Big Think Interview With Laurent Dubois

A conversation with the Professor of French Studies and History at Duke University.
  • Transcript


Question: What sparked the Haitian Revolution, and why did it succeed where other New World slave uprisings failed?

Laurent Dubois: Well Saint-Domingue, which was the French colony that became Haiti in 1804, was a very profitable sugar plantation economy. In fact, it was probably the most profitable colony in the Americas at the time. It was a colony that was based upon large sugar plantations with African slaves. The pace of importation in from Africa was massive. There were about a million Africans brought to Saint-Domingue during the course of the eighteenth century and the revolution began in 1791 as a result and part of a number of forces that came together. On the one hand you had you know obviously the longstanding desire of people to be free. There was sense of… There had been resistance in the colony before as there had been in other places, but really the historical conjuncture is the one in which the French Revolution opened up some possibilities for action on the ground and that’s pretty vital to understanding how it worked out. In other words the transformations of the French empire itself or of French power structures themselves as well as the emergence of a kind of language of equal rights starting with the American Revolution and the French Revolution provided an opportunity and in some ways connected with other kinds of ground level desires or hopes and ideologies for freedom that were coming out of the plantation regime itself. The reasons for its successor are multiple. It’s not simply that there was a majority slave population because there were other colonies where that was also the case, notably Jamaica, but it’s a kind of long series of events in which not only did the enslaved insurgence organize very well and fight very well, we can talk about that more, but also they found allies and they actually… the abolition of slavery in the colony is the result of an alliance with French allies of various kinds. And then anyway, yeah. Do you want me to continue?

Question: How did the outcome of the Haitian Revolution shape the country's subsequent government and social order?

Laurent Dubois: Right. So the first big dramatic push in the Haitian Revolution was to overthrow the slave regime and we have to remember this was really the first place where there was a large scale emancipation experiment. There had been abolition in some North American colonies, but really on a small scale and not in you know large slave colonies. So what the regime in Saint-Domingue after the revolution had to deal with was how do you move from slavery to freedom on a massive scale, right? 90% of the population was enslaved people. What’s the economy going to look like? What’s labor going to look like? And in many ways that whole tension which happened during the revolution continued on in Haitian history afterwards. In 1802, 1803 the French government decides essentially to crush the kind of autonomous black regime that’s emerged in Saint-Domingue led by Toussaint L'Ouverture, the famous general and governor and in that moment essentially they kind of force a choice on the people of Saint-Domingue, which is whether to be you know to be re-enslaved under the French or be free and independent and obviously they fight for and win their independence in order to preserve a liberty they had won before. The result though of that conflict is a kind of both the expulsion of the French and then the creation of a kind of new class of elites, a new order in which the question of who is going to own land, who is going to work for who and all those kinds of questions become very important ones in nineteenth century Haiti.

Question: Why has Haiti experienced so much poverty and instability throughout its history, and how much are France and the U.S. to blame?

Laurent Dubois: Well it’s been up and down. I mean there is obviously a lot of instability, parts of the nineteenth century. There was actually quite long periods of political stability as well in the nineteenth century as well as some in the twentieth century, so it sometimes can be exaggerated. We have to remember in the nineteenth century our country was pretty unstable too at certain moments, but there is a way in which there is some very fundamental tensions I think that do undergird a lot of that… a lot of those conflicts. One is simply the tension between a large number of people who are living in the rural areas whose goal is essentially a kind of autonomy, agriculture that feeds themselves, ability to trade, but kind of on their own terms and then alongside that there is a lot of people who are hoping to kind of continue and revive plantation agriculture, particularly with coffee in order to export to the broader world, so the kind of tension between different economic visions I would say is one of the underlying tensions. You also have to remember that the Haitian state is under enormous pressure from the beginning. Many countries see the emergence of Haiti as a very serious threat. They do have trade with a lot of countries, notably the US and North American, but diplomatic recognition only comes in 1825 from France and actually during the Civil War from the United States, so it’s kind of seen as a dangerous state and Haitian elites are in this kind of perpetual position of kind of trying to sort of prove to the outside world and in some ways you know gain recognition from the outside world. In 1825 they actually are levied a major indemnity by the French who asked that in return for granting recognition that Haitians pay a 125 million francs and that actually creates a spiral of debt in which the Haitian state is still kind of embroiled. So there are a lot of outside forces that weaken in some ways what might have otherwise happened in the country.

Question: What connections can be drawn between Haitian history and the current societal problems that have exacerbated the current tragedy?

Laurent Dubois: Yeah. I mean a lot of what we… We really need to go back I think to the early twentieth century to understand a lot of what is going on today. I mean one point is simply that it’s important to remember there is a 20 year US. occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934. That represents a major transition in the history of the country and kind of reshaping partly in terms of just their direction of their attention. I mean obviously shifts a lot of connections from France to the US and that occupation sets in motion a number of things that have profound consequences in Haiti. One of them is the formation of the Haitian Army, which had basically been a decentralized militia like army before and which becomes a centralized army. It’s actually created because there is serious resistance to the US occupation in the countryside and the Haitian Army is used with the marines to suppress that resistance. That creates a sort of force in Haitian politics which is going to kind of be a profound force throughout the twentieth century, which Aristide actually disbanded when he returned with… after he was returned by the US in the ‘90s. So the place of the Haitian Army I think is really, really crucial. That’s something to keep in mind and then simply a kind of serious conflict over who is going to kind of speak on behalf of the population of Haiti. Which elites are going to take that role is one that really creates a lot of tensions within the Haitian political elite over the course of time, so if I was to summarize it’s partly that from the very beginning the Haitians state is under tremendous pressure from outside forces that are kind of demanding of it certain things in order to gain recognition and at the same time internally there is a tremendous conflict between very different visions of what autonomy and liberty should mean in the country.

Question: What are the major obstacles Haiti faces in trying to rebuild after the earthquake?

Laurent Dubois: The problem is in part there is just a major problem about the Haitian state. What is the Haitian state going to look like? Obviously, I mean, that’s been an issue that people have been dealing with for some time and even before the earthquake there was a substantial UN presence and NGO’s and so forth, so all of those kinds of issues that were there before the earthquake are only exacerbated by the major blow that the Haitian state has structurally received really to the core since many of its buildings have been destroyed and so forth. So there is going to be a real question about what the interlocutors are, how the Haitian state is going to interact with others. I mean the state, the institution, the people are still there, but how the infrastructure is going to work is a big question. I would say more broadly one really has to think about Haiti in a complicated way in the sense there are all kinds of forms of organization beyond the state. The state is actually very, in some ways, very limited in its reach within Haiti in terms of certainly in terms of schools, services and many other things. Haiti is an extremely privatized society and most things are done through private trade, so the question of whether the communities of action, you know, how does aid get to particular neighborhoods, it’s very clear already that there is a really different set of experiences between different neighborhoods in Haiti based on where they are and how they’re seen from the outside, so very, very important questions about who the interlocutors are for assistance and what that existence is particularly geared towards. You know, what is going to be done? What is the purpose of that assistance? All those are very big and open questions and in a sense the earthquake just raises the stakes and really perhaps opens up the possibility for a real rethinking of some of those things as well.

Question: What changes must Haiti make to its government and social institutions in order to rebuild?

Laurent Dubois: Well, in a way, I mean, although there has been ongoing problems in the last couple of years, I would say that before the earthquake there was in some ways some positive developments. Many people felt like things were going on a better track. It’s been a very, very difficult couple of decades in Haiti obviously. So in some ways maybe some of that can get recovered. I mean I think a lot of people… You know it’s such a massive tragedy and the loss of life is so tremendous as well as just the loss… you know the transformation of the city. It’s hard to think… In some ways it’s really hard to see forward right now, but obviously there may be an opportunity for people to think differently about the delivery of services, about how neighborhoods are constructed and also about how those neighborhoods are organized. I mean I think as always the best-case scenario will be if there is a real kind of collaboration with grassroots, with people in communities themselves who can kind of express and find their aspirations and voice their aspirations in the project of rebuilding so that the communities that they have are the kinds of communities they want to live in. Obviously there has been a problem with basic services in a lot of neighborhoods in ****. If that could be addressed in reconstruction that would obviously be an incredibly helpful thing, issues about water and sewage and you know basic kind of infrastructural issues would be excellent, but there is a larger question about, you know, what role is the government going to play and how is the government going to intersect with many outside agencies that are now involved. We’ve already seen there is a great deal of confusion at times about who is doing what and those are serious questions that could really… And you know if there is debate or struggle in that way it could really undermine how much of this aide really helps you know profoundly helps the Haitian people.

Question: One commentator has argued that France should provide billions in disaster relief to Haiti as historical "reparations." Do you agree?

Laurent Dubois: I mean this is a question… Aristide actually demanded the same thing before his overthrow and there was a whole commission setup in France to study the question. You know perhaps a cynic will be maybe not surprised that they decided that they shouldn’t provide direct reparations, but they of course had a responsibility to provide aid. Although not as much as the United States, France does provide, you know, a lot of aid to Haiti and has for some time. They are very invested in particular, notably in cultural realms in Haiti. There is no doubt that might be one claim to make. At the same time, you know, Haiti is a country that has had kind of the misfortune of being colonized twice in a certain way. This is a, you know, they won independence from France and then 120 years later were then conquered by… you know, occupied by the United States. People even refer to the 1934 moment as the second independence of Haiti. You know they had to get their independence twice, but those kinds of experiences mean that while of course many people welcome and of course many elites have often worked with outsiders, there is a real sense of a question about you know what are the intentions of outsiders, what, ultimately, are they trying to do. I think there is a sense that obviously people want to have help and collaboration, but the terms upon which those relationships are worked out is very important and I do think there is a kind of **** in some ways, is that I think people to really kind of understand Haitian society and history and culture quite well as they go in and address these needs otherwise it’s very easy for there to be misunderstandings and conflicts.

Question: What cultural misunderstandings must other countries shed before they can truly help Haiti?

Laurent Dubois: I think a couple things. I mean on the historical front I think it’s just vital for people to know that this country you know is born out of a refusal of slavery, right, a refusal of a plantation slavery. This is a country whose workers, whose African slaves produced and enormous amount of wealth for France in particular and other countries as well and who essentially when they freed themselves essentially kind of transformed their country from one that had been producing a lot of wealth into one that didn’t have that same capacity simply because they were slaves. They were the producers of that wealth. When they decided to be human beings, you know free human beings rather than slaves they kind of were forced into a decision. There is a way in which that I think goes through all of Haitian history that kind of desire to refuse a certain kind of form of subjection and enslavement and people are rightly proud of that inheritance, which by the way, had a huge impact. You know it directly lead to the Louisiana Purchase. It kind of improved… It sort of expanded our notion of human rights in radical ways, so there is a kind of you know I think just a sense of the importance of Haitian history so that it’s seen as not as a kind of perpetual… a state of perpetual crisis, but rather also a kind of important historical force. The other really important misconceptions that come up a lot have to do with Haitian voodoo in particular, which you know is often described as a kind of religion that you know makes people that the… I think. David Brookes talked about it making people believe that life is capricious side. I’m not sure exactly the quote, but there is a kind of way in which people view Haitian voodoo, which I think people really need to educate themselves about the religion very carefully because it’s a very important force in Haitian society, and people are rightly sensitive about it being kind of misconstrued. It’s a religion that actually was born in the midst of slave revolution. It’s far from something that teaches people to sort of give up or not struggle. In fact, it’s really a religion linked to both collective and individual struggle and concretely on the ground in Haiti both Protestant organizations, Catholic groups and Voodoo churches are very important social institutions. They provide leadership. They provide community. They provide solace in a time like this, so a real good understanding of the religious landscape that’s sort of taken with an open mind I think will be extremely important for those who are working there.

Recorded on January 20, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen