Matthew J. Smith
WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society · 1089-7011 · Volume 16 · September 2013 · pp. 411–444
Sprague, Jeb. Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012. 400 pp. US$23.95 (paperback).
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.
The most notorious form of state-sponsored paramilitarism in the twentieth century was, of course, a creature of the Duvalier dynasty—the Volontaires de la Sécurité Nationale, better known as the tonton macoute. Duvalierist violence was brutal and far-reaching. Its mark was profoundly impressed on Haitian politics well beyond the three decades of successive father (François “Papa Doc”) and son (Jean-Claude) rule between 1957 and 1986. After the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier, repressive military agencies mutated. On the one hand, there was a national army that had always regarded itself as the arbiter of power with a stake in preserving the status quo of the elites and middle classes. On the other, there was a rise in privately ﬁnanced security forces that would explode in the early 1990s after the election of Aristide. Space for the popular classes was tightly controlled and their demand for justice and democracy was met with terror. All of this forms the backdrop to Sprague’s analysis and is covered in an opening chapter. The book’s core chapters attend in meticulous detail to the period after Aristide’s second election in 2000. All the stakeholders in Haitian politics are amply presented. So too are the internal political clashes.
Sprague is not only concerned with internal Haitian politics, however. The author correctly asserts that Haiti’s battle for popular democracy was never isolated from the broader and profound changes in the Americas. Indeed the “international community” and “transnational elites” wielded their enormous inﬂuence to ensure the preservation of their class supremacy. After his election, Aristide was seen as a threat to this situation, and it is for this reason that the opposition to him and especially to his supporters was so vicious….