S3 E3. Red Pill, Part III – Haiti, Interrupted

Haitians paid for their freedom in sweat, blood and money. They’re still paying.

The French illustrator Auguste Raffet rendered this painting — Attack and Take of the Crête-à-Pierrot — in 1839, 37 years after the event it depicts. Returning to Saint-Domingue to reestablish control over the rebellious colony and reinstitute plantation slavery, French forces encountered indomitable resistance. Under attack and siege for 20 days at the fortress of Crête-à-Pierrot, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and his men stunned their enemies with tenacity in battle and in retreat. Surrendering the fortress, they escaped to fight another day, until France’s army was defeated and Dessalines declared independence, on Jan. 1, 1804, taking the indigenous name of the island — Haiti — for this new country. Our guests today suggest that, in a sense, Haiti has been under siege by world powers ever since.

Original illustration by Auguste Raffet; engraving by Hébert

Beginning in 1791, the people of Saint-Domingue threw off the yoke of slavery and revolted against their French masters, eventually founding a new nation with the radical promise of universal freedom: Haiti. Then came the hard reality of a world-system that would plague the country with debt, discord and military interventions, including a 19-year occupation by the United States.

This time on the show, three University of Virginia scholars — Marlene Daut, Laurent Dubois and Robert Fatton — help us consider Haiti’s burdened past and its echoes in the present. Looking at America's involvement with Haiti is instructive as we continue to explore some hard truths about nation-building in the wake of the Afghan war. According to our guests, the story of brutal military rule established by the Marines over Haiti in 1915, and subsequent meddling by U.S.   leaders ever since, has served only to destabilize Haitian institutions.

And while this past has been carefully documented, our historical memory is astoundingly shallow; in most textbooks Haiti is hardly a footnote. This helps explain why — when thousands of Haitian refugees turn up on U.S. shores, as they have again this month — Americans resist confronting the responsibility they’ve inherited for all the enduring turmoil and the promises deferred in a vibrant place that seems to them distant, backward, somehow cursed.

About our guests

Marlene Daut is a professor of African diaspora studies at the University of Virginia, and associate director of the Carter G. Woodson Center. She specializes in Caribbean, African-American, and French colonial literature and history. Daut is the author of Tropics of Haiti: Race and the Literary History of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World, 1789­–1865 (Liverpool University Press, 2015) and Baron de Vastey and the Origins of Black Atlantic Humanism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). Follow her on Twitter @fictionsofhaiti.

Laurent Dubois is co-director for academic affairs of UVA’s Democracy Initiative. Trained as an anthropologist and a historian, he is the author of seven books, including Haiti: The Aftershocks of History (Metropolitan Books, 2012), named a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times. Follow Dubois on Twitter @Soccerpolitics.

Robert Fatton Jr. is the Julia A. Cooper Professor of Government and Foreign Affairs in UVA’s politics department. Born and raised in Port-au-Prince, Fatton is a leading expert on the history and political culture of his native country. He is the author of numerous books, most recently: The Guise of Exceptionalism: Unmasking the National Narratives of Haiti and the United States (Rutgers University Press, 2021). Fatton also co-edited, with R.K. Ramazani, The Future of Liberal Democracy: Thomas Jefferson and the Contemporary World (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

This episode was released on Sept. 22, 2021.

What we’re reading

By our guests

Fatton calls the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse “the morbid symptom of a simmering institutional decay rooted in persisting patterns of inequalities accentuated by severe poverty.”

Haitians can turn the corner, however, Fatton says — if they get to rebuild their country without outside military intervention, he argues in a recent Washington Post op-ed. For a deeper dive on this view, pick up The Guise of Exceptionalism.

In Baron de Vastey, Daut takes up the work and legacy of an early Haitian stateman who, far ahead of his time, challenged European intellectuals on the colonialist contradictions of their enlightenment ideals.

Haiti’s suffering under the thumb of Western powers, Daut writes, goes back to the brutality of Napoleon in the 19th century, a period that has been whitewashed and misrepresented.

Not long after its founding, Haiti was split between a kingdom in the north and a republic in the south. Read Daut’s account of King Henry Christophe’s reign over a sort of “Wakanda of the Western Hemisphere,” from 1811 until he took his own life in 1820.

She has also written about how the economic exploitation of Haiti by its former colonizers set the country back before it could even get on its feet — to the tune of 150 million francs, or 10 times the Louisiana Purchase.

In the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which claimed the lives of some 250,000 people, Dubois wrote passionately about the historical contingencies that long preceded, and deeply aggravated, that catastrophe: in Haiti: The Aftershocks of History.

He recently joined the radio show 1A, from NPR and WAMU in Washington, to discuss President Moïse’s assassination and the current political unrest in Haiti.

And, psst. Dubois has a not-so-secret side interest — writing and obsessing about football. Meaning, of course, soccer.

From around the web

This 1820 etching illustrates the French landing a force of 16,000 soldiers led by Napoleon’s brother-in-law, Gen. Charles Leclerc, 11 years after the slave revolt began in Saint-Domingue. The invasion failed, and Leclerc later died of yellow fever, as well as thousands under his command.

From the Everett Collection via Shutterstock.com

Even in the face of a national tragedy, Haitian officials continue to act in their own self-interest. This centuries-old corruption among the country’s elite was on full display in the firing of a prosecutor investigating the July 7 murder of President Jovenel Moïse.

Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who is effectively in charge of the government, said he made that move to get the country back on track and announced plans hold elections for a new president in 120 days’ time.

To the consternation of many citizens, Haitian officials also requested military assistance from the United States and the United Nations — conjuring up bad memories of harmful interventions in decades past.

With help from a guide, Marines search for “bandits” in 1919 during the U.S. military occupation of Haiti. The 19-year incursion instituted racial segregation, press censorship and, in the countryside, forced labor — and was met with a tenacious counterinsurgency.

From the Everett Collection via Shutterstock.com

After a 7.0-magnitude earthquake destroyed as many as 53,000 homes in 2010, the Red Cross raised half a billion dollars to aid Haiti, with building projects, vaccination programs and sanitation efforts. But the humanitarian organization has faced stiff questions about where all the money went. Listen to this special report from NPR and ProPublica.

After a summer marred by political machinations, yet another strong earthquake and a severe tropical depression that battered the country’s southern peninsula, Haitian migrants have arrived en masse in Del Rio, Tex. As reported this week in the Washington Post, one photo captured the chaos and despair like no other.

The Haitian Studies Association has compiled a rich collection of commentary and analysis on the July 7 assassination, including more work by our guests.

And if you want to drill down even further on Haitian history, consider Jean Casimir’s The Haitians: A Decolonial History, translated by Laurent Dubois; and Haiti in the World Economy: Class, Race, and Underdevelopment Since 1700, by Alex Dupuy.

A transcript of this episode is available here.

Heard on the show

All of the music you heard in our segment with Dubois is by producer and pianist John Dempcy, who styles himself Revolution Void.

Our theme music is the title-track off the 2010 album Neogrotesque, by the Montreal band Tortue Super Sonic.

Finally, mentioned (but not heard) on the show was the song “Organizasyon Mondyal,” by Manno Charlemagne, lamenting Haiti’s place on the global periphery. Give it a listen.

Bonus content

Listen to Siva’s full conversation with Laurent Dubois.

About this series

Gripped by the events in Afghanistan over the summer, we decided to launch Season Three with a careful consideration of what happened in the war and why — along with its impact on democracy at home. Plus, we wanted to offer some perspective on America’s bungled international interventions and national-building efforts across time.

Inspired by Spencer Ackerman’s allusion to the 1999 thriller The Matrix, we’ve dubbed this series “Red Pill.” Fans of The Matrix will recall that Neo, the movie’s protagonist, is offered a red pill to escape the simulated world in which he’s trapped. So... just to clarify things, when Ackerman refers to having taken the “red pill” early on in America’s so-called war on terror, what he really means is that he initially took the comforting blue pill — and bought into a rhetoric of retaliation and national security at any cost. For this series, we’re using “red pill” in its original sense: a painful but much-needed dose of reality.

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