Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide
and the Politics of Containment
by Peter Hallward
a book review by Ben Terrall
Of all the illegal and dishonest misadventures
that the Bush Administration got away with, the least criticized
of all might be the 2004 overthrow of Haiti's democratically-elected
government. Even human rights groups and left-leaning press that
stood up against the Iraq war gave, and still give, Bush a pass
on the horror he unleashed on Haiti by kidnapping President Jean-Bertrand
Peter Hallward's new book Damming the
Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment is a welcome
corrective to the false impressions and historical amnesia about
Haiti afflicting most of the English-speaking world. Jonathan
Kozol called it, "A brilliant politically sophisticated and
morally infuriating work on a shameful piece of very recent history
that the U.S. press has either distorted or ignored. The most
important and devastating book I've read on American betrayal
of democracy in one of the most tormented nations in the world."
Hallward, a UK-based philosophy professor,
was teaching a course in 2003 which involved daily reading of
Le Monde and other French newspapers when he noted a systematic
demonization of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his Lavalas
movement. He subsequently wrote one of the best long articles
about the 2004 coup ("Option Zero in Haiti," New Left
Review 27, May-June 2004) shortly after it happened. Ever since,
he seems to have been collecting information for a bill of indictment
against the U.S., France and Canada, the coup's principle backers,
ever since. In the process he has also put together a damning
critique of liberals and self-described radicals who either through
intellectual laziness or lack of cross-class solidarity accepted
Bush-approved PR on Haiti.
In his research, Hallward used mostly
public sources. He appears to have read everything written about
Haiti in the past ten years, as well as much earlier work. Interviews
with principles ranging from Aristide to several key coup players,
and both pro- and anti-Aristide figures, buttress his scholarship.
Hallward puts the country's recent violence in the context of
200 years of "great power" hostility toward Haitian
sovereignty, beginning with the 1804 revolution, the only successful
slave revolt in world history.
Hallward excels at showing the means by
which Haiti's ultra-rich minority worked hand in glove with right-wingers
in Washington and Paris to create a case for "regime change"
that even Iraq war opponents could embrace. After the first U.S.-backed
coup against Aristide in 1991, when public opinion in the U.S.
was still largely sympathetic to Lavalas, Hallward notes, "Jesse
Helms spoke for much of the US political establishment when on
20 October 1993 he denounced Aristide as a 'psychopath and grave
human rights abuser.'" But "neither Helms nor anyone
else could pin a single political killing on the 1991 [Aristide]
administration. In the run up to the second coup, incomparably
more insistent versions of the same charge would resurface at
As Hallward painstakingly shows, left
of center and liberal NGOs were all too willing to accept Washington's
destabilization program for Haiti. The smears and propaganda were
well-funded and carried out in concert with "Democracy Enhancement"
and similar programs of the United States Agency for International
Development (USAID) and other U.S. government agencies. The project
recalled what the U.S. did to Nicaragua in the 1980s, as documented
by political scientist William Robinson in his excellent study
A Faustian Bargain.
Hallward notes that when it comes to "the
supervision of human rights in the most heavily exploited parts
of the planet most of the 'neutral,' affluent and well-connected
supervisors live at an immeasurable distance from the world endured
by the people they supervise, and at a still greater distance
from the sort of militant, unabashedly political mobilization
that can alone offer any meaningful protection for truly universal
rights." The helps explain the ease with which Human Rights
Watch took anti-Aristide propaganda at face value, then dragged
their feet interminably (as did Amnesty International) when Aristide's
government was ousted and the rightist bloodbath began in earnest.
Hallward carefully wades through the accusations
of human rights violations leveled at Aristide's government. After
an exhaustive examination, he can find no evidence that holds
up. In many cases, he finds that the supposed abuses themselves
were greatly exaggerated, if not entirely fabricated.
Damming the Flood (lavalas means "flood"
in Haitian Kreyol) is brilliantly written and extremely thorough
in examining the players behind the 2004 assault on Haitian popular
democracy and its horrific aftermath.
In the wake of the thousands killed and
countless more tortured and raped, it is inevitable that many
readers not versed in Haiti's past would ask: Why? Hallward does
a fine job of answering that question, addressing fundamental
structural injustices enforced by U.S. foreign policy.
Aristide emerged as a priest in the tradition
of liberation theology, which promotes a "preferential option
for the poor." In Hallward's words: "All through the
1980s and early 90s [U.S. army intelligence officers] recognized
that 'the most serious threat to U.S. interests was not secular
Marxist-Leninism or organized labor but liberation theology.'
Nowhere did the counter-insurgency measures that the US and its
allies devised in order to deal with liberation theology in the
1980s and early 90s fall more heavily than they did on the Haiti
of Lavalas and the ti legliz ("little church" movement).
It's no coincidence that the most notorious assassin hired to
terrorize Lavalas from 1990 to 1994, Emmanuel "Toto"
Constant, first began working for the CIA on a course designed
to explain and contain the "extreme left-wing" implications
of "The Theology of Liberation," which Constant understood
as an attempt 'to convince the people that in the name of God
everything is possible" and that, therefore, it was right
for the people to kill soldiers and the rich.'"
Hallward continues, "Haiti is the
only country in Latin America that had the temerity to choose
a liberation theologian as its president - twice. If Aristide
still remains the defining political figure in Haiti to this day
it's not because he represents a utopian alternative to the economic
status quo, or because he embodies a demagogic charisma that threatens
to stifle the development of democracy, or because his followers
believe that he made no strategic mistakes. It's because in the
eyes of most people he is not a politician, precisely, but an
organizer and an activist who remains dedicated to working within
what he famously affirmed as 'the parish of the poor.' It was
as such an activist that Aristide disbanded the army in 1995,
and it was as such an organizer that he dedicated the rest of
his political life to helping the popular mobilization deal with
the new threats and the old antagonisms that soon emerged as a
The priest turned president threatened
to help Haiti's poor enough to earn the eternal enmity of the
World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and both Republicans
and Democrats. His government was denied much-needed international
funds (which in a more sane world would be reparations for past
injustices, not loans or aid-with-strings-attached), and his poor
followers demonized as chimeres, or "devils." Instead
of looking at the structural roots of the exploitation and ecological
devastation to which the country has been subjected, foreign journalists
took their sound bites from English or French speaking elites
at odds with Lavalas's commendable, and only moderately leftist,
goal to raise the poor "from misery to poverty with dignity."
The scant media coverage of Haiti that
exists tends to continue centuries-old patterns of ignoring the
perspectives of the poor majority. In Hallward's words, what most
English speakers get instead is repetition of "perhaps the
most consistent theme of the profoundly racist first-world commentary
on the island: that poor non-white people remain incapable of
Though the UN "peacekeeping"
mission, put in place in 2004 to legitimize the most recent coup,
remains in Haiti, Hallward points to ongoing resistance from the
poorest neighborhoods as evidence that the story is not over.
While coup forces continue to dominate most ministries of the
current government, the 2006 presidential election resulting in
Haiti's rulers conceding victory to Aristide's former Prime Minster
Rene Preval shows the unavoidability of some concessions to pressure
from the poor majority.
For those who feel a debt to the people
of Haiti for inspiring resistance to U.S. slavery, and for setting
an example of the true potential of declarations of liberty espoused
by the French Revolution, this book is an essential resource.
Damming the Flood will inspire international activists to support
the struggles of those Haitians who continue to stand up for their
fundamental human rights. It should be widely read.
Ben Terrall is a freelance writer whose
work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times,
Counterpunch, Lip Magazine, and other publications. He can be
reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Read other articles by Ben.