Tuesday, September 24, 2013

REVIEW: Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti

A sense of the arguments and perspective that drive Jeb Sprague’s detailed study of paramilitarism in Haiti from the early 1990s to 2004 is given in the following quote, which comes in a closing chapter: “As with all historical processes, Haiti’s recent history cannot be reduced to pure good versus pure evil—the popular Lavalas movement had its own contradictions and failures. Even so, right-wing paramilitarism and its backers have produced, by far, the most victims of political violence in Haiti in recent history” (p. 281). Sprague supports this point—and at the same time aims to expose layers of political complexity—with an intriguing assessment of the role of paramilitary organizations in ensuring that popular movements in the Caribbean republic are kept hobbled.

The span of the study is marked by the two overthrows of democratically elected popular leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his Fanmi Lavalas (FL) movement in 1991, and later in 2004. It is to Sprague’s credit that he keeps in clear view at all times the link between these events—now half-forgotten in the minds of a foreign audience unable (or unwilling) to recall Haiti’s history prior to the 2010 earthquake—and contemporary politics in Haiti.

This is a crucial story. For too long, the role of paramilitarism in these events has been recognized but little studied. This is somewhat surprising given the presence of state- and private-funded agencies of social control in Haiti’s history. In the nineteenth century, Haitian leaders ensured dominance by using the armed forces under their command to contain popular risings. There was always resistance, and this resistance only encouraged leaders to sharpen their tools of repression. Emperor Faustin Soulouque (1847–1859) had his own forces, and they would form the template for the military control of some of his successors.

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