The Limits of Haitian Sovereignty: Haiti through Clear Eyes

By Maguire, Robert | Journal of Haitian Studies, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

The Limits of Haitian Sovereignty: Haiti through Clear Eyes


Maguire, Robert, Journal of Haitian Studies


Remarks presented at the Twenty-Sixth Annual Conference of the Haitian Studies Association

November 6-9, 2014

University of Notre Dame

South Bend, Indiana

Introduction

I am honored to be a part of this plenary panel. My presentation traverses boundaries of space and time: the former pertaining to Haiti and the United States, and the latter covering elements of my experience in Haiti and in Washington over the past thirty-plus years. It touches on the issue of how the sovereign right of Haiti's people to improve their lives is limited by the way their country is presented, particularly by its leaders but reinforced by international actors. My message is that it behooves us, as we keep our eyes on Haiti and, in particular, on policies toward Haiti, to look with clear eyes: not those clouded by wishful thinking.

In Washington, DC, where I live and work, such misleading thinking has often been evident-particularly, it seems, over the past several years.* 1 I am quite concerned about this epidemic of wishful or misleading thinking in regard to Haiti, especially as it is linked to development and governance. I have expressed this concern before members of the US Congress and their staffs, US government executive branch officials, and a variety of advocates and activists. I have also shared my analysis with associates in Haiti and with leaders of Haiti's parliament. This afternoon, I want to share my thoughts with you.

Then

Let me go back a few years . . .

In the late 1970s, when Haiti was under the dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, US president Jimmy Carter initiated a new emphasis on human rights. The visits to Haiti of Carter's Ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young, to reinforce this change in US foreign policy inspired what legendary Haitian radio commentator Jean Dominique called "the Haitian Spring," a period when certain rights and freedoms flourished in the midst of a dictatorship. That spring ended abruptly when Duvalier's regime clamped down on journalists and human-rights activists following the November 1980 election of Ronald Reagan as president of the United States, and those pioneers of human rights in Haiti were expelled from their country, faced beatings and arrest, or went into hiding.2 Nevertheless, in the early 1980s, those of us who were following Haiti were told by Haitian officials and, subsequently, by some of their US counterparts, to believe certain things about Haiti that were untrue:

1) We were told that Haiti no longer had tonton makout, Duvalier's paramilitary goon squad. It was not true. The makout were visible throughout Haiti to anyone who bothered to look for them, right up to the departure of Jean-Claude Duvalier from Haiti on February 7, 1986. Then, " demakoutization" became a goal ofpostDuvalier Haiti.

2) We were told that Haiti would become a prosperous "Taiwan of the Caribbean" through the exploitation in assembly factories of plentiful and cheap labor-sewing clothes and baseballs and assembling electronic devices. It was not true. Some prospered, but certainly not the factory workers. Once the Duvalier regime fell, many companies that brought upwards of 60,000 low-paying factory jobs to Haiti left the country, looking for low-wage sites elsewhere. By 1987, the job total was 39,000 and continued to fall. Unfortunately the number of people flooding into Port-auPrince did not fall, and slums like Cité Soleil, described by Haitian economist Camille Chalmers as "the child of the assembly plant strategy," continued to grow. Off-the-land migrants with dreams of prosperity in the city-and their children-largely became trapped in an illusion.

3) We were told that the stability that existed under Duvalier, which muzzled the voices of ordinary Haitians, was good for the country's "development." It was not true. Indeed, the stability enforced by Duvalier's dictatorship only exacerbated the unevenness of Haiti's development, concentrating more and more wealth in the hands of a few. …

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