Matthew J. Smith: Red & Black in Haiti

Interviewed by Selim Nadi

Haitian Art

A French version of this interview was originally published in Période: http://revueperiode.net/red-black-a-haiti-entretien-avec-matthew-j-smith/

In the Introduction to your book Red & Black in Haiti. Radicalism, Conflict, and Political Change, 1934–1957 (UNC Press, 2009), you write — citing Sténio Vincent — that the year 1934 marked a second independence for Haiti. Could you explain this point? How did you come to be interested in the political struggles that marked the history of Haiti from 1934 to 1957? Why is this period so often marginalised in the historiography on Haiti ?

The idea that 1934 was a ‘second independence’ for Haiti was promoted frequently by the Haitian state under the leadership of President Sténio Vincent. Vincent likened himself to a liberator of Haiti, a modern-day Toussaint Louverture who had returned the country to the people after two decades of US control. To be sure, this was propaganda intended to bolster Vincent’s standing but it also resonated with a widely held sentiment that the United States had functioned like a colonial power in Haiti. Under the marines, there were severe impositions on the human rights of Haitians including curfews, de facto racial segregation, punishing forced labour schemes, and marginalisation of Haitian state control. By 1934, the occupation had lost its purpose, having never really developed a meaningful and workable plan for Haitian improvement. For these reasons, Haitians symbolically believed that the transition back to full state control of Haitian leaders was a ‘second independence’ and an opportunity to remedy the circumstances that had hindered progress in the country since the nineteenth century.

How did they do that? What ideas did Haiti’s nationalist generation of the 1930s have for reconstructing their country? This question is even more critical when we consider Haiti’s very long history of independence since 1804 which was gained by victorious revolutionary struggle against France.  It was this story of how Haiti’s generation of the 1930s sought to transform their nation after a constraining foreign rule that attracted me to this period. Previous histories had hinted at the drama of these years, particularly David Nicholls’s From Dessalines to Duvalier and Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s, Haiti: State Against Nation. But, with few exceptions, it was dismissed as a moment of lasting consequence because of what it ended with, the Duvalier dictatorship in 1957. My interest was why did it not succeed? What was it about the 1930s-1950s in Haiti that delinked it from the traditions of the past and saw this bold struggle to create a new destiny for the country? Most intriguing from my perspective was to explain how these ideas grew and informed the political direction of the country. Haiti had wrestled with these issues decades before the rest of the Caribbean where radicalism really expanded in the 1960s-1970s. Exploration of these issues drew me deeper than I could have imagined into remarkable stories of redemption, ideological struggle, and political tensions that undergird Haitian history. I had to explain the rise of radicalism and the nature of Haitian politics and society to tell this story.

How can we explain that there were so few changes to the social and economic structures of Haiti with the end of US occupation?

The US occupation began in 1915 with no clear blueprint of how to restructure Haitian politics. The nineteenth century political approaches of regional conflicts and short-term governments were clearly exhausted by the time the marines set foot in Port-au-Prince.  It also began at a time of US imperial dominance in the Caribbean and Latin America and the war in Europe. In the first phase, the marines focused on a destructive campaign to silence the rebel forces in the Haitian countryside that rose up against them. They also began to systematically control Haitian politics. Previously, the United States had dominated the Haitian economy through trade and business interests. With political control facilitated through a transformation of the Haitian Constitution and the signing of a Haitian-American Treaty, they had licence to do as they pleased. It was not long into the occupation that Haitians of various classes came to regard the occupation as detrimental to Haiti’s future. Earlier optimism that the United States would do as they said they would and assist Haiti to establish a functioning democracy faded by the early 1920s, when the occupation began its second phase. This second phase was more focused on consolidation. The marines pushed programmes that were, on the surface, meant to improve social conditions and political order. There was, however, little concern for Haitians. The effect was a greater degree of centralisation in the capital, the setting up of a US-trained gendarmerie, and the elevation of light-skinned politicians to positions of state power. Although some of the measures of the occupiers were done with a view to move Haiti away from the mire of political problems that it faced before, the results were not good for the country. Divisions widened. US racism also influenced treatment and process of the occupation.

When the occupation ended, therefore, this system was much intact. Haitians had returned to full control of their political administration. But it was a control for the few. There were very few democratic institutions. The military was empowered more than it ever had been before and became the arbiter of power. So, this situation was what lay beneath the surface and spurred the activism of the next two decades.

  1. Could you say more about Jacques Roumain’s trajectory from nationalism to communism ? More generally, what were the relations between nationalists and communists in Haiti during Vincent’s years in power?
  2.  

One of the key features of 1930s Haitian politics was the rupture of the nationalist movement that began in the twenties. Haitian nationalism revolved around a tenuous unity among different classes in Haiti on the question of Haiti’s sovereignty. This cohesiveness was necessary to combat the trauma of the US occupation. The evidence of the occupation catalogued not only its repressiveness but also the psychological impact it had on Haitians. But there was always a class distinction in Haiti, a certain social divisiveness that was difficult to overcome. To a degree, it was reinforced by the privileging of one class of Haitians over another by the occupation, though this was by no means the cause of it.  Nationalism veiled these divisions only temporarily.

Jacques Roumain was one of the leading figures of that era who articulated this paradox. He maintained that nationalism had become exploitative. That the power groups in Haiti, the political stakeholders who desired control of the country after the marines, were willing to abrogate their promises in order to reap personal control. Now the Parti Communiste Haïtien (PCH), which Roumain helped to form, was quite small. It also had little penetration beyond the elite. Still, its class analysis and critique were seen as dangerous. This was especially so given the charged political climate that followed the occupation. State claims of ‘second independence’ could not persuade Roumain, a radical nationalist, that post-occupation Haiti had changed anything. Analyse Schématique, the party’s manifesto, is a powerful document that gets to the heart of Roumain’s disenchantment with the direction of the nationalist movement. 

Communism for Roumain was attractive as a solution for Haiti for at least three principal reasons: a well-travelled young man, Roumain had witnessed discrimination in Europe and how ethnic and racial differences had fuelled conflicts. In Haiti he saw this in a different way when he returned in the 1920s to the abuses of the occupation. He would have read about the events of 1917 and the interpretations of Marxism that had taken hold in Europe in its aftermath. These developments made him committed in his view that a political system based consciously on egalitarianism could be the only chance for twentieth-century independence to be assured.

The second reason was economic. The depression in the United States affected Haiti. Its worst results were joblessness and a clear indication of the Haitian economy’s dependence on a US capital superstructure. Roumain’s correspondence with his peers in this period, his growing interest in ethnology and his literary writings make clear that the indigénisme of the 1920s, a cultural movement that he was a leading member of, had heightened his sensitivity for Haiti’s peasantry. The rigid class differences in Haiti that Roumain, Jean Price-Mars, and other writers subjected to critique in their works, needed a systemic transformation. This was most fundamental to him. And that transformation would have to involve an alternative to the economic system that had entrenched international dependency and local exploitation.

The final point is a historical one. Roumain, whose family had ties with Haitian politics, perceived the 1930s as an opportunity to undo the political practices that had defined Haiti since 1804. These had not safeguarded sovereignty. On the contrary, they had weakened the state’s abilities to be truly useful. Communism promised a meaningful transformation of that in Roumain’s mind.

  1.  What role did the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) play in the formation of the Haitian Communist Party (PCH) by Beaulieu and Roumain ? What was the reaction of Sténio Vincent in the face of the growing influence of communism in Haiti in the 1930s? What was the PCH ‘s analysis of the question of racism in Haiti?
  2.  

The CPUSA had some inspiration on the development of the PCH as did Latin American Communist parties. However, the influence was not significant. The early formation of Haiti’s Communist party was very short. No sooner had it surfaced than Vincent clamped down on the party, putting both Max Hudicourt and Roumain in jail. Vincent was harsh against any challenge to his presidency and the Communist party, though not widespread by any means, was by its very presence seen as a threat to state authority. The fear was with regard to the class analysis of the party, though it also had a strong view on racism.  The party clarion, “colour is nothing, class is everything,” profoundly championed its central ideology: that interpretations of Haiti’s political struggles along colour and racial lines would only repeat systems of exploitation. The most important element to be addressed especially in an impoverished nation is ultimately the class struggle.

How did black consciousness develop in Haiti during the Second World War, under the régime of Élie Lescot? What was the place of the Haitian labour movement during the Lescot years?

Haitian black consciousness was perhaps at its sharpest during the years of the Second World War. The cultural movement of the 1920s remained the basis on which black members of Haiti’s middle class who were politically conscious defined their cause. One must bear in mind that Haiti’s social classes were visibly distinguished by colour. A light-skinned elite tended to control the economic wealth of the country and this dominance was also reflected in the political administration. It was not a total division as scholars used to claim. There was some fluidity though class, education, family and regional ties could reinforce the walls between social groups. This is why colour referents (“noir” “mulatre” etc) cannot perfectly reflect Haitian social realities. The war years were marked by a coming of age of the politically conscious members of the black middle class. Professional men for the most part, they resented the losses of Haiti’s ‘second independence’ which could have been an opportunity for a more equitable distribution of political and economic power and prestige.

The Lescot presidency was deeply flawed, but its greatest weakness, to my mind, was its miscalculations about how best to deal with the local and international context. By tightening the status quo, Lescot and his supporters possibly expected Haiti would build on US interest and become modernised. The fatal flaw in his vision was that he marginalised a population that was more attuned to global discussions about equality, democracy, and anti-totalitarianism. Black consciousness naturally shifted in this context from principally cultural aims to political ones. And so young intellectuals like François Duvalier and his colleagues, especially the contributors to the journal Les Griots, began to advocate an end to light-skinned elite rule, believing their class origins and colour made them better suited to govern. Not all of those who held this view were intellectuals. Black consciousness was a mixture of professionals, politicians and students in the main who rallied around this idea that came to be called “noirisme.” They were generally politically right of centre. They did not consider Marxism a viable solution for Haiti. They were even less interested in vigorous transformations in the social order. What they desired was more control of the state. Their agenda often blurred lines between class and colour struggles when it came to the labour movement. The key figure in Haitian labour history is Daniel Fignolé. He did not start the push to have a voice. There were others before him and among his contemporaries who had been working to build a labour movement in the 1930s and 1940s. This was relatively late for a union movement to start in the hemisphere but it grew quickly. Fignolé gave it a certain focus and presence. He was incredibly charismatic and fervently radical in his outlook. He sympathized greatly with the ideas of the noiristes but fused the insistence on black rule with class struggle. In his public pronouncements, he criticised light-skinned rule and demanded a greater share of Haiti’s wealth among the classes. He was not Marxist. He believed mostly that the reformation of the machinery of the state could be achieved organically if the true representatives of the majority population were in command.

All of these swirling ideas, each impacting and crossing through the other can only be appreciated within the context of the Second World War and the currency of ideologies at the time which made their way into the Haitian political space and were interpreted through the lenses of local conflict. There was clearly a naïve reading of these currents in several instances. But the fascinating aspect of all of this was not whether they got Marxism, liberal democracy, or socialism correct; it was that they weaved elements from each into their understanding of their past and present. The energy that came from this period was powerful and ignited the movement that toppled Lescot in January 1946.

  1. Could you talk about the emergence of the movement that overturned the Lescot régime in 194? What was the relationship of political forces within this movement and how did it develop (formation of the Front Révolutionnaire Haïtien, etc.) ?
  2.  

The movement that led to the collapse of the Lescot regime was born in the struggles I just mentioned. It matured among university students. The best-known names of that cohort were René  Depestre, Jacques-Stéphen Alexis, Gérald Bloncourt, and Gérard Chenet. Many of these students, such as those just mentioned, were also artists. So, the connections between cultural expression and radical politics that was clearly a part of the world of the generation of Price-Mars and Roumain (who died in 1944) continued. They were inspired by a range of sources all part of their milieu: the victory of the Allies, the French resistance, the Spanish Civil War, Marxism, Négritude, the Haitian arts movement, Jacques Roumain, ethnology, the embryonic labour movement and the local resistance to Lescot’s rule. More immediately, the students were electrified by André Breton and the Surrealist movement. In the January 1946 issue of the student paper La Ruche, they wrote a tribute to Breton after his visit to Haiti the month before. In that issue, the camouflaged critique of the state (they often used pseudonyms) was read by the authorities as an attack on the presidency. Lescot retaliated harshly by banning the paper. This act against democratic voice amongst militant Haitian youth fomented their action. They organised a march against the government that tapped into the varied political forces in Haiti and led to a widespread strike and Lescot’s removal from office.

So there existed not only noiriste factions, but both a Socialist Party (Parti Socialiste Populaire) and reimagined PCH which emphasised colour as much as class in its programme. Because the movements were so diverse, there was often collision among agendas. Two other points are important to mention here. First, the Haitian military had been strengthened by far-reaching changes in its organization and structure under the US marines. It was the military that had sent Lescot packing and it was the military that retained ultimate control of the country. What was possible could only be so within the context of what the military could allow. And they weren’t above engineering events to suit the needs of the ruling classes. The second point is that Haitian radicals had been more or less out of direct reach with the external sources of their radicalism as a result of the authoritarianism of Vincent and Lescot. This is not to say that news did not reach them. But they had not been in regular discourse with counterparts outside in a way that would shape their conceptions of what could be possible after Lescot. So, the FRN (Front Révolutionnaire Haïtien) was an early attempt to forge a common goal and to harmonise the various agendas. However, the differences were too strong to contain. So was the desire for state control. This led to the fraying of the various movements and weakened the possibility for unity among radical groups.

  1. What was “noirisme”? In what sense did the Estimé years reorient radical Haitian thought?
  2.  

Noirisme, in its simplest definition in the Haitian context, means political rule by dark-skinned Haitians. It is not a concept peculiar to the twentieth century. It originated in fact in the nineteenth century though not precisely in the same way. Its applicability in the presidential years of Dumarsais Estimé was to rationalise the administration’s legitimacy to power. Contemporaries did not frequently use the term even though they drew heavily on the rhetoric of “les noirs en pouvoir”. But it meant different things to different people. For radicals outside of the state, it was very much class-bound. Some state actors were idealistic about noirisme, believing that it would reverse the country’s predicament. This is partly what Duvalier meant when he called 1804 an “evolution” and 1946 a “revolution.” Truthfully, it was a revolutionary moment but it did not necessarily achieve its bloated goals. Other state actors viewed noirisme as an opportunity for access to political benefits once unattainable. The corruptive nature of Haitian politics could not be conquered with the change in faces of the leaders. It was far too powerful a monster. Estimé tried to make some changes and live up to his expectations. For this reason, he was regarded well among his peers. But he too could not escape this predicament and the desire to extend his mandate.

  1. In the fifth chapter of your book, you write that the presidential campaign of 1956-1957 marked the end of the promises of post-occupation political renewals. Could you expand on this? Did forms of resistance and radical thought persist throughout Duvalier years?
  2.  
  3. The 1956-57 presidential campaign was disappointing not only for its outcome, the installation of the Duvalier presidency and later dictatorship, but also because its greatly undermined the achievements of the previous decade. It is true that much of the unravelling of the political promises of 1946 had started that same year when the internecine struggle among radical groups became manifest. But the prospect of a more progressive government was always on the horizon. It was kept alive by a diminished yet fervent progressive movement that operated clandestinely. What happened in 1956-57 was that that arbiters of political control, the elite and especially the army, wielded greatest influence on the course of events. On the surface, it was a democratic process. There was universal suffrage for the first time and there were parties, candidates, debates, campaigns. But, in reality, the transition was engineered by the powerbrokers. And the rivals and their supporters resorted to more drastic measures to gain control. Haiti became consumed with violent confrontations. Out of the ashes of this struggle rose the horrors of the Duvalier dynasty. Radical thought remained prominent in Haiti during the sixties. There was an underground communist party and several rebel attempts to overthrow Duvalier. Some of these included the same people who had been instrumental in the events in 1946 such as Jacques Stéphen Alexis who was assassinated on Duvalier’s orders. These movements could not surface given the brutality of Duvalierism which instituted state terror.  Most notable was the Parti unifié des communistes haïtien (PUCH), formed in 1968 and associated with Gérald Brisson who was tortured and killed by Duvalier along with several other members of the party.

The other aspect of the transformation that occurred in 1957 was that Duvalier’s campaign claimed its candidate the inheritor of Estimé’s noirisme. Duvalier went as far as to say he was to complete the revolution of 1946, a revolution of “Estimisme.” In reality, he was already building the framework if not the apparatus of his own brand of Duvalierism. This was a morphing of the cultural antecedents of the 1920s movement, the black consciousness of the 1930s and 1940s, the claims to “authenticity” of the Estimé-era political class and the manipulation and corruption of the Haitian state. The added element was the conscious assertion of the state as an instrument of violence and fear. Duvalier did not create this; some of its elements preceded him for sure. But he saw how the machinery of violence could be expanded and fear reinforced. The very class from which his ideas were born was targeted. Thousands migrated from Haiti. Later on, he introduced to this admixture a form of personal politics in which he defined himself as one and the same with the Haitian state. By doing this, he redefined the Haitian state as existing only on the terms of its leaders. Haiti and Haitians suffered greatly and for a very long time as a result of his actions.

  1. Do the years of struggle between noiristes and Marxists have an echo in contemporary Haiti? More generally, what is the state of revolutionary force in Haiti today?
  2.  
  3. Some of the struggles of that earlier period have shades in later political struggles in Haiti. The claim to legitimacy of colour has from time to time presented itself in political contests, most recently in some of the discourse that marked parliamentary debates during the Michel Martelly presidency (2011-2016). However, its character is quite different from the earlier era. Perhaps this is due to the way in which Haitian black consciousness was associated with Duvalier’s rule in the 1960s especially. So that type of debate among leftists has not truly survived. The struggle for class equality has continued through various avenues such as a very different type of labour movement. And there has also been a consciousness among contemporary Haitian youth which can be regarded a continuity of an earlier era. But the modes of resistance have changed in Haiti as they have around the world. This has been a result of dramatic changes in access to information, travel, urbanism, and demography. Port-au-Prince today looks quite different to the Port-au-Prince of the mid-twentieth century or, for that matter, Port-au-Prince before the disastrous earthquake of 12 January 2010. The Haitian community has spread remarkably far and wide in the country and across the globe. This has enormous implications for how people connect and how they conceive of ways in which they can organise for real change in Haiti. Of great importance in this regard is the presence of foreign powers. The MINUSTAH peace-keeping forces which had long years of on-the-ground visibility, the heavy hand of the United States in Haitian affairs, and the semi-permanence of NGOs in Haiti have really altered what is possible. Still, there are very good signs of progressive developments. Some younger Haitians have borrowed from the tools of their predecessors in their creative struggle to deepen the sense of Haitian identity and autonomy. Whether through the arts movement such as the young Haitian filmmakers, musicians, and artists or in other domains there is ample evidence of inspirational movements to create revolutionary changes in Haiti that fit with the demands of the 21st century.