Haiti's History of Lawlessness: Background information when reading Claire of the Sea Light

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Claire of the Sea Light

by Edwidge Danticat

Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2013, 256 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2014, 256 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Suzanne Reeder

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About this Book

Beyond the Book:
Haiti's History of Lawlessness

Print Review

Since its independence in 1804, Haiti has struggled with lawlessness, due in large part to being a former slave nation that, after it won its independence, was left with the massive challenge of creating a stable and autonomous society while being actively isolated by the dominant trading nations of France, Britain and the USA.

Before 1804, Haiti was a French colony called St. Domingue that occupied the entire island of Hispaniola. By the 1760s, it had become the most profitable colony in the Americas, with highly successful sugar and coffee industries. With this success, however, came the exploitation of African slaves. The French Revolution inspired slaves in northern St. Domingue to organize a rebellion, which began in 1791. This rebellion, known as the Haitian Revolution, lasted thirteen years. During the conflict, Spanish and British forces also intervened. After declaring victory in January 1804, Jean-Jacques Dessalines—a former slave and a leader of the Haitian army—renamed the colony Haiti and later made himself emperor.

When Dessalines assumed power, he inherited a country in profound turmoil. Haiti's agricultural base was devastated since most plantations had been ruined during the revolution. Also, with independence, Haiti became a nation of people left to their own devices after an era of foreign control. They were resistant to change and working for and with one another. Dessalines's policies included forced labor on plantations, discrimination against the elitist mulattos, and massacres of the country's white inhabitants, whom he feared as potential subversives if another French invasion occurred. In 1806 he was killed while trying to stop a revolt led by the mulatto leader Alexandre Sabès Pétion. Afterwards, Pétion and the black leader Henry Christophe created two separate regimes.

Since then, Haiti has rarely known stability, and is also a fraction of its initial size having lost about two-thirds of its territory in 1844 when a nationalist group partitioned the eastern part of the island into the Dominican Republic. Foreign interference, dire poverty, internal conflict and natural disasters have all contributed to the country not reaching its full potential. Haiti also has a legacy of numerous leaders succumbing to corruption, even the enforcement of terror, to maintain power.

Amidst this frequent and overwhelming chaos, lawlessness has prevailed. Brutal government enforcers and gangs, in particular, have often been endemic to Haiti's history and thwarted development.

The Tonton Macoute, center, with soldier and street vendor One of Haiti's most infamous and dreaded groups of enforcers were the Tonton Macoutes, first formed in 1959 during François "Papa Doc" Duvalier's reign. Duvalier—a former doctor who studied and exploited Vodou—saw the regular armed forces as a threat, so he employed his own private militia to carry out his dictates and eliminate anyone perceived to be an enemy. The Tonton Macoutes were responsible for mass killings, rapes, kidnappings, torture, and other atrocities. When Duvalier died in 1971, his 19-year-old son Jean-Claude (known as "Baby Doc") took power. Like his father, Baby Doc's reign was marked by corruption and brutality. In 1986 he was overthrown and went into exile in France. The Tonton Macoutes officially disbanded the same year but offshoot groups directed massacres throughout the following decade.

With support from the poor, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected president in 1990 in Haiti's first free democratic election. In September 1991 he was forced to flee into exile but returned to power in 1994. He was elected again in 2000, despite charges of electoral fraud. According to a 2011 article in Time, Aristide began to rely on thugs called the Cannibal Army and the Chimères (Mythical Monsters) who didn't wreak the same kind of terror as the Tonton Macoutes but "performed their share of arson and murder."

In addition to state sanctioned gangs, other organized gang activity grew rampant in modern times and became accepted as a way of life. A 2007 article in The New York Times reported that gang leaders were considered "de facto spokesmen for long-neglected slums." Both Aristide and René Préval (president from 1996 to 2001 and again from 2006 to 2011) even met and negotiated with gangs, until a kidnapping spree inflicted by criminal gangs in late 2006 finally made Préval halt his negotiations.

After Aristide's ouster in 2004, The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) was established. Then and in subsequent years, UN forces went after the most violent gangs in particularly turbulent areas. UN raids resulted in the take-over of gang hideouts and killings of gang members. However, reported accounts have noted that local residents ended up caught in the cross-fire as a result of intervention and gang violence. (These contemporary gangs play a role in Edwidge Danticat's book of fiction Claire of the Sea Light. Danticat was born in Haiti in 1969 and moved to the United States when she was twelve.)

In 2010 Haiti suffered a devastating earthquake. Thousands of prisoners, including gang leaders, at the National Penitentiary in Port-au-Prince escaped. They fled to improvised camps built by survivors of the quake and raped thousands of women, girls and boys. Since the quake, Haiti continues to be in a state of recovery. As recently as August 2013, the U.S. Department of State urged travelers to "exercise caution" when visiting Haiti. Especially in the Port-au-Prince area, violent crime remains a danger.

BookBrowse's feature of Danticat's book, Brother, I'm Dying includes a short history of Haiti.

Picture from latinamericanstudies.org

Article by Suzanne Reeder

This article was originally published in September 2013, and has been updated for the July 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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