PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- As civil war encroaches, civil society implodes and civil political discourse evaporates, one of the few things all Haitians can agree on is their pride in Toussaint L'Ouverture, who lead the slave rebellion in Haiti that established the world's first black republic. "The transformation of slaves, trembling in hundreds before a single white man, into a people able to organize themselves and defeat the most powerful European nations of their day is one of the great epics of revolutionary struggle and achievement," wrote the late Trinidadian intellectual CLR James in his book The Black Jacobins. The transformation of that achievement into a nation riven by political violence, ravaged by Aids and devastated by poverty is a tragedy of epic proportions.
The nation's 200th anniversary this year looks back on 13 coups and 19 years of American occupation, and now once again looks forward to more bloodshed and instability. The country's political class must bear their share of responsibility for where they go from here. Western powers, particularly France and the United States, must also take responsibility for how they got to this parlous place to begin with. If Haiti shows all the trappings of a failed state, then you do not have to look too hard or too far to see who has failed it.
The most urgent issue is to stem the descent into gang warfare and political anarchy. In this the Haitians have been let down by poor domestic political leadership on all sides. In the nine years since Jean-Bertrand Aristide's Lavalas party has been in power, economic improvements have been few and human rights abuses have been many. With no army and only a few thousand poorly trained police, Aristide has relied on armed gangs to sustain his authority. In 2000, he rigged parliamentary elections in favor of his own party, sparking outrage and laying the basis for a broad-based opposition, which has gathered pace and strength in recent months.
But while the political opposition, based in Port-au-Prince, has grown in size it remains diminished in direction and devoid of strategy. With no agenda beyond forcing Aristide to resign, it offers only the possibility of even more chaos. With no desire to negotiate a settlement, it offers the certainty of stalemate. Its ability to destabilize, and inability to lead effectively and constructively, has left a vacuum now filled by an armed opposition, comprising henchmen from previous dictatorships. Up to their necks in blood and armed to the teeth, these men have poured across the border from the neighboring Dominican Republic in the past week and are taking over towns and ransacking police stations. Yesterday there were reports that they had seized the country's second city, Cap Haïtien.
The relationship between those who seek to remove Aristide peacefully and those committed to violent methods is increasingly blurred. The political opposition says it shares the aims of the armed rebels but not their methods. Even if that is true in principle, it is rapidly becoming meaningless in practice. The rebels care little for human rights and less for human life. No one doubts they could get rid of Aristide; no one seriously believes they will restore democracy.
But if the bicentennial offers a bleak backdrop for the immediate fate of the first black republic, it also offers the opportunity to place these events in some historical perspective. For ever since Haitian slaves expressed their desire to breathe freely, western powers have been attempting to strangle its desire for democracy and prosperity at birth.
"Men make their own history," wrote Karl Marx. "But they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under given circumstances directly encountered and inherited from the past."
From the outset Haiti inherited the wrath of the colonial powers, which knew what a disastrous example a Haitian success story would be. In the words of Napoleon Bonaparte: "The freedom of the negroes, if recognized in St Domingue [as Haiti was then known] and legalized by France, would at all times be a rallying point for freedom-seekers of the New World." He sent 22,000 soldiers (the largest force to have crossed the Atlantic at the time) to recapture the "Pearl of the Antilles".
France, backed by the US, later ordered Haiti to pay 150m francs in gold as reparations to compensate former plantation and slave owners as well as for the costs of the war in return for international recognition. At today's prices that would amount to £10bn. By the end of the 19th century, 80% of Haiti's national budget was going to pay off the loan and its interest, and the country was locked into the role of a debtor nation - where it remains today.
Any prospect of planting a stable political culture foundered on the barren soil of economic impoverishment, military siege and international isolation (for the first 58 years the US refused to even recognize Haiti's existence). In 1915, fearing that internal strife would compromise its interests, the US invaded, and remained until 1934.
In short, if those who now preach negotiation and compromise had practiced those values in the past, Haiti might have had the time and support to nurture the kind of political traditions that could at best forestall and at least withstand its divisions today. Haiti is a timely reminder of how western democracies have wilfully amassed their wealth on the backs of impoverished dictatorships.
So Haiti lurched from coup to coup, most notably under the dictatorship of "Papa Doc" Duvalier and then his son, "Baby Doc", supported by the US and France. In 1990, Aristide appeared as the best hope to break the cycle. With an overwhelming democratic mandate, the ascetic priest and liberation theologian was literally swept to power, as Haitians brushed the floor ahead of him with palm leaves. Deposed in a coup, he returned in 1994 with US military assistance.
But, in return for political freedom, Aristide was compelled to accept economic enslavement, bound by terms imposed by the IMF and the World Bank. Post-colonial military aggression gave way to the brutal forces of globalization. Before Aristide had even considered fixing the elections, the west had already rigged the markets. Take rice. Forced by the agreement to lower its import tariffs, Haiti suddenly found itself flooded with subsidized rice from the US, which drove Haitian rice growers out of business and the country to import a product that it once produced. When the country fined American rice merchants $1.4m for allegedly evading customs duties, the US responded by withholding $30m in aid.
None of this excuses the shortcomings of either the current administration or its detractors. But it helps explain why the roots of the current crisis are so deep, and spread so far. Aristide has been dealt few cards, and those he had he has played badly. He has tainted a nascent democratic culture. But to allow him to be deposed at the hands of former dictators will destroy it altogether. Aristide could do far better for Haiti. Haiti could do far worse than Aristide.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004