[This is the text of a talk I gave at Haiti benefit at the University of British Columbia last week.]

“Haiti in Ruins”

As the TV footage and images circulated in newspapers and on the Internet attest, Haiti is in ruins. In towns near the epicenter of last week’s earthquake, up to 90% of the buildings have been damaged or destroyed. The capital, Port-au-Prince, has been devastated, and where homes, offices, hospitals, and schools (and so on) have not actually collapsed, they are very often now structurally unsound. It is relatively poor consolation to observe that this has been something of an equal-opportunities disaster. The national palace was reduced to a single storey, half the UN Mission’s compound was destroyed, and victims have included senators and the country’s Catholic archbishop. Still, as always, it is the poor who bear the brunt, and who face the greatest challenges in the earthquake’s aftermath. Hundreds of thousands are sleeping and living outside, fearful that aftershocks will bring down what precariously remains. Meanwhile, rescuers and rapid-response teams from abroad are returning home; it is very unlikely that any more survivors will emerge from the rubble. The air is filled with the stench of corpses that are buried under the debris. Ruination and decay are everywhere; the living are forced to cohabit with the dead, in a physical and social landscape scarred by destruction and haunted by the reminders of recent catastrophe.

Haitians are used to living within ruins. This is a land that has known more than its share of death and destruction. In the sixteenth century, Hispaniola’s indigenous inhabitants were decimated and ultimately wiped out by the disease, malnutrition, and violence unleashed by the arrival of Spanish imperialism. As the so-called “Pearl of the Antilles” the subsequent French colony of Saint Domingue was insatiable in its demand for slaves to work in the plantations that supplied sweet sugar for European tastes: over 800,000 Africans were imported from places such as the Ivory Coast, the Congo, and what is now Ghana, Nigeria, and even Mozambique from 1680 to 1776; more had continually to be transported because the rigors of the slave system meant that over half died within eight years of arrival in the colony. More recently, for a over quarter of a century, from 1957 to 1986, Haitians had to endure the dynastic dictatorship of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude or “Baby Doc,” whose feared paramilitary militia, the so-called “Tonton Macoutes,” anchored a reign of terror, brutality, and corruption. The name “Tonton Macoute” is borrowed from a folkloric bogeyman, a ghostly figure said to prowl the streets after dark looking to kidnap unwary children. It is no wonder that Haitian popular beliefs and religious practices (not least the African-inspired hybrid “voodoo” or vodou) are so concerned with the presence of death in life and life in death. It is easy to believe in zombies in Haiti, surrounded by the reminders of a violent past, a ruined present, and a precarious future.

Yet to view Haitian history in this light is all too often to imagine a land defined by its perpetual victimhood. Hence the constant references today to the commonplace that this is the poorest country in the hemisphere, and the appeal for compassion, to come to its citizens’ aid. Yes, we should certainly do all we can to help Haiti, and now more than ever. But not out of some kind of sympathy towards the weak and helpless at the fringes or margins of Western modernity. If anything, our relations with Haiti need to be transformed by a recognition of the country’s centrality and its people’s capacity and agency. For the truth is that, if we are to talk of responsibility or debt, we owe Haiti much more than Haiti can ever owe us. The country’s ruins are an indication of stubborn persistence and strength, as much as they also testify to the brutality and violence that the Haitians have had to suffer.

In February last year I traveled to Cap Haitien, the country’s former capital, to see some of the most extraordinary structures in the Americas, found near the now small and rather sleepy town of Milot, where the northern plain meets the mountainous interior. The Palace of Sans Souci was once the residence of Henri Christophe, who ruled as Henri I, sovereign of the independent kingdom of Northern Haiti from 1811 to 1820. It was then and still remains (even in ruins, product in part of an 1842 earthquake) a remarkable construction: built in a hybrid style influenced by a variety of European architectural traditions, it had sculptures, immense gardens, and an innovative and complex system of waterworks that functioned as a form of air conditioning. Sans Souci bears comparison with any palace or mansion in Europe or elsewhere. But the true marvel is a few miles further along. This is the building that inspired the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier to conceive the concept of the “marvelous real” that has since (in the form of “magical realism”) come to define Latin America as a whole: the immense Citadelle Laferrière, the largest fortification in the Americas, which sits atop the 3,000 ft Bonnet a L’Eveque mountain that rises behind Milot to look out towards the Caribbean Sea. The Citadelle is Haiti’s iconic ruin, a mainstay of national iconography and source of fascination not only for Carpentier but also for instance for the Martinican writer Aimé Césaire who would declare that Haiti was the fount of what he called négritude, which we might loosely translate as “black pride.” For the Citadelle is a ruin that indicates not helplessness and victimhood, but freedom and self-reliance.

The central fact about Haiti, the reason that this is perhaps the most significant country in the Americas, even the key site for Western modernity as a whole, is not its history of disaster and suffering, but its tradition of resistance and self-affirmation. Haiti’s protracted and violent revolution of 1791 to 1803 is the world’s only successful slave revolt and, more importantly still, its first truly modern revolution. It was in Haiti that the principle of universal emancipation was proclaimed and won. For while the framers of the American Declaration of Independence were prepared to live, more or less uneasily, with the continued practice of slavery, and while the French defenders of the so-called rights of “man” were still debating as to whether blacks could or should count as either men or citizens, Haitian slaves took matters into their own hands and fought for the notion that freedom, if it meant anything, had to be freedom for all. Emancipation had to be universal, or it was not truly emancipation. It is for this idea, and the stubborn insistence on defending it at all costs, that we owe Haiti.

Henri Christophe’s Citadelle Laferrière, then, is a reminder of the tenacity with which Haitians held on to their revolutionary achievement. Built, not without controversy (it was perhaps not the only or the best way to go about things) and at immense sacrificial labor (every stone, every cannon, every cannon ball had to be hauled up the mountain), the castle was to be the ultimate redoubt and defence should the French return once more to attempt to re-establish slavery. For Napoleon had indeed in 1801 already sent out an expedition in the charge of his brother-in-law Charles Leclerc, determined to recapture what had been by far the richest of all of France’s colonial possessions. It was then that Christophe had shown he was prepared to set Cap Haitien on fire (by way of example, he torched his own home first) rather than give the French any satisfaction or allow any return to the status quo ante. Sometimes, Christophe seemed to suggest, a ruin or two was the price one paid for a greater principle. So ruination does not always mean defeat: it can also invoke resistance (what is a ruin after all but what persists, despite everything?); it can be the positive product of a people taking history into their own hands, rather than simply the negative sign of yet another historic defeat.

None of this is to say that we should somehow perversely celebrate the latest ruins that litter Port-au-Prince and southern Haiti. Nor, far from it, that we should take Haitians’ historic self-reliance as an excuse not to help out now in their time of need. Haiti has been forced to go it alone too often, for instance during the nineteenth century when the United States and European powers long refused to recognize its independence, and France eventually did so only at the price of a massive indemnity that crippled the country’s economy with effects that continue into the present. Even worse have been the forms of intervention premised on either condescension or fear: the last thing that Haiti needs is yet another military occupation, and it is simply shocking how in recent days the situation of the masses in the devastated slums of Port-au-Prince has been framed as a security issue first and a humanitarian crisis only secondarily. To turn our backs on Haiti or to view it as a problem is to repeat the age-old ideology that can acknowledge only in distorted form the fact that Haiti poses a radical alternative within modernity: the novel but surely incontrovertible notion that a benefit for some should also be a benefit for all. Indeed, Haiti and its ruins teach us that if we refuse to share a benefit universally, without prejudice of race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation (and so on), then it is not a benefit but a privilege whose raison d’être is exclusion. We should help Haitians now not because they need us, but because we need them.


Off and on, over the past couple of days I’ve been watching Helena Solberg’s Bananas is my Business, a documentary about Carmen Miranda.

Bananas is my BusinessMiranda is (or was) a curious figure. She was, apparently, the highest paid performer (male or female) in 1940s Hollywood, and the highest paid woman (in any occupation) in the US at the time. She was extraordinarily popular: one of the first “crossover” artists, who brought something like what would now be termed “world music” to a mass audience in North America. But I’d be surprised if anyone actively sought out her films or her music now. Her image very quickly transformed from serious star to epitome of kitsch, and her films, while often entertaining, hardly stand up well compared to other classic musicals of the 1940s and 1950s. Her acting was never convincing and her musical performances were seldom well integrated into the film narrative. (Oddly, an exception is probably Down Argentine Way, a Betty Grable vehicle for which Miranda’s scenes were shot only after the rest of the film was finished.)

But the decline in Miranda’s reputation says more about her audience, and perhaps still more about twentieth-century geopolitics, than it does about her.

She was, after all, always already a caricature, an exotic curiosity. On her first arrival in the USA, when she knew little English but a lot about what she had to do to become famous, reporters wrote up interviews with her as though she were some comic primitive but also idiot savant who gave voice to everyone’s unspoken desires. Miranda declared that she knew only 100 words of English, among them “men, men, men and money, money, money.” Her costumes, especially the famously elaborate headgear, were manic exaggerations of the clothing worn by Bahian market women, but they also resonated with sixteenth to eighteenth-century images of South America as a dusky maiden bearing the fruit of her fertile soil.

Her success owed much to US post-war “good neighborliness,” a policy that emphasized and enhanced economic and cultural exchanges between North and South America. The cultural arm of the good neighbor policy was directed by Nelson Rockefeller, and also gave us films such as Disney’s Saludos Amigos, a strange mix of documentary, anthropology, diplomacy, and tourist guide. Latin America was promoted as a region now coming to modernity, fresh and vital compared to a Europe worn out by world war. It could be a source of markets and raw materials, but also a site for the indulgence of otherwise perhaps repressed desires. Latin Americans themselves were portrayed as slightly shady but definitely fun: prepared to break a few rules here and there thanks to their irrepressible vitality and desire to make good. Miranda very much fit into this mold. Havana, Acapulco, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro were now portrayed as filled with high-class nightclubs with sparkling entertainment, the ideal locations for hedonistic holidays from the rigors of making money at home.

As well as a reorientation of US economic and cultural interest from the Old to the New World, the Good Neighbor policy was also a pre-emptive strike as the Cold War got off the ground. Latin America already had strong labor movements (e.g. in Argentina and Chile), established socialist and communist parties (for instance, Peru), and had shown stirrings (or in the case of Mexico, more than stirrings) of revolutionary impulses. But at the same time the region was far from the Soviet sphere of influence, and could be imagined as a showcase for the benefits of liberal, democratic modernization. The US therefore welcomed the democratization and modernization that swept Latin America in the mid to late 1940s.

But within less than a decade, good neighborliness had been discredited. Prompted in part by lobbying from United Fruit, whose banana plantations occupied large swathes of the east of the country, in 1954 the state department engineered a coup in Guatemala, bringing down a left-leaning regime that had, in US eyes, gone too far in suggesting that modernization should be accompanied with social justice, that the benefits of democracy and openness should be felt by peasants as well as party-goers. Toppling the Guatemalan government was the CIA’s first major foreign operation, to be repeated soon in Iran. Both were viewed as great successes for a new, burlier and bolder, approach to international relations. Regime change came to be seen as an acceptable solution to problems that democracy and modernity could no longer be relied upon to resolve.

After the Cuban revolution of 1959, the shift in Latin America’s image and US tactics was soon complete. The Cold War was fully global and Havana was no longer the destination of choice for high-rolling gamblers or the emerging jet-set.

Carmen Miranda had died in 1955, but in any case nobody could now make a film such as Weekend in Havana. Orson Welles’s 1958 Touch of Evil better portrayed the new Latin America: a place of real danger and violence, whose seedy and superficial pleasures could too easily lure the unwary tourist into incomprehensible peril. The border between North and South was both absolute (separating cultures that were incommensurably different) and frighteningly fragile. There might still be a need for Americans to go down and do business with their neighbors the other side of the Rio Grande, but this would be man’s work, no job for a woman with fruit on her head.