Book Review – Haiti: The Aftershocks Of History

Laurent Dubois‘s excellent Haiti: The Aftershocks of History is a must-read for anyone interested in the social construction of race and race formation, as well as colonialism and its legacy. The book provides the longue durée context for the current situation of Haiti, especially when the devastating earthquake a few years back, and the current damages inflicted by hurricane Sandy.

If we were to consider Haiti a failed state, then it would be a failed state by design. From reading Dubois’s book, one would be tempted to think that no one ever wanted Haiti to succeed on its own terms ever since the slaves rebelled against their French colonizers.

The book is overall a highly readable and very well-written political history of the country from the end of French colony of Saint-Domingue (as it was called under French rule), dominated by a slavery-based plantation economy (especially sugar canes) to the present although the Duvalier II era to now is a bit short.

Indeed, Dubois describes the 19th century in great details, so, by the time the reader gets to the rise of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, it feels like the book is rushing to the end and one is left with many questions regarding the contemporary period (especially the second ousting of Aristide and beyond).

There is also no doubt that Dubois loves Haiti and roots for its success. As a result, you will find a lot of Amazon reviews decrying the lack of objectivity of the book. That did not bothered me all that much because Dubois is not shy about exposing the structural factors that have resulted in so much political instability in Haiti (the urban / rural divide as well as the dominance of a light-skinned, mulatto elite versus their darker skinned compatriots). Dubois actually presents these lines of division as central to Haiti’s persistent problems. Similarly, one can find at the very beginning of the book another major factor in Haiti’s political instability (Kindle locations):

“Haiti is often described as a “failed state.” In fact, though, Haiti’s state has been quite successful at doing what it was set up to do: preserve power for a small group. The constitutional structures established in the nineteenth century made it very difficult to vote the country’s leaders out of office, leaving insurrection as the only means of effecting political change.” (Loc. 126)

That lock on power and the lack of proper constitutional and institutional mechanisms for political alternatives are at the heart of the multiple rebellions and coups. These are the internal factors. There is no doubt that the French never forgave their former slave colony for rebelling and forcing them out. Indeed, the financial compensation that France demanded (and obtained) from Haiti (in order to reimburse plantation owners for the loss of their property… land and slaves… what is the French word for chutzpah? Quel culot, as we French would say) strangled the country financially so badly that it had to go into debt very quickly. This indebtedness was used, a century later, by the US to invade the country and rule it by force for 20 years. In both case, this was brutal expropriation either of direct monies for France, or exploitation of land and labor for the US.

In both cases, there was a clash of economic models. From the independence on, there has been, in Haiti, a strong rejection of the plantation model, so associated with slavery. So, the rural population has tried to develop alternative modes of agricultural production based on subsistence agriculture (rather than cash crops for export) in small cooperatives. These competing models have been a source of conflicts between the urban / port elites and foreign investors and the rural population. In a way, Haiti was constantly pressure to agree to structural adjustment programs before those even existed, especially from the US. And, big surprise, these neoliberal measures avant la lettre worked no better there than they did anywhere in the late 20th century. They explain the persistent stratification between the cities and the rural areas, forcing a lot of peasants to leave the land and flock to city slums.

“As more and more U.S. agricultural companies entered Haiti, they deprived peasants of their land. The result was that, for the first time in its history, large numbers of Haitians left the country, looking for work in nearby Caribbean islands and beyond. Others moved to the capital of Port-au-Prince, which the United States had made into Haiti’s center of trade at the expense of the regional ports. In the decades that followed, the capital’s growth continued, uncontrolled and ultimately disastrous, while the countryside suffered increasing immiseration.” (Loc. 157)

These unpopular policies were supported by the US, who also (along with France), supported the various authoritarian governments, especially the dreadful Duvalier dictatorship (father and son) in all their atrocities at the same time that the US denied Haitian refugees political asylum.

The end result?

“Ever since popular president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was violently overthrown in 2004, Haiti has been policed largely by foreign troops under U.N. command. Haiti’s proud independence has been eroded, too, by the thousands of foreign organizations that have flocked to the country over the years with projects for improvement and reform. For all their work, though, hunger, poverty, and disease still stalk much of the population. In the cities, the last decades have seen an increase in violent crime, including drug trafficking and kidnapping, while the situation in rural Haiti, where the majority of the population still lives, is increasingly desperate. The soil is severely depleted; generations of intensive agriculture and deforestation have taken their toll. As the population has grown and parcels of land have been divided into smaller and smaller bits, the social and agricultural strategies that worked well for Haitian peasants into the early decades of the twentieth century have become increasingly unsustainable. At the same time, the solutions prescribed by foreign powers and international organizations have largely turned out to be ineffective, or worse.” (Loc. 172)

But the theme that Dubois delineates throughout the book, and the source of his obvious affection for Haitians and hopes for Haiti are as such:

““Haiti disturbs,” sociologist Jean Casimir likes to say. It disturbs, of course, because of its poverty and its suffering. But it also disturbs because, throughout its history, Haiti’s people have repeatedly turned away from social and political institutions designed to achieve profits and economic growth, choosing to maintain their autonomy instead. The Haitian population has been told for two centuries, as it is told today, that it must change, adapt, modernize. No doubt some change is needed; but what has largely been offered to Haiti’s population in the guise of foreign advice is simply a precarious place at the bottom of the global order.

Haitians have consistently refused such offers.” (Loc. 192)

And, of course, White racism has been the source of much violence inflicted upon Haitians, first through the slavery system and later during the US occupation. The first country of free blacks has been depicted by the Western press and seen by Western political classes as a bunch of cannibalistic, voodoo-practicing savages. For instance, Dubois uses the example Marcus Rainsford’s drawings:

The one on the left, much reproduced, portrays the hanging of white officers by Maroons, the one on the right, much omitted, depicts a French officer throwing Haitians overboard to drown them, as if brutality was one-sided.

Similarly, racism was at the root of the constant religious persecution, especially against voodoo, seen as both superstitious paganism as well as somewhat scary.

As I was reading the book, especially regarding the repression of voodoo, and especially the figure of Baron Samedi, I was reminded of the persistence of stereotype and underlying racism that one can find in popular culture. Take a look at these two representations of Baron Samedi:

And remember this guy?

Yup, that’s right. When depicting Doctor Facilier, Disney designers tapped into the stereotypes of Haitian culture and voodoo for their main villain:

So, if you want to explore the roots of all this, then, Dubois’s book is what you want. It is full of rich details about 19th and early 20th century Haiti. As I mentioned before, it rushes a bit to the end, but Dubois seeks to highlight the origins of our views of Haiti, its persistent challenges, poverty, environmental degradation, political instability and natural disaster and its constant harassment by outsiders, from France, to the US, to the UN and a multiplicity of NGOs. It is also a great expose of cultural and structural racism and its consequences, as well as the fight for a non-market driven model of development.

Absolute must-read.

Stuck on The Colonial Evolutionary Ladder (Since the 1700s)

I am still reading Laurent Dubois‘s excellent (so far!) Haiti: The Aftershocks of History. I just finished the chapter on the US occupation of Haiti in the early 20th century. And as any colonial venture, it involved massive mistreatment of the local population accompanied by rationalizations:

“Women were particularly vulnerable to abuse by the marines who controlled their communities. A Methodist Episcopal pastor working in Haiti who reported on the occupation for the Chicago Defender accused the marines of widespread rape, including the rape of young girls. He had also observed, he wrote, marines pressuring the Haitian gendarmes under their command “to procure native women for the use of the whites as concubines.” Haitian women were said to be universally immoral and promiscuous; after just a day in the country, one soldier had confidently asserted that “all native women are of easy virtue and all its accompanying vices.” Such attitudes helped justify and normalize coercive sexual relationships. Looking back on the occupation, one marine later wrote that “rape, I believe, implies a lack of consent. I never heard of a case where consent was lacking in Haiti’s black belt.” When it came to longer-term relationships with Haitian women, marines sometimes talked about such liaisons as being strategically useful—a mechanism for learning about the local culture—and occasionally referred to sexual partners as the “sleeping dictionary.”” (Loc. 3934)

And also:

“Several years later, U.S. Marine Brigadier General Ivan W. Miller also claimed that any violence during the occupation had been made necessary by the culture of Haiti. “You have to remember that what we consider brutality among people in the United States is different from what they considered brutality,” Miller explained. “Those people, particularly at the time there, their idea of brutality was entirely different from ours. They had no conception of kindness or helping people.” John Russell, the high commissioner of the U.S. occupation for most of its duration, concurred, writing in 1929 that the “Haitian mentality only recognizes force, and appeal to reason and logic is unthinkable.”” (Loc. 3968)

And this reminded me of this post, over at A Tiny Revolution:

“One of the great things about being American is we’re just lucky. Lots of countries have killed millions of people, and it made their families really angry and sad. So the countries sometimes had to feel bad about it. But when WE’VE done it, we’ve always been lucky enough to do it to people who turned out not to mind being killed. So no harm done.

Most recently, Steve Inskeep of NPR pointed out that Afghans haven’t gotten all bent out of shape about a U.S. soldier massacring sixteen of them, because “human life is already cheap” way over there.

That’s great journalism. However, it would have been even better if Inskeep had found out whether life is not just cheap in Afghanistan, but also plentiful, like it was in Vietnam:

WILLIAM WESTMORELAND: The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.

And what about Iraqis? Were they whiny bitches when we killed them? No way:

FRED KAGAN, ARCHITECT OF IRAQ “SURGE”: If anyone has seen pictures of Ramadi or Fallujah, they looked like Stalingrad. Cities absolutely crushed…The interesting thing is that when we were fighting those battles and doing that damage, on the whole the Iraqis were not bitching about collateral damage…the Iraqis don’t on the whole say “darn it, you shouldn’t have blown up all of our houses.” They sort of accept that.

We know this is correct because Iraqis felt the same way in the twenties when they were being slaughtered by the British:

“The natives of these tribes love fighting for fighting’s sake,” Chief of Air Staff Hugh Trenchard assured Parliament. “They have no objection to being killed.” The military’s argument was that, though the often indiscriminate air attacks might perturb some civilized folks back in London, such acts were viewed differently by the Arabs. As one British commander observed, “‘[Shiekhs]…do not seem to resent…that women and children are accidentally killed by bombs.”

Then we come to Koreans. Here’s a review of Curtis LeMay’s autobiography, in which LeMay explained why massive carpet bombing of North Korea during the Korean War didn’t make them surrender:

LeMay [argues] that bombardment failed because of an “undying Oriental philosophy and fanaticism.” He says, “Human attrition means nothing to such people,” that their lives are so miserable on earth that they look forward with delight to a death which promises them “everything from tea parties with long dead grandfathers down to their pick of all the golden little dancing girls in Paradise.””

Go read the whole thing because the list continues.

All of this, of course, reeks of racism mixed with the old “scientific” theories of colonial times where natives were perceived as not having reached the same level of evolution as (upper-class) Europeans (who represented the highest stage of evolution and civilization), and suffering from various forms of atavism and being therefore closer to animals in behavior, morality and sensibility. So, this translated into a series of rationales for exploitation (in the name of civilization) through creative tortures (which does not matter because, being more animalistic, they – the natives – are more resistant to pain and more reluctant to discipline), and mass murder (but that’s ok, because, like animals, they do not perceive death the way we do).

This is not exactly new. Colonialism elevated dehumanization and othering to an art form. But to see these instances listed above, and see the same pattern (or meme, as the cool kidz say these days) repeated across time and geographies is pretty striking. But this is typical racism where the dominant group takes itself as the higher standard and then goes around comparing (unfavorably) native populations on the evolutionary ladder, ignoring the trauma, exploitation, structural and mass violence that inevitably come with colonialism.

Colonialism, in a strict sense, may have disappeared but the gems keep coming, as the quotes above reflect. And I am sure many of us remember this one, from Daryl Gates, former LAPD Chief:

“We may be finding that in some blacks, when the choke hold is applied, the veins or arteries do not open up like in normal people.”

See? “They” are just not like us, normal people. That is also the way Rodney King was initially described by the LAPD officers who beat him up, as this neanderthal who would not go down, and therefore had to take an extra beating.

This kind of othering and dehumanizing discourse is pretty constant, as applied to non-white population here and abroad. The statements may not be as explicit as the ones above, but once you know the pattern, they are easy to find.

Neo-Colonialism 101 – Dance!

From the Guardian (emphasis mine):

“The Jarawa tribe have lived in peace in the Andaman Islands for thousands of years. Now tour companies run safaris through their jungle every day and wealthy tourists pay police to make the women – usually naked – dance for their amusement. This footage, filmed by a tourist, shows Jarawa women being told to dance by an off-camera police officer.”

How The Periphery Pays For The Core

Through the consequences of climate change and persistent conflict (whether it’s proxy wars or the global war on terror or resource wars):

“Prolonged drought in the Horn of Africa is the immediate cause of the severe food crisis already affecting around 10 million people in parts of Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia. Rains have failed over two seasons, with a strong La Niña event having a dramatic impact across the east coast of Africa. Now this year’s wet season has officially ended, there is little prospect of rain or relief before September.

How far the current conditions, classified by the UN as “pre-famine” – one step down from “catastrophe” – can be attributed to climate change is not clear. The last intergovernment panel on climate change report suggested that the Horn of Africa would get wetter with climate change, while more recent academic research has concluded that global warming will increase drought in the region. However, according to aid agencies, the weather has become more erratic and extreme in recent years. The same area suffered a drought in 2006 as well as flash floods.

The structural causes of the crisis go deeper. The Horn of Africa has long been one of the most conflict-riven areas of the world and a focus of geopolitical struggles from the days of the British empire, through the cold war, to today’s the “war on terror”.

Its strategic position at the opening to the Red Sea and its oil and mineral interests have attracted foreign powers for over 150 years, as Alex de Waal, programme director at the Social Science Research Council, points out.

In 2007, the US launched air strikes against suspected al-Qaida cells in Somalia, and its fear that funds could be diverted to terrorist hands has seen the US cut food aid to the area. Northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia have been home to ethnic Somalis for generations, but the populations are marginalised by central governments. The protracted war in Somalia has driven more than 20,000 more Somalis into Kenya in the past two weeks, says the UNHCR. Thousands have also fled drought and fighting in southern Somalia into the equally water-starved border areas of Ethiopia.

The Kenyan government has periodically tried to close its border, although it is now open with 1,200-1,550 refugees a day crossing, according to some reports. They are being drawn to the refugee camp complex at Dadaarb, built in 1991 at the beginning of Somalia’s civil war. It has a maximum capacity of 90,000 but is now overwhelmed by in excess of 370,000 people.”

Global risk society is a product of the core that the periphery pays for in many ways. This is a form of neocolonialism.

Neo-Colonialism 2.0

Land grab, because the Global North needs it to fuel the financialization-of-everything system since the mortgage thing is all busted up:

“Hedge funds are behind “land grabs” in Africa to boost their profits in the food and biofuel sectors, a US think-tank says.

In a report, the Oakland Institute said hedge funds and other foreign firms had acquired large swathes of African land, often without proper contracts.

It said the acquisitions had displaced millions of small farmers.

Foreign firms farm the land to consolidate their hold over global food markets, the report said.

They also use land to “make room” for export commodities such as biofuels and cut flowers.

“This is creating insecurity in the global food system that could be a much bigger threat than terrorism,” the report said.

The Oakland Institute said it released its findings after studying land deals in Ethiopia, Tanzania, South Sudan, Sierra Leone, Mali and Mozambique.

It said hedge funds and other speculators had, in 2009 alone, bought or leased nearly 60m hectares of land in Africa – an area the size of France.

“The same financial firms that drove us into a global recession by inflating the real estate bubble through risky financial manoeuvres are now doing the same with the world’s food supply,” the report said.”

And this should be a source of embarrassment but will not be:

“Harvard and other major American universities are working through British hedge funds and European financial speculators to buy or lease vast areas of African farmland in deals, some of which may force many thousands of people off their land, according to a new study.

Researchers say foreign investors are profiting from “land grabs” that often fail to deliver the promised benefits of jobs and economic development, and can lead to environmental and social problems in the poorest countries in the world.

The new report on land acquisitions in seven African countries suggests that Harvard, Vanderbilt and many other US colleges with large endowment funds have invested heavily in African land in the past few years. Much of the money is said to be channelled through London-based Emergent asset management, which runs one of Africa’s largest land acquisition funds, run by former JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs currency dealers.”

In addition to climate change damage, this is a source of failing local agriculture and famine in the Global South, especially Africa, and a perfect illustration of Amartya Sen’s entitlement thesis where the Global South’s entitlement of the poor become the Global North’s rents. And another form of colonialism where value is extracted out of the periphery and transferred to the core.

Raewyn Connell’s Plea for An Epistemological Democracy

Last night, I was privileged to hear a powerful lecture from Raewyn Connell at the University of Chicago. Raewyn Connell has written one of the most central books on theory in a long while with Southern Theory. In yesterday’s lecture, she touched upon some of the topics addressed in Southern Theory. What follows is based on the notes I took during the lecture, so there might be some discontinuities.

Let me note first that Professor Connell is an extremely gracious speaker, as pleasant to listen to as she is to read. She went through her lecture and saved some time for question from the audience (packed room!), including to the rude person who asked the first questions.

Briefly, Connell touched upon four topics:

  • Reexamining feminism for the global age and considering feminism outside of the metropole
  • Exploring what forms of knowledge are appropriate for global times
  • Discovering theories of gender from the South
  • Putting sociology on the right scale

Feminism always validated the voices of marginalized groups, not just women. Also, there was always connection to women in the wider world, ever since WWI and the creation of the still-existing Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF).

More recently, feminism has a been part of development studies and programs, women in development programs, and has therefore had a global reach. Now, we see that in the whole women and globalization, transnational feminist networks, movements fields.

But the existence of literature has not necessarily translated into gender theorizing. We should be building theories, concepts and analyses of neoliberal globalization and imperialism. Imperialism was built on a gendered workforce (military, missionaries) and now there is a masculinized workforce of neocolonialism.

Once conquest has occurred, the colonial economy is a gendered process: indigenous men overseen by other men, masculinity in the colonial milieu took indigenous men away from the pastoral context (also gendered) into industrial or extractive settings. Still today, transnational economics is gendered with things like maquiladoras, gender-based violence that takes place there.

So, there is a transformation of gender meanings on a global scale, that can be partly seen in global commercial imagery of gender.

What form of knowledge about gender are going to be adequate to account for these changes? What forms of gender theorizing? Such a central theoretical work in gender studies has been Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, but it uses exclusively Western sources (Connell also pleads guilty to that in her earlier work). The point is not point the finger at certain individuals but to recognize that this is an institutional failure of a global political economy of knowledge. There is no mention of indigenous knowledge. This leads to dilemmas of peripheral intellectuals in relation to Western science and indigenous knowledge: how to relate to such different types of knowledge considering the differential value attached to them in our epistemological hierarchies.

So, how does one bring in the indigenous knowledge? Connell uses the example of Aboriginal dot painting, and more specifically Sugar Leaf Dreaming (left, click on the image for a larger view, it is gorgeous).

This art embeds social dilemmas and issues and possible resolution. It encapsulates knowledge of social tensions and potential resolution. There is gender and social knowledge. This is indigenous knowledge.

Globalizing gender studies means reaching out towards epistemological diversity and a mosaic of theories.

Also, one should not underestimate (as Western theories might do) the impact of colonization. Indigenous communities are communities in crisis. All colonized (or formerly colonized) societies are societies in crisis if they survive, due to the disruptions of colonization. These disruptions have been extensive and gendered.

So what could we have instead, beyond simply globalizing metropolitan knowledge. What steps and resources should be used in reorienting Western feminisms.

Connell outlines four themes:

1. Feminism involves studying and promoting the breakthrough to voice of women in patriarchal cultures both in the metropole and colonized world but the dynamics are different, precisely because of colonization, and the relationship between colonizer and colonized.

2. Violence: in metropolitan gender theory, gender violence is seen as a toxic side effect of gender hierarchies. But gender violence has to be seen in the context of colonialism. In colonized societies, violence (colonizing violence) is much more central to the analysis of gender. For instance, in The Intimate Enemy, Ashis Nandy describes how Indian intellectuals reconstructed masculinity of both the colonized and the colonizer experience.

Similarly, Veena Das, in Critical Events, explores the nature of social sciences but also the idea that conflicts between men are fought on the bodies of women, through rape and violence (DRC, anyone?).

3. Out of Latin American thought comes the idea that the formation of identities comes through social struggle rather than the other way around. For instance, for Sonia Montecino, feminine identities are formed in struggle. She distinguishes two kinds of women’s movements based on political struggles:

(1) maternalist social movement (Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo) because of the legitimacy of mothers;

(2) struggles of women in the workplace against employers, the state and husbands. These struggles construct different gender identities.

Connell identifies the same type of work with Robert Morrell and the notion of competing patriarchies in South Africa.

4. Critique of white Western feminism from the periphery, for instance through the work of Oyeronke Oyewumi, The Invention Of Women: Making An African Sense Of Western Gender Discourses, which discusses feminism as neocolonial power.

Connell concluded with the idea that we have to recognize the capacity for intercultural learning. So, what kind of knowledge counts as knowledge? What counts as theory? And to the question “Can the subaltern speak?” she asks, “can the metropole listen?” how to insert different modes of knowledge into the metropolitan knowledge circuits? We need democratic exchanges across immense inequalities if we are to have  an epistemological democracy on a global scale.

Savage Extraction – Football Edition

It is an interesting (and depressing) report but it is always annoying to have a “thank goodness white people are the only well-intended and honest people ready to save these poor African children” segment. That being said, it is still worth watching as a form of resource extraction from the Global South to the Global North:

Saskia Sassen Brings Back the Social and Historical to Haiti’s Disaster

Why oh why doesn’t Saskia Sassen have her own blog? *SocProf laments* If she did, I wouldn’t have to go to that vile place to read her columns! And what a great column it is, bringing back some context to the Haiti situation, relating it to the rise and triumph of neoliberal globalization. After all, it is only stupidity, racism and ignorance of history that allow some people comment on the fact that Haiti shares the island with the Dominican Republic and they’re not in the same awful situation, so there. Such ignoramuses should be made to read Mario Vargas Llosa’s book The Feast of the Goat to get a sense of how the DR is different from Haiti.

There is indeed no way the situation in Haiti can be understood without referring back to structural adjustment programs that have strangled so many countries of the Global South as well as the debt crisis (thoroughly explained in Noreen Hertz’s book The Debt Threat: How Debt Is Destroying the Developing World…and Threatening Us All). Haiti perfectly illustrates the mechanisms of neocolonialism and how Western countries (in this case, mainly France and the US) managed to keep a tight leash on their former colonies through the mechanisms of global governance (and let’s not forget that Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier got to enjoy some nice time on the French Riviera after his ousting).

What is the solution to the debt crisis? According to Sassen,

And please let us be spared the argument that Haitians will never learn responsibility if the debt is simply canceled. the debt crisis was largely caused by the global institutions and banks in search of place to unload the cash they were flushed with in the 60s and the 70s. Quite often, Western-sponsored dictatorships in the Global South engaged in debt in order to either enrich cronies of various sorts or provide some development as carrots against their dictatorial sticks. When the countries returned to democratic governance in the 1980s, these governments were left with mountains of debt and the consequences of tyrannical rule (see Argentina or Brazil, for instance). They were left with no choice but to submit to the dictates of the IMF with devastating consequences.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I gotta go dig up that Globalizations article Sassen mentions.

Landgrabbing 101

Over at Farmland Grab (a must-read resource for everything related to the oh-so neocolonial practice of using peripheral farm land for our own purposes), there is very good and succinct presentation on the basics of land grab (in French).

Below are the most interesting slides.

This world map that summarizes the situation. Look at Sub-Saharan Africa where land lease is combined with severe hunger whereas the major buyers are the Gulf states and parts of North Africa (where desertification is a problem).

Land Grab

Here is a list (in French) of the major land sellers or leasers:

Landgrab Sellers

And the major land buyers:

Landgrab Buyers

See the difference? The majority of the buyers are not countries but private companies even though states play a major role in facilitating the transfer of land in exchange for money in cash-deprived countries. These private companies are either agribusiness firms (gotta produce all this ethanol and soy and corn) or pension funds and other financial investors.

The consequences of landgrab are already well-known: monocultures for export, which means loss of biodiversity and destruction of local subsistence agriculture and land ownership for the local population.