International Diplomacy

Outside Haiti, the world’s mainstream media rarely take notice of the country’s elections. Even after the January, 2010 earthquake, the attitude pretty much stayed the same. They continued to repeat the standard line that it is a failed, corrupt state, kept afloat by foreign donations and NGOs. Whatever the result in November’s poll, none of this would change.

But then their interest in the election was sparked once Wyclef Jean hinted that he would stand, a hint confirmed on 5 August. Along with 33 others, he waited for the decision of the Conseil Électoral Provisoire (CEP), Haiti’s electoral council, for confirmation that they would be eligible to stand.

The decision was expected on Tuesday 17 August, but at the last minute it was postponed until the Friday. And when it came, the press were all aflutter: Wyclef had been disqualified – although 14 others had too, leaving only 19 candidates to appear on the ballot papers in November.

The next day, in the Miami Herald appeared a piece entitled Banned from ballot, Wyclef remains an inspiration by Edwidge Danticat. In it she admits to initially feeling excitement at the thought of his candidacy. Wyclef had helped to put Haiti back on the front pages again, and no doubt for some he was a refreshing outsider compared to the stuffy intellectual elite.

A cultural outsider maybe, but a political one? His subsequent criticisms of the CEP (subsequently expressed in song) were related to the rejection of his own candidacy, not that of others. And he certainly had nothing to say about its decision to exclude Haiti’s largest political party, Fanmi Lavalas, from the Senate elections in April last year, a decision condemned in an open letter (pdf) to Jose Miguel Insulza of the Organisation of American States and Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations. The ban remains in force for this year’s elections.

Of course, too stringent criticism of the CEP would undercut his own position in the unlikely event that they reverse their decision. If participating in the election in itself would not be an index of his support for the ruling elite, his notorious remarks in support of the armed rebels who helped overthrow the democratically-elected Aristide in 2004 (which he has not retracted) should leave us in no doubt. And indeed not one of the candidates is guiltless on that score, which is another reason why Haiti Liberté has called it a sham election.

Danticat remains silent on these matters. Perhaps she is too close to her friend to criticize him in public. I am reminded of another Caribbean woman writer seemingly losing courage when the opportunity to take a stand comes available. When Jamaica Kincaid visited Tel Aviv in January 2004, Haaretz reported her response when asked for her thoughts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

‘In my opinion, it would be rude to come as a guest into someone’s home and tell him how to live,’ she says. ‘I have opinions, but I express them in private. I am only a guest here.’

The analogy between visiting a country and visiting someone’s house is rather forced, to say the least. And in any case, if you discovered that your host was keeping someone prisoner in the basement, you might just think this warranted more than a raised eyebrow.

Reading between the lines, though, she perhaps betrays her opinions all the same. After all, if she wholeheartedly approved of the Occupation she wouldn’t have to worry about telling her hosts ‘how to live.’ But if that is all we can take from this report of her visit, these are slim pickings indeed. One could hardly talk of an bold intervention here.

Danticat on the other hand hints at much more. Her piece indirectly points up a number of other reasons why Wyclef might not be perfect presidential candidate: his poor French, questions about the probity of his Yéle foundation, and indeed his problematic residency status. And yet by not making a meal of them, as a friend, her words may indeed carry weight, and she reminds him – in public and therefore in a way that would make it harder for him to – of his duties. He should bow to the decision gracefully, not to incite violence, and to concentrate on doing what he does best – being a musician and a roving ambassador for the country.

Still, the question remains whether Haitian intellectuals have been unduly reluctant to embrace the cause of popular democracy. The thinly disguised attacks on Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Lyonel Trouillot’s novel Bicentenaire (2004) and Raoul Peck’s film Moloch Tropical (2009) are perhaps the best-known examples (and taken to task by Le Monde du Sud/elsie-news and Kim Ives respectively).

Danticat’s writings are politically much more ambiguous. Her memoir, Brother, I’m Dying (2007) sympathetically records her uncle’s radicalism. He embraced Aristide in the late 1980s, seeing in him a version of Daniel Fignolé, ousted by François Duvalier in 1957. Fifteen years later, now an old man in poor health, he was eventually forced to leave Haiti when some of Aristide’s supporters (wrongly) accused him of collaborating with UN forces and police. In her account, Danticat distances herself from the loaded term chimères, used to demonize Aristide’s supporters, although her choice of nouns in her reference to anti-Aristide ‘groups’ and pro-Aristide ‘gangs’ arguably closes that distance.1

Similarly, perhaps, her narrative of events of 2004 in the essay ‘Bicentennial’ in Create Dangerously (2010) avoids celebrating Aristide’s departure from office (and subsequent exile in South Africa) without actually describing it as a coup d’état.2

Given the prevailing balance of power, such apparent even-handedness cannot help but bring comfort to the forces that brought an end to Haiti’s precarious decade-long experiment with democracy. It would be hard to think of such reticence among an older generation of Haitian writers, such as Jacques Roumain and Jacques-Stephen Alexis.

Part of the reason must be the legacy of thirty years of dictatorship, during which any form of political dissent within the country was practically impossible, and clearly forced writers and artists to express their resistance indirectly. And another factor must be that – as a dyaspora living in North America – writers like Danticat (as she clearly indicates in her latest book) are caught between the expectations of fellow Haitian-Americans (who frequently take issue when her characters aren’t sufficiently ‘representative’) and the demands of those back home (who feel that as someone who has left the country she has no right to comment on its political scene).

In his book on Aristide and the Lavalas movement, Peter Hallward argued that ‘the great majority of intellectuals and academics in Haiti are conservative as a matter of course,’3. If that is true, then equivocation is hardly sufficient to tip the balance. As Chris Bongie observes (pdf), it seems, in the wake of a ‘natural’ catastrophe and a ‘humanitarian’ crisis, that ‘taking sides’ is entirely inappropriate. But it is precisely under such circumstances that dominant versions of ‘historical truth’ take hold, blocking the full range of possibilities – or electoral candidates – that lay claim to our consideration.

Notes

  1. Edwidge Danticat, Brother, I’m Dying (New York: Vintage, 2008), pp177, 150-1.
  2. Edwidge Danticat, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist At Work (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), pp97-105.
  3. Peter Hallward, Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment (London: Verso, 2007), p194.

The Payback II

Responsibility for the spoof Bastille Day announcement promising the repayment of Haiti’s ‘independence debt’ to France (covered in an earlier post) was claimed by a group called CRIME.

The original website at diplomatie.gov.fr was taken down by the authorities, but was quickly replaced by one at diplomatiegov.info and the video of the announcement can now be viewed here.

On 16 July, a message from the @DiplomatieFR twitter account stated:

« Le Comité pour le Remboursement Immédiat des Montants Envolés » d’Haïti (CRIME) takes credit for a hoax carried out on July 14.

The acronym works in English too, standing for the Committee for the Reimbursement of the Indemnity Money Extorted from Haiti.

At a press conference in Montreal on 22 July the group promised more action according to this report in the Winnipeg Free Press. And then the issue seemed to disappear from the news.

But on 16 August an open letter to Nicolas Sarkozy was published in the French daily Liberation urging France ‘to pay Haiti, the world’s first black republic, the restitution it is due.’

The letter was reprinted on CRIME’s own website, both in Frenchand English with a full list of signatories. The issue was also covered by BBC News, the Guardian, and the Toronto Star.

That the signatories included French scholars such as Alain Badiou, Etienne Balibar and Jacques Rancière may have brought some comfort to Tontongi, the author of La France doit restituer à Haïti la rançon de l’indemnité (which seems to have been written before the letter was published), who noted the disappointing response of formerly progressive intellectuals such as Régis Debray and René Depestre to Aristide’s renewal of the claim for restitution in 2003.

The substantial article draws on the detailed arguments made by Anthony D Phillips regarding Haiti’s Independence Debt and Prospects for Restitution (pdf) which demonstrate the solid legal case behind Aristide’s claim. In 1825 President Boyer ‘agreed’ to pay a 150 million franc indemnity to compensate French planters for the loss of land and slaves as a result of Haiti’s independence.

The legality of this agreement could be challenged on several grounds: the fact that negotiations were shadowed by the threat of French military force; the dubious basis on which the amount of the indemnity was arrived at; and the already-established consensus among the colonial powers that slavery and the slave trade were morally wrong – as evidenced by the abolition of the slave trade by Britain and the United States in 1807, the commitment to extend abolition in the Treaties of Paris that ended the Napoleonic Wars; and even the (albeit short-lived) abolition of slavery by the French government itself in 1794.

Furthermore, when it became clear that Haiti could not make the scheduled repayments (it had to borrow the first two installments from French banks), in 1834 the government appointed a commission to review the arrangement. Although the Dalloz Report declared the original ordinance unlawful and argued that it was the responsibility of the French government to compensate the planters, a replacement treaty imposed a schedule that was scarcely less crippling.

Phillips examines the legal grounds for restitution in the light of successful ‘unjust enrichment’ claims made by Holocaust victims against Swiss banks, and by American states against tobacco corporations. He concludes:

In the recent movement toward addressing historical injustice through legal and political action, Haiti’s Independence Debt makes a compelling case. The historical background presents a sympathetic story of profound tragedy and unfairness. The story well fits the traditional elements of a cognizable unjust enrichment claim and presents strong arguments against dismissal on procedural grounds. As part of a concerted, multi-disciplinary approach, a claim for the Independence Debt could realize some relief for the modern-day people of impoverished Haiti and perhaps deliver justice for one of history’s most tragic wrongs.

The Christian Science Monitor reprted on 17 August that the French Foreign Ministry had dismissed the petition. But the article makes the following interesting observation:

French officials did not address the legitimacy of the debt, with analysts saying such an admission could open a flood-gate of former colonial claims. France, for its part, has steadily requested that Moscow recompense a group of French investors that prior to 1917 put vast sums into the Russian rail system. Lenin declared the debt void under Soviet rule. But recently Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin agreed to reopen negotiations.

According to a post on The dangers of sovereign debt default, the Soviet government settled with British holders of these so-called Czar Bonds in 1986 ‘because the Soviets wanted to get hold of large amounts of Czarist money frozen in 1917 that was still sitting in British banks.’ And while the Yeltsin government compensated French bondholders to the tune of $400 million in 1996, many have argued that the amount should have been much larger. And the Association Fédérative Internationale des Porteurs d’Emprunts Russes (AFIPER) continue to press for what they argue is full restitution of the bondholders’ investments. (See also this article in Le Figaro in July this year).

If the holders of Czar Bonds are as much victims of violent breaches of international law and custom as the Haitian government, then there is an embarrassing inconsistency in the French government’s response to their claims for restitution. But even if the Haitian petition that the government ignores is based on arguments as strong, if not stronger, than those that led to Russian compensation in 1996, what makes such claims compelling is not the logic of their arguments but the relative standing of the two parties in the dispute. In some circumstances, France can compel Russia to bow to international pressure in ways that Haiti could never duplicate in her dealings with France.

But this is not something we are likely to hear the Foreign Ministry say in so many words.