'MOST PEOPLE’S image of the Duvaliers’ Haiti came from Graham Greene’s novel, The Comedians. It was of a capricious, blind, irrational tyranny. A society where thugs in dark glasses have a license to kill at will, with neither supporters nor opponents of the regime safe from random murder. A regime without any apparent purpose besides the maintenance of the tyranny itself, in a land of unbelievable poverty. All this wrapped up in voodoo superstition – and under the benevolent gaze of Uncle Sam.
It seemed a monstrous aberration even among the barbaric tyrannies of the US’s Central American backyard, something which the normal categories of political analysis could not cope with.
There was an element of truth in this picture. François Duvalier – ‘Papa Doc’ – did rule by the unpredictable use of terror against anyone who might potentially be opposed to him. But simply to state that says very little about the regime he established. It does not explain how it came into existence or how it managed to last longer than any other in the 180-year history of the state. Nor does it provide any understanding of the possibilities open in Haiti now.'
This is the opening of a superb piece of historical analysis by Chris Harman, in his 1986 article 'Haiti: pawn in their game'. The title alludes to the many ways in which Haiti has been manipulated and used by imperialist powers, especially but not exclusively the US, over a long period. For example:
'In the late nineteenth century each of the great powers saw the chance of preying upon Haiti’s weakness. French, British, German and American warships would threaten the ports the moment Haitian courts resisted the claims of businessmen from those countries: the US alone sent warships into Haitian harbours twenty times between 1860 and 1915.
The years 1908-15 saw German and American interests battling it out in the classic imperialist manner to get control of Haiti’s banking system and customs revenues. German merchants financed coups by Haitian soldiers and the German fleet made a visit in 1912.
But the US soon upstaged them, marines made a full-blooded landing in 1915 and occupied the whole country for 19 years, killing 2,000 resistance fighters in the single year of 1919. But it was not only an external burden that had to be carried by the mass of small peasants. The Haitian state had within it, from the very beginning, a very well entrenched ruling class.'
I recommend reading the article in full. It's the necessary background to the scale of the current disaster, and its terrible impact, that you are very unlikely to get from the TV stations.