The Bird Cannot Build Her Nest


Aristide, bulletproof but weakened. Souce:

Yesterday there were supposed to be a run-off election in Haiti, to decide the country’s next president. The problem is, there was only one candidate.

That’s Jovenel Moïse. He’s known as the “banana man,” for his role as head of Agritrans SA, a company growing bananas set up exclusively for export, destroying the lives of numerous peasant farmers in the process.

He’s also the handpicked successor of the current president, Michel Martelly. The Export Zone where Moise makes his fortune is one of the president’s pet projects. Sweet Micky is head of the PHTK- the Parti Haïtien Tèt Kale – which means “bald head.” It’s a nod to Micky’s shiny dome, but Tèt Kale holds another meaning; to be bareheaded means to go “all the way,” to be pure of heart and thorough in head. When Martelly cried “Tèt Kale!” in 2011 he was calling for a sea change in Haitian politics, an end to the corruption and immobilisation of the past.

Martelly has been no tèt kale, by this measure. He declared Haiti “open for business,” to beaming smiles from the US State Dept., the Clintons, and the myriad of American capital that has looked with desire upon Haiti for over a hundred years. With the international kingmakers satisfied, Martelly has taken a neo-Duvalierist taste for power, cancelling a series of elections to the point that in 2015 there were just 11 elected figures in national politics. There are meant to be 130.

Michel Martelly. Source,

Essentially ruling-by-decree, Martelly welcomes tourists to Haiti’s private beaches and empty hotels, and gets his photo taken with Obama and Kerry whilst surrounded with rumours of corruption, intimidation and violence.

1987 –With ‘dechoukaj’ – the uprooting of Duvalierism – in full swing, the State Dept. decreed that it was time for democracy in Haiti. Reagan sent money in “military aid” to help the process. The guns were turned on Makout and uprooter alike. November would see a president chosen, but the Makouts were not willing to relinquish power yet. By the time the polls were open, two candidates were already dead, slain along with hundreds of demonstrators in a bloody summer. As Haitians lined up to vote, the Makouts and soldiers were waiting, and opened fire. Onlookers struggled to describe the horror. But elections must be held. Two months later, they restarted. The historian Leslie Manigat was the victor, in a poll where the wise stayed indoors. Some things are worth more than casting a vote. (See Michel-Rolph Trouillot – Haiti: State Against Nation)

Sunday became the latest poll to fall foul of Micky’s machete, but this one is a bit different. In November’s 1st round, Jovenel Moise won the day, predictably. The only surprise considering the electoral manipulation, ripped straight out of Dictatorship 101, is that he didn’t get more votes. In second was the centrist Jude Celestin, who recently confirmed he did not want his name on the 2-man run-off ballot. Why would he? The way his elections have gone before, he’d probably finish fourth.

The weeks prior to Sunday saw protests growing, bubbling in the capital, angry at the opaque process, at the lack of representation, at the limpet president clinging to power. There is outrage too at the meddling hands of the “international community. Haitians are mobilising on the streets of Port-au-Prince in support of democracy, and against the sham elections.

They want to restart the process, under a transitional government, without interference and with Martelly put out to pasture. Yesterday, veve of defiance were drawn, and songs of protest sung as Port-au-Prince took to the streets. Some bore the banner of Famni Lavalas, and spoke of finishing the work of Aristide.

1991 – After the drought, comes the flood. Lavalas swept the elections, bringing Liberation Theologist Jean-Bertrande Aristide to power. He was intent on disrupting Haiti’s cavernous inequality gap. But after the dance, the drum was heavy. The elites and the army were not to be disturbed so easily. They tolerated him for seven months, before General Raoul Cédras plucked him from power. If you took a blank piece of paper and drew an authoritarian General it would resemble Cédras. Cue three more years of repression. Whilst Aristide sat on the White House steps, placard in hand, Cédras collected CIA paycheques. (See Robert Fatton, The Roots of Haitian Despotism)

The USA, once again blinded by the belief that elections and democracy might be the same thing, have struggled to comprehend how pro-democracy protests could embrace a cancelled election. The State Dept vaguely urge Martelly to stick to the timetable, thinking an election with one candidate is surely more democratic than an election with none. Last week Ban Ki-Moon too decided to take a stand, and call for the elections to be completed, as he deleted kolera accusations from his @UN inbox.

raoul cedras
This is Raoul Cédras. See what I mean? Source: AP

In the meantime, the Banana Man waits silently for his coronation. East of his plantation lies the near-abandoned industrial park of Caracol, the brainchild of Bill and Hillary Clinton. They are busy up north on their own plans for coronation. Martin O’Malley decided to bring up Haiti in his campaign. He’s currently polling >1%.

1994 – It was called Operation Uphold Democracy. President Clinton had decided to bring Aristide back. He could ignore him no longer. The President’s economic embargos had only made things worse. He could no longer turn a blind eye to the hunger strikes at his door and the Boat People who continued to drift into Key West, dead and alive. The old ally Cédras would be removed, but it was ok, he’d be taken care of. Aristide was brought back to Port-au-Prince, triumphant, accompanied by the drone of Black Hawks and American army boots. Aristide addressed his supporters, declaring the return of democracy from inside a see-thru bulletproof box. A perfect display of powerlessness.

The protests bring back familiar words of the “resistance” and “resilience” of the Haitian people that have bounced around liberal commentaries since the douz janvye earthquake. Y’ap boule. But the image of demonstrations and burning tires are simultaneously deployed by those who wish to preserve the pseudo-democratic status quo. The Organisation of American States, influential in Martelly’s rise, condemned the “acts of violence,” urging a swift end to the crisis. That means swift elections. CEPR observer Jake Johnston wryly notes that here, “the past is prologue.

“Remember: Martelly became president through riots,” warns Jonathan Katz. He’s seen it all before. Was Haiti ready for an election, less than a year after the devastation of the goudougoudou that ripped Port-au-Prince apart? No matter, President Preval’s time was up, elections must be held. Sweet Micky finished third in the first-round of elections, behind law professor Mirlande Manigat and Jude Celestin. (Famni Lavalas were banned from participating).

The OAS cried foul – insisting Celestin, an ally of Préval, had stitched up the election, and argued Martelly be parachuted into the runoff in his place. Micky sensed an opportunity, and his supporters took to the streets, promising to set the wounded city on fire if there will be not heeded. Who knows what chicanery had taken place in the backrooms, but it seemed the OAS was fed up of Préval’s unwillingness to play ball. Washington agreed. Hillary Clinton came to town to negotiate with Préval. Celestin’s name disappeared from the ballot. Martlly went on to win the runoff and the presidency. Haiti was now “open for business.”

(See Jonathan Katz – The Big Truck That Went By)

Yesterday, a familiar face returned, to announce that he was “ready for war,” against the “anarchists” on the streets. This man was Guy Philippe, a drug lord and soldier instrumental in the coup that felled Aristide a second time in 2004. Aristide had this time grown distant from the dreams of 1991, instead towing the neoliberal line and holding power increasingly through intimidation. The second coup saw the intervention of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). They’re still there, and along with “stability” one can credit them with the achievements of brutal repression of the slums and the introduction Cholera into the country in 2010. Over 1 million have been infected. 10 000 are dead.

guy philippe
Guy Philippe. Source:

It’s hard to see the way out of this storm of competing interests in Haiti. There is a quest for power involving the traditional elites, the US State Dept., the OAS and the rest of the “international community,” elements of the diaspora and remnants of the army that Tèt Kale were beginning to restore. The old Duvalierists are far from finished. The recent protests are yet another reminder that large swathes of the Haitian population would like to partake in the democratic process. After all, that’s what democracy is supposed to look like, right?.

Robert Fatton calls this “the unending democratic transition.” He continues to be right about that. The bird cannot build her nest.

February 1986 – “Those two weeks interim, when there was no infallible authority on Earth, were the happiest of my life.” David Nicholls resurrected these old words after the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier. The protests, led by the ti legliz movement and moving to the sound of Radio Soleil, put the rotund dictator on shaky ground. Reagan decided to pull the plug, and Baby Doc was placed on a plane bound for exile. The monkey’s tail had snapped. Crowds flocked to the airport as old friends returned home after years away. They say that Christopher Columbus himself was uprooted in the flood and cast out to sea.

“Where is he from, this King of Haiti?” Admiral Caperton Invades Haiti, 28th July 1915

Admiral William B. Caperton and Dr. Rosalvo Bobo
Admiral William B. Caperton and Dr. Rosalvo Bobo

(This is not strictly a historical account. It is partially dramatized, fictionalized (if you prefer that word). See below)

The USA “has no design upon the political and territorial integrity of Haiti,” said Secretary Lansing. That was two weeks after they’d gone in. Two weeks after Williams Banks Caperton sent his men in to occupy Port-au-Prince. He’d been peering at Haiti from his boat, the U.S.S. Washington, for months. It was one week before Admiral Caperton enacted the order to take control of the customs houses, and open a bank account for Haiti’s funds in his own name, “in trust for the people of the Haitian republic.”

It was the 28th July when it happened, as it’s told. The day when the tyranny of Vilbrun Guillame Sam could hold no longer, when his massacre of opponents in the National Penitentiary sparked an insurrection within the Port-au-Prince. The president took cover in the French Legation, but diplomatic protocol bore no barrier to the anger of those who’d lost their friends and family under Sam’s bullets. He was pulled out onto the streets, and publicly assassinated.

I could see that parade through my glasses,” and I knew I had to act. For months I had sat on the Washington, stifled by the heat, stuck on my boat, watching Haiti as a theatre from different vantage points. I moved my boat from Cap-Haitien, to Gonaïves, to the capital and back again, keeping an eye on events in that “volcanic republic” as I had been instructed to do. The French took great exception to the invasion of their sovereign territory. They had sent a gunboat, of the name Descartes, to demand satisfaction. “I landed before them. I had to.”

But the bluejackets were already on Haitian shores. Commander Olmstead has been sent to Cap-Haitïen months before, to stand between the town (and its customs house) and the revolution of the North. The USA already had the bank, the railway, and the Dominican Republic, and the desire in American eyes for the deep waters of the Mole St Nicholas was no secret. Caperton chose Captain van Orden to lead the assault; he had been to Haiti before, he shared the Admiral’s view that Haiti could, with American guidance, be restored. Had the Descartes merely forced his hand early?

I was nervous that night. I had few men, and over a century of Haitian history in my head. I knew the stories of Dessalines and Soulouque, I believed them to be barbarians, and the events of that day were added to this library in my mind, joined by St. John’s tales of voodoo and cannibals that lurked in the Haytian night. “Hayti, or the Black Republic” was a mate on the Washington, its pages were turned by all the important men, it was a necessary lesson in dealing with this “turbulent republic.”

But it was “a quick night in Port-au-Prince.” Van Orden landed and marched through the streets, waiting for the counter attack. There was little of it when it came. Two men fell, Gompers and Whitehurst, the first victims of the mission. Six of theirs fell, with two wounded.

Eight Haitian casualties, names unknown. Established on Haitian soil, the landing party fled from malaria. They needed shelter, so the medical officer chose a school on the hills near Pacot. They evicted its children, whitewashed the walls, sprayed it with disinfectant, and dug latrines. The mosquitos followed them, and soon it was abandoned for higher ground. The health of the troops was fantastic, considering the tropical surroundings.

No problems, “except venereal.”

Tales of the 28th July filtered into the USA, where they would be magnified by the yellow presses, excited by lucrative tales of black barbarity and brave white Americans stepping into the breach, to aid. But their voices would not dominate the tale, so spoke Dr. Rosalvo Bobo, the revolutionary leader of the North, in his open letter to the President of the United States.

“Order was re-established [in the town], then the American Forces landed. All those in the streets who saw this outlandish procession, believed it was some American Governor imported from New York. Where is he from, this king of Haiti? What is his wishes? Would it be, as they say, the control of the customs houses and our finances with the right of raising their flag on the Mole St Nicolas? What is the matter between you and us? By what contract are we binded? Why do you wish so much to humiliate and put us down?”

The American papers were more interested in Bobo himself, calling him Doctor, but never using his first name. Did they ever know it? Or did “Bobo” sound more exotic without the Rosalvo, did his doctorate sound less authentic? Caperton too became obsessed with the Doctor, another enemy on a multi-fronted battle.

There is much still to do to establish control. I need more men, but I need financial support more than anything else. The misery I have seen on the streets is more than I can comprehend. There is great danger of famine, which must be dealt with immediately lest the people once more descend into anarchy. I requested aid from the Red Cross, to which they have been very generous as they too believe that “given good clothes, regular meals, regular pay and a good standard of behaviour set before them, they may become good public servants.” They sent me $20 000 to spend as I see fit.

But their money and ours is insufficient to solve the instability of the Black Republic. The money trickles in from the customs houses, but as Waller says “from the president down” each one takes their share. “Knowing Haiti as I do,” I would say that “these are the most deceitful, unreliable graft seekers on earth” and we must tackle this issue if we are to save Haitians from themselves. We “have occupied the country for its own good,” after all. The Caco guerrillas are the biggest infestation upon this land. We have been nothing but “most considerate, yet conciliatory in our duty with them,” and still they persist. Sterner measures will be required.

Thus were the wishes of this so-called King of Haiti, the first white man to be attributed such a role. He would not be the last. But what is a ruler without his Chief of Staff? On the ground was Captain Edward Beech, aka Dan Quin of the Navy, who embedded himself in Haitian politics to perform his king’s bidding.

“The fault is with Haiti,” I might add, in our efforts to attain peace and a lasting treaty between our two nations that will forever entrench our cooperation. But “unless they cooperate there will be no progress in Haiti.” I know everyone here from Dartineguave to Borno, and I know how things work. Port-au-Prince is the center of government, “it starts from there and ends there,” and so it will remain. And it is there where the “Golden Flood” of American money will have to flow, should this country progress. “Being properly guided,” Haiti will work. Are you listening? “Dan Quin is speaking to you.”

And so the order came to take the customs houses. To set up a police force, or is it an army? They would be led by Smedley Butler, the best in the business, to be taught to handle guns, to shoot at the Olympic Games, and at the Cacos. Cleanliness, health, discipline; those were the standards drilled into the Gendarmerie. They were built to be the finest of Haitians, in American eyes, in contrast to the politicians, the Cacos, the Vodouizan, and the vagabonds that fill the streets with the disfigurations of yaws. Their enemy would only ever be Haitian.

To set up a health service, public works, prisons. To root out corruption, customs house by customs house, senator by senator, Caco by Caco. Cure malaria, cure the army, teach technical skills, profit, production. The customs houses are just the start.

They use too much of their fields for their own foods. They should grow cash crops, sugar…

So would grow HASCO, the Haitian-American Sugar Company, where zombies allegedly cut the cane. The zombie rumours were exported too. Open for Business, everything’s for sale.

Bobo was next, said by his fans in the press to be “the only Haytian known to carry his opposition to the United States to the extreme of reducing his own income.”  He was in for special treatment. He was invited on board the Washington, and walked through the boat slowly, seeing the faces of old allies and new enemies as he approached the door to the Admiral’s office. He was there to be chewed out.

“I will not mince words” with these Haitians. They require “the firm hand and the watchful eye” of their big brothers. Bobo was no different, except that he was a madman, delusional. I informed him in no uncertain terms that he would not be president of this republic, and he was “strongly instructed” to stand down and “go onshore as a private citizen…he capitulated.”

Caperton left Haiti in 1916, having successfully germinated the seeds of a nineteen-year occupation of Haiti. He and his “big stick” were then sent to the Dominican Republic. Dominicans, for the Admiral, were similarly challenging, as “their rascality, grafting and total unreliability is beyond all conception.” There was a lasting legacy to establish there, too.

One hundred years on, another American man they call Le Gouverneur is a Special Envoy to Haiti. He’s not the only one hanging around. I’ve been there too, walking through the streets of Port-au-Prince, where people are right to ask of him and of me, “who is this man? What are his wishes?”

(This is a partially fictionalised and dramatized account of the opening acts of what would become the United States Occupation of Haiti. Anything in quotation marks are the actual words, written or spoken, of Caperton, Beech, Bobo and the American press. The rest is me, but written not to sensationalise (as was the style at the time) but to emphasise the fears, the desires and the politics of this period. It’s by me, my opinions, mine alone. Don’t sue anybody else. This piece was mostly inspired by my work with the William B. Caperton Collection at the Manuscripts Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C. Kenbe fèm)

Tending the Backyard: US Foreign Policy in Cuba and Haiti, 1898-2014


President Obama yesterday announced that the time had come for the USA to “cut loose the shackles of the past” and re-establish full diplomatic relations with Cuba. This move would return US-Cuba ties to the state they existed prior to the severance of 1961.

Or would it? The Guardian yesterday wrote that this move presents an “opportunity for the US and Cuba to engage on genuinely equal terms for the first time in their long and troubled history,” the gist of the article being that since 1809 (when Jefferson tried to buy Cuba from the Spanish) Cuba has been on the unfortunate end of an unequal relationship.

In that sense Cuba is no different to many other Caribbean and Latin American countries. There is a unique dynamic and a unique history between Cuba and the United States, but it is a relationship best understood within the context of wider US policy in its own “backyard”. Haiti, Cuba’s neighbour (and my primary area of study) shares many similar past experiences with the USA, including tourism, migration and the potential establishment of a naval base. The outcomes, however, have been dramatically different.



Guantanamo Bay, back in the day

Guantanamo Bay is an infamous symbol of 21st Century US foreign policy, as an internment and torture camp. It became a US Naval Base after the USA invaded Cuba in 1898, as the Cubans neared victory in their struggle for independence against a crumbling Spanish army.

The invasion came as the American press, screaming for benevolent intervention, reached its peak. Manifest destiny broke from the mainland, into the Caribbean, spurred on by the paternalist desire to help America’s neighbours in their supposed hour of need (even though the war was nearing its end). Strategic concerns were never far away; Mariola Espinosa has written that a desire to control Yellow Fever was central to US policy in Cuba, and in addition to that there is Guantanamo.

The Platt Amendment gave Cuba its “independence” (so long as it behaved itself and stayed clear of Yellow Fever), but kept Guantanamo Bay for the USA; its deep, peaceful waters a clue to growing US intentions in the Caribbean. The Navy had desired a deep harbour in the Caribbean for decades, but their first choice had been the Môle St Nicolas in northwest Haiti (where Columbus landed in 1492).

In 1891, the USS Philadelphia anchored off the coast of the Môle with orders to acquire it through aggressive negotiation; only through the skill and integrity of Haitian Foreign Minister Anténor Firmin and US Ambassador to Haiti Frederick Douglass was the gunboat diplomacy of the US Navy deterred. Douglass made the case to Washington that there was “no one point (in Haiti)…more sensitive than the cession of any part of their territory to any foreign power”, having fought so hard to win independence and keep it during the Haitian Revolution. This move cost Douglass his job. (see Carolyn Fleur-Lobban, Introduction to “The Equality of Human Races” by Anténor Firmin, 2000, p. xlv)

As the decade wore on and US paternalism acquired a “big stick”, the USA would soon invade Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, occupy the Panama Canal Zone, and extend control in Puerto Rico. Haiti was invaded in 1915, after the assassination of President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam. The new occupiers discussed annexing the Môle, but eventually decided that it was not worth the risk to occupied Haiti’s stability, when they already had one deep harbour in Cuba.

The opportunity to capture Guantanamo was less risky in newly-independent Cuba, and came much sooner, than the chance to take the Môle. And with it, a permanent seat of US military power nestled itself in a Cuban harbour, and not a Haitian one.


Cuba tourism

Cuba under Batista is famous for being the USA’s “playground”. A place where the rich and glamorous of early-twentieth century America could enjoy the banned vices of home, in casinos and brothels nestled in a tropical paradise. Christine Skiwot’s Purposes of Paradise finds similarities in Cuba’s experience in tourism with Hawaii, at this time not yet a state. Military intervention became cultural, as the US tourist industry cultivated a class of loyal elite (and paler-skinned) Cubans and Hawaiians who grew rich from the hedonistic trade.

What is less-known is that the Haiti of President Paul Magloire, described by David Nicholls as a “playboy” president, underwent similar changes, although this began in Haiti much later; as the Black Republic was previously seen as too exotic a place for rich white American tourists, but the situation changed and resorts grew alongside a newfound Vodou-tourist experience that offered a profane, tourist-friendly version of serving the spirits.

Whilst Hawaii moved to American statehood in 1959, Cuba and Haiti took radically different routes. Fidel Castro overthrew Batista and installed a socialist government; and Haiti became ruled by the authoritarian François Duvalier. US attempts to kill Castro are well-known, but Kennedy also wanted Duvalier dead, and Duvalier was famously hostile towards foreigners in Haiti. However Duvalier’s pragmatic anti-communism (usually directed at his political opponents) kept American relations above-freezing, and in his final years, he became a good friend of Richard Nixon. Castro’s government survived CIA plots, Kennedy’s disastrous attempt to direct a Cuban exile invasion at the Bay of Pigs, and the Cuban Missile Crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. The US embargo on Cuba survived with it, and Americans were banned from visiting Cuba.

François Duvalier died in 1971, and his son and successor Jean-Claude was unabashedly pro-American. Much of the vice that flowed into Havana was now redirected towards Port-au-Prince, especially sex tourism. Through this, HIV was introduced into Haiti in the late-1970s and, as rumours (incorrectly) flew in the USA that HIV-AIDS originated in Haiti, the tourist industry was destroyed, plunging Haiti into further economic difficulty.

Paul Farmer, in his book on AIDS in Haiti, wryly notes that had the epidemic started when Havana was the “tropical playground of the Caribbean”, before Castro and the embargo, HIV may have found its way to Cuba, not Haiti.



Elian Gonzalez captured in Florida by Federal Agents, 2000

Castro and Duvalier’s regimes both resulted in a massive movement of people from Cuba and Haiti to the United States, and this exodus followed the same pattern. The first to move were the elites, who joined small but already-established communities in the USA, especially Miami. In Cuba this elite faction was already decidedly pro-American, having benefited from the Batista regime and targeted by Castro’s property reclamation (a fine example being the Bacardi family). Light-skinned and educated, they were often able to adapt quickly to American society. The Cuban-exile community became a loud, critical bloc in Miami politics; one that has helped to uphold the embargo on Cuba until this very week.

Haiti’s elite were mostly chased out by the elder Duvalier’s repressive policies; the brain-drain that followed has given birth to a well-known tale that there are more Haitian doctors in Montreal than in Haiti.

In the 1970’s both economies were suffering; Cuba’s isolation in the Americas was proving difficult for economic prosperity, and Jean-Claude Duvalier’s neoliberal kleptocracy kept wages and opportunities down, as repression and terror remained. The impoverished people of the Caribbean followed their elite forebears to Florida, often in flimsy boats at the mercy of the sea, or worse.

The hypocrisy of US foreign policy was laid bare by the movement of these “boat people”; Under the Cuban Adjustment Act, Cubans were given the right to claim asylum as political refugees, although the political situation in Cuba had somewhat calmed in the 1970s. Haitians, whatever their motives for leaving, were classed as economic migrants and granted no such privilege. This, of course, depended upon whether they made it at all; the “Wet foot, dry foot” immigration policy with regards to Cuba meant that migrants had to reach south Florida to be given asylum. If they failed to make it ashore, they were turned back. For Haitian political refugees, being turned back would leave them at the mercy of Duvalier’s paramilitary force, the tontons macoutes.

Access for the poorer, darker-skinned migrants did not mean asylum in the same sense as the early migrants. The newer arrivals found it difficult to integrate into the traditionally-elite Cuban exile community of south Florida. Haitian migrants were ostracised by much of the community, especially after the outbreak of HIV-AIDS. Despite the Cuban Adjustment Act, new Cuban migrants to the United States can still be in an uncertain and precarious position, as highlighted by the Elian Gonzalez case of 1999-2000. Yet whilst the boat people struggled, Haitian elites continued to migrate to the USA on flights; known as the “Boeing People”, their feet never got wet, and found it easier to gain more secure terms of residence.


Channel 4 struggling to get the hang of the Unequal Relationship

Since the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier, Haiti has been invaded twice more by the USA on grounds of benevolence, and its economic and political situation is dependent on Washington. Cuba’s isolation in the Americas had ended long-before yesterday, and has been an active participant in recent Latin American affairs, as well as providing healthcare workers to aid Ebola treatment in West Africa. Migrants continue to come to the USA from both countries, in their thousands.

The end to the embargo would allow the Cuban diaspora to once again connect with family on the island through regular travel and improved telecommunications, as Haitian-American communities have been able to do. Cuba would benefit in global relations, as the USA would no longer treat it as a pariah state.

There has been a lot of concern on the effects of American neoliberalism entering Cuba. Haiti has felt the full force of American business exploitation over the past forty years; wages are still low, and free trade has caused irreparable damage to Haitian agriculture on more than one occasion. If it is truly an opportunity for true equality between the USA and Cuba, then the USA will have to break its traditional habit of viewing Caribbean countries as economic and cultural playthings that exist in its backyard.

Yet the point of this blogpost has been to suggest that historically-speaking, the impact of US foreign policy in the Caribbean cannot be easily predicted, and is at the mercy of a variety of factors. The benefits and drawbacks of this decision on the Cuban communities of the Americas cannot be foreseen, and there is still a long way to go.

Then again, to read this in Ishaan Tharoor’s piece in the Washington Post yesterday…

It’s a strange irony that some of Washington’s biggest proponents of free trade don’t want to see the United States enable such liberalizing changes in Cuba. Closer ties to Cuba, including trade links, will ideally lead to a deepening of Cuba’s own curtailed civil society. That, at least, is the current message of the Obama administration. The more open Cuba gets, the more access its people may have to the Internet and to outside channels of information. That, the hope goes, may speed political reform in Havana.

Critics may point to countries like China and Vietnam, where decades of economic development and free enterprise have yet to yield any real liberal, democratic dividend. But Cuba is fundamentally different; it exists in the U.S.’s shadow and its links to the American mainland, including some 1.5 million Cuban Americans, mean that even the most dogged authoritarian leader will struggle to inoculate the regime from American influence — that is, once Washington finally chooses to engage with Cuba.

Morality, free trade, “back-yard” politics.

Nothing changes.

(Title picture: McDonald’s at Guantanamo Bay)

The Life and Death of Jean-Claude Duvalier

Baby Doc, bby doc

Jean-Claude Duvalier, formerly President-for-life in Haiti, died yesterday of a heart attack aged 63. The death of a man, forced out of office nearly 30 years ago, may not seem significant, but it matters a great deal. His death denies the victims of his regime the opportunity to see legal justice served, and allows those who wish to resurrect Jean-Claudisme in full the chance to re-write history.


Jean-Claude Duvalier is better known as “Baby Doc”. He inherited this nickname in 1971, along with the presidency, after the death of his father François Duvalier, or “Papa Doc”. The son was never separated from the father; A sectagenarian at his death, Jean-Claude Duvalier was “Baby” for his entire life.

Dr. François Duvalier became “Papa Doc” before his presidency, given the nickname by his patients when working as a medical doctor in rural Haiti as part of the US-led campaign against infectious disease in the 1940s. The moniker, born in Haiti, was adopted globally as his dictatorship became infamous, and “Papa Doc” became the symbol of a lurid caricature of the Haitian leader. Papa Doc was recast as a barbarian, with a lust for wanton violence and anarchy, in numerous newspaper articles, sensationalist histories, and even critically acclaimed writers such as Graham Greene in his cynical novel The Comedians.

Duvalier ruled Haiti from 1957 to 1971. His dictatorship was brutal, but he was no madman. The violence he enacted upon his people through his loyal paramilitary force the tontons macoutes, the cult of personality created by his deliberate association with the lwa Bawon Samedi, the destruction of the army leadership, they were ruthless policies designed to establish and maintain control. The intimidation of the professional classes removed many of his political enemies either through “disappearance” or exile, and resulted in the rapid acceleration of a damaging “brain drain” from Haitian shores.

Papa Doc, Baby Doc
François Duvalier left, Jean-Claude Duvalier right.

Not a doctor, and looking exceptionally unprepared for presidency, “Baby Doc” felt an appropriate nickname for the portly 19 year-old. He lacked the intellect, the command, and the terror of his father, and as such his fifteen-year stay as President-for-life is often reduced to a “Baby” dictatorship; a Duvalier-lite, held together by lingering loyalty to the father and limited liberal reform.

But that is where “Baby Doc” is a misleading name. There were many developments specific to Jean-Claudisme that had a massive impact upon Haiti. They are certainly connected to the legacy of the father, but Jean-Claude Duvalier’s rule must be seen in its own right to truly understand its influence.


Loyal to Simone Duvalier (Jean-Claude’s mother) as much as to the new president, the macoutes continued to operate, intimidate and torture, the brain drain continued as more were forced into exile. François Duvalier had operated with a degree of impunity from the USA, in part due to the vicious suppression and murder of those who were suspected of being communists (and their families), who often doubled as Duvalier’s political enemies. Nixon didn’t mind, as long as there were no communists in the Presidential Palace, and Duvalier knew exactly how to play this hand.

Washington viewed Jean-Claude as a weak leader, and placed far more pressure upon the Haitian government. The borders opened, and American business rushed in with all the trimmings. Light-manufacturing plants sprouted in the environs of Port-au-Prince, dragging impoverished farmers into the capital for a pitiful salary.

An agricultural policy disaster accelerated the internal migration, caused by an outbreak of African swine fever among Haitian pigs. It is a non-fatal disease but affects the quality of the meat. Fearing a spread of the virus to the continental U.S., The USA forced Haitian authorities to conduct a mass slaughter of pigs, insisting compensation would be made. This took the form of replacement pigs; pink, fat pigs that had been selectively-bred for centuries, so much so that they required special food and concrete flooring to survive (unlike the hardy Haitian black pig). These were luxuries few Haitian farmers could afford for themselves, let alone their livestock. The damage was extraordinary. Pig Many impoverished farmers headed to the capital, in the hope of getting work by any means possible. Sex tourism and the international drug trade also migrated to Haiti, those two predators of intense poverty and open borders. They brought HIV and gun crime respectively to the new slums of Port-au-Prince. Luckner Cambronne, an important lieutenant to both Duvaliers, began a policy of selling Haitian blood to America, to whoever would buy.

Why did Duvalier wholeheartedly embrace American influence? He was more interested in survival than control, and pandering to the USA’s economic demands alongside his proven anti-communism would ensure their support in the long run and strengthen his position as president by sacrificing policy leadership. It was also worth Duvalier’s while, economically. Light manufacturing and the drug trade fit well alongside the kleptocracy and cronyism of Jean-Claudisme, and Duvalier made hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes, business deals and embezzlement from the Haitian state.

Moderate social liberalisation occurred in the 1970s, as the regime was pressured on the matter by Jimmy Carter’s administration. Dissatisfied rural Haitians began to organise, and radio stations such as Jean Dominique’s Radio Haiti Inter carried the voice of protest in Kreyol. However the insincerity of these reforms was laid bare in the 1980s, after Jean-Claude was given carte blanche by the new U.S. President Ronald Reagan.Protests catalysed by the creole pig disaster were forcefully suppressed, participants were tortured, and Jean Dominique was forced into exile after gunmen stormed Radio Haiti Inter looking for him.

But the tide was rising. The brutality of macoute repression could not stop the growing anger of the population. Protests and strikes became daily occurrences, new radio stations such as the Catholic Radio Soleil took the place of those shut down, and on the 7th February 1986, Jean-Claude Duvalier fled Haiti for France, on board a U.S. plane courtesy of President Reagan.


Duvalier returned to Haiti in 2011, at the moment of the presidential election run-off between Michel Martelly and Mirlande Manigat. The Collective Against Impunity was swiftly founded, aiming to hold Jean-Claude to account for the myriad of human rights abuses that occurred under his regime, reminiscent of efforts in Chile against fellow neoliberal dictator Augusto Pinochet. As they struggled to bring him to court, Jean-Claude Duvalier enjoyed the spoils of a “house arrest” that included frequent fine-dining in Pétionville’s restaurants and bars, spending the last of his plunder that had been frivolously whittled down in lavish Parisian spending sprees, and an expensive divorce. He's back Jean-Claude Duvalier on his return to Haiti, 2011. Amy Wilentz, acclaimed journalist of post-Duvalier Haiti, argued yesterday that Duvalierism lives on, and it is embodied in President Michel Martelly. It is in his interests, she writes, to bury the excesses of Duvalierism away and celebrate the achievements of authoritarianism, as soon Martelly too shall rule by decree. Duvalier’s neoliberal reforms have only continued after 1986, despite the flight of the assembly plants after economic embargos were imposed by President Clinton in the 1990s, during a military dictatorship that deposed Haiti’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Rice   In 1986 the IMF forced Haiti to lower rice tariffs in exchange for a $24.6m emergency loan. The Haitian rice economy collapsed, unable to compete in price with the American rice now flowing into the country. A few years later, Clinton himself offered subsidies to American rice companies to export to Haiti, further increasing Haiti’s economic dependence and accelerating the rural flight to Port-au-Prince, or to the diaspora. The capital suffered overcrowding and an influx of poorly-constructed Bidonville huts. When the earthquake came, they offered no resistance. Yet Martelly, backed by the Clintons, continues to open the border. Haiti, he says, is “open for business.”

Duvalier’s death, like that of Pinochet, denies his many victims and his families the opportunity to see justice served in the courtroom. But history can still hold Jean-Claude Duvalier, and his enduring legacy, to account. Unsurprisingly his death has been met by calls for reconciliation by President Martelly and those who have benefited, or benefit still, from the era of Jean-Claudisme. It is a continuation of a recent resurgence in Duvalierist sentiment, observed by justice campaigner Michèle Montas-Dominique.

“A revisionist discourse has been attempting to rewrite history and to convince the young that things were better under Duvalier.”

To brush Duvalier under the carpet as the weak “Baby Doc” figure, is to silence the brutality of his regime, to forget the hundreds of millions he stole from Haiti, to ignore the damage of forty years of neoliberal economics, HIV and the continuing streams of cocaine that flow through the country, and to spit in the face of his victims. To focus solely on the “positives” of Jean-Claudisme is to sow doubt into the post-Duvalier democratic project, and justify a Haiti that is open for business, ruled by decree.

This silencing cannot be allowed to succeed.