On 26 August 1789, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was adopted by the National Constituent Assembly in revolutionary Paris. The adoption of the Declaration has often been understood as a foundational moment in the development of the epoch in human history now often thought of as modernity. The Declaration affirmed a set of freedoms and a commitment to popular sovereignty. It began with the affirmation that “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.”

The Declaration, with its commitment to natural rights, did not arrive ex nihilo. The American Revolution of 1783, and in particular the Declaration of Independence (1776), was a key influence. Some of the principles codified in these documents were taken from the Magna Carta, adopted in England in 1215 as a compromise between King John and a rebellious aristocracy, that affirmed the liberties of the “freemen of England”. As Robin Blackburn notes, with the Declaration of Independence the American Revolution “took a historic leap beyond the particularistic notion of ‘the rights of Englishmen’” but for the great majority of its partisans the phrase ‘all men’ “did not include Indians, Negroes, women and children”. The sphere in which limited freedoms were affirmed was extended, in spatial terms, from England to North America at the same time as it was ring-fenced in racial terms.

Similarly, it soon became clear that the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen would not include all of humanity in the count of who was part of the idea of ‘man’. The first feminist critique of the rights announced in revolutionary Paris, the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, appeared in 1791. Its author, Olympe de Gouges, was sent to the guillotine in 1793. Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published in 1792. The Société des amis des Noirs [Society of the Friends of the Blacks], or Amis des noirs, which was founded in 1788, and continued its work until 1793, advocated, ineffectually, for the gradual abolition of slavery.

But, when the question of slavery was discussed in the Constituent Assembly in March 1790, a decree was passed declaring that support for any uprising against the French colonists on the plantations of the Caribbean would be taken as treason. The revolution was implicated in the entrenchment of the ideology, first developed to justify slavery in the United States and the Caribbean, that declared an ontological split in the human, a split that rendered some more human than others, and that tied ontological fantasies of a graduated humanity to the ascription of race – race imagined as biological fact.

The Haitian Revolution

Much of the wealth of the French bourgoisie – wealth that enabled it to see and attain a future beyond the rule of the aristocracy – came from its colonies. Saint-Domingue, an island in the Caribbean, produced more of this wealth than any other colony. By 1787 more than 40,000 Africans arrived each year to labour as slaves in the plantations that produced sugar, along with coffee, cotton and indigo. Many were worked to death.

On or around the night of 14 August 1791, a group of enslaved Africans gathered at Bois Caïman in Saint-Domingue. They met under the leadership of Dutty Boukman, a Yoruba man who had first been enslaved in Jamaica. They summoned Ogun, the Yoruba God of iron and war, and began an insurrection. Within hours nearby plantations were burning. As soon as news of the rebellion reached France the founder of the Amis des noirs called for its immediate repression. On 29 August 1793, Toussaint Bréda, who was born on Saint-Domingue, announced his new name, Toussaint Louverture [The Opening], and his commitment to the gathering revolt. Boukman was killed by the French in November that year, and his head publicly displayed as a warning to other rebels. Louverture became the leader of the insurrection.

Toussaint Louverture

Toussaint Louverture

In July 1794, Louverture excoriated the slave owners “in the eyes of humanity” and announced that “[w]e are your equals then, by natural right.” As C.L.R. James noted in his A History of Pan-African Revolt, first published in 1938, the leaders of the slave revolt “embraced the revolutionary doctrine” announced in Paris as their own “and fought under the slogans of liberty and equality”. James took the question of the human seriously arguing that: “They enslaved the Negro, they said, because he was not a man, and when he behaved like a man they called him a monster.” Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker note that, as is so often the case, “[t]he idiom of monstrosity sanctioned violent, steady repression.”

Louverture would sustain his commitment to a universal conception of humanity, and the immediate and equal rights accruing to that status, until his death in exile in a French prison in the Jura mountains on 7 April 1803. Now under the command of Jean-Jacques Dessalines the army forged by Loverture, fighting under the banner of ‘Liberty or Death!’, went on to attain the independence of Saint-Domingue, end slavery and become the first black republic in the modern world, renamed Haiti, on 1 January 1804. As James himself later noted his path-breaking, and now classic account of the revolution, The Black Jacobins, also first published in 1938, placed considerable emphasis on the leaders of the revolution. But, as Carolyn Fick has shown, the success of the revolution was consequent to sustained commitment from below. “The masses had resisted the French from the very beginning, in spite of, and not because of, their leadership. They had shouldered the whole burden and paid the price of resistance all along, and it was they who had now made possible the political and military reintegration of the leaders in the collective struggle.”

John Thornton has shown that, particular in the early stages of the revolution, this collective fortitude was animated, to a significant degree, by ideas and practices brought to the island by people enslaved from the Kongo Kingdom. These ideas and practices intersected with new ideas and practices, including a public sphere, with elite and insurgent dimensions, that straddled the Atlantic. Its popular forms were largely developed via sailors and dock workers on ships and at ports and became what Paul Gilroy has called a modern counterculture. The Haitian Revolution was not just an eminently modern event, it was also, as has often been argued in recent years, a constitutively modern event.

Responses to the Revolution

In a reflection on the bicentennial anniversary of the revolution, Peter Hallward argued that “[t]he Haitian revolution is a powerful illustration of the way in which any actively universal prescription is simultaneously an exceptional and divisive revaluation of a hitherto unrepresentable or ‘untouchable’ aspect of its situation.” Domination organised around a conception of graduated humanity can, under pressure, often reform itself to include a commitment to the recognition of universal humanity in the abstract, often in terms of the law. But, in the absence of outright defeat, it is seldom willing to grant this recognition in the realm of the concrete. As Aimé Césaire observed: “[T]he colonizer pushes the colonized to desire an abstract equality. But equality refuses to remain abstract. And what an affair it is when the colonized takes back the word on his own account to demand that it not remain a mere word!” In an oppressive situation the affirmation of universal humanity, with a universal and immediate entitlement to political and material rights, is inevitably fundamentally divisive.

News of the triumph of the revolution in Haiti rushed around the world and was received with tremendous enthusiasm in black counterpublics. In Cuba images of Louverture were passed from ships to men working on the docks, and then on to people enslaved on the plantations. The Haitian Declaration of Independence was translated into Spanish, published and circulated. Rebellions were attempted across the Caribbean, in Brazil and the United States. The possibility that the Haitian revolution was a factor in the Cape slave revolt of 1808 has been raised by a number of authors. In Charleston, Virginia, a slave rebellion was planned, largely via the African Methodist Episcopal Church, from late 1821 and scheduled for 16 June 1822. Denmark Vesey, the leader of the revolt, had previously been enslaved in Saint-Domingue and the slaves aimed to escape to Haiti. Vesey was betrayed and then executed before the revolt could be enacted. This is the same church in which a fascist, who posed for a photograph with the Rhodesian and old South African flags on his jacket, murdered nine people on 17 June 2015.

The Haitian revolution immediately became, and has remained, central to the imagination of various international black publics and projects such as, for instance, the Pan-African movement. However, with occasional exceptions, like Wordsworth’s poem for Louverture, published early in 1803, its reception in sites and circuits of knowledge authorised by European and colonial power was very different.

In Silencing the Past the Haitian historian, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, shows that on the eve of the insurrection in Saint-Domingue in 1790, colonial authority was simply unable to imagine the possibility of a slave revolt. He quotes a letter from a colonist to his wife in Paris in which the writer declared: “There is no movement among our Negroes…They don’t even think of it. They are very tranquil and obedient. A revolt among them is impossible… Freedom for the Negroes is a chimera”. He concludes that “the contention that Africans and their descendants could not envision freedom – let alone formulate strategies for gaining and securing such freedom – was based not so much on empirical evidence as on an ontology, an implicit organisation of the world and its inhabitants”. Trouillot is careful to show that the ontological assumptions that made African agency unthinkable in Saint-Domingue before and during the revolution were also present in the extreme left in France.

When the reality of the revolution had to be confronted it was often understood as monstrous. In 1805, the French foreign minister wrote to the US Secretary of State, James Madison, declaring: “The existence of a Negro people in arms, occupying a country it has soiled by the most criminal acts is a horrible spectacle for all white nations.” Paul Farmer explains that “[v]irtually all the world’s powers sided with France against the self-proclaimed Black Republic, which declared itself a haven not only for runaway slaves but also for indigenous people from the rest of the Americas.” Embargoes were enforced and, in 1825, the Haitian government was forced to pay France ‘compensation’ for the loss of its slaves. Money had to be borrowed, at extortionate rates, to pay the debt that, at the end of the nineteenth century, took around 80% of the national budget. It was only fully paid off in 1947.

Trouillot also shows that colonial ontology continued to shape academic accounts of the revolution in Euro-American thought for almost two centuries. Intellectuals of the stature of Eric Hobsbawm and Hannah Arendt could write on revolution without taking the Haitian revolution seriously. In 1995, Trouillot concluded that: “the narrative structures of Western historiography have not broken with the ontological order of the Renaissance”. He stressed that this was as true for historians on the left as on the right. In Sibylle Fischer’s estimation the Euro-American idea of modernity as a democratic and egalitarian project emerged, and was sustained, via the active disavowal of attempts, most significantly in Haiti, to extend equality and democracy to all human beings without regard to race.

For a long time it was largely out of the academy, and via the work of radical black intellectuals like C.L.R. James and, later, Aimé Césaire, that the Haitian Revolution was taken seriously. James’ book was read clandestinely during apartheid and was taken as an important text by anti-apartheid activists in exile. It’s only in the last fifteen years, and in particular in the last ten years, that the Haitian Revolution has begun to be taken seriously in the mainstream of the Euro-American academy and the commanding heights of its progressive public sphere.

Contemporary Haitian Politics

In a letter written in 1797, Louverture declared that the restoration of the plantations was “the only thing that may give Saint-Domingue back its old splendor”. This vision of freedom as a transition from slave labour to wage labour was rejected by the people that made the revolution who, instead, set up a system of autonomous family-based agriculture. It has been described as being characterised by an evident egalitarianism sustained with social technologies that functioned to limit the development of hierarchy and inequality. It endured for well more than a century.

But, as Hallward has shown, “[t]he deeply subversive success of Haiti’s revolution provoked both at home and abroad a counter-revolution that in many ways continues to this day.” Haiti was occupied by the United States in 1915 – in the name of ‘humanity’, ‘civilization’ and all the rest – and subject to an openly racist mode of rule that included organised prostitution, forced labour and attempts to suppress spiritual practices with their roots in Africa. The occupying forces took over the national bank, appropriated the country’s entire gold reserve and took it to the National City Bank in New York. Land was expropriated to set up plantations and an army was established – an army whose only enemy would be the Haitian people.

The American occupation, dominated by white soldiers from the South, produced a profoundly racist imagination of Haiti in popular American culture. Fantastical and lurid representations of ‘voodoo’ in horror films played a particularly pernicious role in this process. Racist fantasies endure into the present – and often permeate the media, as well as academic and scientific discourse. Paul Farmer notes that when the AIDS epidemic first appeared in the United States it was frequently ascribed to Haitian contagion from “the little Africa off the coast of Florida”.

An armed revolt against the occupation broke out in 1918. The following year guerilla leader Charlemagne Péralte – described by the occupying forces as ‘the supreme bandit of Haiti’ – was betrayed and killed by the Marines. They tied his body, naked except for a loincloth, to a door, photographed it and dropped copies of the picture across the countryside. The image unintentionally evoked the crucifixion and become an icon in the resistance. But the revolt was defeated in 1922.

Charlemagne Péralte

Charlemagne Péralte

Among the ideas that developed in opposition to the occupation was noirisme. It sought to embrace the African dimension of Haitian life and history and to transfer power away from the light-skinned elites to the darker-skinned majority. Following a massacre of protesting peasants in 1929, the Americans began to rethink their strategy and, in 1934, the occupation was formally ended. In 1937, thousands of Haitians, perhaps up to a hundred thousand, working as migrant labourers in the cane fields of Cuba were expelled by the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship. Many of them sought refuge in the Dominican Republic. The Dominican President Rafael Leonidas, mobilising explicitly racist language, responded with a pogrom in which between twenty to thirty thousand Haitians were massacred. Overtly racist hostility towards Haiti, and Haitians, continues to fester in the Dominican Republic – most recently taking the form of the mass expulsion of Haitians beginning in August 2015 and continuing into this year.

In 1943, Francois Duvalier, a young doctor, intellectual and activist committed to the noiriste movement, made his name via a successful American-backed immunisation campaign. In 1957, he was elected into power via a rigged election. Duvalier set up his own militia, the notorious Tontons Macoutes, who, in Hallward’s formulation, “were given the right to extract a living from the local population in return for preserving its docility”. Leftists and pro-democracy activists were subject to particular harassment, frequently taking the form of torture and murder – including indiscriminate massacres. Estimates of the number of people killed under the dictatorship range as high as 50,000. The vast bulk of the professional class fled the country. The dictatorship, consistently backed by the United States, took an anti-communist position and conspired against the Cuban Revolution. Duvalier died in 1971 and power passed to his son who held it until 1986 when, facing a popular rebellion, he fled to France on a US plane and retirement on the French Riviera.

The rebellion against the dictatorship was driven by small popular organisations, usually locally organised, often linked to the church and subject to serious repression, mostly via paramilitary forces. Popular mobilisation continued inspired, Hallward writes, by “the modest though revolutionary principles of liberation theology’s preferential option for the poor – and affirmation of the dignity and equality of the people”. The allied statement Tout moun se moun [Every person is a person], a formulation with obvious African roots, became a foundational political axiom in this struggle.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a Catholic priest committed to liberation theology and its central idea, that emancipation can only be attained by the self-activity of the oppressed, became a charismatic figure in the popular movement. In 1988, he survived an armed attack on his church following which he was expelled from his order, the Society of St. Francis de Sales.

In 1990, Aristide was elected as president. He won more than two thirds of the vote in an election in which 80 percent of the electorate cast their votes. The US had invested $36-million in the campaign of his rival, former World Bank official Marc Bazin. On the day of the election a US delegation, led by Jimmy Carter, tried to persuade Aristide to renounced his overwhelming victory and offer the presidency to Bazin. Three weeks after the election, and a month before the date set for Aristide’s inauguration a first attempt was made at a coup – and thwarted by massive popular mobilisation.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide

Jean-Bertrand Aristide

In The Parish of the Poor, published in the year in which he was elected to the presidency, Aristide wrote that “Bolivar’s bright sword”, the sword of liberty, would be found “in the parishes of the poor”. “[T]he people”, he insisted, “will write their own fate.” Hallward describes Aristide’s politics as: “affirmative and egalitarian, based on the self-evident but explosive principle that tout moun se moun. Everyone counts as one, every person is endowed with the same essential dignity.” Hallward also notes that Aristide – committed to the idea that the oppressed must liberate themselves – stressed the political virtue of democratic forms of address and took the view that “[i]f politics is not clear and inclusive it is not politics at all”.

In office Aristide moved to reform the military that had contained and exploited the Haitian people for so long. But the military had strong US backing and reforms were limited. He also pursued a set of modest economic reforms, such as an increase to the minimum wage, price controls on basic foods and the redistribution of fallow land. Although these were not radical measures it was clear that Aristide was on the side of the people. Gestures that disrupted the symbolic order of Haitian society – like throwing a notorious Duvalier prison open to the public and inviting children from impoverished neighbourhoods to swim in the presidential pool – enabled a new confidence among the oppressed. It was matched by rapidly escalating paranoia among elites.

Haitian elites responded by making alliances with imperialism. In September 1991, the Haitian military abducted Aristide and removed him from office. As the military coup was unfolding the US flew in ammunition from their military base in Guantanamo. Following the coup the popular movement that had elected Aristide into office was subject to serious repression. Up to 300,000 people are reported to have gone into hiding and another 60,000 to have attempted to flee the island in makeshift boats. US troops were brought in to ‘uphold democracy’. Four or five thousand people were killed over the next three years.

In 1994, after demonstrations by Haitians living in the United States and pressure from African-American activists, President Bill Clinton allowed Aristide to return to Haiti, and to serve out the rest of his term. It was set to run until 1996, which was also the year when the US military was scheduled to exit. Clinton’s Deputy Secretary of State explained that: “Even after our [military] exit in February 1996 we will remain in charge by means of USAID and the private sector.” The conditions imposed by Clinton were onerous and Aristide’s return did not mark an affirmation of Haitian sovereignty. He had to accept a structural adjustment programme and to share power with the opposition that he had so soundly defeated in the election. In the coming years the idea that it would somehow be undemocratic for an elected leader not to cede power, in part or even in full, to an unelected and unpopular elite and foreign-backed opposition would continue to be presented as if it were democratic common sense.

Aristide’s most significant move was to disband the army – an army that had been set up by the US and only ever deployed against the Haitian people. Substantive economic reform was not possible within Clinton’s strictures but important symbolic gestures were made. New coins were minted with an image of Charlemagne Péralte. When small concessions to popular demands were made – such as allowing urban land occupations – they generated extraordinary fear and hostility among the Haitian elite. Hallward observed that despite the constraints on its autonomy Aristide’s party “remained the only significant force for popular mobilization in the country. No other political figure of the past fifty years has had anything like Aristide’s stature among the urban and rural poor. Reporting from Port-au-Prince in March 2004, the BBC’s correspondent was obliged to concede that, whereas Aristide was ‘universally reviled’ by the wealthy elite, he was still almost as universally affirmed by the great majority of the urban poor.”

Many people had wanted Aristide’s term to be extended till 2009, to make up for the three years during which Haiti had been run by the regime installed after the coup. But the US insisted that Aristide stand down in 1996. His Prime Minster, René Préval, won the election with 88 percent of the vote.

In 2000, Aristide was re-elected to the presidency with 92 percent of the vote. With George Bush in office the American state was acutely hostile. USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy invested heavily in the project of creating a vocal opposition – an opposition that lacked any kind of popular support – via investment in ‘civil society’. There were cases where Aristide’s supporters engaged in violence, sometimes as a matter of self-defence. But there is no doubt that the period of his rule was, by a very considerable distance, the freest, and least violent in Haitian history at any point since the American invasion in 1915. But American support for ‘civil society’ was matched with support for armed opposition to Aristide’s government. The first incursion into Haiti, via the Dominican Republic, happened in July 2001. In December, there was an airborne assault on the presidential residence and, during the following year, attacks on rural police stations.

Thabo Mbeki

In June 2003, then President Thabo Mbeki, speaking about Haiti at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica, said: “Next year, 2004, this Caribbean country will celebrate the bicentenary of its birth as the first black republic in the world. We, for our part, will be celebrating the 10th anniversary of our liberation from apartheid.

“We have agreed with the Government of Haiti that, to the extent possible, we should work together to celebrate in an appropriate manner both anniversaries, informed by the fact that the victory of the African slaves in Haiti in 1804 is directly linked to the victory of the African oppressed in South Africa in 1994.”

Mbeki, noting that very few people in South Africa knew about the Haitian Revolution, argued that “we should use the occasion of the bicentenary of the Haitian revolution to inspire especially our youth to understand the capacity of the African masses in Africa and the Diaspora to change their social conditions”. He also sounded a note of caution observing that the response to the Haitian Revolution was very different to that of the French and American revolutions. He suggested that examining the reasons for this may help to explain “why, in many respects, the African condition, certainly in sub-Saharan Africa, has been worsening over a number of years, despite the fact that we now exist as black republics, as Haiti has done for two hundred years”. He ended his remarks with a reading of the poem Invictus.

Back home Mbeki continued to speak about the meaning of the Haitian Revolution. In October that year he wrote: “The African slaves of Haiti laid down their lives to ensure that the democratic and republican ideals of the American and French Revolutions truly applied to all human beings. They made enormous sacrifices to give universal meaning to the prescriptions of the American Revolution that “all men are born equal”, and those of the French Revolution, incorporated in the Declaration on the Rights of Man, of liberty, equality and fraternity.

“The sacrifices they made established their place in human history as true democrats and republicans, even surpassing those in America and France who are celebrated in school textbooks as the global architects of democracy and republicanism. Because of what they did, they had to pay a price imposed on them by those who claimed the right to describe themselves as the world’s best democrats and republicans.”

Mbeki went on to note that: “Those who did nothing or very little to secure the victory of the slaves, positioned themselves as the best friends of the liberated slaves, the best advisers of what the free slaves should do with their freedom.”

In December 2003, on the eve of the bicentennial of the Haitian Revolution, Aristide issued a demand to France to pay reparations, in the sum of $21-billion dollars, the contemporary value of the money that Haiti had been forced to pay France after the abolition of slavery. This escalated tensions with the imperial powers, especially France and the United States, and worsened the presentation of Aristide as unbalanced in the international media – which, as Jeb Sprague has shown, had long relied on sources such as Haitian elites, US diplomats, USAID and so on. Aristide was demonised in the French media, including its left-wing titles. Jacques Chirac warned: “Before bringing up claims of this nature I cannot stress enough to the authorities of Haiti the need to be very vigilant about—how should I put it—the nature of their actions and their regime.” Calls from the ‘international community’ and ‘civil society’ for Aristide to resign and cede power to an opposition that had never been elected, and clearly had no popular support, became more strident.

The French and American governments placed significant pressure on other governments to not attend the commemoration of the bicentennial of the Haitian Revolution in Port-au-Prince. Mbeki’s stated commitment to be there was received with open hostility by forces opposed to the elected government in Haiti. For instance, Groupe 184 declared that Mbeki was not welcome in Haiti and that his visit would be received as “an insult”. This was widely covered in the South African media, and without critique. Groupe 184 was funded by the European Commission at the behest of France. It was headed by a notorious sweatshop owner, who was also the owner of the largest television station in the country, and devoid of any credible claim to popular support. It was repeatedly and uncritically referred to as a ‘civil society’ organisation in a manner that suggested democratic legitimacy.

On 1 January 2004, Mbeki was, despite the pressure, in Port-au-Prince for the event as promised. He was the only foreign head of state present. In his speech he declared that “[t]oday we celebrate because from 1791 to 1803, our heroes, led by the revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture and others, dared to challenge those who had trampled on these sacred things that define our being as Africans and as human beings.” Tens of thousands of people attended the celebrations. Mbeki was excoriated in the South African media, and by the Democratic Alliance (DA) whose then leader, Tony Leon, described Aristide as “the Mugabe of the Caribbean”. The DA referred to Mbeki’s visit as a misuse of taxpayers’ money, a disaster and a fiasco. It declared: “Because of his over-emotional response to Haiti’s 200th anniversary … President Mbeki, alone among African or world leaders, insisted on participating in the celebration.”

The Mail & Guardian ran a story under the title ‘Mbeki’s Haitian Party’ that, without critique, recycled the most base propaganda emerging from the forces preparing the coup to come. Mbeki’s spokesperson, Bheki Khumalo, was quoted as saying that “Haitians themselves must decide the make-up of their government” and that the visit “had to do with an affirmation of the dignity of black people” but the headline had already set the story in a very different frame. It was clear that liberal South Africa, from the media to the parliamentary opposition, remained profoundly invested in the ontological order established by colonialism. When Mbeki, at the request of Caribbean leaders, authorised a shipment of equipment, including arms, to Haiti the already shrill scorn and outrage from the liberal establishment, at home and abroad, escalated dramatically. But the axe fell before the shipment arrived.

On 29 February, Aristide was removed from his home, against his will, by the US military and flown to the Central African Republic – an authoritarian client state of France. French and American soldiers took control of Haiti. Hallward shows that liberal NGOs, like Action Aid, along with Batay Ouvriye, which he describes as “like any number of neo-Trotskyite sects… militant and inconsequential in equal measure”, offered ‘civil society’ legitimation for the coup that, at the hands of American soldiers, deposed an elected leader who continued to enjoy overwhelming popular support.

Writing in the immediate aftermath of the coup, Hallward observed that “the overthrow of Aristide has most often figured as yet another demonstration of perhaps the most consistent theme of Western commentary on the island: that poor black people remain incapable of governing themselves”.

The South African state joined with Caribbean states to request that there be an investigation, under the auspices of the United Nations, into “the circumstances leading to the departure of President Aristide”. The request was ignored.

A US, French and Canadian backed ‘Council of Eminent Persons’ chose Gerard Latortue, a former World Bank official, as the new prime minister and a government, made up of representatives of the traditional elite, was put together. Paramilitary attacks on neighbourhoods that were pro-Aristide became routine. The United Nations provided troops that secured the authority of the new government and continued the repression of the popular movement.

Two weeks after the coup Aristide was able to fly to Jamaica to be reunited with his family. The new regime in Port-au-Prince declared that his presence in the Caribbean would ‘destabalise Haiti’. Although the Caribbean Community, an alliance of fifteen states, refused to recognise the new government, the power of the US exceeded theirs and Aristide had to leave. He requested to be able to move to South Africa. Three months after the coup this was allowed. When Aristide and his family arrived in Johannesburg Mbeki was waiting to meet him at the airport and embraced him on the tarmac. Aristide made a brief statement of thanks in Zulu, a language he would go on to learn to speak fluently during his time in Pretoria.

When Aristide arrived in South Africa, and was given the respect due to a head of state, he was frequently treated as a criminal by the media and the South African state was subject to open scorn. The DA’s contempt was brazen. The media response often amounted to little more than an uncritical restatement of the US position. One journalist, Fiona Forde, pursued a propagandistic approach to the coup, and Aristide’s presence in South Africa, with particular vehemence. As late as 2009, when many of the facts relating to the coup had been established, she continued to report that Aristide had ‘fled’, making no reference to the fact that he was kidnapped, against his will, by the US military. She presented Aristide’s presence in South Africa as an abuse of taxpayers’ money. As recently as 2015 she implied that his presence here was consequent to corruption rather than a matter of solidarity. She quoted Latortue, who was placed at the head of the government after the coup, and whose record of violent repression in office is well documented, as if he was a credible voice on matters relating to Aristide.

A study published in The Lancet in 2006, found that around 4,000 people allied to Aristide’s party Fanmi Lavalas, and possibly more, had been killed in political violence in the greater Port-au-Prince area since the coup. When elections were held in 2006, Fanmi Lavalas was simply barred from participation. The figures associated with the coup received less than two percent of the vote. Fanmi Lavalas was also banned from participation in the 2009 and 2010 elections. Yet in many ‘civil society’ and media circles people directly linked to the coup – people with no popular support at the polls or in the streets – were presented as the authentic democratic forces in Haiti. At the same time the popular movement built from below, at great cost and against great odds, and elected into state power with large majorities in three elections, was portrayed in relentlessly criminal terms. The ontological order developed to legitimate colonialism, the order in which rights are not assumed to be for everyone, the order in which the demand for full and equal participation in governance is rendered monstrous, remains.

Mbeki took a position against this.

The debates about Mbeki’s presidency have focused on matters like his response to the AIDS pandemic, the crisis in Zimbabwe, the arms deal, his approach to macro-economic policy and, less frequently, the repression of independent popular organisations. These matters are all significant. There is no doubt that serious, and in the case of Mbeki’s response to the demand for access to medication for people living with HIV and AIDS, grave mistakes were made. But we would do well to recall that on the matter of Haiti, Mbeki stood firm against a tide of howling racism backed by powerful forces, at home and abroad.


Featured Photo: In August 1791, Dutty Boukman gave a speech at a sacred ceremony at Bois Caïman in Saint-Domingue, now Haiti. It inspired a slave rebellion that become a revolution and resulted in the proclamation of the first independent Black Republic in the modern world on 1 January 1804. This painting of the ceremony is by the Haitian artist Jean-Richard Coachy. The perspective of the painting is that of the vodou lwa, who are descending to occupy the bodies of those who are summoning them.

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