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28458: Hermantin( Review)Review of Haiti: Rising Flames from Burning Ashes (fwd)

From: leonie hermantin <lhermantin@hotmail.com>

Review of Haiti: Rising Flames from Burning Ashes
June 12, 2006
By G. A. Rosso, Professor of English, Southern Connecticut State University

I enjoyed reading this book from a former student. It is a great personal accomplishment and its argument timely and necessary. Pierre argues in clear and unequivocal terms that the Haitian government should be reformed into a rational, law-based system of checks and balances that both insures a level of independence for the judiciary and legislative branches from the executive branch and enables them to work together for the good of all citizens. He brings impressive historical knowledge to the task and deftly uses the context of Haitian independence, both its triumphs and failures, as a theoretical model for what is right and wrong in Haitian politics today. And he supplies a fascinating account of the post-colonial power structure dominated by traditional elites, whose French-identified class bias and racism continue to divide Haiti.

The author also shows admirable courage in taking on the orthodox Left by refusing the argument for revolution. Although I think he idealizes and portrays U.S. democracy uncritically in many places, Pierre’s strategy of grounding his argument in the unfulfilled revolution of 1804 is insightful and wise. He stretches the historical analogy perhaps too far into the 20th century, but it works rhetorically and politically. His grasp of Haiti’s long history also is strong and assuring, lending resonance and credibility to his account of the political failures of revolution in each generation. Being equally critical of traditional elites helps provide analytical balance and turns the argument into a model of rational and moderate negotiation between political extremes. The treatment of Aristide is exemplary in this regard and, while I think it would strengthen the argument to explain more fully and clearly how Aristide brought the masses into the political arena, I believe Pierre’s insistence on building a stable civil society through rational, predictable, and enduring structures of governance is a mature and valuable addition to Haitian politics.

I found part I to be the most successful, especially chapters 2-5, which are very solid and launch the book nicely, setting the tone and establishing the credibility of the author’s argument. His treatment of the post-independence power consolidation is sharp and makes a significant contribution to the period. Although the book could benefit from engaging, however critically, the classic arguments of C.L.R. James’s Black Jacobins (l938), Pierre’s account of the dynamic struggle between Christophe and Pétion and of Boyer’s ultimately disastrous policies is worth consideration by scholars writing in the field of both Haitian and post-colonial studies.

Part II on the U.S. occupation is also good. It tells the truth about U.S. aggression and does not gloss over the responsibility of Haiti’s elite and the people in general in provoking such action. But this part raises a key intellectual and political problem that the book does not adequately deal with: and that is the question of agency (in terms of the means of exerting power or influence). The issue is not easily explained or resolved. Even in the United States, Pierre’s model democracy, it is questionable whether common citizens actually have power or the means to influence government. Although this question also emerges forcefully in part III on how to reform Haitian institutions, it appears starkly in relation to the occupation by the U.S., which may with France exert more economic and military power over Haitian politics than Pierre allows. But that is open to debate. What he does say in chapter 7 (particularly pp. 88-9) is that the U.S. stabilized the country while “failing to install a systemic backbone to ensure that Haiti would not again fall into the trap of its history” (89). How can an occupier install a system and that system be the historical exertion of the Haitian people? The question is doubly difficult to understand when the author does not state what were the strategic goals of the U.S. at the time. Pierre’s treatment of Estimé and Papa Doc are very good and make the chapter strong, with excellent work on Lavalas and Aristide as they relate to Pierre’s “all-or-nothing” thesis about Haiti’s political culture. But the material on Baby Doc needs more analysis (110ff) in relation to the economics of U.S. intervention: since he suggests that the U.S. really was in control of the Haitian economy in the 1970s, which in turn structured the political behavior of Haiti’s rulers, then he needs to lay out more clearly the nature and goal of U.S. overlordship in this period (and others) as well. Further, while this question of agency in relation to the United States would force Pierre to deepen and complicate his analysis of the U.S. as a model democratic society, the concluding paragraph to part II raises the issue purely within the Haitian context: who is in charge of the “carrot and stick” policy? Pierre says that “Reason” must be at the center of all political decisions, but how do you manifest such an abstraction, particularly since revolutionary change must be subordinated to a U.S model of pragmatism? This question makes part III of the book very important.

That Pierre understands the importance of a broad-based and comprehensive reformation of Haiti’s institutions of governance is a credit to his foresight and courage in tackling the hard questions. It also shows a deep-seated and genuine love of his country. Having recognized its value, though, I think this is the least successful part of the book.

The ideas in Part III are encouraging but lack the requisite concreteness to be of pragmatic use. Who is to carry out these suggestions? More crucially, what obstacles must be faced? In terms of the military (whose reform would be instrumental in changing Haiti), what entrenched resistance might arise from traditional elites, rival factions, or U.S. and French interests? These considerations involve agency and who will inaugurate and guide the reforms, especially in terms of distributing power more widely than the three branches of government. The basic idea is good, to open up more political space for the media, interest groups, professional associations, and the like. But these chapters speak of organizing different interest groups under an “umbrella” and of establishing a “set of accepted legal structures” without saying who would carry out this activity (190). How do you institutionalize the two national parties? What would the CEP need to do to become more powerful? The author mentions “incentives” (223) without saying what they are or how the CEP would become more organized, powerful, and relevant. At this stage, he simply asserts that they should be so. The CEP’s autonomy is important but how to engineer such independence, particularly in light of the majority party getting 4 members on the CEP (239)? What “smart, pointed, and relevant legislative decisions” does the author have in mind (256)? Perhaps the point is simply to get the idea out there, especially in view of the dominance of “egos” in the present system, but without some sense of the specifics of the proposed changes Pierre’s argument remains abstract.

These are gist of my concerns. The executive branch chapter (21) is refreshing because the historical analogy returns to bolster the argument; but the next chapter on empowering the people needs to consider more fully, as I suggest above, what role Aristide’s brand of populism would play in the reform of Haiti’s institutions. Again, the question of agency is central to this concern and no single writer has all the answers to these questions. It is valuable that Pierre raises them. And he does so as a patriot in exile, which makes the chapter on the Diaspora (24) one of the best in the book: it benefits from the author’s personal experience and knowledge and provides more grounded discussion than the chapters on state institutions. Finally, I think it would help the structure of the book to separate chapters 22-25 into a part IV, especially since part III is over-crowded.

My criticisms may appear to overshadow my praise for the book, but that is not my intent. Hyppolite Pierre has written an important and provocative book, one that should enhance his reputation as a voice to be reckoned with in Haitian political circles. While I believe the press was negligent in not ensuring a better scholarly presentation, and in producing typographic and allowing grammatical miscues, I was inspired by the book and look forward to his continuing contributions to the science of politics and to the improvement of his beloved Haiti.

—Professor G.A. Rosso Department of English Southern Connecticut State University eMail Dr. Rosso

Dr. Anthony Rosso is a Professor of English at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. He has written several books and articles about 18th century British literary and social history, focusing on the work of the poet William Blake.