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Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment Paperback – 1 Jan 2007
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Very convincing, a marvellous book. This riveting and deeply-informed account should be carefully read by those who recognize that Haiti s tragic history is a microcosm of imperial savagery and heroic resistance resistance which, as Hallward argues, will continue to shape Haiti s political future if its people are granted the opportunity to take their fate into their own hands. - --Noam Chomsky, MIT.
Damming the Flood demonstrates that, contrary to what so many self-proclaimed experts have led us to believe with the steady diet of half-truths and outright lies they have been feeding us, it is indeed possible to get Haiti right. All it takes is a healthy dose of respect for a nation and a people so deserving of it, and an uncompromising devotion to the truth. - --Patrick Elie, political activist and former Secretary of State for National Defense, Haiti.
Damming the Flood is an excellent book, the best study of its kind. It offers the first accurate analysis of recent Haitian history, and of its history in the making. Finally, we have an honest rendering of how the Haitian poor sought to advance their struggle for dignity at the close of the twentieth century, and of the forces that have stymied their struggle. Hallward s new book is required reading for anyone who seeks to know Haiti and to understand the forces arrayed against all those who believe in genuine democracy. Paul Farmer, Harvard University. - --Paul Farmer, Harvard University.
About the Author
Peter Hallward teaches at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy at Middlesex University in the UK. Before moving to Middlesex he taught for several years in the French department at King s College London. His research ranges across several debates in recent continental philosophy and the reception of post-colonial literature; he also works on some of the obstacles currently facing progressive political movements in various parts of the world. Damming the Flood (2007) is his fourth book, after Absolutely Postcolonial (2001), Badiou: A Subject to Truth (2003), and Out of this World: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Creation (2006).
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"Christian Aid's Haitian partner organisations have ample evidence of serious human rights abuses and misrule committed by Aristide and his supporters. Despite his populist rhetoric, Aristide failed to take any serious measures during his last period in office that would address Haiti's underlying problems of growing poverty, glaring inequality and the exclusion of ordinary people from any say in the way the country is governed."
So wrote Helen Spraos of the Christian Aid field office in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, a few days after Jean-Bertrand Aristide's departure from the country. She was responding to Peter Hallward's Guardian article "Why they had to crush Aristide", which misleadingly presented the Haitian president, she said, as "a champion of the poor".
TV news, mainstream politicians and journalists in the previous week had told the same story as Spraos: Aristide was an inspiring popular leader - a former priest - who had toppled the dictatorship of "Baby Doc" Duvalier but then gone bad: drunk on power, he had become yet another brutal, corrupt third-world tyrant. Thank heavens that the US and France moved quickly to restore order once he had seen the writing on the wall and agreed to leave. Admittedly, this was 2004, and anyone with eyes and ears could see that news media and politicians often travel at some distance from the truth. But Spraos was not a journalist or a diplomat: here was a woman who had devoted her working life to helping the poor, who was there on the ground, who could see the situation with her own eyes.
And who is Hallward? A professional philosopher, at home in the murkier vortices of French thought, but with no obvious qualification to comment on Caribbean politics. For him to argue not only that the conventional story about Aristide's fall was not only wrong in every respect, but diametrically opposed to the truth, was surely an attempt to turn white into black. To persist in this error over the 488 pages of Damming the Flood must, even his critics would have to agree, have taken some nerve.
But a few facts are enough to leave that conventional story in tatters. Hallward points out that human rights abuses - politically motivated violence and arrests, for instance - were much lower under Aristide and his Fanmi Lavalas government than under the military dictatorships that preceded him or the internationally supported, unelected transitional government that followed him. He emphasises the grotesque disparities of wealth that underlie the political resolution, and sometimes ruthlessness, of rich and poor alike in Haiti, and the contempt of the former for the latter. He shows how flimsy was the basis of allegations of fraud in the 2000 elections, which Aristide's political and class opponents used to justify their refusal to accept his government. He traces the lines of influence, finance and weaponry leading from the US International Republican Institution and the apparently humanitarian USAID to Haitian opposition groups and rebels. And reminds us that it is a poor tyrant indeed who disbands his national army and then fails to create any armed force to replace it, as Aristide did, the famous chimères being little more than slum dwellers mobilised to protect themselves against the US- and elite-backed rebels.
So much for the consensus on Haiti. But there is more to the book that a simple setting straight of the record. The sometimes dizzying detail that Hallward shows how sophisticated the world's great powers have become in their manipulation of weaker, less powerful, exploitable states. Money, privileges, jobs and weapons can be distributed via a huge number of benign-seeming groups: as Hallward puts it, many non-governmental organisations would be better called other-governmental organisations. Haitian beneficiaries of US generosity - with clear though deniable links to the US government - included human rights groups, journalists and women's organisations: what could be wrong with supporting people such as these? The answer becomes clear when Hallward details the interconnections of the personnel involved with the wealthy Haitian elite and the American right-wing establishment. Behind the language of "sensitisation" and "capacity building" and, especially and ironically, "democritisation", is a spreading network of obligation, self-interest and shifted allegiances. This is the context in which to read Helen Spraos's letter to the Guardian and to question the political presumptions of "Christian Aid's Haitian partner organisations". It doesn't take much to buy people in a country as poor as Haiti, where politics, as Hallward reminds us again and again, is not a matter of opinion or taste but of economic and sometimes physical survival. Having sent the opposition wagon rolling, freighted with dollars and guns and ambition, the US and its allies could step back, show the world their clean hands and let it roll on.
In the end, however, Hallward argues, the anti-Lavalas forces underestimated just how popular Aristide was. A large part of the population remained loyal to him, and does to this day: in the 2006 elections, the US-backed opposition was wiped out and Aristide's close ally René Préval voted in as president. When armed rebellion got going in 2004 and took control of several major towns and cities, it was far from clear that it would be able to take the capital, Port-au-Prince, which looked certain to be fiercely defended by Aristide's partisans. In the end, Aristide was only persuaded to leave by a night-time visit from the US ambassador, accompanied by heavily armed men, warning that a bloodbath was inevitable if he stayed. For Hallward and Aristide, this was a coup, an abduction. Whatever was said or done that night, Aristide remains in exile, charged with no crime, apparently at the insistence of the US and its allies.
This reader is convinced. But I am already deeply suspicious of US governments and business. I am quite ready to accept that the powerful people of this world are ruthless liars. Hallward may not have gone far enough out of his way to win over those who are less critical than me of the global political and economic order, or find it hard to accept that well-brought-up and educated middle-class men in suits can be responsible for the cruelties inflicted on poor Haitians, or believe that international aid workers and United Nations agencies are always principled agents of good. He devotes many pages to considering the allegations against Aristide and his governments, and is prepared to accept that some charges may have some slight foundation. Where he cannot establish a single plausible account of a particular event, he says so, and gives a range of possible interpretations, both favourable and unfavourable to Aristide and Fanmi Lavalas. But his alignment is clear: he does not allow his version of the story to be defined by Aristide's enemies or by the mainstream consensus. This must alienate some of those sceptical of his position or who begin with acceptance of that consensus.
It is also not clear to me what Hallward's criteria for establishing the truth of events is. He cites his sources meticulously, and they range from dispatches in the mainstream, commercial media to reports from independent human rights organisations, academic books and papers, UN reports, the US government's own publications and material from politically aligned media sources and activists. He has corresponded with and interviewed a large number of pro-Aristide activists, and rather fewer of his opponents. But I wasn't sure how to judge the reliability of each individual original report or research, which are often assimilated to form a seamless narrative in the text.
But these doubts do not threaten Hallward's broader accounts, nor his analysis. Some will be put off by the density of material: though Hallward writes with wonderful lucidity and occasional flashes of bitter humour, this is not a quick read. But no one can attend to the book and still see Aristide as a despot, Fanmi Lavalas as a mafia and the international community as a force for good in Haiti - no one, that is, but someone blind to the simple truths of power and suffering.
Would have wished to have read a little more about Aristide the man and his background as preparation for the upheavals that he subsquently had to go through.
For those wishing an in-depth analysis of Haitain politics during the last 25 years or so, it has to be recommended reading. Those looking for a quicker and easier read may need to look elsewhere.
Most of the chapters are on the period from 1991 till 2006 in which Aristide became the central figure in Haitian politics and a target for the French and US governments as a result of his involvement with masses of the poorest Haitians, working along with them to organise self-help groups and a political movement.
Hallward does not hide the darker side of Aristide - his speeches on the usefulness of machetes or on letting the wealthiest 'have what they deserve' if they refuse to share their wealth, but points out the context - in which agents of dictators, military dictators and the US government massacred Aristide's parishioners with guns and machetes during church sermons - and in which political violence was reduced massively while Aristide was in power.
Hallward lays bare the duplicity of the US and French governments (the latter through the EU) in painting Aristide as behind most political violence in Haiti while they have actually trained and armed most of the killers.
The copiously sourced and well argued book shows how these governments managed an international propaganda campaign to discredit Aristide and paint him as a corrupt dictator when in fact he has consistently won the support of the majority of Haitians in free and fair elections and massively reduced political violence before the last US-organised military coup against him in 2004. One method has been for US officials to pay money to Haitian politicians to denounce Aristide, then get the Associated Press to report this, then have US-funded newspapers and radio stations quote AP as confirming Aristide's supposed guilt.
Anyone who wants to understand Haitian politics and the way Haitians are now bound in a new form of slavery and slow starvation by the US and French governments should read this book. It is not a pleasant subject to read about, but with the number of lives lost as a result - and the number that could be saved by more public pressure on 'developed world' governments - it's an important one.