[published in CounterPunch, 7 October, 2014]
This is an extract from Julian Vigo’s latest book to be released this month, Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (Baobab Tree Books, 2015).
A graffiti inscription which crossed my path—quite literally—in the Delmas region of Port-au-Prince yesterday read, “J.C. Duvalier, Bon retour!” A series of electric poles set up in the middle of a road suddenly block all circulation. Upon one of the cement blocks from which these poles spring is this anachronistic and curious wish for Duvalier’s return. Admittedly, this desire for a Duvalier type of dictator is often mentioned by Haitians; yet Haitians do not wish for the return of Jean Claude Duvalier. Instead many Haitians recall how “good things were” under his father, François Duvalier, whom he succeeded after his father’s death in 1971. Understandably, I was perplexed by this odd welcome for someone who is everything but loved by Haitians as Baby Doc’s reign was that which destabilized Haiti economically until he was ousted from power in 1986. So why this confusing graffiti which seems not to recognize Haiti’s history or, at the very least, which fails to employ any sort of critique?
“Francois Duvalier was a man’s man!” I heard recently. These days I hear many Haitians these days declare more frequently the need for a dictator. A Haitian economist tells me, “Where is Préval? We have barely seen him since the earthquake?” She holds no hope for this president and as much as she hates to say it, she believes the country needs a dictator. I have to confess that there are moments when I cannot disagree.
In western Europe and North America the word “dictator” conjures up radical images as if through word association images of Hitler, Mussolini, or Hussein are the only references for such a term. In the west, generally speaking, we are educated to think that: a) our political systems work better than every other outside the west and b) that we are freer in our democracies than those who are led by unelected leaders. These are fallacies I would argue. Certainly as I had been reproached by a gay couple in a Toronto’s uber-posh Queen Street neighborhood dinner party for saying that I did not fancy Celine Dion eighteen months ago, I wondered to what degree our democracy allows us certain freedoms to include fomenting individual ideas of taste and their expression or as is more common today the rigid policing of thought and dialogue endemic to neoliberalism. The need to convey one’s “betterness” or eliteness is an extension of colonial thought and part of a larger pathology of those who are brainwashed about their country’s superiority, usually accompanied by a large dose of historical ignorance. So while these two members of the Céline Dion fan club admonished me for daring to question “my country” (their words) because of my dislike of Céline Dion and my critique of a recent taser death at the hands of the Vancouver Police Department, this same couple had no embarrassment in referring to their neighborhood in Toronto as a “gayborhood” with the same ease in which they declared Canada’s superiority over the rest of the world, a country whose Parliament had been prorogued just weeks earlier by Stephen Harper on 4 December, 2008.
Dare I say that I have never in my life felt my freedoms so trampled as in the nation of Canada where my right to physical protection was denied me by the state. In fact, I cannot think of any country where I have lived where my right to physical security was put into jeopardy by the state directly on so many instances from my witnessing police brutality, to being a vicim of it, to the manners in which civil law in Canada does not protect scholars from harassment or defamation. So the notion of dictatorship means very little to someone like me who has lived under a constitutional monarchy, a parliamentary system, an authoritarian regime, a federal presidential republic and a federal constitutional government. Most of these systems are or have been dictatorships in everything but name only. What matters to the individual is not what her government is called, but what her government does for and against her and how a government might nurture and create freedoms while diminishing violences. Names like “democracy” or “dictatorship” mean very little to those who live at the other end of political choices and disempowerment. What Haitians recall about their past leaders is best elucidated by an older gentleman with whom I spoke recently as we awaited a tap tap: “When François Duvalier was president, children went to school, they were educated, people had jobs, and there was no crime—there was none of this wearing your underwear outside your trousers!”
Haitians who harbor such ideals of François Duvalier forget the political murders estimated to be approximately 30,000 in the very same amnesia that dismisses the general climate of political repression. Many Haitians smoothly elide the fact that Papa Doc began Haiti’s economic decline. It is so easy to wait for the most radical change when perhaps what one really wants is a benevolent dictatorship, the Duvaliers excepted. Can Haitians recognize—much less remember—the difference? Of course, I do not mean that Haitians are literally unaware of many of the problems the Duvalier regimes brought to this country. But there is a conscious elision to fully integrate what Papa Doc did for Haiti beyond the strict functioning of government, the economy and schools. There is a desire amongst Haitians to have a leader who, even if a ruthless despot, at least knows how to lay down the law. Yet in none of their expressions for a new dictator is present the sentiment that some violence might be necessary to invoke change.
Last weekend in Kenscoff a farmer selling seeds shows me three Gourdes worth of carrot seeds and he turns back around to show me more of his stock. His hands are shaking, he is frail, and he appears to be about seventy-five years of age. From details he gives me, I do the math and figure that from his sales this gentleman is barely able to eat each day. Given recent events, perhaps a Duvalier is preferable to a USAID which is leaving more and more farmers desperate. USAID is regarded as an Angel of Death here which is leading Haitian agronomists to confront the likes of Monsanto whose wares we are already seeing peddled and whose products will augment the amount of poverty in the country if history is any indicator of the future.
So why on earth put up a graffiti welcoming a much maligned dictator in an era of ostensible recovery from disaster? Let me revisit the staging of this sign: it is erected on a cement pylon which is situated in the middle of a major street of Port-au-Prince, Delmas, obstructing the flow of traffic as this same pylon holds up an electric line which functions only a few hours a day. One could not dream of a more ironic setting for this graffiti than this. The pylon serves as its own social commentary on corruption upon more corruption upon idiocy. But then one might wonder why irony is used in this political gesture rather than direct critique which might serve to direct Haitians’ voices in a clear denouncement of the current occupation of their country. After all, there are frequent manifestations at the university and on the streets in centreville about both the government and colonial presence of MINUSTAH. Haitians are not shy to express their political dissatisfaction in manners that are direct even if infrequently at times taking to more aggressive tones.
This morning before my meeting at the MINUSTAH Log Base, I went to write and check email in the deck café where the World Cup match between South Korea and Argentina was being aired. In front of the many television screens were no less than thirty Koreans cheering for their team. I was rather shocked by how calm the Haitians in the café watching this match were every time Argentina scored each of their four goals. There was a reverence of sorts for the Koreans’ allegiance and not a cheer was to be heard after any of the goals by Argentina. People just looked politely as if an accident had happened…pretending it had not. I was curious after all the weeks of visual indoctrination to this event in the form of banners, flags and murals in support of either Brazil or Argentina to discover that there could be such docility at the actual event and no evidence of Haitian support for Argentina in this match. Football is usually about the spectators cathartically taking over the role of the sports figures on the screen as they cheer and antagonize in the hopes these performances will help their team win. But this was not the case today.
I can certainly not make any argument against the catharsis of sporting events, for this is very much a similar process to the catharsis of theatre. Moreso, such exchanges lead to certain realizations that bring out reflection and often change. But I was confused by all this energy—and money—invested in a month-long sporting event wherein material production screams commodity fetishism yet the performatives of team solidarity (at least today’s) was gentle, even absent. The Koreans stood up and cheered each and every time their players got anywhere near the opposition’s goal. After each goal by Argentina I witnessed the Koreans in the MINUSTAH café express slight disappointment, but mostly they were still hopeful and smiling, anticipating their team would score again. Today’s match at the United Nations’ Log Base was not at all about football despite the final goal of 4:1 in Argentina’s favor—today’s match was really about both the Haitian and Korean spectators. And what a paradox to be in Haiti at the UN Log Base watching this World Cup football match with nobody visibly or audibly cheering for what is one of Haiti’s two favorite teams. Every so often I would hear a Haitian whisper to her neighbor, “That was a brilliant goal!” but never more than a discrete comment delicately whispered. It was as if Haitians were playing a politics of diplomacy at the UN Log Base through the surrogate of football, the only political power afforded them in the context of the UN.
Of all the possible modalities of celebratory and critical speech the graffiti in the middle of a road in Delmas does not function any differently than the polite silence of Haitians during the South Korea/Argentina game. There is a sense of anger and indignation as theft and violence are on the rise as are demonstrations against the government and the UN and more recently denouncements of the people against Monsanto and its hybrid seed “donations.” Social and political actions in Haiti vacillate between a conciliatory politesse or an explosive and seemingly uncontrollable violence. Here I am reminded of Hannah Arendt’s criticism of Frantz Fanon which elucidates the difficulties of normative and descriptive theory of violence in politics as she articulated in On Violence. To put Fanon’s and Arendt’s respective accounts of politics and violence into a wider context of thought and theory, it is imperative to understand that violence and politics are inextricably intertwined for many theorists while for others they are wholly unrelated. In the former understanding of politics and violence, political power is about domination—think Machiavelli, Hobbes and Weber here. These three thinkers examine politics from the point of view of state domination and hence many political theories of resistance are likewise dominated by actions of violence in order to overthrow the established order. And there are many thinkers who have worked through the stages of progressive violence for freedom versus repressive violence of domination, notably Fanon, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and de Beauvoir. Violence is central to the philosophy of existentialism inasmuch as human life is defined by freedom and violence to achieve freedom is necessarily part of this process. As a result the political actors end up being tragic figures of violence to some (Weber) while others work through the impossibility of coupling power with violence since power depends upon the numbers of people and violence realized upon a few people (Arendt). In essence, Arendt sees violence as instrumentality and power in her analysis and therefore she views violence never a means to an end but rather as a condition that enables people to think through action. She likewise makes room for two types of permissible violence—that which responds to injustice and that which opens up the space for politics. She also admits that non-violence will not always be an effective tool, such as in the struggle against anti-political regimes such as Nazi Germany.
However, violence for Fanon is physical and it retains its power both in its threat to inflict and in its actual undertaking. Both forms of violence pervade every aspect of the world today, most especially those influenced by colonial and neo-colonial traditions. Fanon argues that the only response to structured violence is violence given that the reactions and actions of colonized people in response to power makes violence inevitable. In essence, it is important here to understand that Fanon elucidates violence as inevitable because he opens up the discourse of violence to include symbolic, economic and elitist violences which are not ordinarily realized through the word. And the contemporary problem of discussing violence in the case of Palestinian suicide bombers or of Somali pirates often lies in the discrepancies between its intended and its actual outcomes or effects and even the media representations which frame certain acts as more violent than others. Certainly one cannot easily argue against the idea that violence is in danger of destroying the purposes for which it was originally employed. In this way Arendt’s argument against violence is quite persuasive. Yet Fanon’s strength in arguing for violence is that he distinguishes between violence as doing and violence as being. Fanon recognizes that violence plays a structuring role in the ways individual and collective actors are produced and reproduced in both private and public domains of power. To analyze violence as being brings to the fore the necessary analysis of violence which is omnipresent and not a device one can simply pick up, engage and put back down. For Fanon violence is structural and his theories fit right into the politics of resistance which address the greater structural violences of colonialism and neo-colonialism today.
The use of violence against Haitians today is as pervasive as it is back home where the notifications on the subway for what I call the “Jihad alert” underscore a growing Islamophobia in the U.S.A. Through the New York City subway system are yellow, black and white signs, “See Something, Say Something,” a campaign which is still running strong as is a similar campaign on the London tube. This too is violence whose ethos is to foment fear, distrust and eventually outing of who is or might be a terrorist. In Haiti poverty and 1,7 million displaced still living under tarps, bed sheets and pieces of found wood and metal is another type of violence.
A pylon in the middle of a major road in Delmas stops the driver, forcing him to slow to accommodate the oncoming vehicles. This structure is quite violent and acts as a roadblock, demanding immediate reaction. Only then does the traffic accommodate this surprising and imposing structure by simply moving around it. Clearly, the only sort of resistance to such a monstrosity is either to hit it, an outright destruction of the edifice, or to engulf it in graffiti. Both are violences. Violence as being enacted through creativity is exemplified by this graffiti and will probably not oust Préval or force him to make a long-awaited public statement to the people. However, the discourse of absurdly welcoming the most unpopular of Haitian presidents in recent history upon a mass of cement suggests thatviolence as being might just have an enduring political legacy over doing violence.