Originally: Haiti’s Mess a Legacy of Two Feudal Centuries
MIAMI (Reuters) – Stripped of its forests and top soil, looted of its onetime colonial wealth by dictators and corruption, Haiti’s
efforts to establish a prosperous democracy always faced daunting odds.
Now that the latest occupant of the National Palace has joined a long line of rulers to flee into exile, the poorest country of the
Americas has a second chance to get it right, Haitian community leaders and scholars said on Sunday.
But if it fails to fix deep social problems, an enormous disparity of wealth and economic stagnation that have spawned 32 coups
since Haiti became the world’s first black republic 200 years ago, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s departure may end up being
“What we’ve seen in the last few days is really only a symptom of a much deeper crisis,” said Robert Fatton, chair of the
Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics at the University of Virginia.
“In a country where there are very few ways to make money, people look at politics as a business … and whoever is next in power
is going to do exactly the same thing.”
It is easy to blame Haiti’s mess on a failure of a 1994 U.S. military intervention, after Aristide had been ousted in a coup, to build
the institutions needed to ensure stability and peace, like a police force and independent courts.
It is also possible to blame a decade of dithering in Washington, as Haiti’s first elected leader became increasingly despotic, for
failing to ensure Aristide toed a democratic line.
But leaders of the Haitian diaspora said a wealthy elite, gazing down on the sewage-strewn slums of Port-au-Prince from princely
hilltop mansions, must also share responsibility.
A “FEUDAL” SYSTEM
“In 1804 (when Haiti’s slaves gained independence from France), we began with a system that we never got rid of,” said Arielle
Jean-Baptiste, a research officer at the Washington-based Haiti Democracy Project.
Clotilde Charlot, a former chief of staff to Aristide when he spent his first period of exile in Washington after a 1991 coup, calls
that system a “feudal one.”
A mulatto upper-class, with the resources to help its overwhelmingly black country grow and prosper, has preferred to stay behind
the scenes, manipulating the civilians or generals it helped put in power, she said.
While generals and politicians looted the state’s meager coffers unchecked, the masses slipped deeper into poverty.
Overcrowding, and the hunt for fuel, stripped Haiti’s once lush forests. Without the roots to hold it in place, precious topsoil
washed out to sea, and modern Haiti is unable to grow the food it needs to feed itself.
During periodic coups or bloodshed, the elite quietly slipped off to Paris or Miami, not caring because “whoever wins is going to
be subordinate anyway,” Charlot said.
Aristide represented a democratic messiah whose fiery oratory, groomed in the Liberation Theology wing of the Roman Catholic
church, called on rich and poor to unite.
In Creole, he would preach, “Everyone is someone,” meaning that even the poorest, like maids and servants, had the same rights
as the mighty.
“That was revolutionary in Haiti,” said Fatton. “It was a real threat to the elite the fact that a maid could actually talk back to
But Aristide too fell into the trap of Haiti’s political immaturity, and became the type of despot he once fought.
Haitians hope they have learned their lessons.
“The qualitative change is that the rich in Haiti now know that unless they find ways to share and distribute, they will lose. The
country will not allow them to enjoy their wealth,” said Charlot.