Haiti: From the 1804 Revolution to the Current Crisis

Diana Carolina Alfonso and Lautaro Rivara

A brief revolution and a never-ending counter-revolution

It is difficult for us to understand Haitian social formation and the deep crisis of the neocolonial, neoliberal and post-state model behind it, without situating ourselves at the exact point of a long parable of re-colonization of the country, in what constitutes the most extensive counter-revolution in our continental history[i]. Haiti, at that time Saint-Domingue, was a French colony located to the west of the island of Hispaniola, the second largest of the Antilles. And between 1791 and 1804 it was able to develop the first successful social revolution in the hemisphere. First, because the Revolution of the Thirteen American Colonies, while earlier, had a much more limited political character. For the first time in the history of humanity, a slave rebellion won a resounding political and military triumph, confronting no less than the greatest military powers of the time, in the Caribbean that the Dominican Republic’s Juan Bosch characterized as a true “imperial frontier” (2012). Under the leadership of Jean-Jacques Dessalines[ii], unanimously considered the Father of the Haitian Nation despite the scandalous or demonized Western figure, Haiti would baptize itself by recovering an ancient indigenous word[iii] and would found the First Black Republic of the world, with the most advanced constitution of its time[iv]. If the male figure of Dessalines has not passed the test of colonial operations, what about the women who have been relegated in the national patriarchal historiography itself (not to mention that of the West), which is over-focused on the heroes and “pro-men”. We are referring to women who, beyond the auxiliary roles attributed to them, have occupied capital positions in the revolutionary process, whether in civil or military functions: Suzanne “Sanite” Belair, Claire Heureuse, Catherine Flon, Marie Jeanne Lamartinière, Victoria Montou and so many others.

This revolution, the “most complex and complete” in modern history, back in terms of Bosch[v], combined a great number of edges and dimensions that began to be elucidated with the pioneering work of the Trinidadian C.R.L. James (2013). This was a successful anti-slavery revolution that abolished slavery 59 years before the United States and 88 years before the Golden Law in Brazil[vi]. It was a social revolution that mobilized the slave masses against the owner oligarchy, and which, in some of its tendencies, also expressed anti-plantationist and therefore anti-capitalist demands. It was a decolonizing revolution that used the fundamental elements of the then germinating Haitian national culture, such as the Creole language, voodoo and the practice of Maroonage. It was a racial and anti-racist war that confronted, in diverse and fluctuating coalitions, black slaves and freedmen, mulattoes and whites. It was a revolution that, in the aforementioned 1805 Constitution, enshrined advanced rights for women such as the right to divorce. It was an international war with defensive and offensive phases that involved Haiti itself with its project to decree freedom on the other side of an island then considered “one and indivisible” by Toussaint Louverture[vii], to the attempts to restore the French metropolis, and to the crusading geopolitical interests of Spain and England. And it was, in the end, a national and independence revolution that secured the popular sovereignty of the island and severed it from the French colonial empire in the Caribbean.

However, this human feat is almost as unknown today as it was two centuries ago. Suffice it to say that Eric Hobsbawm, a canonical writer of the academic left, was able to write a book such as The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848, in which the Haitian revolution is relegated to two hasty mentions and a footnote, as the Haitian historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot (2017) reminds us. Not to mention what happened in French historiography after the colonial defeat of the best-armed and most experienced army in the world, consummated the irremediable loss of a fabulously rich colony that was at the same time the centre of experimentation of a non-classical production model of “slave capitalism”, as can be seen in Eric Williams’ pioneering study (2011). There, the inopportune reaction ordered by Napoleon was the virtual prohibition of mentioning Haiti in literature, historiography and the other supports of the national-state memory. Remember, for example, that it would be 206 years since the revolutionary feat for a president of the former metropolis to visit Haiti, and not without the pressure generated by the devastating earthquake that struck the island in January 2010. In March, former President Jacques Chirac declared: “Haiti has not been, strictly speaking, a French colony” [viii].

The process of recolonization led by the regional and national oligarchies of Latin America and the Caribbean, whether plantationists or landowners, was intended to ensure the continuity, in its fundamental lines, of a racialized class structure. It was to demobilize the indigenous, black, mestizo and/or peasant masses that had formed the liberation armies and imposed some of the most advanced programmatic points. And to sustain, under white-child replacement elites, a regime of accumulation and a modality of dependent and extroverted insertion in the capitalist market. In Haiti, due to the depth, complexity and completeness of the Revolution, the re-colonization process had to focus also on dismantling a series of conquests bequeathed by the revolutionary cycle itself, of a radicality that no modern political process would ever know again.

If in other latitudes the post-revolutionary conjuncture was above all a setback, in Haiti it represented a great leap backwards against various advances: the agrarian reform of Dessalines and the prohibition of foreign ownership of land; the physical destruction of the old landowning class, whether as a cause of socio-racial warfare, exile to other colonies or the plain and simple physical elimination of the white landowning colonists; the abolition of the racist foundations of political citizenship; the de facto empowerment of women who took on military roles with troop command; the destruction, in some regions, of the plantationist economic infrastructure itself, burned in the scorched earth policy of the so-called “indigenous army”; the radical and pioneering abolition of slavery, obtained no longer as a precarious concession but as manu militari; the consolidation of certain central elements of Haitian national-popular culture such as voodoo, which was quickly excluded as a formal cult and began to be persecuted by the State until the signing of the Concordat with the Catholic Church in 1860 [ix]; and finally, the sedimentation and consolidation of a Maroon and insurrectionary political memory, operative to this day. Our studies and approaches to revolutionary processes such as the Cuban, Haitian or Granada ones, lead us to a hypothesis: every revolutionary process, partially retrograde in its scope, sediments however irreversible conquests, be it in the oral memory, the national subjectivity or the political and organizational practices of the popular classes. Only in this way is it possible to understand the historical impossibility of stabilizing the regimes of domination in Haiti and the proclivity of the popular classes to permanent insurrection. The long history of the country up to our days always involves an attempt to reactualize or recover that truncated legacy of the revolution, around aspects such as sovereignty and national self-determination, the economic and development model, agrarian policy, popular culture and religiosity, etc.

Neoliberalism, neo-colonialism and post-status: a social formation beyond the threshold

At present, we characterize Haitian social formation as neoliberal, neocolonial and post/parastatal. With respect to its neoliberal character we will not go into too much detail, as neoliberalism has been extensively studied in our continent in recent decades. We will only point out that the implementation of neoliberalism in Haiti, which began during the last years of Jean-Claude Duvalier’s dictatorship (Baby Doc), implied here not only a process of privatization of public enterprises, commercial and financial liberalization, and deindustrialization. The role assigned to Haiti in the international division of labour was perfectly and tragically synthesized by an ineffable “friend of Haiti”, former US President Bill Clinton: it was all about making the country the Taiwan of the Caribbean. Beyond the exploitation of minerals such as silver, copper, gold and bauxite by Canadian and American transnationals, and beyond the presence of illicit economies such as drug trafficking that use the country and its adjacent islands as a way station to the North American market, Haiti’s main export resource, its true commodity, is today misery. The general impoverishment of the population, the agricultural ruin and the peasant exodus, the destruction not only of industrializing initiatives but even of the most elementary agro-industry, the food heteronomy induced in association with the Dominican and American agro-export complex, the devaluation of the national currency, the massive unemployment, the hunger and the food insecurity, among other phenomena, depreciated the salaries until making the Haitian labour force one of the cheapest and super-exploited in the hemisphere.

This relative overexploitation allowed for the displacement of segments of the global value chains installed in Southeast Asia to Haiti, which began to develop the model of industrial free zones, better known as maquiladoras, where thousands of workers assemble or manufacture electronic parts or textiles for the nearby U.S. market [x]. With no industry other than mining enclaves or the maquiladoras themselves, no agro-industry or profitable export crops, and with the traditional peasant economy in ruins, the country was condemned to live off the remittances of its large diaspora and the injection of resources from so-called “international development cooperation” [xi]. [xi] The rest of the economy, both within and outside the country, is based on the heavy workload of women who accumulate exhausting domestic hours between washing clothes by hand, cooking with charcoal, raising children and caring for the sick. With arduous agricultural tasks in the ploughing of the land, sowing, irrigation and harvesting. With marketing tasks that articulate rural production with the supply of Port-au-Prince and other cities. And with retail sales in the populous street markets throughout the country. Like the Athenian caryatids, Haitian women bear the brunt of the daily struggle and pay the heaviest costs of a social upbringing brought to the threshold of their own reproduction.

In summary, today we find the same coercive reciprocity as in the times of the commercial monopoly imposed by the colony, only under a different equation. If before the flows were the export of sugar and other tropical products in exchange for luxury manufactures for the idle ruling class, today what we find is the export of minerals and cheap labour (even more exploited in its feminization and infantilization), and the import of remittances and money from so-called “humanitarian aid”. This model can only result in structurally weak social classes. If on the one hand we find a ruling class made up of an unproductive oligarchy and bourgeoisie, rentiers and importers, on the other hand we find the vast popular majorities compulsively homogenized in their pauperization: precarious, informal, excluded, peasants, sellers and marketers, urban poor. In between, a small bourgeoisie, hyper-colonized and dysphoric, with no access to quality jobs in the private sphere or sufficient state positions in which to reproduce.

This scheme, which explains the political overdetermination of the international front in the country, has begun to collapse as its own contradictions have matured. The direct correlate of the structural weakness of the dominant classes is their recurrence to international powers that can arbitrate their insoluble conflicts. This, added to the geostrategic importance of the Caribbean region in general (Ceceña, Barrios, Yedra, Inclán: 2010) and of Hispaniola in particular, explains the neocolonial subordination of a country that has suffered, only in the last few years, three international interventions by the United States, France and Canada, or by the joint action of multilateral forces. The alleged “stabilization” and “justice” missions of the United Nations (the last developed between 2004 and 2019), the encouragement of criminal groups and the infiltration of paramilitaries from the U.S., play the same role as the punitive expeditions of the French commissioners at the time of the Revolution: enforcing from outside an internal order that the system itself is unable to guarantee, since it cannot foster the slightest consensus in the vast popular majorities. This also explains another singularity of Haitian society: the coexistence, apparently contradictory, of very high levels of consciousness and spontaneous popular mobilization, with low levels of organization. This is also due to phenomena such as material precariousness, the financial heteronomy of rural and urban movements, the migration of the best qualified elements to the exterior, the processes of co-optation by transnational NGOs, the crisis of generalized representation that arises from the discrediting of the electoral and party system, the atomization of progressive and leftist forces, etc.

In Haiti, as in the rest of the “mature” neoliberal social formations, the repressive policy becomes fundamental, be it through the deployment of the armed forces (dissolved in Haiti in the 1990s), coups d’état, assassinations and selective massacres, the mobilization and encouragement of paramilitary groups, the decree of states of siege and exception, or the control of the population through the terror imposed by drug trafficking and politically organized crime[xii]. From the above, another link can be made, that between the conquest of women’s bodies and the “body of the nation”. As the Haitian sociologist and feminist referent Sabine Lamour, general coordinator of the SOFA organization, maintains, there is a direct correlation between the policies of occupation and territorial control and the massive and systematic violations, at least since the American occupation of 1915-1934[xiii]. This has been repeated at every juncture of international interference, as demonstrated by the participation of Cascos Azules in cases of systematic rape and networks of sexual exploitation of girls, boys and women, as well as in the violations that accompany the massacres committed against rural and urban populations mobilized against the policies of the Jovenel Moïse government. That is why SOFA and others are developing a feminism strictly connected to the sovereignty and anti-imperialist demands of the whole popular movement.

From this point of view, we are talking about the post or para-statehood in Haiti, at least if we are guided by the classic definitions of what a modern nation-state is or should be. The Haitian state, without having disappeared, languishes without effective control of the territory, without a monopoly of force, neither real nor apparent, without sovereign control over the small islands that surround it, without productive forces of its own, with a fractured political institutionality, with health, education and government services that go through long periods of paralysis during protests, and with a country subject to Article VII of the United Nations Charter, and therefore under the authority of its Security Council. And yet Haiti is not an anarchic country, nor is it at war.

But then, what are the forms of management of the common in Haiti? What and who guarantees order in this post or para-statehood? It is here that we find multiple, juxtaposed and contradictory sovereignties. Multinational companies that dominate the mining regions, large tourist initiatives that monopolize the coastal strips, international occupation forces, NGOs with transnational reach that handle several times more funds than the national state, territorialized criminal groups, and even neo-Pentecostal churches located throughout the national geography with  remarkably influential preaching. All these actors cohabit, articulate and eventually dispute the management of the territory. In other words, beyond the model capitalist State, there are post- or parastatal forms of management of the common and the territory that are even more conflictive, unequal and violent. Even more dramatic, for example, than the repression by legal, visible and punishable security forces, is the phantasmagoric repression of paramilitary groups that are infiltrated, outside the law, invisible to the media and immune to all forms of social control. However, this post-State character (which is not denied, but complemented by statehood in its classic sense), does not allow us to subscribe to the theses in vogue of “failed states”, “fragile states”, “delinquent states”, “ungovernable chaotic entities” or “low income country under stress”[xiv]. All this terminology, coined by the liberal and Western think tanks, shares one characteristic: that of codifying the collapse of entire national formations in purely endogenous causes, ignoring the role that imperialist wars or neoliberal policies have had in their infinite regression. More than a failed state, Haiti’s is a state prevented from being sovereign, which at the same time shows what are the last thresholds to which a society can be dragged by the uninterrupted continuity of decades of neoliberal, imperial and neocolonial policies.

It is this regressive social formation, resulting from a phenomenal and extensive counter-revolutionary process, that has entered into crisis to a point that we characterize as “bifurcation and no return” (Rivara, 2019). Unfortunately, the approximately one and a half million people who mobilized in July 2018 in Haiti against the policies of the national government and the International Monetary Fund that sought to raise the price of fuel to 51% were not news for the so-called “international community”, nor, it is necessary to specify, for a good part of the continent’s leftist parties and social movements. Paradoxically, while the progressive forces of the hemisphere theorized a second insurrectionary wave with which to stop the colonial-imperial offensive and allow the relaunching of the anti-neoliberal processes in the region, a phenomenal popular mass insurrection was developing that went unnoticed by locals and foreigners alike.

Dimensions of a crisis

As we saw, various operations of colonial silencing and distortion have been recurrent in the history of the Haitian nation, and are repeated incessantly. The current crisis, for example, regardless of its magnitude, its radicalism, or its pioneering nature of the almost generalized anti-neoliberal uprisings that crossed the continent throughout 2019, remains in the dark. In November 2018, the debut of the first mobilization of a few thousand Parisian citizens in what would later become the so-called “yellow vest” movement quickly reached global resonance, raising a cascade of opinions of support or rejection, praise or invective. However, the million or million and a half people who mobilized in July 2018 in Haiti against the policies of the national government and the International Monetary Fund to increase the price of fuel by up to 51% (a chilling figure if we extrapolate it to other countries, considering that Haiti is a nation of 11 million inhabitants) did not make headlines in the so-called “international community”. Since then (and also considering the long history of the country) the episodes of crisis and mobilization in Haiti have been marked by these three characteristics: massiveness, radicalism and invisibility.

After the failed attempt to increase hydrocarbons, other catalysts have spurred the mobilization. Between the middle and the end of 2018, it became increasingly evident that there was an embezzlement of public funds of proportions, whereby the Haitian political class (which we have already described) illegally appropriated at least $2 billion from the Petrocaribe energy integration platform, as documented by reports submitted by the Senate and the Superior Court of Accounts. Finally, after a truce at the beginning of 2019, the last months of the year would be marked by a serious energy crisis that left the country without hydrocarbon supply, producing the worsening of the economic crisis, and, together with the massive and daily mobilizations, the practical paralysis of governmental and civil life.

For its part, Haiti’s dependence at all levels, the neocolonial policy supported by the United States and other Western nations, as well as the right of tutelage exercised by the UN and other supranational bodies, have predisposed the country to increasingly decisive interference by external actors in the crisis the country is going through. This interference recognizes several modalities, from diplomatic pressure and financial coercion by multilateral credit agencies, to the permanence of “civilian” missions in the country and the permanent infiltration of foreign paramilitaries who terrorize the populations. These actors thus become the last and decisive support for the government after the fall of the last institutional masquerade, leading to the preponderance of the options of force. Without a sitting Prime Minister, without a national budget, with parliamentary elections postponed indefinitely, with the mandate of senators expired, and with the president taking over a government by decree that contravenes the constitutional charter, Haiti has formally inaugurated the last de facto government in Latin America and the Caribbean.

In response, the popular majorities, with a prominent role of the urban peripheral youth, but increasingly articulated also to rural areas and peasant movements, have created and updated in this time methods of direct action such as the so-called peyi lock operations (blocked country), tending to prevent the mobility of goods, capital and people, including security agents, throughout the national territory. Parallel to this process of permanent popular insurrection, the national, progressive and leftist forces, strongly atomized since the implosion of the Lavalas coalition that brought Aristide to power, began to regroup on various platforms, elaborating different programs of transition and break with the established order.

After the predictable and new impasse at the end of the year, the various forces in struggle are already beginning to accumulate strength for new decisive junctures. While the local and imperial ruling classes will try to deepen the chaotic and repressive dynamics of a social formation such as the one we are analyzing, the popular classes are beginning to recover the programmatic edges, the methods of struggle and also the mystical-symbolic dimension of the revolutionary achievement of 1804. The long confrontation between revolution and counter-revolution, despite the accumulation of hard but temporary defeats and brief but hopeful victories, has not yet had its last word.


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[i] Jean Louis Vastey, chancellor and secretary to King Christophe, would warn early on about the risks of post-revolutionary recolonization in his work The Colonial System Revealed (1814) and other subsequent texts.

ii] An explainable bias has favoured the cult abroad, over the figure of Dessalines, of that of Toussaint L’Ouverture, who despite his great merits as a statesman and his command of a large part of the revolutionary process, did not express the most advanced line of the Revolution or manage to lead it to victory. Classical works such as those of Aimé Césaire (1962) or C.R.L. James (1938) have contributed to this bias, perhaps influenced by the stereotypes that made Dessalines a barbaric and bloodthirsty figure.

[iii] “Ayiti” as it is called in Creole, the national and popular language of Haiti, even though the state remains practically subject to French monolingualism.

iv] This is the Imperial Constitution of 1805, available in its entirety on the web: https://decolonialucr.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/constitucion-imperial-de-haiti-1805-bilbioteca-ayacucho.pdf

v] For an excellent analysis of the evolution of Bosch’s analysis of the Haitian Revolution, and its different dimensions, see the text by Zardoya Loureda (2014) or the various articles in Bosch (2017).

[vi] Note that these were more nominal than effective abolitions.

vii] See the recent and interesting compilation of 101 of his most diverse texts and speeches by Deive, Carlos Esteban (2019).

viii] For a study of France’s relations with its former colony see: Wargny, Christophe (2008).

ix] On the Concordat, and in general on the broad and exciting subject of voodoo and its role in the anti-slavery and anti-colonial struggles, we recommend the work of Haitian intellectuals.

x] It should be noted that these industries would be unviable if they were produced according to the costs and labor laws in force in the central countries, so the location of their plants in the peripheries and the use of super-exploited labor are structural rather than incidental data. See for example the Tricontinental Institute study on the exploitation rate of iPhone phones (2019).

xi] We recommend an article by Basile (2018) and the book by Seitenfuns (2016) on this subject.

xii] Some data on the repressive policy can be found in the latest reports of Amnesty International, available at: https://www.amnesty.org/es/latest/news/2019/10/haiti-amnesty-verifies-evidence-excessive-force-against-protesters/

xiii] Unpublished interview conducted in Port-au-Prince on the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.

xiv] Some of these problematic concepts are addressed, albeit with an approach we do not subscribe to, in Corten, André (2013).

Translation by Internationalist 360º