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Peter Hallward’s “Damming the Flood” I/2


Peter Hallward is a UK Middlesex University Professor of Modern European Philosophy. He’s written many articles; authored several books; edited, contributed to and translated others; and has research interests in a broad range of areas, including recent and contemporary French Philosophy; contemporary critical theory; political philosophy and contemporary politics; and globalization and postcolonial theory. He also edits the Radical Philosophy journal of critical and continental philosophy.

 

Hallward’s newest book, "Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment," is the subject of this review, and here’s what critics are saying. Physician and Haiti expert Paul Farmer calls it "the best study of its kind (offering) the first accurate analysis of recent Haitian history." Noam Chomsky says it’s a "riveting and deeply-informed account (of) Haiti‘s tragic history." Others have also praised Hallward’s book as well-sourced, thorough, accurate and invaluable. This reviewer agrees and covers this superb book in-depth.

 

Introduction

 

First, a brief snapshot of Haiti. The country shares the western third of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. It lies east of Cuba, west of Puerto Rico, and is about midway between south Florida and Venezuela. Haiti is small, around the size of Maryland in square miles, and has a population of about 8.8 million according to World Bank figures. It’s two-thirds mountainous, with the remainder consisting of great valleys, extensive plateaus and small plains. Port-au-Prince is the capital and largest city. The country has some oil, natural gas and other mineral wealth, but it’s main value is its human resource that corporate giants covet in an offshore cheap labor paradise for Wal-Mart’s "Always Low Prices." The nation’s official name is the Republique d’Haiti.

 

Few people in all history have suffered as much as Haitians, and it began when Columbus arrived. From then to now, they’ve endured enslavement, genocidal slaughter as well as brutal exploitation and predation. Hope for change arose with Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s 1990 election, but it wasn’t to be. On February 29, 2004, a US-led coup d’etat shattered the dream for the second time. In the middle of the night, US Marines abducted Haiti‘s President and flew him against his will to the Central African Republic. Today, Aristide remains in exile in South Africa, vows to return, and in an interview with the author says he’ll serve his people "from outside the structure of the state." Haitians still overwhelmingly support him and want him back in any capacity.

 

Hallward recounts his story and the rise of his Lavalas movement. The book’s title is derived from its meaning – "avalanche" or "flood" as well as "the mass of the people" or "everyone together." Aristide remains larger than life as its symbol and leader, but consider what he was up against – Haiti‘s "rigid and highly polarized social structure (separating) a small and very concentrated elite from the rest of the population" and a good deal more. No independent Haitian government has a chance against it when allied with "neo-imperial intervention (power), elite and foreign manipulation of the media, the judiciary, (co-opted) non-governmental organizations," and traditional Haitian politics in this impoverished land that’s totally dependent on outside aid for support.

 

Yet, a "remarkable political movement" arose in the mid-1980s to challenge the Duvalierist dictatorship. It drove its leader into exile, returned the country to military rule, and inspired a broad progressive coalition  to challenge it for democratic reform. It made Jean-Bertrand Aristide Haiti’s President in February 1991, but only briefly. Seven months later, an army-led coup deposed him. It was widely condemned, and in 1994, he returned as President. He was then overwhelmingly reelected in 2000, removed again in 2004 but with a difference. Beyond his popular support, there was "widespread resignation or indifference, if not approval."

 

What changed? Little more than perceptions and extreme manipulation to achieve them. Once again, Haiti‘s elite and its Franco-American sponsors scored a major victory, while the vast majority of Haitians lost out. Hallward’s book recounts the story. He explains how Lavalas created a coalition of urban poor and peasants along with influential liberal elites: "cosmopolitan political dissidents, journalists, academics," and even some business leaders seeking stability.

 

What happened between 1991 and 2004? Hallward portrays it as class conflict, as the age old struggle between concentrated wealth and the vast majority of Haiti‘s poor. It "crystallized around control of the army and police," because that’s where power lies. Aristide challenged the status quo and posed an intolerable threat to wealth and privilege – but not because he sought radical or quick reform. His ideas were "modest" and "practical" for "popular political empowerment" that made sense to most Haitians. He governed within the existing constitutional structure. He organized a dominant, united and effective political party for all Haitians. Most importantly, he did it after abolishing the nation’s main repressive instrument – the army.

 

Key to understanding 2004 is that real progressive change was possible after Aristide’s 2000 reelection with no "extra-political mechanism" (the army) to stop it. For Haiti‘s ruling class (a tiny fraction of the population), that was intolerable. Aristide had to be removed, Lavalas crushed, and it set off a chain of events that culminated in 2004 in "one of the most violent and disastrous periods in recent Haitian history." Ever since, repression has been intense in the face of persistent resilience against it.

 

Hallward recounts how Lavalas became weakened through "division and disintegration" – marked by "the multiplication of disjointed NGOs, evangelical churches, political parties, media outlets, private security forces" and relentless vilification of Haiti‘s central figure, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. No one else had the charisma or ability to mobilize popular sentiment and by so doing "antagonize the rich." Aristide wasn’t perfect. He wasn’t a saint, but he was sincerely dedicated to helping the poor and representing all Haitians fairly and equitably. It’s why his support remains strong and why powerful internal and external forces brought him down and are determined never to allow him back. As a symbol of Lavalas, he remains an ever-present threat.

 

1791 – 1991: From the First Independence to the Second

 

According to Aristide, Haiti is the hemisphere’s poorest country "because of the rich (and its) 200 year plot." Consider these facts:

 

– throughout its colonial and post-colonial history, Haiti‘s tiny ruling class has had dominant social and economic control;

 

– the country’s distribution of wealth is "the most unequal in a region (that’s) the most unequal in the world;"

 

– 1% of Haitians control half the country’s wealth;

 

– in contrast, the vast majority (over 80%) "endure harrowing" poverty;

 

– three-fourths of the population live on less than $2 a day and over half (56%) less than $1 a day;

 

– 5% of the population owns 75% of the arable land; and

 

– a tiny 5% of elites control the economy, media, universities, professions and what passes for Haiti’s polity; six powerful families dominate the nation’s industrial production and international trade; they split along two lines: deeply conservative rural landowners (the grandons) and their military allies and the more differentiated "importers, exporters, merchants, industrialists, professionals, intellectuals, academics, jounalists" and others like them; in solidarity, they have contempt for the masses and hold onto privilege through exploitation and violence in a country where class exerts the most powerful influence and workers have no rights.

 

Under this type dominance and America‘s iron grip, Haiti has been strip-mined for profits and its people neoliberally crushed. For decades, and especially since the mid-1980s, the country has undergone successive IMF-imposed structural adjustments. They cut wages and the size of the public sector workforce, eliminated tariffs to facilitate imports, directed agriculture to cash crops for exports, privatized public utilities and other state assets, and made Haiti "one of the most liberal trade regimes in the world," according to Oxfam.

 

These "reforms" slashed Haiti‘s per capita GDP from $750 in the 1960s to $617 in 1990, $470 in 1994, $468 in 2000, and down to $425 in 2004 – not counting the effects of inflation. In addition, agricultural production was halved by the late 1990s, and wages (even after inflation) dropped from $ 3 – 4 a day in the early 1980s to $1 – 2 a day by 2000. Haiti‘s official minimum wage at most is $1.80 a day, but even people getting it "survive on the brink of destitution." According to the IMF, that’s most of them with 55% of Haitians receiving a daily income of only 44 cents, an impossible amount to survive on.

 

Other country statistics are just as challenging and show how, without outside aid, the government can’t meet its peoples’ basic needs:

 

– unemployment and underemployment are rampant, and two-thirds or more of workers are without reliable jobs;

 

– structural adjustments decimated the rural economy and forced displaced peasants to cities for non-existent jobs;

 

– public sector employment is the lowest in the region at less than .7%;

 

– life expectancy is only 53 years; the death rate the highest in the hemisphere; and the infant mortality rate double the regional average at 76 per 1000;

 

– the World Bank places Haiti in its bottom rankings based on deficient sanitation, poor nutrition, high malnutrition, and inadequate health services;

 

– the country is the poorest in the hemisphere with 80% or more of the population below the poverty line; it’s also the least developed and plagued by a lack of infrastructure, severe deforestation and heavy soil erosion; a 2006 IMF report estimates Haiti’s GDP at 70% of its meager 1980 level;

 

– the country’s national debt quadrupled since 1980 to about $1.2 billion; half or more of it is odious; and debt service consumes about 20% of the country’s inadequate budget;

 

– half its population is "food insecure" and half its children undersized from malnutrition;

 

– more than half the population has no access to clean drinking water;

 

– Hatii ranks last in the hemisphere in health care spending with only 25 doctors and 11 nurses per 100,000 population and most rural areas have no health care access;

 

– it has the highest HIV-AIDS incidence outside sub-Sararan Africa;

 

– sweatshop wages are around 11 – 12 cents an hour for Haitians lucky enough to have work;

 

– UNICEF estimates between 250,000 to 300,000 Haitian children are victims of the country’s forced bondage or "restavec" system; it means they’re "slaves;"

 

– post-February 2004, repression is severe under a UN paramilitary (Blue Helmet) MINUSTAH occupation masquerading as peacekeepers; they were illegally sent for the first time ever to support a coup d’etat against a democratically elected president (with 92% of the vote); political killings, kidnappings, disappearances, torture and unlawful arrests and incarcerations are common forms of repression with more on that below; four years after the 2004 coup, the extent of human misery is overwhelming by all measures, yet the dominant media is silent and international community dismissive.

 

Nonetheless, while he remained in office, Aristide had remarkable accomplishments in spite of facing overwhelming obstacles. More on that below as well.

 

A free and independent Haiti is as threatening to the dominant social order now as on January 1, 1804 when French colonialism was defeated. It explains why crushing it is essential to preserve the country’s exploitive "legacy" with its "spectacularly unjust distribution of labor, wealth and power (characteristic of) the whole of the island’s post-Columbian history."

 

Revolution provoked counter-revolution, and Hallward recounts it:

 

– economic isolation from which Haiti never recovered;

 

– French-imp

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