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Latin American Research Review 40.3 (2005) 191-201

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Haiti's Condemnation:

History and Culture at the Crossroads

University of Massachusetts, Boston
Haitian Revolutionary Studies. By David P. Geggus. (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2002. Pp. xii + 334. $49.95 cloth.)
Rara! Vodou, Power, And Performance In Haiti And Its Diaspora. By Elizabeth McAlister. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002. Pp. xviii + 259, plus 24-track CD. $24.95 paper.)
Haiti: Best Nightmare On Earth. By Herbert Gold. (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2001. Pp.321. $24.95 paper.)

As Haiti emerges from its recent bicentennial, the persistent underdevelopment combined with the absence of independent social and judicial institutions denote an increase in the level of repression and social division. Such social divergence has been intensified since the overthrow of (Baby Doc) Duvalier in 1986, and subsequent political turmoil throughout the 1990s. Understanding oppression in Haiti requires a multilevel analysis. It must include a macro-level analysis of economic and political structures as well as a micro-level analysis of internalized psychological images of hopelessness and despair. A comprehensive analysis of the responsibility emerges from an interdisciplinary approach that integrates the political with the psychological forces. In the current social and political context of Haiti, the country seems to be in a revolutionary mode of radical violence that negates the classic Hegelian notion of absolute freedom. In fact, today we are witnessing a complete rupture that is bent upon a new configuration of the polis. Thus, political instability, violent overthrows, successive coups and countercoups, persistent poverty, the state against the nation, all constitute trademarks of this economically collapsed but culturally rich Caribbean island. Interestingly, individual Haitians are relatively successful people abroad. Thus the question then becomes: what explanations do we offer for the continuous failure of a rogue state that refuses to meet its obligations to its citizenry? Certainly, while economic and social factors are quintessential to a [End Page 191] fundamental examination of this island's plight, the real focus must remain on the internal and external dynamics of a power structure and its produced consequences. Then and only then can we fully understand why collectively Haiti is condemned.

Has Haiti been cursed for its audacity? Why is it seemingly condemned to repeat its past while remaining unable to chart its future? These questions are just a few among many others that have preoccupied the hearts and minds of many who are interested in Haitian Studies. The history of Haiti has yet to be conclusively written in spite of many monographs, memoirs, collective volumes, and journal articles. On a positive note, one can reformulate the above questions in a more exploratory mode, such as: Why study Haiti's history, culture, and society? What do people need to know about the Haitian people, environment, and political culture to understand their perennial social ills? Can we use the Haitian revolution, its cultural dynamics, and historical significance to foresee its possible future condemnation? These are some of the powerful questions articulated in the three books under scrutiny in this review essay.

What happens to Haiti and Haitians in the twenty-first century is a question of overwhelming magnitude for this Caribbean nation and its diasporic communities around the globe. The future of Haiti arguably hinges on the capacity and ability of Haitians to solve their own political, social, and economic problems. Haiti's history represents this nation's greatest intangible legacy; no other slave society in the history of the modern world has ever established such a richly ambiguous system "for racial equality, the abolition of slavery, decolonization, and nationhood [that] first came to the Caribbean with the Haitian revolution" (5), as historian David P. Geggus points out. Postcolonial Haiti was defiant, bold, and diverse, a place to which free and enslaved persons from across the world migrated to capture the richness of Haitian history and culture.

Elizabeth McAlister also reminds us of the singularity of Haiti, where "many conditions are familiar: coup d'├ętat, political instability, poverty, violent repression, and foreign...


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