Mark Danner

Postcards from History

Rarely has the portal, the moment of passage from ordinary to revolutionary time, been so well captured in a single image: At the wheel of the gray BMW sits the young dictator, well-dressed, prosperous, slightly overweight, his face impassive, his shoulders thrown back; he has spent all but five of his thirty-four years in the Palace, fifteen of them as President-for-Life, having been inaugurated, at his dying father's insistence, as a mountainously obese, glassy-eyed teenager.

Rarely has the portal, the moment of passage from ordinary to revolutionary time, been so well captured in a single image: At the wheel of the gray BMW sits the young dictator, well-dressed, prosperous, slightly overweight, his face impassive, his shoulders thrown back; he has spent all but five of his thirty-four years in the Palace, fifteen of them as President-for-Life, having been inaugurated, at his dying father’s insistence, as a mountainously obese, glassy-eyed teenager. At his side in the front seat, poised with cigarette in hand, neck delicately arched, swan-like, beneath the stylishly turbaned head, perches the First Lady, now become, after only five years in the Palace — and most of that time spent working determinedly to slim the dictator down, find him a fashionable tailor, and generally add a touch of style to the Palace — the universal figure of Haitian dreams and nightmares: the haughty mulatresse, rich, beautiful, aware of her power; disdainful, vampirish, sexually omnipotent.


The flight of the Duvallers in that predawn darkness of February 7th, 1986, an image severed from time by the crosscut of electronic flashes, pushed Haiti, staggering and stumbling, over the threshold to revolution-or so it appeared. After a few months of strikes and demonstrations, the long-entrenched dictator had been banished, and a family dynasty of three decades toppled. Triumphant Haitians poured into the streets, laughing and chanting, swigging rum and dancing in a delirious celebration of their self-made freedom: the bambocbe democratique, the democrati, had begun. Streets were renamed, neighborhoods rechristened; the world, by the Adamic act of naming, would be made new. The long-suffering land, the poorest in the hemisphere and one of the-. on earth, would at last taste the fruits of freedom, liberation, prosperity.

But this is not what happened. Revolution led not to freed. to other tyrannies: During the next five years, Haitians endured six governments, and as I write angry soldiers are struggling to install a seventh. These five years appear to us uncanny, exceptional, stuffed as they are with demonstrations, massacres, coups d’etat, uprisings, revolts. And yet for Haiti, these years were neither uncanny nor exceptional; indeed, from the beginning, such periodic immersions in revolutionary time have taken their place as ‘inextricable parts of the rhythm of Haitian politics. As one Haitian intellectual told me, the post-Duvalier chaos was simply one more instance of the parentbese, the “parenthesis” of disorder and violence that traditionally bridges the fall of one ruler and the rise of the next. “A revolution in Haiti,” as ex-President Francois Ugitime (overthrown in 1889) explained to readers of the London Herald in 1911, “does not have the same meaning as it would have here. It is our only way of changing administrations. Here you have an election; down there they have a revolution.” That image of the young dictator, proud mulatresse princess at his side, fleeing to an opulent exile at the wheel of his BMW, echoes other images, each one singular, “historic” but all nonetheless occupying a place in a venerable series: colorful cards drawn from a single deck that might be spread, fanwise, across the tabletop in a postcard panorama of Haitian history.

Begin the series with a scene from December 1956, set in the vast marble villa of General Paul E. Magloire, in which the Soldier-President is seen frantically sifting through the treasures accumulated during his years in power-turning the marble bust over slowly in his hands before packing it in an overstuffed chest, surveying the canvas with a practiced eye before setting it asidewhile all around him his officers, rum bottles in hand, stagger about drunkenly, and outside the crowds bellow for his head. In the event, almost all the treasures would be left behind and the President would be forced to conduct his final procession along a bumpy back road to the military airport, where he would hastily load his family into the plane for the flight to Jamaica, and the eventual thirty-year exile in New York. The joyous “revolution” he left behind continued for nine tumultuous months, during which no fewer than five governments rose and fell, before the exhausted Haitian people elected as their President a mild-mannered, mumbling, bespectacled country doctor named Francois Duvalier.

As it happened, of course, Dr. Duvalier’s mildness was overrated: During the course of his fourteen-year reign, with the help of his Tontons Macoutes militia, he would murder tens of thousands and force one in six of his countrymen into exile. But though his rule was filled with the sort of spectacular, gratuitous brutality that chroniclers find irresistible — whole families marched down the streets naked before being massacred, corpses littering the capital in broad daylight, men murdered because their names happened to resemble a Duvalier enemy  — Duvalier was, if nothing else, a product of Haitian history: He differed from others not in his deterinitiation to cling to power at any cost but in the savage success of his methods, methods he had devised precisely because he had studied so closely the workings of the country’s politics.

In 1950, for example, Dr. Duvalier had been close at hand, a cabinet minister, when Paul Magloire, then a colonel, had overthrown President Durnarsals Estime, forcing the humiliated ruler — in a scene Duvalier would never forget-to walk between a double line of officers on his way to the gangplank of the ship that would carry him to exile.

Duvalier had learned his nationalism early on. “He was born a few blocks from the National Palace during the military dictatorship of Nord Alexis…,” write Bernard Diederich and Al Burt in their fine study Papa Doc and the Tontons Macoutes. “When he was one year old General Antoine Simon overthrew Alexis. He was four when a revolution ousted Simon and five when an explosion reduced the old wooden Palais National and President Cincinnatus Leconte along with it to splinters. Duvalier was six when President Tancrede Auguste was poisoned; the funeral was interrupted when two generals began fighting over the succession…. One Michel Oreste got the job, but he was overthrown the following year by a man named Zamor, who in turn fell a year later to Davilmar Th6odore.” President Theodore lasted only a few months before Vilbrun Gillaume Sam marched his rebel army into the capital and overthrew him, though Sam in turn would rule scarcely as long before, threatened by rebellion, he massacred almost two hundred hostages and took refuge in the French Legation, whence a maddened crowd (which included the heads of many of the county’s finest families, most of them gotten up in top hats and morning coats), dragged him out, split his skull with a machete and tore his body to pieces.

It is not known if Francois Duvalier, then eight years old, personally observed this lesson in the pitfalls of the political life, but it seems certain that the little boy would have been among the Haitians watching in wonder a few hours later as the Marines in their khaki uniforms marched into Port-au-Prince, putting an inglorious end to more than a century of Haitian independence. By then he would have been well-schooled in the glory of that independence. By then the discovery by Columbus on his first voyage and the three centuries of European rule that followed, as hundreds of thousands of Africans were imported and Saint-Domingue was built into a slave-powered export factory, the most productive and lucrative colony on earth; the revolt of the slaves, spurred on by the French popular account titles itself), but despite all the talk of “revolution “-a word implying, after all, popular participation-the country’s politics have rarely involved more than a handful of its people at any given time: such “instability” as there has been was and is a product of struggles among a very small number of families-and, throughout, their hold over the country has been very stable indeed.

The ancestors of this political class took power during the Haitian Revolution (though a case can be made that even the latter, bloody and apocalyptic as it was, did little more than supplant a tiny ruling class of white Europeans, who profited from the labor of enslaved Africans, with a ruling class of mostly homegrownthat is, largely mulatto-Haitians, who ever since have profited from the labor of the newly “free” but still largely impoverished, disenfranchised, and illiterate black peasants). The spectacular wealth of Saint-Domingue was rooted in its singularly fertile soil and the French learned to exploit this wealth with great efficiency, making use of slave labor to work vast plantations and exporting to Europe the sugar, coffee, cocoa, cotton, and indigo thereby produced. The early Haitian rulers tried to maintain this system of large-scale production for export, working the plantations under a system of forced labor called fermage in which the men holding the whips-black soldiers now, instead of white slave masters-forced slaves to toll in conditions of such harshness that thev soon recognized in the system a virtual restoration of slavery and began to desert and flee to the mountains in large numbers. Eventually, faced with the collapse of production, the Haitian government was forced to undertake a large-scale land reform, breaking up the former plantations into small parcels and distributing them to the former slaves.

The consequences were momentous: Haiti’s may be the only revolution in history to have taken a modern (albeit slave-powered) trading state and produced a largely peasant country. But fourteen years of revolution had not eradicated the rigid hierarchy of SaintDomingue. Like a wax figurine left too close to a fire, the colonial society reemerged, deformed and misshapen. The dramatic cultural divisions of the colony survived; culturally, politically, even linguistically, independent Haiti contained within it two radically different but interdependent worlds.

By far the most populous and the least powerful of these was the so-called “low world” of the countryside — a world made by the freed black field slaves who flooded into Haiti, and, isolated and unschooled, created “Africa in the West Indies.” From the beginning Haitian peasants divided their already small holdings equally among their children, a practice which, together with their primitive, highly destructive methods of farming and the steady increase in population, soon brought on a constant, frantic search for more land. The steady denuding of the hillsides, brought on by overcultivation and by the peasant’s never-ending search for wood to produce charcoal, led to catastrophic erosion. Large expanses of what had been the most fertile land in the world were transformed into virtual desert. After generations of this process, the peasants began to starve. Whole families began to abandon the land and come to cities, adding to the squalor and desperation of the urban slums.

Perched above those slums, in the cool hills high above Port-au Prince, are the denizens of the “high world”– the Haitian elite, a tiny, highly inbred group descended from the mulatto landholders and the smaller numbers of blacks who had attained freedom and position in colonial Saint-Domingue. They located their cultural roots in Paris; they spoke French in public, baptized their children in the Catholic church, gossiped about the latest French political scandal, debated the merits of the current Parisian literary star. The African culture of the peasants they looked upon with cultivated disgust, regarding it as savage and alien, as distant from their concerns as Africa itself. Though in a real sense they lived with the countryside on intimate terms-the servants who cooked their food and cleaned their houses and nursed their children were all transplanted peasants-to Haitians of wealth and power the land beyond the suburbs (“the mountains,” as they called it) might as well have been another planet.

And yet the land remained the source of the country’s wealth, and the elite were no longer in a position to force the peasants to work. “The only way of getting an income out of agriculture without being a peasant was by taxing the goods produced or consumed in rural areas. . . ” writes economist Mats Lundahl, “and this source could be tapped only by the government. Accordingly, the former landowning classes went into politics instead, and politics became their prime concern. Only by sharing the spoils of office was it possible to compensate for the agricultural incomes foregone by the land reform.”

Thus the French-speaking, foreign -educated, cosmopolitan Haitian elite migrated to the cities and transformed themselves into a parasite class. They took Jobs in the public administration, where they could hand out contracts to or arrange monopolies for their close relatives in the commerce houses, or managed in other, more indirect ways to draw income from the government, which, in turn, funded itself almost entirely through the customs houses-that is, by taxing the produce of the peasants as it left the country as exports, and, to a lesser degree, by taxing imports as they entered. In this way, government in Haiti evolved as a huge extractive mechanism, sucking funds from the masses who worked the land and channeling them to the tiny urban elite who fought over the spoils. Haitians, punning on the name of a popular treat, call this system peze suce: “squeeze-and-suck.”

And so Haitis wealth flowed from the peasants working the land to the elite working, directly or indirectly, the government. And though corruption in the government was rampant, corruption was not really the problem. “Corruption in Haiti,” writes Simon Fass, “was not about diversion of resources from intended purposes, but rather about intended purposes and practices that were themselves diversion from what the concept of ‘government’ was supposed to be about. In Haiti it was a private industry.” Government existed not to advance some nebulous “public good,” but to support the elite. For each elite faction, securing control of the government, by coup or by revolution,” quickly became the universal object of Haitian politics.

Whence Haiti’s vaunted “instability;” for from the beginning these struggles between elite factions were so frequent as to seem almost continuous, were often bloody, and were frequently complicated by the involvement of one or more foreign power. But from Dessalines to Duvalier, these political struggles can be said to have had two relatively constant characteristics: they tended to involve the great mass of Haitians as a marginal or, more often, an instrumental force, brought into play by an aspiring leader to help overthrow the country’s current ruler; and they usually turned, either overtly or covertly, and often in the most intricate ways, on the great burden bequeathed by colonial Saint-Domingue: the critical fulcrum of color.

Though it arose out of a nine-month parentbese of violence and political chaos, the election that brought Duvalier to power in 1957 –the first to offer universal adult suffrage-came as close as any in Haitian history to presenting the country with a clear choice: the country doctor and black nationalist versus Senator Louis Dejole, a wealthy, light-skinned Haitian aristocrat. The Army officers favored Duvalier, supposing he would prove a malleable puppet, and under their guidance the election had no lack of fraud; still, in vague outline the results likely expressed the sense of the country: Dejole was the victor in the capital, and in his native South, but Duvalier carried most of the provincial cities and won overwhelmingly in the countryside. The “low world,” the “world outside,” had chosen a leader.

And indeed, once in power the doctor created his own “Duvalierist Revolution.” Granted, he did it largely through terror administered by his Tontons Macoutes, but he did manage, in some areas of Haitian life-most notably the army-to force those who had always held power to admit to their ranks a new class of powerbrokers. These were members of Duvalier’s own “black middle class,- and he would shortly see them raise their own mansions in the hills above Port-au-Prince. But if Duvalier managed to elevate a handful of new elite, he effected no change in the system itself. -Squeeze and suck” remained the rule. The decline of the countryside only accelerated. In the end Duvalier’s most striking achievement was not to fashion a new society but to impose, by dint of his lavish brutality, stability at the top of the old one. His most original and lasting creation was perhaps the Macoutes, a force by which the time of his son’s fall may have included, in one capanother, several hundred thousand Haitians, including many of the poorest of the poor; it is only one of the more obvious ironies of Duvalierism that what had almost certainly become the largest political organization in the country’s history, the closest thing Haiti had ever produced to a mass party, was best known for its ruthlessness and for the terror it evoked.

Twenty years after Duvalier’s death, more than five years after the flight of his bumbling son, the Macoutes remain. originally as brutal irregulars intended to check the traditional power of the soldiers, they have taken their place alongside the enforcers of the new status quo, the servants and protectors of the powerful ones in the hills about Port-au-Prince. Meant officers themselves have been “Macoutized” –rivalrous. jealous of their percentages and their privileges. “Duvalier rules this land,” one of his followers told me shortly after Jean-Claude fled. “He’ll rule it for fifty years.” And that is why Father Aristide, though placed in the Palace through popular cit., never managed to attain real power before being loaded aboard the plane to Caracas barely eight months later. To attain real power, Father Aristide would have had to succeed in dismantling the monopolies and franchises that have formed the economic pinning of the squeeze-and-suck system; he would have had to succeed in imposing a system of taxation in which those with money paid some of it back to the government instead of using the state as a mechanism to fill their own pockets — he would had to succeed, in short, in launching a real revolution from the presidential palace. And how to do that, when—despite the election—all the guns remain in the hands of the other side?

Anyone who hopes to supplant Duvalier, or, rather, the history to which his rule formed the culmination, will have to fashion his own weapons, just as Duvalier did: it is not a myth that in Haiti le fauteil the Presidential chair, has a way of creating dictators-nor 1″ contradiction that Father Aristide, even as he delivered his eloquent paens to democracy, found himself relying more and more on his most fanatical followers among the masses and the feared Pere Lebruns with which they burned their enemies alive in the streets. The threat of the burning tires was not enough, of course; if history teaches anything, it is that a Haitian ruler who hopes to launch anything like a real revolution must show himself ready to shed alot of blood — or he will inevitably find himself playing the central role in yet another in the long series of images: of presidents walking up gangplanks, or driving to darkened airports, or other wise bidding farewell to the land they had claimed to master. It is no accident that in recent Haitian history, the only ruler to avoid such a fate was Papa Doc himself.