Misunderstood, Haiti deserves another look

Laurent Dubois ’92
Laurent Dubois ’92
PHOTO: LES TODD

How did Haiti go from being “the most profitable bit of land in the world” in the 18th century to today’s poster child for poverty and wretchedness? So asks Laurent Dubois ’92, professor of Romance studies and history at Duke University, in his account of the troubled nation, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History (Metropolitan Books).

Sugar plantations produced vast profits in the French colony. But these demanded slave labor. Hellish conditions led, in 1791, to the largest slave revolt ever and eventually to the establishment of an independent nation. “Haiti has an inspiring history,” Dubois tells PAW, “and there’s definitely a sympathy that undergirds the book.”

His career as an expert on the French Caribbean and the larger Afro-Atlantic world began as a Princeton undergraduate. Troubled by the racial bias shown against Haitian immigrants during the AIDS crisis, Dubois began to research American perceptions about that island nation: “That became the subject of my junior paper. And only now, in this book, am I returning to our views of Haiti.” 

The nation long suffered from the self-inflicted wounds of an unfair class system and cruel, authoritarian regimes, he notes. In addition, the major Western powers mistreated Haiti at every turn, exacerbating its troubles. France eventually recognized the new nation but demanded it pay reparations for losses incurred by slave owners. For generations these and related debt-payments siphoned off the lifeblood of Haiti, amounting by 1914 to 80 percent of the government’s budget.

President Woodrow Wilson 1879 sent U.S. Marines to occupy Haiti during World War I, lest the Germans beat him to it. They stayed 20 years, an episode “quite central” to the modern undoing of Haiti, says Dubois. Well-meaning American experts wreaked havoc in the countryside by forcing small farmsteads into a network of corporate plantations, some American-owned. And conscripting Haitians to build roads yielded a lasting legacy of bitterness.

Perhaps the most potent result of this Yankee meddling with Haiti was a stream of popular articles and books portraying the place as rife with Voodoo and zombies. Hollywood took up the theme, which has had “a big effect on our unconscious. We inherited from the occupation a lot of stereotypical visions of Haiti,” Dubois says. These visions live on today.

Racism long shaped American policies, he argues. The United States refused to recognize the black-run ­government until 1862, balking at the thought of having to entertain a ­dark-skinned diplomat in Washington or possibly giving Southern slaves ­encouragement to launch a rebellion of their own. 

Today, the bigger problem is muddled policies: “Different parts of the U.S. government are doing different things, often at cross-purposes.” As an example of good intentions gone awry, he cites the 1980s campaign to slaughter every pig in Haiti to stop swine flu: The endemic black pigs were replaced by white pigs sent from America (the symbolism did not go unnoticed), which would eat only expensive feed and which soon sickened and died in the hot climate. 

In the media, Haiti invokes litanies of poverty, corruption, crime, and disease. Dubois deliberately has omitted these tired descriptions. Instead, he aims “to get people in the United States to see a lot more from Haiti’s perspective.”

WHAT HE’S READING NOW: Lyonel Trouillot’s La Belle Amour Humaine

What he likes about it: “This recent Haitian novel is a great, mysterious story that unravels beautifully, a terrific meditation on truth, fiction, love, and community.”