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27946: Lalanne (news) Author gives insight into Haitian politics (fwd)
From: "P. Lalanne" <email@example.com>
Book Review: Author gives insight into Haitian politics
February 19, 2006
Special to the San Antonio Express-News
Notes From the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti
By Michael Deibert. Foreword by Raoul Peck.
Seven Stories Press, $22.95
Thomas Jefferson was aghast: In 1791, Haitian slaves revolted against
France, establishing the Western Hemisphere's second republic. The principal
author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence feared that this successful
Caribbean revolution would foster "a great disposition to insurgency among
American slaves," a war that would "never end but in the extermination of one
or the other race." To forestall that dread possibility, he cut off all trade
to the new state, and refused to extend it diplomatic recognition, expecting
to bankrupt its future.
His strategy worked, and a century later Woodrow Wilson sealed Haiti's
fate. In 1915, he sent in the Marines, an occupation that lasted until the
mid-1930s; the occupiers wrote a new constitution that granted them unilateral
power, built an island-wide road system with forced labor, and disrupted
Haitian political maturation, reinforcing its crippling colonial legacy.
But Haiti also has been wracked with more than its share of internal
torment, as journalist Michael Deibert demonstrates in his gripping first
book. A Reuters' correspondent in the capital city of Port-au-Prince from 2001
to 2003, Deibert has a sharp eye for the complicating ironies of history. Not
least of which is the way that past brutalities have shaped contemporary
behavior. Jean-Jacques Dessaline's bloody reprisals against European
slave-owners in the early 1800s found their parallel in the 1950s as Papa Doc
Duvalier unleashed a terrifying cycle "of tin-pot despotism and pointless
bloodletting." Even once-heralded reformers turned vicious: broad-based
opposition to Jean-Bertrand Aristide was part of an enduring struggle "against
the two-century tradition of electoral coup d'Ã©tats."
The complex tale of Aristide's rise, fall and exile, his return and
is the central focus of "Notes From the Last Testament." A compelling mix of
reportage, memoir, social criticism, it offers a searching, if at times
garrulous, account of contemporary Haitian political culture.
Aristide had been the people's priest, in the 1980s using his pulpit to
defend the defenseless. Booted out of his religious order, he later wrote: "I
did not invent class struggle any more than Karl Marx did. But who can avoid
encountering class struggle in the heart of Port-au-Prince? It is not a
subject of controversy, but a fact, a given." That insight, and the electoral
clout that came with it, powered Aristide into the presidency in December
By the next September a military junta had forced him into exile, but
years later, courtesy of a Clinton-administration negotiation that was
enforced with 25,000 U.S. and international troops, Aristide returned as
Deibert masterfully recounts what then ensued: wild swings in the
republic's political compass as Aristide and his equally mean-spirited
opponents jockeyed for position and power, using the streets and slums as
stages on which to assault those arrayed against them. The drumbeat of
violence, like machine-gun fire, echoes through his narrative, and as the
casualties mount, the former priest bears the brunt of Deibert's angered
scrutiny: "Seldom has a leader betrayed the legitimate hopes of so many so
thoroughly. In all its essentials â?? the killing of civilians, restriction of
personal and professional liberty, the subjugation of all state institutions
to the whim of the executive branch â?? the Aristide government deserved to be
overthrown as much as any in Haiti."
Pushed out by popular protest and international pressure, Aristide's
exile has not brought peace, a conundrum Deibert underscores in his
conclusion: "Haiti is populated by some of the more resourceful, hard-working
and decent people in the world, despite the face the political culture
presents, but they cannot change the country on their own," a hopeful and
Char Miller is director of Urban Studies at Trinity University, and editor of
"50 Years of the Texas Observer."
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