February 15, 2004
By S armed revolt swept through town after town in Haiti last week, it was hard not to conjure up visions from the country’s violent
past. Bloody overthrows are the norm in Haiti: There have been 30 coups in its 200-year history.
The country has virtually no institutions. Even when they are there in name, people cannot turn to them to help solve problems.
Having no system has become the system.
Haitians have accommodated themselves to an extemporaneous existence. To get a telephone line, you have to know someone.
Self-styled electricians climb poles and steal for their neighborhood whatever current there happens to be, charging for the
service. Garbage pickup is whimsical at best. The Ministry of Justice is lethargic and mysterious. Courts function sporadically,
sometimes at a judge’s caprice.
In general, work gets done on an ad-hoc basis, depending on connections. Scribes at typewriters still sit under trees near customs
at the airport; they write letters for the illiterate and fill out documents, but those documents can rarely be recovered later. It’s a
pretend bureaucracy ripe for corruption.
President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former priest, rose through the ranks of an institution, the Roman Catholic Church, which
survived in Haiti because it is financed from abroad, from lot bo dlo, or the other side of the water. Nonetheless, he has also been
a master of Haiti’s nonlinear, back-channel culture.
From childhood, Mr. Aristide learned little respect for the hierarchies of institutions. He grew up in the southwest countryside,
where a handful of men who owned the land were in charge and where what is known in Haiti as “the Republic of Port-au-Prince”
was a distant dream.
Though the country’s elected leader, he was often the first to point out that the few institutions that had survived were complicit in
the evils of the society and in the oppression he sought to curb.
Haiti has few institutions for good reason. It was born out of the rejection of institutions, and has perceived them as vehicles of
subjugation. In 1791, Haitian slaves rebelled against France, the grandest power of the day, and began the world’s only successful
slave revolution. By 1804, the slaves had defeated the armies of Napoleon and created their own country.
This history plays into the present. The slogan of the most bloody-minded slave leader, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, was “Koupe
tet, boule kay” – “Cut off the head, burn down the house” – words that echo today among the armed gangs opposed to Mr.
“Haitian history is full of attempts to build institutions,” said Jocelyn McCalla, director of the National Coalition for Haitian
Rights, “but then they are destroyed or completely ignored. Since the revolution, which was a fantastic thing, Haiti has been
insulated and isolated from other parts of the world. It lacks communication, education, sophistication – the kind of training that
leads to real institution building.”
In part because of its lack of institutions, Haitian society works on a “big man,” or gwo neg, principle. A big man can fix things,
whether on the village or the national level.
Today, such a man could be a mayor or a legislator, but is just as likely, in the Haitian countryside, to be a voodoo priest or a big
agricultural cultivator. This man decides the community’s direction, distributes needed funds and punishes wrongdoers. He is
subject to the whim of his people only if he is no longer effective; then they usually desert him.
Mr. Aristide has always been an able leader in that old-fashioned manner. Yet, in 1990, in a twist of history, he became Haiti’s
first legitimately elected president, who was supposed to lead his country into an era in which the rule of law and institutions would
But Mr. Aristide was soon ousted by a military coup, and was only reinstated with American support, in 1994. “Because of the
coup,” Mr. McCalla said, “he saw in institutions like the army or the police the very instrument that could affect another coup
against him.” Upon his return, he disbanded the army and kept the police to a minimum.
But without a force of order to fall back on, it has been impossible for Mr. Aristide to carry out any social agenda, and for a long
time now he has not seemed to have the inclination or the budget to try.
The most flagrant example of his disregard for institutions came in 2000, when he allowed irregularities in an election that gave
him a clear legislative majority. The United States responded by stopping all funds, says Robert Maguire, director of the
international affairs program at Trinity College in Washington and a longtime Haiti observer. “This became a resource-starved
government very quickly,” Mr. Maguire said, “Aristide could not deliver on any of his big promises about education and health
care and so forth, and he couldn’t even really do street patronage.”
In other words, Mr. Aristide in some way stopped being a big man, even though he was the president, because he could not
deliver the goods.
What is happening now is not simply the result of Mr. Aristide’s leadership style. “This is happening because of irrefutable
Haitian truths,” Mr. Maguire said. “The country is deeply polarized between the included and the excluded, the elite rich and the
poor masses, between the urban dweller and the rural villager. Aristide represented something unique and important. He rose to
power as someone who was not part of the political class and not put in by the army. His support came solely from the Haitian
It turns out, however, that the Haitian people have a limited supply of patience.
Amy Wilentz is the author of “The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier.”