Haiti’s People Still in Bondage : Democracy Lies Fallow After 200 Years of Freedom

<i> Robert I. Rotberg is academic vice president for arts, sciences and technology at Tufts University. A longer version of this article appears in the fall issue of the journal Foreign Affairs. </i>

Conceived in harsh slavery, born of revolution and nurtured in decades of hostility, Haiti knew turbulence and corruption before it experienced order. It has never known effective two-party competition, with honest elections or benevolent government.

The problems of modern Haiti have a long lineage. In the 18th Century the French-owned plantations of sugar and coffee prospered. By the 1770s Haiti had eclipsed other French colonies of the Caribbean in wealth. Sugar exports were greater than those of any other territory in the world. Haiti’s soils were fertile, extensive and well irrigated, its plantations well managed. About 30,000 whites, and 27,000 free mulattoes and blacks, enjoyed comfort, culture and privilege. The 500,000 slaves who worked the plantations, however, were ferociously abused.

In 1790 and 1791, rioting slaves became a great mob run amok. Before long rural Haiti was dominated by roaming slave bands. Everywhere there was devastation; even Port-au-Prince was razed. By 1798 the revolution had succeeded both in establishing the freedom of the slaves and--decisively for the development of modern Haiti--in destroying the country’s profitable agricultural base.

Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who succeeded Toussaint L’Ouverture as free Haiti’s first ruler in 1804, accentuated the decay of France’s former sugar isle by unleashing a wild wave of despotism and terror. Instead of conserving the few oases of learning, middle-level bureaucracy and technocracy available within the country, Dessalines systematically extirpated whites and oppressed mulattoes, confiscating their land and, on several occasions, massacring large numbers for sport.


Haiti came to govern itself in the absence of any heritage of representative democracy or any experience of consensus. It was unable to reestablish the intensive agriculture of the country because indigo, cotton and sugar all required large-scale capital investment.

Under President Jean-Pierre Boyer (1820-1843), Haiti irrevocably became a land of black, Creole-speaking, largely illiterate small-holders divorced from the mulatto-dominated towns.

Impersonal abstractions like the notion of nationhood and the common good attracted few loyalties; there were no means of communicating the needs of the state and no funds with which to extend its apparatus to those outside the elite cliques that dominated it. The presidency was equated with a license to plunder, and nearly all the elite’s energies were devoted to the acquisition and retention of that license. Throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries, only the army maintained a semblance of institutional coherence and continued to play an influential national role.

Because of its poverty, isolation, endemic corruption and administrative inefficiency, Haitian governments after Boyer became more and more unstable and short-lived. From 1843 to 1915 there were 22 presidents, most of whom came to power by force of arms and coups.


The United States intervened in July, 1915. It pacified, administered, introduced new methods of solving old problems, provided an array of technological improvements, built decent roads and introduced proper telephone and telegraphic services, refurbished hospitals and schools, tried to upgrade living standards and, like colonial powers in Africa, attempted to impose its own cultural ideas on Haitian society.

Yet by the time the occupation ended in 1934, the Americans had not broadened the base of political participation.

The fall of President Paul Magloire in late 1956 marked the end of a century of politics manipulated by shifting arrangements of interlocking cliques. For eight months, while Haiti looked for a new political direction, turmoil and chaos racked the republic as it had in those terrible months before the American occupation. It was from this bloody cataclysm that Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his family machine emerged victorious.

Duvalier, a public health physician, had studied at the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan. His manner was reassuring and he appeared (especially to the U.S. Embassy) to represent an authentic, popular break with mulatto domination.

Duvalier, however, was motivated by a lust for power that would be satisfied only when everything in Haiti budged according to his will, which was not socially oriented. Potential dissidents were removed and opposition of any kind stilled. Duvalier’s dictatorship was henceforth marked by unbridled bullying of defenseless Haitians throughout the republic, and by the elevation of torture and brutality to astounding levels.

The three decades of Duvalierism, father and son, robbed Haiti of what little democratic and developmental momentum remained after World War II. Reminiscent as their reigns were of the harshest phases of despotism during the 19th Century, it is hardly a wonder that the structure of the state and the character of politics changed little under Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy’s junta from 1986 to early 1988, nor after he wrested power from civilian President Leslie Manigat last June. The ouster of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier had brought renewed personal freedom and inaugurated a welcome diminution of the capital’s climate of terror. But the junta’s first phase was hardly popular; its rule was arbitrary, if less vicious and less capricious than that of the Duvaliers.

Namphy’s successor, Lt. Gen. Prosper Avril, has a hard and, frankly, almost impossible task. Without the backing of a robust national democratic value system and given inherited traditions of cynical misrule, it is unlikely that the transition from authoritarianism to good government can be either easy or quick. Haitians have long endured a zero-sum existence: One is either on top or on the bottom; no group or clique shares with others.

Future democrats and dictators may want to change Haiti in a fundamental political sense. But because the human and historical material is so fragile, no positive remolding of Haiti can be predicted with confidence.