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Locating Haiti in the Caribbean

Text presented to the Haitian Bicentenary Conference, UWI,
St Augustine, June 15-18

Originally printed at

Locating Haiti in the Caribbean
By Lloyd Best

"The most important thing about the Haitian case is the very profound economic and social revolution made by the Haitian people when they
repudiated the system of plantation slavery. Everywhere else in America, the system of slavery and the system of the large plantations were preserved. Until official abolition in the
Caribbean, Haiti was the only country which achieved this fundamental revolution."

-Gerard Barthelmy

The French anthropologist warns us against analysing Haiti on the basis of schemes drawn from other societies. For him Haiti is unique.
And that uniqueness is not due to the fact that it was liberated (like the 13 North American colonies) in a war of independence at the
end of the 18th century. Nor is it an instance which simply pitted slaves against masters. Not when the upheaval involved the slaves as
a mass of workers led by free blacks who after Independence went on to retain power. Nor was it even that the Haitian Revolution opposed
blacks to whites. Whites were indeed eliminated; but the population which survived was not homogenous. Between blacks and mulattoes
remained problems that have dogged the society for all of 200 years since. Moreover, at the time of Independence, 50-60 per cent of the slaves were African-born (bossales)-the rest being Haitian creoles.

Freedom in the rest of the Caribbean was achieved at a later date with an overwhelming number of slaves creolised over an extended period. In Haiti however, "The fact of this enormous mass of Africans suddenly acquiring independence and creating their own country constitutes a very special situation which has existed nowhere else."
It played a determining and unique role revolving around the African born who became creolised only under conditions of freedom; and who formed the core of a peasantry that did not consist of mere footloose cultivators, creatures of the plantation; but who satisfied the Aristotelian condition of organised householders engaged on
autonomous production for domestic consumption-and only after that for export trade, and international investment.

The upshot is a Haiti of tension between two cultures, if not two societies. One refers to the old creole, the other to the new creole. This cohabitation recalls the Colony of Conquest with two parallel nations where the one attempts total domination of the other. It was perhaps the new creole culture with its peasant society that gave
impetus to forms of armed resistance, to local community organization by way of lacou (The yard), of a local language (creole), of an
indigenous art, of its own religion, voudou, of a system of justice based on that religion, and with a peculiar set of social rules constituting a comprehensive civil code. All this ran parallel to the French language, Catholicism, the Napoleonic Code, the Western armies with their military hierarchy and the European system of
jurisprudence and justice.

It is the old creole culture, associated with the coloniser, which prevailed and held administrative, economic and political sway over
the newer creole culture of the African born. In Haiti the new peasant culture is called and calls itself the rural milieu, le pays en dehors (the out-country). Here is a phenomenon not wholly unique in the Caribbean. There have always existed enclaves of maroons. But only in Haiti has it developed into a coherent and integrated culture of free Africans creating their own society in their newly acquired land.

Here is what Jean Casimir calls the counter-plantation, implying that no system of plantations and haciendas, based on wage labour, was ever able to install itself. This anti-system, based on small holdings, is what essentially emerged from the Revolution-on the
plain as well as in the hills, displaying a remarkable coherence and capacity for organisation, expansion, adaptation and viability. The Haitian crisis we know today arose only when the population explosion towards the start of the 20th century made this dispensation with its enveloping arrangements a fundamentally unviable one.

This is in essence the way Haiti evolved up to the start of the American occupation in 1915 which effectively closed the 19th Century. Most of the impressions by which the rest of the world,
including the Caribbean, continues to judge Haiti have been formed by the responses to this crisis. Barthelmy observes that what has been happening to Haiti is much like what has been happening to Africa since that continent has opened up to western attempts at development. He suggests that the rejection of wholesale westernisation by a large part of the population can be rationally
explained. That rejection is invariably taken to reflect a congenital incapacity embrace superior western civilization.

However, what is called underdevelopment is really a measure of, and a witness to, the coherence of a culture designed to manage its own
conflicts-including the conflict between le pays en dehors and the dominant urban creole culture centred on Port-au-Prince. The values evolved for this purpose are in many ways "at odds with what is considered development in an altogether different type of historical tradition". Development in the 18th Century had implied staple
plantation exports and African slavery. Free Haitian society was established on the basis of a repudiation of those values. It is not hard to see why liberal capitalism has been comprehensively under suspicion by an economy set up mainly for subsistent production and
consumption and out of which has emerged what, significantly, is mis-named "the informal sector".

If traditional society in Haiti seems rigid, its great advantage lies in a capacity to resist the onslaught of the last century culminating
in the most recent assault by the Duvalier regime. What we need, therefore, is a fresh interpretation. We need a hermeneutic humble
enough to discard pre-conceived judgments and to make sense of the Haitian experience on its own terms. What, for example, does disguised unemployment mean in Haiti where the official statistics show an unemployment rate of 60-80 per cent? What are we to make of the orthodox media report of Haiti as a land of voudou and violence
when every responsible academic reporter in a hundred years has confirmed that this is the most peaceful country in the western hemisphere? The Duvalier dictatorship liquidated some 30,000 persons but the count of victims following the fall of the regime amounted to no more than 100 to 150-nothing compared to the number killed by the death squads in, say, El Salvador and much later in Pinochet's Chile.

It is easy to cite all this so as to present a romantic view of a society at peace with itself and content with its under-fulfillments. Haiti, however, is no bed of roses. It is a country in the midst of an enduring and intractable crisis of society, economy and culture. If it is to save itself; and if the international community including its Caribbean neighbours, is to assist in an act of rescue, the beginning of wisdom can only be a rigorous reading of reality describing how contemporary society was established, how it has travelled, where it has reached and what options present themselves in the current conjuncture. If such an exercise is to be faithfully and exactly undertaken, absolutely the first requirement would be to locate the original plantation society in the context of the
Caribbean culture zone; and then, to locate that wider Caribbean in the context of the Americas of the last 500 years; and finally, to locate some comprehensive concept of America in the context of the wider world. Indeed the reinterpretation of the history of all the islands in the Caribbean seems to demand some such methodology of
empirical finding out.

Trinidad and Tobago News

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