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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 cites human rights reports that 3-4,000 and possibly more were killed under the de facto coup 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.

In addition, the US had overseen the integration of ex-FAd'H into the police which meant that Aristide could not reform and strengthen the police apparatus to protect the fledgling gains of democracy. American organisations such as USAID and the International Republican Institute (IRI), funded by Congressional money and donations from transnational corporations such as Halliburton, were of key importance in promoting the opposition (p.190). Their role was to train and promote the opposition parties in order to destabilise the Aristide regime. The importance of these groups is strikingly shown by Sprague through the revelation, in his review of the media coverage, that Walt Bogdanich claimed to have never received ‘such a powerful and angry response from powerful figures in Washington’ than to his article about the role of the IRI in destabilizing Haiti in the New York Times (p.298).

The book also focusses on the key role of the right wing Government of the Dominican Republic in supporting paramilitarism, in a fresh insight into the vectors of power here. The right wing leadership in the Dominican Republic allowed Haitian paramilitary bases to be established, and acted as a meeting point for paramilitaries and Haitian elites, as well as a location for US training of Haitian groups. In particular the key guns for hire, Chamblain and Phillipe, trained their forces there and also launched their assault on Aristide’s government from there in 2004. Sprague finds the fingerprints of the local elites on the levers of paramilitarism easy to trace. In particular, he focuses on the black military elite and light-skinned mercantilist elite of Haiti (p.113). Figures such as Judie C Roy and the Saati brothers provided the finance for the paramilitaries and were also key conduits for information.

This revival of paramilitarism led, according to Sprague, to the internationally-sanctioned coup d’etat in 2004 that saw the removal of Aristide. The US and Canada then parachuted in Gerard Lartotue as the new Prime Minister. He was the perfect choice as he was a technocrat and ‘long term functionary of the transnational elite’ (p.235). He was placed in charge to oversee the government in a way similar in fact to what the EU has done recently in Greece and Italy. He immediately rolled back the gains made by Aristide, such as literacy centres, subsidised rice for the poor, and water supply projects. An infamous Structural Adjustment Programme was introduced to open up the state to the flow of global capital, and this has helped drag Haiti to its current position as the poorest state in the Western Hemisphere.

The arrival of Lartotue did not see the end of violence. Indeed paramilitary activity continued under the eyes of the UN. Sprague argues that the ‘2004 coup created in Haiti the worst human rights disaster in the western hemisphere over the following two years’ (p.230). Many of the Fanmi Lavalas' core organisers were disappeared and the movement massively weakened. At the same time over 400 of the paramilitaries were integrated into the police force, with the backing of the US, whilst known human rights violators such as Phillipe and Chamblain were able to walk freely in Haiti.

Sprague then brings the story right up to date to a grim conclusion. The terrible earthquake of 2010 has further damaged the quality of life of the poorest people in the Western Hemisphere. In March 2011, the right-winger Martelly was controversially elected President with 16.7% of the popular vote through an election in which Lavalas could not stand. Martelly’s aim is not to tackle poverty but to reintroduce the army at a cost of $95 million dollars. This is critical as his support comes from the ex-military and paramilitaries, and means it is likely that no paramilitaries will prosecuted any time soon for their mass human rights violations in Haiti. The regression of the political system and its accompanying disrespect for the popular classes is perhaps best exemplified by the return of Jean-Claude Duvalier in 2011.

Sprague’s book is very detailed, very analytical and incredibly eye-opening. As a newcomer to the modern history of Haiti, the reader feels enmeshed in the story from below, in the story of Fanmi Lavalas. The reader leaves feeling both angry and enlightened, but the wider story is the tale of how transnational elites support democracy only where it fits their interpretation of it, and that the use of paramilitarism has been an effective method of control used to disenfranchise the popular classes. The observations here can cast light on struggles elsewhere, such as those in Venezuela, Bolivia and Honduras.

Perhaps most revealing and disturbing is the literature and media review at the end. Here Sprague clearly reveals how the media and academia has uncritically reviewed the evidence of Haiti. It has continuously appraised Aristide as a brutal dictator whilst portraying the opposition as the popular choice. Yet the evidence suggests that Aristide’s second term saw the killing of between ten and thirty people by members or supporters of his government against over 4,000 killed in the three years after the 1991 coup, and the same number under the US/UN backed regime after 2004 (p.13).

Sprague does not leave the reader just with a sense of anger and injustice. He does offer some hope in terms of how Lavalas can rebuild and learn from its past, as well as linking with popular movements in Latin America and the Middle East. In addition, Sprague suggests that the Left in the West must build better connections with popular movements so there can be ‘accurate information and sound analysis’ (p.284). Lastly on the ground, the recreation of grassroots media outlets is vital to hold a light up to continued paramilitary violence. Sprague leaves us with the hope that ‘strengthened by such work, it will be the popular classes that will determine the outcome of the class struggle (p.285).


[1] Sprague defines the popular classes in Haiti as workers, peasants, slum dwellers, street vendors and the unemployed.

[2] CLR James and the Black Jacobins, Christian Høgsbjerg, International Socialism, no. 126 (2010) (http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=639&issue=126)

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