32 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on January 16, 2012
Having lived and worked in Haiti over a period of 40 years I approach any book and article about the country with great apprehension. So much of what is written is simplistic and judgmental, buying into one or another side of deeply polarizing issues, events, and personalities. This book beautifully conveys Haiti's complexity and puts it in historical context. For non Haitians who love Haiti as I do or for those who want to understand what lies beneath the country they know about only through the media, this is an excellent source of information. Thank you Laurent Dubois.
31 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on January 31, 2012
I read this book based on the NYT review, from which I gathered that if one were to read a book on Haiti, this was it. It turns out that would only be true if we were living in 1963.
Dubois covers the Haitian Revolution and early Haitian history with a great deal of detail, discussing people and events that, if not well known, make for interesting reading. If Haiti until Duvalier is your interest, this is the book for you. However, everything from the rise of Papa Doc to the present day is crammed into the final chapter and the epilogue. I don't mean to suggest that the most important part of Haiti's history has happened during this period (and perhaps this is the point Dubois is trying to make), but given the intricate discussions of the many leaders, coups, and rebels of the 19th century, the light touch on the modern era is terribly disappointing. For example, the entire coverage of the second fall of Aristide is as follows: "But the bicentennial instead became the occasion for an uprising: in February 2004, a small group of former military officers took up arms against Aristide, approaching Port-au-Prince from the north. The U.S. government made it clear that it would not intervene to support him, and at the end of the month, Aristide left the country in circumstances that remain the subject of tremendous controversy. He was escorted by U.S. troops and officials, who claimed they were simply helding him to flee to safety; Aristide himself, however, described the event as a kidnapping." That's it. Mayby knowing that there was a controversy is enough, but I would prefer a little more discussion of it and the people involved with it. The 1991 coup is similarly dealt with in a sentence or two.
Reading news stories about Haiti is always confusing, given the political turmoil and constant international interventions. An analysis of those events about which we are (ostensibly) most familiar would have been a worthy subject for this book, or at least a worthy addition to it. Sadly, that analysis is lacking. Someone else is now left with the task of piecing together a coherent and informative story of Haiti in the modern era.
One additional point to echo what another reviewer wrote--objectivity is nowhere to be found in this work. Whatever his motivations were, Dubois goes to great lengths to avoid criticizing everyone other than the Duvaliers and a few other choice politicians, the United States, France, foreign companies, and foreign aid workers. This leaves him in the awkward position of simultaneously justifying failed democratic reforms, the refusal to initiate democratic reforms, the rise and rule of self-proclaimed emperors, the attempted integration into the global economy of the 1800s, the resistance to economic integration in the modern era, etc. Dubois is clearly rooting for Haiti and Haitians, and nobody should fault him for that, but because of his one-sidedness he ends up keeping the baby (a good thing) and the bathwater (a bad thing) and then saying the bathwater is champagne (a ridiculous thing).
19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on January 22, 2012
I love Haiti and I am fascinated by its history. This book fills a much-needed gap - the history of Haiti from the revolution to the present. Presented here is a detailed and highly-readable account of events that many people may have heard about but never really read in detail. For example, many people know of the Duvalier regime, but much less famous are the leaders who came before them - knowing only that the government was "unstable." Dubois also makes a convincing argument against the US occupation - showing it as a time of humiliation and tyranny.
On the negative side however, this book is anything but impartial. Dubois clearly loves Haiti so he engages in sometimes unconvincing mental gymnastics to defend Haiti and blame all its troubles on outsiders - usually the US. The review in the New York times put it best: "Seldom, however, can outsiders be blamed for all a country's troubles". For example, Dubois is perfectly happy to quote Faustin Wirkus when he is critical of the US, but disbelieves his story that the inhabitants of Ile de la Gonave made him king.
I also take exception to his depiction of NGOs after the quake - about that, he is just plain wrong. I've been to Port-au-Prince with one of those organizations and they - along with the US military and UN peacekeeping forces - are doing indispensable work down there. If Dubois sees them as yet another infringement of Haitian sovereignty than I and the Haitians I have met (in direct contradiction to his book) must disagree. If there were no NGOs in Haiti (including Sean Penn and his organization) than the effects of the earthquake would be incalculably worse. The unintentional conclusion that Dubois seems to be asking his readers to draw is that no one should interfere with Haiti in any way - don't go there, don't send money, don't do anything. I know he doesn't want that, and if that were to occur, then thousands more would be dying of hunger, disease, exposure, and violence.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on March 17, 2012
It would be one of the greatest acts of moral vandalism in history. A man who had defeated the Ancien Regime in the service of the French Republic and held a territory in its name would die of betrayal by the new regime in a mountain fortress. In real terms he had betrayed the state, as he was governing in the interests of the people. Rare as that is in a statesman.
I saw the picture of that man in a resplendent uniform with coal black face on a library bookshelf as a boy. It was the cover art that fascinated me and led me to the reading of Toussaint Louverture's biography. The book was part of a series meant for young students. It was the compelling story of a slave who started a nation. That nation's history has always been as compelling. Some would call it tragic or even comic, but there have been instances of triumph and glory.
Laurent Dubois has retold the story in his book, Haiti The Aftershocks of History. There are more romantic books on Haiti. The Serpent and the Rainbow comes to mind with its alternative pharmacology and rural societal persistence. Kenneth Roberts' novel, Lydia Bailey, has an account of the battle of Crête-à-Pierrot that is as inspiring as his description of General Dessalines is menacing. Even Black Bagdad, by the occupying Marine officer, John H. Craige, is a romance of sorts. Of course, a book with the title, Best Nightmare on Earth can only be about a place of chaos and fun.
Yet such books are each only a small part of the story. All too many of my fellow citizens only know of Haiti as the place where the earthquake took place. One would suspect that fewer than one in a thousand realize that the country is our oldest sister republic in the new world. The great value in Mr. Dubois' book is that all the players and actions are there in one volume. The book is not written in a sensationalist style. In listening to his interviews on radio, I thought it would be. Even so, it goes along smoothly, not that he does not show his sympathies. Obviously, he feels Haiti has been done hard by. Any observer would find it difficult to avoid that conclusion.
Laurent Dubois is not new to the subject. A previous book, Avengers of the New World is a history of the Haitian Revolution. He has written other books about the country. His official positions include Marcelo Lotti Professor in Romance Studies and History and Director of the Center for French and Francophone Studies at Duke University. He occasionally dabbles in other subjects. Well, more than dabbles.
Villains abound. First up are the French. On the island of Saint-Domingue, the Gauls set up the most profitable plantation system in the Western Hemisphere, if not the world. They ran it on the backs of Africans, worked so that more had to be constantly imported. Cost control was such that the slaves not only had to toil in the fields for the planter, they had to grow their own food as well.
When the French Revolution broke out, the slaves took the opportunity to end their bondage in alliance with the Republicans. When Napoleon took power he tried to reinstitute slavery. After a valiant resistance, the Haitians merely waited until Nap's army was debilitated and gave it a push and secured their nation.
France was not done. Having lost the war, they demanded an indemnity. Talk about bad taste. Whatever happened to vae victis? Hungry for recognition, Haiti gave in.
Other European powers leaned on Haiti. Germany was stalwart in applying force to get her way. It appears our sister republic could not count on appealing for enforcement of the Monroe Doctrine.
Uncle Sam's hands are not clean. Recognition was refused until the Civil War. We were slow to the game, but played hardball when we got up to bat. In 1914, a warship sent a detachment ashore to seize gold from the Haitian National Bank. American bankers who had made bad loans had the US Government enforce their contracts in the grand tradition of privatizing profits and socializing losses. Then, Marines would occupy the country. We left eventually, achieving little as we usually do in our occupations.
After Duvalier fils' exile and some sub par elections, we came back to make Haiti a better place in 1994, again. We brought some other do gooder nations with us. With all the help the US and the international community had provided, the last thing the country needed was an earthquake.
Haitian governments could meet the definition of a failed state, what with almost a constitution du jour with each new chief executive. That does not mean a failed nation. The Haitian peasant held onto the land won from the French with tenacity unrivalled in history. The country folks on their smallholdings fed themselves and exported coffee. Even the vastly powerful United States left after the Haitians tired of us earlier in the 20th Century.
Mr. Dubois is a fine writer. Aftershocks was difficult to put down. His book is a history and not a polemic. Still, it is hard for a reader to avoid a conclusion. Intervention well meaning or exploitive is colonialism. The world should leave Haiti to its own devices.
They may not build a tourism industry, but why would they want to be our playground? Les Haïtiens may not split the atom any time soon, but neither will the hotshots at the Kennedy School of Government. The message to bankers should be, take your chances and don't expect a bailout. Maybe we should have said that to Morgan and Goldman in 2008.
Let Haiti be Haiti.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on March 4, 2012
This book offers a solid overview of Haitian history from its inception to the present, and is a good starting place for any reader with an interest in but not much knowledge of Haitian history (like me). It is a long book but reads quickly and guides the reader among the many characters, periods, uprisings, and tragedies that have marked Haitian history. It also upends many common stereotypes held by Americans about Haitians and Haitian history. But while it is strong at explaining the 'what' of the story, it's much weaker at explaining the 'why.' Many major points seem to be assumed without sufficient explanation, and major happenings are described without providing the reader with a clear sense of the motivations behind them. It's a good book in that it piques the interest for more, but it's not sufficient by itself.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on January 25, 2013
When talking about Haiti most people including Haitians and foreigners alike have a single (distorted) image in mind that Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Of course, no one would dare argue that Haiti's economic and social situation is the most desirable one. With more than half of its population living with less than $1 a day along with an unemployment rate exceeding 60%, Haiti has over many decades been living a Great Depression (far worse than the Great Depression that hit USA in 1929); and also with its broken political system that projects no sign of a better future, it is obviously legitimate to be concerned. However, when academic pundits, daily headlines, and NGOs' holders (owners) relentlessly keep referring to Haiti as the most impoverished country in the Western Hemisphere, this also whispers some great deal of concerns about their desires to really see Haiti moving forward. It seems to me that this kind of dogged trademark constitutes a self-fulfillment-prophecy, which somewhat keeps the country into a poverty trap by the simple fact that poverty is the only way it is being described. And, I am certain that whenever such a label is removed (say, in case that its $20 billion of copper, silver and gold is accurately extracted and the resulting wealth evenly distributed), many developing country's expects will lose their jobs. For, there won't be any convincing rationale to mobilize more aids on behalf of these destitute in this remote area of the Caribbean islands. Who wishes to be unemployed in such a harsh time? Since the response is NONE, the perfect and sound description will always be "Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere," a backward place of disaster, destitution, sorrow, you name it...
The worst of all of that is the reason put forward by some famous `development experts' to explain why Haiti is so poor? Haitians, they contend, are lazy, undisciplined and lack the work ethic. In other words, Haitian's culture - defined in terms of "values, attitudes, beliefs, orientations, and underlying assumptions prevalent among the people" - is the primary obstacle that impedes its development. A fair illustration is Lawrence Harrison's book "Underdevelopment is a State of Mind." Harrison's book used parallel case studies to show that in most Latin American countries, culture had been inimical to development. In the case of Haiti, Harrison is blunt. To him, "while [in Haiti] the caste system has clearly been a major obstacle to national integration and progress, a number of values and attitudes shared by the entire society also get in the way of progress." The former USAID expert further contends that Haiti's culture is inherited from West African values, attitudes and institutions, particularly from the Region of Dahomey, known today as Benin. Cultural values such as the Voodoo is so inculcated in Haitian mind that they refuse to look forward but focusing their attention on the ancestral past.
This ethnocentric account regarding Haiti, however, is not new. It has over the times taken different shapes. Victor Cochinat, a visitor from the French colony of Martinique, had painted a similar picture of Haiti at the end of the 19th century. After spending few days in the island, Cochinat came to the conclusion that Haitians were lazy and ashamed of work and this was the reason why they were so poor. He went on to say that Haiti is a farce and a phantasmagoria of civilization. This unsubstantiated claim did not go unchallenged. Our then young eminent intellectual Louis Joseph Janvier offered a sardonic six-hundred-page history of "Haiti and its visitors" in which he asked for a shred of objectify to anyone like Cochinat visiting the country.
In Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, Laurent Dubois sets himself a likewise task. Like Janvier, he writes a four-hundred-thirty-four-page history starting from the nation's independence to the present aftermath of one of the deadliest earthquakes in modern history that struck the country in 2010, killed more than 250,000 people and left millions homeless. He intends to demonstrate that the argument of modern-day Cochinats and other like-minded Haitian-phobic intellectuals are ill-informed speculation. For those who are still wondering why the once richest colony in the world is now the poorest country in the hemisphere, Dubois is straightforward: the true causes of Haiti's precarious conditions shouldn't be a conundrum. Haiti's poverty has nothing to do with any inherent problems on the part of the Haitians themselves. Quite to the contrary, "Haiti's present is the product of its history: of the nation's founding by enslaved people who overthrew their masters and freed themselves; of the hostility that this revolution generated among the colonial powers surrounding the country."
One should bear in mind that for these ancient slaves to build the first independent black nation on earth could not by any means be a smoothly process. For decades, Dubois recalls, France refused to acknowledge Haiti's independence, and both Great Britain and United States followed France's lead. Haiti represented an imminent threat to these countries that wanted to show it is unlikely for a black nation to succeed. And, stubbornly unwilling to re-taste the cruel savor of slavery, Haiti devoted its utmost to defend itself against potential attack. They hence poured lots of monies into building fortifications and maintaining a large army. "Being Haiti," Dubois suggests, "it turned out, was costly." Pressured by France, they finally agreed to pay an incredible amount of indemnity to compensate the slave-owners for their losses, and "by 1898, fully half of Haitian government budget went to paying France and the French banks. By 1914, that proportion had climbed to 80 percent."
Dubois, however, is not a conspiracy theorist. He does not believe that Haiti's predicament stems exclusively from outside. He asserts: "Haiti's current situation is the culmination of a long set of historical choices that date back to its beginning as a French plantation colony. And it is the consequences of the ways that powerful political leaders and institutions, inside and outside of the country, have ignored and suppressed the aspirations of the majority."
And Dubois is not alone. Analyzing the failure of Western pundits to come to grips with the problems of many developing countries, Hernando De Soto argues: "the suggestion that it is culture that explains the success of such diverse places as Japan, Switzerland, and California, and culture again that explains the relative poverty of such equally diverse places as Estonia...[Haiti, I add this], and Baja California, is worse than inhumane; it is unconvincing." And I agree...
For both native Haitians living abroad and foreigners who are interested in having a better picture (not a distorted snapshot) of Haiti, I can't suggest you a better book than Haiti: The Aftershocks of History by Laurent Dubois.
 See Harrison, L., & Huntington, S. 2000. Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress, p. xv.
 See Harrison, L. 1985. Underdevelopment is a State of Mind, p. 84.
 Dubois, L., 2012. Haiti: The Aftershock of History, p. 4
 p. 5
 p. 8
 p. 369
 De Soto, H. 2000. The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else, p. 4
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Aimed at wide audience, this is a generally good overview of Haitian history since the great slave revolt at the end of the 18th century. Though Dubois covers the basic narrative, this is not primarily the typical narrative history. Dubois is particularly interested in laying out the basic structural features of Haitian history, features that continue to strongly influence Haiti today. Some basic features emerged with the conclusion of the Revolution. Enduring features included the great majority of the population pursuing small scale peasant agriculture organized around kinship groups, a general divide between the great majority of rural peasantry and a small urban elite, military predominance of politics with the army as a channel for advancement and a patronage system, regionalization of the economy, and a combination of chronic instability in national politics and relative stabliity at the regional level. A weak state uniquely run by people of African descent, external relations were a problem throughout Haiti's history. One of the early Haitian Presidents made the spectacularly bad decision to trade French recognition of Haiti for a very large imdemnity for expropriated planters financed by loans from French banks. This inaugurated perpetual massive foreign debt, severe limitation of Haitian government finances, and relatively easy avenues for foreign interventions is Haiti.
These features persisted into the 20th century up to the 20 year American occupation of Haiti which changed the course of Haitian society. The American intervention ultimately resulted in a more centralized state but without developing institutions for democratic governance or broadlhy based economic development. After disbanding the traditional Haitian military, the Americans actually trained an even more powerful military-gendarmarie which would become an more powerful political actor. At the cost of considerable disruption of the countryside and destruction of many peasant smallholdings, the Americans oversaw the development of a national economy more oriented to export agriculture. After a period of instability, the ultimate inheritor of the American modified Haitian state was the murderous Francois Duvalier, ruthless and shrewd politician able to exploit both Haitian institutions and Cold War tensions to establish the most brutal regime in the Western Hemisphere.
Both narrative and analysis are solid, and this is a generally well written book. The bibliography is useful. This book would have been improved by use of some simple charts displaying basic economic and demographic statistics. There is also little information about ecological changes, which are thought to be an important theme of Haitian history.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on June 26, 2013
This is a reasonably well-organized work summarizing Haitian history between 1804 and 1963. For historical events before and after this, the book offers only a very terse summary.
There are few surprises in this book; most of the material has been available for decades and other books before have covered the same material, but few one-volume histories of Haiti exist (Heinl & Heinl's Written in Blood  is difficult to find copies of). One point is that the book focuses on the depressing aspects of Haitian history, of which there are many, and then gets overwhelmed by the parade of horrors. In contrast, Elizabeth Abbott's Haiti: A Shattered Nation(2011) paints a more detailed picture by focusing on a smaller scope (viz., the end of Duvalierism).
While Dubois's narrative is mostly satisfactory, it implies that the efforts to insert Haiti into the global industrial system have failed: this is not the case, and explains a lot. I point this out because Dubois has set out to explain Haiti's present with an account of its political history; he occasionally refers to failed efforts by the elites/foreign interlocutors to modernize the economy, which are always described as failures. But Haiti has become a major nexus in the global low-wage manufacturing system, which is also important to understanding current events there.
Dubois does a fine job summarizing the succession of political catastrophes outside powers have inflicted on Haiti, but mysteriously wraps up his story with the Duvalier Regime. After that, he race through events so quickly one senses he was just determined to provide the barest tissue of narrative. By the time he gets to his much-noted critique of NGOs and their role in earthquake relief, it's a random island of detail in a sea of summary. Overall, a handy outline with a good bibliography and thoughtful analysis.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on June 16, 2013
I picked up this history of Haiti after seeing it appear on the NY Times Notable Books of 2012 list. I have always been looking to read a good history of Haiti in advance of going to visit the county and having completed this book I now feel as if I have a much better idea of what the country is all about and how it came to be where it is. I found it quite interesting to read the author's explanation for how Haiti has struggled over the years with having to pay so much of its income back to France and other occupiers as a tax. That seems to have really debilitated the country and probably set it back many years from where it really could be. I thought his treatment of the early years of the country was good but a bit longish and dull. The part that I really wanted to read more about was the time when Doc Duvalier and his son Baby Doc Duvalier were in power and although he surely did address that in the final chapter of the book, I felt it could have been more descriptive. Finally, he really did not touch on the devastating earthquake of a few years ago at all other than to mention it in passing once. Given the magnitude of that disaster and how it has affected modern-day Haiti, I would have liked to have seen more about that. That said, if you are looking for a good general history of Haiti, its rulers, and its relationship to other countries including the US, then this is a good book to read.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on December 26, 2012
I have recently been in Haiti twice on short consulting assignments in agriculture and wish I had read this masterful essay on Haitian history (much of it agricultural) before I had gone. The presentation follows a rather classical form and does not have illustrations, which I would have liked to see. The development of the tragic interaction between the US and Haiti -- which continues today -- is very well done. Highly recommended to all readers with a serious interest in Haiti.