Review Essay: Opportunities Lost
Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti. By Michael Deibert. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005. ISBN 1-58322-697-4.454 pp. $22.95 paper.
Paradise Lost: Haiti's Tumultuous Journey from Pearl of the Caribbean to Third World Hotspot. By Philippe Girard. New York: Palgrave, 2005. ISBN 140396887X. 230 pp. $45.00 cloth.
Plunging into Haiti: Clinton, Aristide, and the Defeat of Diplomacy. By Ralph Pezzullo. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006. ISBN 1578068606. 312 pp. $45.00 cloth.
Generally speaking, Haiti has not been well-served by many contemporary scholars. The unfortunate attitude of this cohort of intellectuals is summed up quite wearily by Philippe Girard who at the conclusion of his poorly-argued book asserts, "Writing a book on the history of Haiti can be a depressing experience. One must consult the thesaurus regularly to find synonyms for 'cruelty,' 'poverty,' 'thug' and 'callousness,' while looking in vain for an opportunity to mention 'hope' and 'success' unaccompanied by 'lack of" (203). This reviewer is tempted to respond that in reading the works of Girard and Deibert in particular, I was tempted to consult my own thesaurus for synonyms for "one-sided" and "hostile" and "unsympathetic."
Yes, it can be a depressing experience to read so many pages expressing a decided dearth of sympathy for a heroic nation like Haiti, a nation that struck a mighty blow against human bondage only to be punished relentlessly as a result. It is similarly remarkable that publishers-who, presumably, are attuned to the marketplace-expect to sell disparaging books about this small country when the market for these works in English will be comprised, ineluctably and disproportionately, of Haitian-Americans, African-Americans and those from Haiti's neighbors in places like Jamaica. Yet, it is precisely those from the Caribbean and Black America who are often held up for scorn and derision in the works of Girard and Deibert particularly, for their alleged unrealistic attachment to the elected President of Haiti, Jean Bertrand Aristide. Caribbean neighbors and Black America are the natural allies of a poor nation like Haiti and if these two are spurned, then that leaves Haiti and Haitians to the none too tender mercies of the conservatives who dominate this hemisphere-a force about which Girard and Deibert especially have little bad to say.
Girard's book is a sweeping synthesis of Haitian history, ranging from the pre-colonial era to the present. It is based on a tiny number of secondary sources-mostly in English, which is striking in light of the fact that the author is a professor who bills himself as a "native of the French Caribbean (Guadaloupe)" (cover). In any case, the opinions rendered are questionable, language aside. He argues that
one cannot help but think that Voodoo's [sic] popularity has hindered, rather than facilitated, Haiti's developments. The distant gods of monotheistic religions [e.g. Islam for example?] offer the promise of everlasting bliss in exchange for following a few rules and rituals, but they generally do not intercede on a daily basis, thus leaving more room for self-reliance and individual action. Because of its focus on the omnipresence of supernatural forces and on a loa's ability to solve one's daily problems, Voodoo [sic] serves as a substitute for a rational assessment of the difficulties a parishioner should face alone. (29)
Naturally, this controversial assertion is accompanied by nary a footnote or bolstering source. In any case, in the narrow terms he deploys, it is difficult to distinguish how the religion of Haiti differs substantially from any other religion across the planet, and to place so much weight on this one factor (religion)-while simultaneously downplaying the impact of slavery, colonialism, and imperialism in shedding light on Haiti's problems-is typical of the author's approach. …