«POWER AND CULTURE IN 19TH-CENTURY HAITI: THE LEGITIMACY OF FAUSTIN SOULOUQUE1 David G. Sweet with Malherbe Belizaire The political history of ...»
POWER AND CULTURE IN 19TH-CENTURY HAITI:
THE LEGITIMACY OF FAUSTIN SOULOUQUE1
David G. Sweet with Malherbe Belizaire
The political history of republican Haiti is a somber and perplexing one, a story of
stagnation punctuated by atrocity in which "progress" is seldom a theme. This history has
been written by Haitians, for the most part, in a spirit of national or class self-justification.
Foreigners have generally approached it with a certain distaste -- handicapped as they mostly are by linguistic and cultural distance, covert racism and severely limited on-theground observation. As a result they have written about it, for the most part, with disapproval and in patronizing tones. In neither case has analysis generally gotten beyond the most conventional frames of reference; and in neither has the role of the Haitian people and their political culture in shaping the history of their own country loomed large.2 One reason for this unfortunate state of affairs is a bibliography which is so far heavily weighted in the late colonial and early independent periods (from the revolt of 1791 1This essay is the product of collaboration across a wide stretch of time, race, language, nationality and disciplinary predilection between two young students of Haitian history.
The first draft was a paper written by Sweet, a North American graduate student, for a seminar on "Political Legitimacy in Latin America" led by Professor Peter Smith at the University of Wisconsin in 1968. The second was a critical reworking of the same paper by Belizaire, a Haitian political activist and recent graduate in politics from the University of California at Santa Cruz, during the summer of 1992. At that time Belizaire had just finished offering an undergraduate "student-taught course" on the history of Haiti at UC Santa Cruz, under the supervision of Professor Sweet. Preparing the manuscript for publication has been a joint endeavor.
2Among the outstanding exceptions that prove this rule are James Leyburn, The Haitian People (New Haven, 1941); Maurice de Young, Man and Land in Haitian Society (Gainesville, 1958); Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, Haiti: The Breached Citadel (Boulder, 1990);
Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Haiti: State against Nation (NY, 19?).
to the death of Henri Cristophe in 1820), and in the contemporary period beginning with the U.S. occupation in 1915. Remarkably little attention has been paid by historians to the patterns of change during the "century in between," when the basic institutions of Haitian society were for the most part constructed without outside assistance or direction. Another problem is that there seem to be no great collections of published 19th-century official documents such as we have for most other Latin Americancountries, no volumes of the collected correspondence of statesmen or the testimonies of ordinary citizens, few important personal memoires, very little historical fiction. The bulk even of archival materials for the19th-century history of Haiti appears now to have been lost.3 The conclusion of most contemporary observers schooled in this highly unsatisfactory history has been that politics in the oldest Latin American republic is a dark mystery compounded with mayhem and ludicrous farce, in which the main themes are incompetence, brutality and bad faith. But the history of Haiti, like any other segment of humanity's experience, is by definition to some degree intelligible; and it can of course be told in such a way as to focus on actual human experience, without damage to the dignity of Haiti's people. There is as much "sense" to be made of it as there is of the history of Mexico or the United States or France; and this essay on an episode of the mid-19th century is written with that revisionist purpose in mind.
Of all Haitian governments prior to the dictatorship of François Duvalier, the one which has most frequently been the subject of censure and caricature, both at home and abroad, is that of Faustin Soulouque, who ruled the country as President and later Emperor from 1847 to 1859. Soulouque has been pictured variously as an ignorant and depraved despot, and as a posturing "Emperor Jones."4 He has often been a case in point for those 3Leyburn, Haitian People, p. 322.
arguing that the history of Haiti shows that Black people are less capable of governing themselves than the rest of the human race. But if we consider that Faustin Soulouque stayed in power for more than a decade (the fourth longest term of executive office in the history of independent Haiti), that he was a popular ruler during most of that time, and that unlike most Haitian presidents he was peaceably deposed and lived for many years in honorable retirement after his term of office, it seems likely that he has been seriously misunderstood.
The frame of reference suggested by modern social scientists with an interest in "political legitimacy" is one which can help us to reinterpret the regime of Faustin Soulouque, and its place in the history of Haitian politics. If the arguments we will advance with regard to the governance of mid-19th century Haiti are at all persuasive, it may be that they will serve as background for understanding the paradoxical behaviour, ideology and extraordinary durability of the Duvalier dictatorship and its institutions in the late 20th century -- and the prospects for political stability in the immediate future as well.
Our discussion will begin with a brief definition of political legitimacy and some forms it has taken elsewhere, as conceptual tools for our analysis. Then, following a brief survey of the political and relevant social and economic history of independent Haiti up to Soulouque's time, we will identify a number of specific political values which we believe to have been operative within the cultures of the two country's two basic political constituencies
--its Black majority and its Mulatto minority -- in both in the mid-19th-century and today.
Finally, we will review some of the specific political projects which Faustin Soulouque undertook during the period in which he ruled the country. These undertakings will be examined here as claims to legitimacy, whether conscious or unconscious -- claims which 4Allsources consulted convey one or the other of these images, except Rémy Bastien, "Vodoun and Politics in Haiti," in Religion & Politics in Haiti (Institute for Cross-Cultural Studies, No. l; Washington, 1966). John Baur, "Faustin Soulouque, Emperor of Haiti," The Americas 6 (1949):131-66, presents the two images in an only slightly disguised form.
were put forth necessarily in the terms which were determined for them by the specific political values of the constituencies to whom they were directed.
Legitimacy is consonance between the political undertakings (that is the behaviors and the explicit pronouncements) of a regime, and the political values or expectations of its specific constituent groups. In the case of a new regime, legitimacy is influenced by public attitudes toward the means of achieving power and toward the people to whom the leaders seem likely to listen and be responsible. But these bases for judgement quickly take second place to actual experience with the regime and its undertakings. Legitimacy is not an absolute quality, but a relative one. There is no entirely "legitimate" or "illegitimate" government. It is difficult to predict or to identify with certainty, and it is perhaps impossible to quantify. There are degrees and kinds of legitimacy, which vary greatly from government to government and period to period, and (most importantly) between differing constituent groups of the same government.
Nevertheless, some understanding of legitimacy and the basis for it in the values of a political culture is indispensable to an understanding of any country's politics. A high degree of legitimacy is conducive to widespread support within particular constituent groups, and therefore to the viability and stability of political systems. An unstable system, one which breaks down in significant ways during the transfer of power to new groups, is likely to be one which lacks legitimacy from the point of view of at least one powerful constituent group.
The concept of legitimacy can be made clearer and more manageable for discussion if we identify some of the universal categories of political value and political undertaking which comprise it. Max Weber observed that political systems can derive legitimacy from legality (the conformity of their undertakings to formal guidelines incorporated in a body of law which is acceptable to the constituencies in question), from traditionalism (the preservation of time-honored institutions of authority such as a monarchy or the divine sanction of priesthood) and from charisma (the emanation of a "spiritual power" which conveys on its own merits the obligation to obey).5 Dorothy Emmet reinterpreted Weber's rather Germanic concept of charisma in the light of a more universal notion of "vocation," or quest for spiritual excellence, which may cause people to follow out of a rational respect for their own values as exemplified in a leader, rather than out of a presumed neurotic compulsion to be led.6 It is in this more democratic sense that we use charisma as a category of legitimation. Legitimacy may also derive from achievement and expertise, from the material accomplishments of a regime and its demonstrated ability to deal effectively with new problems. This category implies a constituency alive to the possibility and the desirability of social change. The capacity for violence may also contribute to the legitimation of regimes, among constituencies which perceive dangerous enemies, as appears to have been the case in recent presidencies of the United States.7 The Haitian material suggests to us that at least three additional categories of legitimacy, applicable to many situations around the world, ought to be added to this list.
The first is simple identity. Independently of other characteristics, a constituency may find leaders legitimate because it sees in them a reflection of itself, of its values and of its very limitations. This is the kind of legitimacy which President Reagan, for example, embodied more completely than President Roosevelt. The second additional category is generosity, which must be distinguished from achievement and expertise. A government which has not 5In The Theory of Social and Economic Organization (NY, 1947), esp. pp. 328-29.
6"Prophetsand their societies," Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 86 (1956):13-23.
7Thelatter two categories were suggested by Peter Smith to the 1968 graduate seminar at Wisconsin to which reference is made above.
produced more or brought about "progress" may be found legitimate by a needy constituency for having been willing to distribute the existing wealth more equitably. A policy of land distribution, of "more bread and circuses" or of tax breaks for the wealthy would satisfy the demands implicit in this political value for one constituency or another.
Finally, we want to suggest that for many Haitians, as for other peoples around the world at any period in history, a great deal of legitimacy has inhered, paradoxically, in the inefficacy`of government. That government has been most legitimate which has governed least, taxed least, repressed least, conscripted least for the army or public works, collected the least data about people, proved least capable of making its weight felt in the countryside.
This same value may expressed by elite groups which feel competent to manage their affairs without government interference, and ask only to be left to their own devices.
These seven categories of political value and of claims to political legitimacy will be operative in the discussion of 19th-century Haitian history that follows. Our purpose is first to suggest what we take to have been their relative weight in the two principal competing political cultures of Haitian society, and then to make use of these analytic tools to rethink the political undertakings of the Faustin Soulouque regime, as conditioned by Haitian political culture.
Haiti to 1847.
The Western third of the island of Hispaniola was a forgotten corner of the Spanish Empire, frequented by buccaneer hunters of wild cattle, when it was ceded to France at the end of the 17th century. Within a hundred years, it had been developed by the introduction of hundreds of thousands of African slave laborers, and an advanced technology for raising and processing sugar cane, into the most profitable European colony in the world. In its heyday, Saint-Domingue was the archetype of a colonial plantation society: efficient in the production of a single commodity, dependent on imports for most others, opulent, arrogant, irreligious and corrupt.
In Saint-Domingue several hundreds of thousands of Black African slave laborers were brutally exploited by a few thousand French owners, soldiers and bureaucrats -- with the help of a small but growing class of locally born Mulattos. These "people of color" were themselves abused and discriminated against by the whites, and bound about by discriminatory legislation; but they were acknowledged to be indispensable as the artisans, non-commissioned officers and minor functionaries of colonial society. Some of them were even quite wealthy, especially in the mountainous South where a number of them employed slaves of their own in coffee production. Whatever the economic position and social disabilities of the Mulattos, they were exceedingly conscious and assertive of their superiority in status and opportunities to the Black majority. The Whites and Mulattos combined were never more than five per cent of the population of Saint-Domingue; Blacks comprised all of the rest.
Much has been written about the planter society of Saint-Domingue, and about the political and military history of the Revolution of 1791-1803 which led to the establishment of Haiti as the first independent nation of Latin America. Unfortunately for students of the history of the Republic, however, comparatively little attention has been paid to the society and culture of the Afro-Haitian slave majority in colonial times. Perhaps never in history has the political culture of an illiterate mass been more relevant to the structuring and operation of a national political system than in Haiti in 1803; but most of what can be said about that culture today must be based upon indirect evidence.