is difficult to write about Haiti’s history without describing a succession of false dawns and civil tragedies. The chronic political instability, the discontent with a kleptocratic political class, and the devastating poverty compounded by the 2010 earthquake and the ensuing aid scandals mean that negative images of this extraordinary place abound. Yet to focus solely on the catastrophic is a disempowering way to present its people, and its past. Whatever the political, social, and economic evils that Haitians confront on a daily basis, they remain fiercely proud of their radical and revolutionary history. Haitian historians such as Michel-Rolph Trouillot and Doris L. Garraway have led the way in drawing attention to this tradition and its legacies.

The revolution that took place in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, as Haiti was then known, was an epic liberation struggle. From late August 1791, the enslaved arose from their plantation fields, broke their chains and burned the houses of their former masters, signalling the opening salvo of an insurrection that would, by 1804, culminate in the proclamation of Haitian independence and Haiti’s emergence as the world’s first post-colonial state in 1805.

These former slaves, the ancestors of the ordinary people of Haiti, not only overturned the colonial status quo, but entirely burst apart the intellectual orthodoxy of the late eighteenth-century Atlantic World, in which many contemporaries maintained that African slaves were unprepared for liberty and would require a long period of moral education if they were to be successfully emancipated. Instead, the Haitians emancipated themselves, and to this day their revolution remains the only successful slave revolt in history.

It is difficult to capture the sense of shock and euphoria generated by this event. Contemporaries described apocalyptic clouds of flame and smoke engulfing the sugar cane fields that had provided the lucrative bedrock of what the French considered ‘the pearl of the Antilles’  – the treasured possession in an expanding colonial empire. For some, the revolution appeared to be the manifestation of a poetic prophecy made by the philosopher Denis Diderot, who had written in the abbé Raynal’s Histoire Philosophique des deux Indes of a ‘Spartacus noir’ who would rise up from the plantations to avenge the evils committed by European colonists in the New World.

Through the shockwaves of their revolution, ordinary Haitians forced French revolutionaries to expand their visions of liberty, and inspired crucibles of political radicalism among the enslaved of the Caribbean and the Americas during the nineteenth century.

It is perhaps because of the extraordinary nature of the Haitian Revolution that a certain pathos hangs heavily over Haiti’s subsequent history. It offers a tale of great expectations but inescapable disenchantment, a post-modern parable of the promises and illusions of freedom. This disenchantment began with the waning of the revolution, as it quickly became apparent that the former slaves who had liberated themselves were possessed of a far more radical concept of freedom than that envisaged by their new governing elites. Ordinary Haitians wanted to work on their own small plots of land and preserve their hard-won freedom from coercive authority. The rulers of the newly-independent country, on the other hand, were anxious to generate wealth by rebuilding the colonial plantation system based on nominally free, but in practice tightly-disciplined, labour. To many Haitians, this appeared little better than the slavery they had fought to liberate themselves from. This dynamic inaugurated what the scholar Laurent Dubois has described as ‘the stalemate between the ruling class and the population’ that has characterised Haitian politics for the last two centuries.

Haiti’s struggle to maintain her independence also led to the development of a large army, the members of which created the state out of military command structures, formed the landowning classes, and periodically competed among themselves for supremacy in the political arena. As later post-colonial states would discover in the twentieth century, an end of national independence was not necessarily in perfect harmony with the cause of personal liberty.

These tensions might not have been insurmountable, were it not for another crucial blow the young nation received from its former colonial masters. Under threat of naval blockade in 1825, Haitians were forced into paying the vast sum of 150 million francs in indemnity payments to the French state. While the French government subsequently reduced the sum to 60 million francs and acknowledged that the payments had been completed in 1893, it took until 1947 for the Haitian government to finish paying the interest associated with the loans that were required to cover the original indemnity. The devastating impact of this debt in a land where the long struggle for independence had already destroyed much of the economic system cannot be underestimated.

In the nineteenth century, various regimes tried and failed to harmonise order and liberty, freedom with stability. In the twentieth, a United States military occupation between 1915-1934 brought some socio-economic development, but efforts to boost cash crops largely benefitted American agribusinesses while failing to elevate living standards for most of the population. From 1957, François Duvalier (best known as ‘Papa Doc’) instituted a dictatorship that brought him and then his son, Jean-Claude (‘Baby Doc’), a long spell in power at the expense of the severe repression of civil society, the creation of a violent security apparatus (the Tonton Makout), and high levels of corruption.

After the ousting of Baby Doc in the wake of a popular revolt in 1985-1986 and the restoration of democracy by a US-led coalition in 1994, Haiti’s civilian leaders have failed to grasp the nettle of corruption. Elections are held, but with widespread apathy, voter intimidation, and low turnouts. Many poor Haitians identify more readily with populist gang leaders, who are at least willing to channel anger at the self-serving ruling elites, than with ineffectual political parties or puppet politicians. The devastating earthquake of 2010 has exacerbated the stasis of Haitian political life, as corrupt and dishonest administrations fail to rebuild the country and international aid money and loans fail to bring about enduring change where it is needed most.

Jovenel Moïse took office in 2017 promising to root out cronyism and end electricity shortages. A self-made businessman who had risen from poverty, he might have seemed like a figure who could take on the corruption of Haiti’s political elites – yet he was elected by fewer than 600,000 votes in a country with a population of eleven million people; not exactly a mandate that forges a strong connection between the ruler and the ruled.

Moïse quickly squandered whatever goodwill might have been felt towards him. In 2019, a report by Haiti’s Superior Court of Auditors and Administrative Disputes into the corruption of Petrocaribe (a deal by which Haiti has access to low-cost Venezuelan oil supplies on the understanding it will spend the money saved on infrastructure and development) found that $2 billion had been mismanaged by Haitian officials. Crucially, a company owned by Moïse himself was linked by the court to these misappropriated funds. Moïse denied the allegations, and when protestors took to the streets to call for his resignation, he resorted to strong-arm tactics. Using armed gangs of supporters to intimidate critics and sideline opponents, he suspended the country’s parliament in 2020, began to rule by decree, and nullified legal scrutiny of his alleged connections to the Petrocaribe scandal.

Critics of the late president feared he was planning to modify the constitution so as to give the presidency more power and perpetuate his own time in office. Had he succeeded in doing so, however, he would not have been the first Haitian president to attempt such a constitutional coup. His late-nineteenth-century predecessor, Lysius Salomon, animated by a belief that only he could bring Haiti hurtling into modernity, re-wrote the constitution of the time to provide himself with a souped-up seven-year term. Two years into this enlarged period, in 1888, Salomon was forced to flee by a popular rebellion against his increasingly authoritarian rule, spending his final days as an exile in Paris. The echoes of history resound once again.

Where does this leave the Haitian people? There is no underestimating the challenges they face, nor is there any escaping the fact that the international community, in attempting to provide solutions to the country’s crises, has often made matters worse. Yet there are places in which Haitian society continues to push for change amid the chronic failures of the state. A fledging movement is being built in the spheres of language and education. A few years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Mario Gousse, a passionate educationalist who is setting up his own academy, the Jean-Jacques Dessalines Imperial Institute, to promote the use of Haiti’s popular language, Krèyol. While a significant proportion of the population speaks some French, perhaps only five per cent speaks it fluently, and yet it remains the vital high language of education, politics, and business. This provides a barrier to social mobility and continues to separate a small, francophone elite from the wider population. If this imbalance could be redressed, if only in education, it would do much to improve life opportunities for ordinary Haitians.

It is also worth dwelling on the radical promise of Haiti described by the great Trinidadian playwright and scholar, C.L.R. James, in his magnum opus, The Black Jacobins:

‘If in 1788 anyone had told the Comte de Lauzerne, the Minister; the Comte de Peynier, the Governor; General Rochambeau, the soldier; Moreau de Saint-Méry, the historian; Barbé de Marbois, the bureaucrat, that the thousands of dumb brutes who were whipped to labour at dawn and whipped back at midnight, who submitted to their mutilations, burnings, and other savageries, some of whom would not even move unless they were whipped, if these fine gentlemen had been told that in three years the blacks would shake off their chains and face extermination rather than put them on again, they would have thought the speaker mad.’

Yet here these people were, James beckons to us, shattering the bonds of slavery and reshaping the course of history. There is a consolation in this thought, I think, however muted by pathos or circumscribed by sorrow it may be. For though Haiti may be wracked by crisis after crisis, though its politics have been plagued by destabilising political assassinations, the liberating promise of its revolutionary past lives on. After all, it reminds us that human societies, and the histories we write about them, are constantly revolving around the regenerative power of seemingly miraculous and unexpected events.


Jack Dickens