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The best books on Haiti

recommended by Christian Wisskirchen

As a country that was created after the first and only successful slave revolt in history, Haiti looms large in the popular imagination. Here, Christian Wisskirchen, founding member and former chair of The Haiti Support Group, recommends five books that reveal much about Haiti and what makes it special, and its fascinating and often traumatic history since independence in 1804.

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Tell me about your first book, The Comedians by Graham Greene.

I have chosen this book because it is set in what is probably the third most traumatic period of Haiti’s history. The first was the extermination of the Tainos—who were the original inhabitants of Haiti—after Christopher Columbus landed in 1492. The second traumatic time was the Haitian revolution between 1793 and 1804 and the third one was the period of the Duvalier dictatorships and the rule of Papa Doc from 1957-1971, followed by his son Baby Doc until 1986.

This novel is set in the early 1960s in the early days of the reign of Papa Doc. Although I wasn’t a witness to this regime, many consider this book captures extremely well the atmosphere in Haiti in those days when the Tonton Macoutes tightly controlled the country and brutally extinguished any attempt to change the political status quo.

With the help of the secret police?

Absolutely, and that was Papa Doc’s way of controlling the country, because he couldn’t trust the military who were traditionally controlled by the tiny mulatto élite. He had won the elections because he really came to power on the wave of the black majority saying we must stop being subjugated by that élite.

Graham Greene is very good at telling the story which reflects the small insurrections that happened a few times in Haiti, mainly led by mulatto officers. They were then joined by the main ‘comedian’ in the book, Mr Jones, who is travelling on the boat with Mr Brown, who is the first-person narrator, and the [American] presidential candidate Smith.

The book is also very good at capturing Haiti’s function for the US government of the day. Papa Doc is seen as a bulwark against communism and the rebels trying to rescue their country from this dictatorship are labelled as communists.

And there is a very famous hotel in there which is meant to be based on the real-life Hotel Oloffson.

Yes, in the book the Oloffson is called Hotel Trianon which is now managed by Richard Morse, who is also leader of the Haitian racine band RAM. It is still running and survived the earthquake of 12 January 2010. It is a wonderful hotel which I have stayed in and is a must-see for any visitor in Haiti with its wonderful gingerbread architecture.

Richard could try and keep it up better as it is so much part of Haiti’s history, but he would probably argue it survived the earthquake precisely because it’s so ramshackle! It is a place which is so interlinked with Haiti’s history. It used to be the house of President Guillaume Sam who was dragged from his residence just before the US invasion in 1915 and hacked to death in public. That created a lot of negative publicity and gave the US more reason to say they needed to restore order in Haiti, the real reason being they didn’t want the Germans there.

Your next book is Libète, an anthology compiled and edited by Charles Arthur and Michael Dash.

This book is a deeper introduction to Haiti. It really gives you an entry into any number of facets of Haitian life because it is really a compilation of around 180 extracts on Haiti, many written by Haitians. So you get a real sense of Haiti’s history, politics, religion, social life and culture. Charles Arthur and Michael Dash are two experts on Haiti who wrote a very good introduction to each chapter, which taken together would make a worthy book in its own right.

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It has also got excellent bibliographical information for people who want to find out more on matters such as voodoo or the true reasons for Haiti’s poverty. Little-known historical facts are illuminated – for example the efforts by the British to snatch the French colony during the revolution. A lot of people in the UK have absolutely no idea that most of 20,000 British soldiers died in one of the most disastrous military expeditions in Britain’s colonial history. Most of them were killed by yellow fever, admittedly – but the whole story of the Haitian slave army is a remarkable bit of history.

So, this really is an excellent introduction to the many different sides of Haiti. For example, the decline of the peasant economy and the environmental degradation are very clearly explained in chapter three. This is followed logically in the next chapter which sets out the problems of life in the slums and the underpaid assembly sector, all of which gives a very good analysis of why Haiti is economically as poor as it is. Yet the book also describes the richness of its culture which is quite distinct from other Caribbean islands.

What about your next book, C L R James’s The Black Jacobins which I believe you regard as the most important one on your list?

That’s right at the top of my list because many Haiti-watchers see it as the best account of the Haitian revolution of 1791-1803. It focuses a lot on Toussaint Louverture as the key leader in the revolution. His life and his leadership are as much a topic as the revolution itself. Toussaint is credited with uniting the revolutionary forces against the French presence. I think it is a must-read for anyone involved with Haiti at a political level. It is also useful to anyone else involved in the country.

The book really highlights the incredible achievement of the Haitian nation, namely to be the only ever slave revolution leading to shaking off slavery and achieving independence by armed struggle. I think that much of Haiti’s current political socio-economic problems can only be understood in the light of French slavery and the way in which it was brought to an end by the slaves of Haiti.

What kind of legacy has that left them?

Well, you had the small mulatto élite who were the result of colonialism – being in the ideal position to lead when the French were thrown out or killed by Dessalines. So, early on, a split occurred where you had a southern mulatto republic led by the wealthy Alexandre Pétion and the northern kingdom led by black Henri Christophe.

And after that split was overcome the mulattos dominated, thanks to their French education, and unfortunately established a regime which wasn’t that different to the one the French had before—though slavery was, of course, formally abolished. Mulatto domination endured to the days of Papa Doc and this tragic split was the result of slavery. The mulattos’ aim in the revolution was to continue their lifestyle, because they also had slaves and were beneficiaries of the slavery system. All this is looked at in fascinating detail in the book.

You also have to remember that James wrote the book just as the Nazis were at the height of their power and there is quite a bit of understandable emotion involved, so one must read some of the passages in the book in the light of James’s strong communist leanings.

Tell me about Ian Thomson’s Bonjour Blanc.

This is one of the best bits of travel writing about Haiti that I have come across. I have met Ian Thomson and I was very impressed that, despite the fact he hadn’t been to Haiti before writing this book, he still managed to capture and observe so many facets of Haitian life. He is an excellent observer and, like so many of us so-called Haiti experts, he went to the country and fell in love with the people above anything else. He is a great people-watcher. He picks up on all the social strata in Haitian society and also gets very interested in all the religious aspects of life. He describes well how voodoo has been treated by the outside world and by the zillions of missionaries in all their variety, from Catholic to Mormon.

I think he really opens up this extremely complex society in a very vivid and entertaining way. It’s true, he focuses disproportionately on Haiti’s eccentricities, but there are a surprising number of eccentrics to be found there.

So what is the allure of the Haitian people for all you experts?

In my view it stems from the fact that Haiti has had the only ever successful slave revolution in history and, therefore, it is quite different from the other Caribbean countries that were eventually granted their independence in the 20th century. The former slaves were not even allowed to trade internationally for more than 25 years until they agreed to pay huge indemnities to the French in 1827. So they actually had to pay their former ‘masters’ for the loss of the latter’s ‘property.’ Surviving against such odds created a great sense of pride and independence which led to a different culture, which is easily recognisable, for example in the distinct art and music scene. And when you go to Haiti you cannot fail to be impressed by the dignity and perseverance of its people despite their poverty. That was my first impression, which was overwhelming and made me fall in love with the place immediately.

What about your final book, The Uses of Haiti by Paul Farmer?

I am a great fan of Paul Farmer. I think he is amongst the top ten foreigners in Haiti to make a positive and practical contribution there. His charity Partners in Health has saved the lives of innumerable Haitians and is now doing the same in a number of other developing countries. The model has really spread and this is the idea of a community-based health service which takes people seriously and deals with them holistically and believes that people can look after their health in their own right.

That is his background and, as he says in the book, he was reluctant to write a political book but he is very well placed because of all the time he has spent in the country. So this book was written during the coup d’état of 1991-1994 which was the last military coup d’état – after that the military was retired (except for the army band!). The book focuses on the role of the international community in Haiti and especially that of the United States.

“A lot of people living the US haven’t got the first inkling of the effect its foreign policy has on countries like Haiti.”

He looks at the US occupation from 1915-1934 during which time Haitian uprisings were brutally suppressed. He cites an example where a Haitian worker in a forced labour gang set up by the US forces was murdered in cold blood when he was considered lazy by one of the guards. During that period the US restructured the Haitian army to become an oppressive tool for its foreign policy objectives in Haiti for decades to follow, and that was only ended by the dismissal of the army by President Aristide in 1995 (who was overthrown also by officers trained by the US army, at the notorious Fort Benson ‘School of the Americas’).

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The criticism that one can have of the book is that it may exaggerate the influence of the US on Haiti’s misfortunes – and it does neglect the indigenous factors – but most people would agree that most of it is factually accurate and leaves little doubt about what tends to happen if you have the misfortune to live in the backyard of a superpower. And that is why I have chosen this book, because a lot of people living the US haven’t got the first inkling of the effect its foreign policy has on countries like Haiti.

A key example is the export of US rice to Haiti, which is highly subsidised, and the Haiti government has been forced by the IMF [in which the US plays a large role] to abolish its import tariffs on rice and many other goods so Haitian farmers cannot compete. This led to many of them giving up farming and to move to the slums of Port-au-Prince to look for work. So you could argue that in this way US foreign policy contributed to the increased death toll in the recent earthquake. If more people had been able to stay in the countryside, the city wouldn’t have become so overcrowded and with so many unsafe buildings being constructed. In conclusion I would say Farmer’s book is probably the most cogent analysis of US foreign policy on Haiti from the perspective of those at the receiving end.

May 2, 2010

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Christian Wisskirchen

Christian Wisskirchen

Christian Wisskirchen has worked on Haiti since 1991. In 1992 he was among the founders of Haiti Support Group, which has become the leading pressure and solidarity group on Haiti in the UK. He is now chairman. He is also head of International Relations of the Bar Council of England and Wales.

Christian Wisskirchen

Christian Wisskirchen

Christian Wisskirchen has worked on Haiti since 1991. In 1992 he was among the founders of Haiti Support Group, which has become the leading pressure and solidarity group on Haiti in the UK. He is now chairman. He is also head of International Relations of the Bar Council of England and Wales.