Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment

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Damming the Flood: Haiti,Aristide and the Politics of Containment. By Peter Hallward. London, New York: Verso, 2007. ISBN: 978-1-84467-106-9. 442 pp. $110.00 cloth, $29.95 paper.

Damming the Flood is the latest book on the travails of Haiti from the last decade of 20th century to 2007. Written by Peter Hallward, a philosophy professor at Middlesex University in the UK, Damming the Flood is an overwhelming friendly account of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his Lavalas (Flood) movement's rise and fall from power. The book's central argument is that Aristide and the Lavalas epitomized the victory of the Haitian masses in politics in post-Duvalier Haiti. Such a development potentially meant that Haitian inequity in wealth ownership - one percent of the country's population ostensibly controls over half of its assets - would at last be addressed by a popular government. For Haiti's tiny elite and its foreign allies, in particular the United States but also France and Canada, this was unacceptable. Consequently, they conspired, respectively, by making spurious claims about human rights violations, corruption and election infractions under Aristide, and attempting to turn the people against Aristide through a punishing informal "embargo" that lasted from the mid-1990s to early 2004. When this strategy failed to overthrow Aristide, they fomented a "popular uprising" led by former elements of the defunct Haitian army and death squad leaders. When this effort, too, seemed unlikely to dislodge Aristide, his external enemies had to come and extricate him from Haiti. They did just that when they "kidnapped" him on February 29, 2004.

In Professor Hallward's narrative, therefore, Aristide and the Lavalas were the victims of U.S. imperialism and its reactionary local allies. Thus, Professor Hallward locates events in Haiti in the larger historical context of Big Power diplomacy. More than once, he compares the Lavalas experience with that of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, among other cases. However, Professor Hallward does not despair. He sees in the dénouement of Aristide's overthrow the rejuvenation of a movement less dependent on the charisma of Aristide and better able to carry on the political struggle, which is at heart, once again, a class struggle between the tiny minority of the rich and the vast majority of the poor, in which the latter is vastly outspent and outgunned.

For all of the excruciating and, I must say for Professor Hallward, impressive details contained in this relatively massive book, the thesis is not new. I say impressive because Professor Hallward freely admits that he has not spent that much time in Haiti and his interest in the country is fairly recent. However, the compliment, I should hasten to add, is a double-edged sword, but I leave its trenchant side for later. Class-based analyses are one of at least nine schools of thought that have dominated Haitian scholarship practically since the morrow of independence in 1804. Haitians and non-Haitians alike, from Jacques Roumain to Randall Robinson and Noam Chomsky, have interpreted the Haitian imbroglio from a similar analytical vintage point. A book, or for that matter any work of scholarship, may be assessed on the basis of its theoretical premise and factual premise. In the first instance, it may be asked, how well does its explanation or theory stand up against other explanations or theories; in the second, how well does its purported facts, upon which it hopefully relies for developing the explanation or theory, correspond to reality? This review attempts an assessment of Damming the Flood based on both of these approaches.

Lavalas, or Flood, is essentially a post-Duvalier phenomenon, as is for that matter Aristide. Long-time students of Haitian politics would be hard pressed to find use of the word Lavalas beyond its conventional meaning before 1986; it simply was not part of the Haitian political lexicon. Likewise, Aristide was not an actor on the Haitian political scene from the crucial years of 1978 through early 1986. …


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