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Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti reviewed on Counterfire

Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti by Jeb Sprague

"It is absolutely imperative for Haiti's history that such a detailed account of the role of paramilitary violence in the country be recorded. The marshalling of facts and events and the meticulous references are phenomenal."

—Mildred Trouillot-Aristide, former First Lady of Haiti

Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti



Paramilitarism has crushed the Haitian people’s attempts to build a popular democracy since 1986, revealing how capital seeks to subvert democracy to its own ends, argues Adam Tomes.

Jeb Sprague, Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti (Monthly Review Press 2012), 400pp.

‘But today as then, the great propertied interests and their agents commit the most ferocious crimes in the name of the whole people, and bluff and brow-beat them by lying propaganda.’ CLR James, The Black Jacobins.

In this extraordinary book, Jeb Sprague has laid bare how paramilitarism has crushed the Haitian people’s experiment in popular democracy, which began in the last quarter of the twentieth century. This makes the book an essential read for anyone interested in Haitian politics as well as anyone concerned by how capital seeks to subvert democracy to its own ends through political destabilization and the disempowerment of the popular classes.[1]

Jeb Sprague sets out to show in this scholarly work how local and transnational elites have used paramilitarism to repress popular democracy whilst at the same time further integrating Haiti into the global capitalist system. The book is based on a huge number of interviews on the ground with Haitians, as well as over eleven thousand documents gained through both the Freedom of Information Act and Wikileaks. This makes for an incredibly detailed book that integrates the reader in the history and culture of the popular movement, Fanmi Lavalas (The Flood) and its opponents. However the book does not lose sight of the wider implications that the story of Haiti can tell us. That essential story is the tale of how transnational elites have promoted ‘polyarchy’ whereby ‘democracy is formally promoted by dominant social groups but limited by them to narrow institutional boundaries to a system in which a small sliver of society rules’ (p.13). Paramilitarism then becomes the tool of choice for dominant groups when ‘polyarchy’ is endangered by the rise of the popular classes.

The book starts by placing in perspective the current use of ‘systematic political violence’ (p.19) which has been used by dominant groups against the popular classes in the Caribbean. This places the current crisis into a context that links us back to the seminal text, The Black Jacobins by CLR James, which told the story of the original slaves’ revolution in Haiti at the time of the French Revolution. The ‘inspiring revolutionary spirit and tradition of the Haitian people’[2] shown in that revolution has led to the neo-colonial oppression of the pearl of the Antilles ever since, in particular by the US.

This could be seen under the brutal regimes of Papa and Baby Doc Duvalier from 1957 to 1986, which made Haiti a solid platform for US and transnational corporations with the number of these firms growing from 7 to over 300 by the end of the period (p.37). During these years, US military aid totalled $3.4 million per year. This allowed for the use of the FAd’H (Haitian army), the Tonton Macoutes (paramilitaries) and rural sheriffs to control the popular classes, and lead to an estimated death toll of between 30,000 to 50,000 people. In 1986 the Duvalier regime fell in the face of the mobilisation of the popular classes, who engaged in defensive forms of violence known as dechoukaj (uprooting), and was replaced by a military leadership. The US supported this leadership in its attempt to ‘build democratic institutions’ (p.40), whilst at the same time the leadership continued its programme of paramilitary violence with 40% of the government budget of this incredibly poor country devoted to the army.

The next section of the book focusses on the attempts by the US and the transnational elite to ‘effect a carefully controlled transition from dictatorship to civilian government’ (p.51). The US and corporations did not wish to allow the left wing to win, yet Aristide was swept to power in 1991 with 67% of the vote, backed by the Fanmi Lavalas, the popular movement. The new government based its strategy on removing military control of society and instituting the ‘growth with equity’ model that challenged the free market. This immediately threatened the dominant ideology of the transnational elites, which was based on ‘debt consolidation and neoliberal reforms’, and the desires of local elites to evade tax and gain from government largesse (p.58). Sprague shows that the response from elites was both logical and brutal. Aristide was removed from power by a coup led by FAd’H only seven months after he came to power. The repression of Fanmi Lavalas was violent and cavalier; Sprague estimates that over 3,000 were killed in the first year of the Aristide government.

Here, the book switches focus to its core study. That study concentrates on the second Aristide regime of 2001 to 2004, and discusses how it was undermined by local and transnational elites, as well as the US and the government of the Dominican Republic. As soon as Aristide was re-elected, the machine of capital went into overdrive. The US government of President Clinton had promoted the return to democracy: millions of US dollars were invested in Haiti and the US did not want a coup, yet did not want Lavalas to keep winning either. The US Chamber of Commerce, using a weak justification about the 2000 legislative elections, persuaded the IMF to cut aid to the Aristide government. This cost the Aristide government 32.38% of its budget….

Read the entire review on Counterfire

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