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Haiti

Just finished reading the 700-page third volume of Madison Smartt Bell’s remarkable trilogy of the Haitian Revolution The Stone That the Builder Refused. The two previous volumes, All Soul’s Rising and Master of the Crossroads gripped me a couple of years ago, and I was terribly excited to get my hands on this third volume. Happily Bell continued his trajectory, telling a thrilling, horrifying, deeply human tale, coursing through the lives of slaves and rebels, mulattos, descendents of buccaneers, French colonists and soldiers, and the whole complicated tapestry of Saint Domingue (Santo Domingo), at the time of the revolution the richest and most valuable colony in the world.

It’s a long story, and he appends a 20-page chronology of the Haitian revolution, beginning in 1789 alongside the French revolution itself. The slaves rebel against conditions that are so barbaric (and described in painful detail by Bell) that when the rebel armies slaughter hundreds of blancs in later episodes, I was totally sympathetic with their urgent need to purge the island of their former slavemasters and the racist colonial culture that had reduced them to chattel slavery. But Bell manages to get inside the humanity of people on all sides of this period of history, including offering an engaging portrayal of the Voudou rituals that still hold great influence in today’s Haiti. This volume switches back and forth among a half dozen narrative lines, but every so often we find ourselves a couple of years in the future (1803) when the revolution’s leader, Toussaint Louverture, a strange and charismatic man who ultimately believes too strongly in rational discourse and the precepts of the French revolution, finds himself slowly dying in a cell in Fort du Joux, a jail high in the French Alps near the Swiss border. His betrayal and imprisonment by the French army culminated an unsuccessful military campaign in which Louverture’s forces were actually winning the war, but Napolean’s general LeClerc successfully turned Louverture’s field generals against one another and him, undercutting their military success.

Although Toussaint’s story is ultimately terribly sad and his death in his freezing cell is a terrible end for an amazing historical character, Napolean and his generals fail to disarm the black population, and when slavery is reintroduced to the island of Guadeloupe, the field hands and soldiers of Haiti’s revolutionary slave armies quickly rise up and finally expel the French forever, leading to formal independence in 1803. This in turn reshapes American politics, first because this defeat leads Napolean to sell the “Louisiana Purchase” to the United States, and second because the successful slave revolt and independent republic haunt the slavocracy of the U.S.

From Jefferson to the present, the policies of the U.S. have been designed to isolate and destroy Haiti, the most recent episode being the abduction of President Aristide by U.S. marines last February and the unleashing of the old death squad militarists that the U.S. right has always favored. The ongoing slaughter in Haiti is a direct result, with the Lavalas Party (the movement that brought some kind of democracy and an honest attempt at national self-development, in spite of agreements to impose IMF-style austerity and structural adjustment forced on Aristide and the Haitian state when he was restored by Clinton’s military in 1994) bearing the brunt of it (a number of former government officials are languishing in the National Penitentiary, where there was a horrible massacre not long ago).

If you live in San Francisco, you can keep up with current developments in Haiti by reading our best local newspaper, the San Francisco Bayview, which is covering developments there weekly. In the Dec. 29 issue a very good account of the massacre in the national penitentiary is featured, reported by the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. There is ongoing information about Haiti at Haiti Action. Obviously if you are inclined to financially support worthy efforts, they are most deserving.

Of course the war in Iraq gets most of our attention, and given the insane loss of life and waste of resources there, that seems appropriate. But hidden beneath that horror is the ongoing nightmare of what the U.S. is doing, and has done for centuries, to Haiti, the poorest country in this hemisphere. The scapegoating of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, making this meek ex-Catholic priest out to be some kind of organizer of armed gangs, is simply absurd. No doubt there are armed gangs in the slums of Haiti, and probably plenty of their members are sympathetic to Aristide and the Lavalas Party who at least had the desire to improve the lives of average Haitians. But the U.S. media’s incessant claims that Aristide is responsible for the violence and terror in Haiti is exactly 180 degrees wrong, and quite typical of the “War Is Peace” mentality that dominates the culture these days.

In any case, to gain an appreciation for one of the most remarkable cultures in the world, a portrait of amazing men and women who rose up against impossibly brutal repression and successfully threw off the chains of slavery and colonialism long before it became fashionable to notice or discuss such things, the Madison Smartt Bell Louverture trilogy is a great place to start.

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