RBD2021: Damming the Flood

“Aristide emerged as the crystallization of Haitian demands for social transformation because he managed to combine a concrete strategy for acquiring practical political power with the uncompromising inspiration of liberation theology.” –Peter Hallward

My background is in philosophy, and one of my jobs is in journalism. I’ve always appreciated the way that Marx managed to dialectically straddle both of these worlds himself, allowing his interest in stories about what was happening in the world guide his philosophy, and allowing his philosophy to inform the subjects and framing he chose for his stories. There’s something like that going on in Damming the Flood: Haiti and the Politics of Containment by philosopher Peter Hallward, a book that purports to be about political philosophy (and it is) while also presenting a clear, journalistic story about the complicated politics around Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s former president and a liberation theologian. It’s an invaluable resource, especially for Christians on the left, and one I’m always recommending for people invested in anti-imperialism. As people have been in the streets in Haiti again just this week, demanding the resignation of president Jovenel Moïse, it’s an important background study for Red Books Day 2021.


The “flood” Hallward identifies in the title of the book comes from a pivotal sermon by Aristide in 1988, delivered in the middle of a massive general strike across the country, called in response to the actions of a new coup government. A few months earlier, Aristide’s church in Port-au-Prince was the scene of a brutal massacre, with scores of parishioners killed or wounded while he said mass. Striking workers tuned their radios to hear Aristide’s voice crackle through the airwaves: “Alone, we are weak. Together, we are strong. Together, we are the flood.” The flood, Aristide said, was made of “poor peasants,” “jobless multitudes,” “the church of the poor,” and “all our poor friends.” “To prevent the flood of the children of God from descending,” Aristide continued, “the imperialists in [priests’ clothing] have conspired with the imperialists of America.” (The sermon is collected in In the Parish of the Poor, which is another very good red book.)

Soon after, in 1990, the flood did descend as Aristide was elected president of Haiti, a momentous signal as the people tried to extricate themselves from decades of dictatorship. But Aristide’s victory was anything but stabilizing, and in the following decade he would spend his time in and out of office resisting the fickle and opportunist whims of imperialism.

To put it all-too-briefly: In 1991, Aristide was immediately forced to flee in light of a military coup, and thousands of those who made up the flood were killed in the following years. Backed initially by the United States, Aristide returned to Haiti in 1994 to finish his term in 1996. He was elected again by an overwhelming majority in 2000, restructuring the economy. In 2003, he demanded that France pay back to Haiti the money it had extorted from the country as compensation for lost property in Haiti’s successful anti-colonial revolution. France denied the request. As president, however, Aristide carried on the spirit of the Haitian revolution by redistributing wealth and land, increasing literacy, building public infrastructure, and more.

But Aristide’s former allies in the Global North soured as he refused to be friendly toward international capital, and a coalition formed with the interest of removing Aristide from power. In what may be a surprise to some, Canada, despite its international brand as a placid and polite nation of maple syrup and humble hockey players, took an active role in that coalition, led at the time by a Liberal government. In 2004, armed troops from the UN, the US, Canada, and France occupied Haiti in a coup that forced Aristide into exile and plunged Haiti back into right-wing rule. The flood was dammed.

Parsing out all the political relationships involved from Aristide’s election to his second undemocratic removal is difficult to do. If Haiti enters the consciousness of people in the US or Canada, it seems to me it’s usually as a country racked by poverty and earthquakes. In my experience as a US citizen living in Canada, most Canadians are unaware that Canada proactively worked toward Aristide’s removal. And as a Christian on the left, invested in liberation theology, a good number of progressive Christians are also unaware that a liberation theologian was president of Haiti–and removed by the actions of Christian imperialists.

Hallward’s book is incredibly important, therefore, in its ability to draw from a variety of sources to make the story of Aristide’s political history clear. Weaving through the political actors, machinations, and shifting relationships that led both to Aristide’s victory on the ground in Haiti and to his final removal, Hallward’s story is detailed and intricate, which is important for its subject matter as it challenges a good number of popular liberal presentations of Haiti’s recent history, especially when it comes to Aristide. Impatient with those plentiful sanitizing narratives for manufacturing consent, sometimes anti-imperialist literature gets too quickly caught up in its rhetoric and axe grinding to be believable, feeling more like a list of tenuous connections or a bulletin board of conspiracy theories than a carefully built case. Hallward avoids that tendency, critically uncovering what took place from 1990-2004, often retracing the same years with different foci to fill out the picture. The book also concludes with a 2006 interview with Aristide, giving him the last word.

As a leftist philosopher, Hallward is also refreshingly attuned to the role of liberation theology. In the introduction, he writes, “Aristide emerged as the crystallization of Haitian demands for social transformation because he managed to combine a concrete strategy for acquiring practical political power with the uncompromising inspiration of liberation theology” (19). He goes on to say that “Haiti is the only country in Latin America that had the temerity to choose a liberation theologian as its president–twice” (20). (Hallward’s book was written in 2007; we can now add to that short list Fernando Lugo, former president of Paraguay and a former bishop, elected in 2008 and couped in 2012.)

Though often forgotten and buried, anti-imperialism remains the most significant front in building a socialist society anywhere today. International solidarity is not always easy to come by in the imperial core of the US or Canada, and while the socialist movement is thankfully growing, it will inevitably reproduce the violence of imperialism and chauvinism if it doesn’t school itself in the experience of what it means to be on the wrong side of that imperialism. As Hallward shows, Haiti’s struggle for self-determination is both fragile and miraculous, as the Haitian people continue to organize despite the world being stacked against their own right to live lives of freedom and equity.

It matters that we go out of our way to learn the intricate maneuvering of imperialism around a story like Haiti’s and Aristide’s. Hallward has done some hard work to help us do that. It’s up to us to take the time to learn, to allow the struggles of Haiti to become our struggles. Perhaps then, with God’s help, we can find our own way to bust up the dam from this side of it–and let the flood descend.

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