Review of Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment

Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment
by Peter Hallward
Paperback: 488 pages
Publisher: Verso (April 7, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1844671062
ISBN-13: 978-1844671069

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 Aristide.

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 every turn.”

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 result.”

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 governing themselves.”

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: Read other articles by Ben, or visit Ben's website.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Lloyd Rowsey said on April 5th, 2008 at 2:19pm #

    Whatever measures the United States took to deal with liberation theology in Latin America — before, during, or after the 1980’s and 1990’s — it’s embargo against the island of Cuba, before, during, and after those years, has been the longest and most inhumane embargo in the history of the planet.

  2. Lloyd Rowsey said on April 5th, 2008 at 2:21pm #

    But thank you for the excellent review, Ben. It’s made me want to read the book.

  3. dan whitley said on April 8th, 2008 at 1:11pm #

    I have lived in Haiti for over two years, working for a project in Les Cayes. I read Damming the Flood last week, and found it to be all that you say it is, and that it accurately explains the facts on the ground. It is by far the best book on contemporary Haitian history/current events that I have read in a long time, and will certainly be the benchmark for further reportage on Haiti. As you can see in the news now, things in Haiti are awful. I hope that more people will learn the truth about what is going on here. Thanks for your coverage.

  4. Jackson said on April 9th, 2008 at 10:39am #

    I found another interesting review of Hallward’s book: