Dr. Matthew J Smith reviews new book ‘Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti’

Working USA: The Journal of Labor & Society

Book Reviews

Sprague, Jeb. Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti.
New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012. 400 pp. US$23.95 (paperback).

A sense of the arguments and perspective that drive Jeb Sprague’s
detailed study of paramilitarism in Haiti from the early 1990s to 2004
is given in the following quote, which comes in a closing chapter: “As
with all historical processes, Haiti’s recent history cannot be
reduced to pure good versus pure evil— the popular Lavalas movement
had its own contradictions and failures. Even so, right-wing
paramilitarism and its backers have produced, by far, the most victims
of political violence in Haiti in recent history” (p. 281). Sprague
supports this point—and at the same time aims to expose layers of
political complexity—with an intriguing assessment of the role of
paramilitary organizations in ensuring that popular movements in the
Caribbean republic are kept hobbled.

The span of the study is marked by the two overthrows of
democratically elected popular leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his
Fanmi Lavalas (FL) movement in 1991, and later in 2004. It is to
Sprague’s credit that he keeps in clear view at all times the link
between these events—now half-forgotten in the minds of a foreign
audience unable (or unwilling) to recall Haiti’s history prior to the
2010 earthquake—and contemporary politics in Haiti.

This is a crucial story. For too long, the role of paramilitarism in
these events has been recognized but little studied. This is somewhat
surprising given the presence of state- and private-funded agencies of
social control in Haiti’s history. In the nineteenth century, Haitian
leaders ensured dominance by using the armed forces under their
command to contain popular risings. There was always resistance, and
this resistance only encouraged leaders to sharpen their tools of
repression. Emperor Faustin Soulouque (1847–1859) had his own forces,
and they would form the template for the military control of some of
his successors.
The most notorious form of state-sponsored paramilitarism in the
twentieth century was, of course, a creature of the Duvalier
dynasty—the Volontaires de la Sécurité Nationale, better known as the
tonton macoute. Duvalierist violence was brutal and far-reaching. Its
mark was profoundly impressed on Haitian politics well beyond the
three decades of successive father (François “Papa Doc”) and son
(Jean-Claude) rule between 1957 and 1986. After the fall of
Jean-Claude Duvalier, repressive military agencies mutated. On the one
hand, there was a national army that had always regarded itself as the
arbiter of power with a stake in preserving the status quo of the
elites and middle classes. On the other, there was a rise in privately
financed security forces that would explode in the early 1990s after
the election of Aristide. Space for the popular classes was tightly
controlled and their demand for justice and democracy was met with
terror. All of this forms the backdrop to Sprague’s analysis and is
covered in an opening chapter. The book’s core chapters attend in
meticulous detail to the period after Aristide’s second election in
2000. All the stakeholders in Haitian politics are amply presented. So
too are the internal political clashes.

Sprague is not only concerned with internal Haitian politics, however.
The author correctly asserts that Haiti’s battle for popular democracy
was never isolated from the broader and profound changes in the
Americas. Indeed the “international community” and “transnational
elites” wielded their enormous influence to ensure the preservation of
their class supremacy. After his election, Aristide was seen as a
threat to this situation, and it is for this reason that the
opposition to him and especially to his supporters was so vicious.

The battle between FL and their opponents since the 1990s is now a
widely known tale that gains new details from Sprague’s retelling.
What distinguishes Sprague’s analysis from that of previous writers is
the special focus on the role of the paramilitary groups in what was
an orchestrated attack against the hard- fought rights of the popular
classes. It bears remembering that the Haitian majority had been
denied democracy until 1990, when Aristide and FL were voted into
power. The story of what happened to supporters of FL after that
powerful moment is supported by some fresh new evidence based on
interviews and recently declassified U.S. government records—11,000
documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, and
correspondence from the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince which come via
a WikiLeaks trove of U.S. Embassy cables. These sources are used
extensively and for the first time in this book. What they add to the
story is a great deal of information on the deep background to the
events surrounding the overthrow of Aristide in 2004 and the traumatic
years that followed. Readers interested in learning more about that
incredibly tense period will find much to consider in Sprague’s highly
charged narrative.

Sprague does not despair over the many losses suffered by Haitian
“left and progressive movements” over their rough history of
repression. In his conclusion, he makes clear that they have always
existed in spite of authoritarianism and violent counterattacks (p.
284). One of the solutions he offers is for Haitian movements to ally
with similar regional organizations.

It may be added that what is also desperately needed is a systematic
study of the evolution of Haitian progressive movements. Haitian
popular movements have long remained opaque in political analyses of
Haiti which tend to present them as unifocal. The temptation to view
them as “pure good,” to use Sprague’s term, always remains strong. It
is also easy to accept a certain kind of determinism in explaining the
actions of the popular classes and elites, a tendency that, at times,
is also found in this book. Still, the book reinforces the important
point that the survival of progressive movements in the ever-shifting
world of Haitian politics is a remarkable testament to the strength of
their desire for full inclusion in a process that was set up to keep
them out.

It must be mentioned that there are opposing readings to the events
that Sprague covers. The view that FL had become thoroughly corrupted
by 2000 is passionately held by some commentators in Haiti and the
United States. Some of these alternate views are presented in an
appendix that favorably reviews the work of Peter Hallward (a
“narrative from below”) and takes several issues with that of Alex
Dupuy (a “narrative from above”). This discussion is interesting but
unnecessary. The book stands well enough on its own case, and its
author does well to remind us why the conversation about Haiti’s
recent political history clearly needs to continue.

Matthew J. Smith is a senior lecturer in the Department of History and
Archaeology at the University of West Indies, Mona. His area of
research includes Haitian political history, with a focus on
radicalism and popular movements in the twentieth century. He is the
author of Red and Black in Haiti: Radicalism, Conflict, and Political
Change, 1934–1957, University of North Carolina Press, 2009. Address
correspondence to Matthew J. Smith, Department of History, The
University of West Indies, Mona, Jamaica. E-mail: matthew.smith@