Putting the red back in Haiti’s flag

Matthew Smith has claimed as his own an impoverished, yet crucial, period in the study of the country’s history


Red and Black in Haiti:
Radicalism, Conflict, and Political Change, 1934-1957

Matthew J. Smith
2009, University of North Carolina Press
278 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

THE DUVALIERS have achieved something like celebrity status in Haitian historiography, despite the father’s predilection for slaughtering people and the son’s for slaughtering pigs.

The problem with such overarching figures, whose indelible imprint on society is still visible, is that they have come to dominate, even substitute for, an understanding of political development.

Yet the period that gave rise to François “Papa Doc” Duvalier had all begun very differently – with something like a vision of democracy and progressive social change.

Celebrity status means that almost everything in contemporary Haiti can be explained – or explained away – by reference to the dastardly Duvaliers. Long, messy and unglamorous interludes of political infighting are simply not on the radar.

But what factors generated the period of dictatorship that cast such a dark cloud over this neglected Caribbean state, and why have these been ignored as a sideshow to the main event when they are central to a proper understanding of history?

Matthew Smith has attempted to address these questions through this pioneering work of research, thereby claiming as his own an impoverished period in academic study. This book not only fills an important gap for those trying to understand Haitian history, but represents something of a triumph for the study of politics as a source of historical explanation. That the outcomes of political activity may be messy, unclear and anti-political – the precursor to any populist conundrum – does not detract from their relevance as explanatory factors.

Rise of Papa Doc

Red and Black in Haiti examines the complex and fragmented period prior to the Duvalier dictatorship during the post-occupation era from 1934 – the year of Haiti’s “Second Independence” when the US marine occupation came to an end – until 1957 and the rise of Papa Doc.

This period, according to Smith, constituted the greatest moment of political promise for Haiti, a country whose uprising in 1791-1804 constituted the only successful slave revolution in history and established a benchmark for the broader Caribbean and Latin American region.

Yet this period, as Smith points out, is remarkably understudied, for two main reasons: the complexity of the political struggles that characterised it has discouraged scholars from undertaking serious study and encouraged a tendency to regard it as one that merely demonstrates continuity with the cyclical pattern of turmoil established in the 19th century; and, secondly, historians of 20th-century Haiti have been bewitched by the colourful copy associated with the Duvalierist state and, to a lesser extent, the nylons and gum of the US occupation.

Overlooked, underplayed, and unclear enough to discourage even the hardiest historian, the period from 1934-57 has therefore been lumped within footnotes and introductory chapters of other works while the US marines and Duvaliers have remained the star attractions.

Nonetheless, as Smith points out, the story is far richer than this. The author argues that radical movements in the post-occupation period issued a powerful challenge to Haiti’s political traditions and transformed its political culture. Postoccupation radicalism evolved into a broad, urban-based popular movement in the 1940s and 1950s that would establish a blueprint for current forms of social protest.

Smith sets these developments against sweeping social, cultural and diplomatic changes in the Caribbean region alongside the backdrop of growing US anti-communism, which loomed large over Haiti and greatly shaped radical developments. They were made much more complex by the country’s race, class and colour dynamics, to which he pays valuable attention and which help to explain the emergence of the assertive brand of Haitian black nationalism, noirisme, that competed with Marxism and both defined the future of Haitian politics but also prefigured similar developments elsewhere in the Caribbean.

Smith’s great contribution has been to take this period seriously and delineate the ways in which radicalism played a leading role in influencing postoccupation politics. He writes:

“Divisiveness may have been the most enduring characteristic of postoccupation radicalism, but it did not mean that the movements failed to shape political events. Considered from several perspectives this contribution becomes clear.” [p. 190]

Red and Black in Haiti represents something of a rallying cry, imploring historians in a fragile democratic era to explore confusion and to reconnect with the oft-unrecognised struggles and sacrifices radicals have endured in the pursuit of social change. It should become required reading for all students of Haitian, Caribbean and Latin American history and politics.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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