Bursting the Dam of Containment: A Review of Peter Hallward’s ‘Damming the Flood’

By Justin Podur, Z Magazine, June 13, 2008

Review of: Peter Hallward, Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment. Verso 2007.

Haiti has never had a period without interference in its sovereignty. Indeed Haiti’s history could be seen as one long, heroic struggle against such interference: first to overthrow the slavers and colonizers of France (and the rest of Europe), and then to fight for sovereignty against the US, which viewed Haiti as part of its domain, to dispose of according to its own whims.

Those whims included a brutal invasion and occupation by the US Marines from 1915-34, during which Haiti’s government, military, and financial sector were re-organized in the US interest. US policy included support for the Duvalier dictatorships for decades after the occupation, and support for military governments since the end of the Duvalier era in 1986. In the 1980s, a social and political force emerged in Haiti to oust the dictatorship and give expression to a popular desire for sovereignty and democracy. The force called itself ‘Lavalas’, which translates as “the flood”, and its most visible leader, Jean Bertrand Aristide, became the country’s first democratically elected President. At its core, Peter Hallward’s remarkable book, “Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment”, is the detailed story of the struggle between the Lavalas movement and the forces arrayed against Haitian sovereignty and democracy.

Damming the Flood (DTF) focuses on a recent chapter in that struggle, the second administration of President Aristide beginning in 2000 and ending with his overthrow in a coup/invasion in 2004. Hallward takes a forensic approach, investigating the crime of the coup, its motives, the actors involved, and how it was done. Since the coup in 2004, Hallward has probably been the most lucid non-Haitian analyst writing on Haiti in English (some of the indispensable Haitians have been Patrick Elie, Marguerite Laurent, and Jean St. Vil). For myself, trying to make sense of what was occurring in the midst of disinformation, including from those who should have known better, like Grassroots International and later 7 Stories Press – Hallward’s New Left Review article “Option Zero in Haiti” (May-June 2004) was the single most useful piece in the months after the coup (Thomas Griffin’s report from the University of Miami and Kevin Pina’s reports in the Black Commentator before the coup were also indispensable).

What was this disinformation? There were several stories about Aristide and Lavalas that were circulated during the time he was overthrown that Hallward deals with at length. Aristide was accused of arming gangsters to terrorize political opponents (this argument is made in propaganda form in Asgar Leth’s film “Ghosts of Cite Soleil”, a disgusting exploitation of two impoverished young men, Billy and 2Pac, who are used as sexual objects in the film while wealthy members of the opposition like Andy Apaid provide the film’s narrative). He was accused of ruling autocratically. On the other side, he was also accused of betraying the movement by capitulating to neoliberalism, by allowing the US to enter Haiti in 1995 to remove the military regime that had overthrown him, by being unsupportive of armed struggle, and by accepting violent traitors (like Dany Toussaint) into his entourage. Hallward’s book deals with each of these accusations, to which we will return. In a remarkable interview with Aristide, provided as an appendix, Hallward puts each of these questions to the ousted President himself, allowing a man who was kidnapped and flown across the world that he might be silenced to finally respond to the accusations against him.

Hallward is a Canadian-born professor specializing in French philosophy working in the UK. He brings an unusual set of credentials to writing DTF, and these set it apart from many other books on Haiti. This is best said in his own words, and so worth quoting at length:

“This is not a book motivated by any personal association with Haiti, its government or its people, and nor has it emerged from a long familiarity with its history or culture. A philosopher and literary critic by training, I have visited Haiti only twice, and make no claim to the sort of insider or anthropological knowledge that authorizes much published work on the country. I have no special interest in the peculiarities of Haitian society, of its (remarkable) language or (even more remarkable) religions. I have assumed the reader would have still less interest in an account of my own (altogether unremarkable) travels or experience.

“Instead this is purely and simply a political book. In what follows I will assume that politics doesn’t concern things that make people different but things that they hold in common. I will assume that true political action is animated by collective principles that concern everyone by definition – principles of freedom, equality, solidarity, justice… I will assume that the collective action required to apply such a principle requires the self-emancipation of the oppressed… I will assume that such self-emancipation requires forceful engagement with the dominant forms of institutional and coercive power, and that it is this engagement – more than its social motivation or economic determination – that makes politics a matter of divisive rather than consensual universality. I will also assume that the persistence of emancipatory politics demands discipline and unity, and that it depends on a capacity to resist the various kinds of fragmentation and betrayal that its very existence is bound to provoke.” (from the Introduction, pg. xxxiv).

Hallward’s “purely and simply political book” thus sets out its fundamental assumptions and principles explicitly. Hallward’s influences and sources are no less transparent. Haitian activist Patrick Elie anchors much of the analysis and recurs throughout the book. So, too, does American lawyer Brian Concannon. The list of acknowledgements at the beginning of the book consists of a community of people, Haitian and non-Haitian, who emphasized the importance of foreign interference and imperial agendas in explaining what happened in 2004 and beyond.

Because Hallward was a part of this community (as was I), he could be accused of simply cherry-picking his evidence to prove a thesis based on his stated principles and assumptions. But all books are partisan. Two such books on the same period that Hallward mentions, for example (“Notes from the Last Testament”, by Michael Deibert, which I reviewed, and “The Prophet and Power” by Alex Dupuy, which Hallward reviewed), also make political points. Hallward does not ignore counter-arguments or evidence, however, nor does he smear those who disagree with him. A good part of the book is devoted to dealing with some of the controversies and debates that occurred before and after the 2004 coup. To Hallward, it was simply Lavalas’s, and Aristide’s, challenge to “the dominant forms of institutional and coercive power” that provoked “fragmentation and betrayal” within their movement, not necessarily flaws or errors on their part. Many people who supported the 2004 coup made much of their credentials as supporters of Lavalas and Aristide in the 1990s. They were with Aristide back then, but things had changed, they said, and he had to go. This narrative of betrayal, offered by many long-time Haiti experts, including Amy Wilentz, Jane Regan, Raul Peck, and many others, was one of the most powerful arguments in trying to mobilize supporters of Haiti to support the destruction of the movement that represented the country’s best hope.

But had things changed? By pointing out that any political movement will be smeared and attacked in vicious ways, DTF returns the debate to political and human terms, not anthropological particularities about Haitians and racist assumptions about Haitian culture. What happened in Haiti in 2004 is an instance of a more general phenomenon of destabilization, invasion, and occupation. Some aspects of what happened there were developed in tandem with destabilization attempts in Venezuela, notably the coup against Chavez in 2002, and have served as a model for current destabilizations, including the partly successful coup against Hamas in Palestine in 2006, and the one that is occurring in Bolivia today.

In each of these cases (Venezuela, Palestine, Bolivia), economic sabotage was used. In Palestine and Haiti, this took the form of particularly brutal blockage of aid to societies and infrastructures whose independent economies had long since been destroyed (in Haiti over centuries but rapidly by the Duvaliers and the military dictators of the 1980s and 1990s; in Palestine by Israeli missiles and bulldozers). In Venezuela and Bolivia, it took the form of “capital strikes” and actual sabotage. Political organs of imperial states, like the US-based International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and aid agencies like USAID and Canada’s CIDA, provided funding to partisan political groups in opposition to the regime (again, in Palestine, refusing to deal with the elected regime was a prerequisite for receiving any aid monies, as became the case in Haiti as well). These foreign political organs intervened in electoral processes (in Venezuela in 2004, in Palestine in 2006, in Bolivia this year in the May 4 illegal, unmonitored “referendum” on “autonomy” held in a region carefully selected by the opposition that, like the opposition in these other countries, is in direct communication with the US). The US and its proxies also invested very heavily in the media, a very important part of the political process. Finally, armed action has been constantly threatened and was pursued more than once. In Venezuela (and also in Bolivia and Ecuador) this has happened repeatedly through the US ally, Colombia, and through local military and paramilitary groups that were co-opted by the US; In Palestine, through Israel and also through some factions of Fatah.

Every political activist, in power or opposition, trying to challenge “the dominant forms of institutional and coercive power” in the “free world” has had to contend with this array of subversive and ruthless forces. In each case, the supposed depravities of the victims, their culture, and their particular character can be cited as the cause of their problems. Chavez is a dictator, Hamas refuses to give up violence and recognize Israel, Morales lacks majority support, and Aristide armed gangsters to fight his opponents. These charges usually lack any merit. Even if they were true, though (and one has to look very carefully at the evidence to determine this), cases against the victims by journalists or writers of the reactions to the destabilization model in different countries and contexts drown out the incredible consistency of the model, the interests behind it, and the effects on peoples and their aspirations. Hallward’s great strength is his ability to present the details of how the model played out in Haiti without ever losing sight of that consistency.

I will not re-tell the story of Haiti that Hallward tells so well in his book. I do wish to note that Hallward explores several very important debates about Lavalas and comes to interesting and novel conclusions.

First, DTF explores the question, raised by the peasant NGO PAPDA, the Trotskyist NGO Batay Ouvriye and others, of Aristide and Lavalas’s capitulation to neoliberalism. Aristide allowed the opening of free trade zones. He acquiesced in some privatizations (and his Lavalas successor, Rene Preval, also did so). Batay Ouvriye presents this as a betrayal. To Hallward, however, this is a misreading of how much power Lavalas and Aristide had. Political action has to be developed and understood in a context of the overall balance of forces. Ignoring that balance can have perverse effects, as DTF argues about Batay Ouvriye’s position on the coup: “It is one thing to criticize and protest against a government elected by the great majority of the people, it is another to denounce it as an evil to be destroyed at all costs. Although it is easier to make certain criticisms when you have none of the responsibilities of power, leftwing labor groups are clearly entitled to pressure any government to adopt more progressive policies… But BO not only attacked Lavalas, they attacked it in ways that played straight into the hands of their own worst enemies, and they did so with a bitterness that can only be understood in terms of a distorted sense of betrayal and resentment.” (pg. 188)

This theme, of the constraints and opportunities for political action, emerges repeatedly in DTF, and in Hallward’s view, Aristide and Lavalas emerge as very shrewd strategists, winning successes against overwhelming odds. This leads to Hallward’s view of Aristide’s decision to return to Haiti in 1994 with the support of the US military. Aristide justified this as the only way to stop the ongoing torture and massacre under the military dictatorship that had overthrown him in 1991. Some of his left-wing detractors argued that he returned in order to subvert and co-opt an armed struggle against the dictatorship that could have succeeded. A similar argument was made about Aristide’s refusal to use arms to destroy the insurgent movement that ended up overthrowing him in 2003-4 (since despite the claims about his arming gangsters, Aristide in fact counted on political mobilization to stop the coup attempts and, arguably, underestimated the military threat). DTF suggests that armed struggle was never a feasible option for Haiti, and that Aristide probably made the best choice under the impossible circumstances he faced. He quotes Aristide: “Who wants to be proved right by the blood of the people? You’re kidding yourself if you think that the people can wage an armed struggle. We need to look the situation in the eye: the people have no weapons, and they will never have as many weapons as their enemies. It’s pointless to wage a struggle on your enemies’ terrain, or play by their rules. You will lose.” (pg. 47)

Finally, DTF presents a very interesting, and cautiously optimistic, perspective on Haiti’s future. The 2004 coup did not show that the empire is invincible. Instead, the lengths to which the empire had to go to oust the regime, the length of time that it took to do so, and the fact that it had to return the country to some semblance of democratic governance just two years later in 2006 (when Preval was elected again), suggests that Haiti’s people cannot be counted out. Nor can Lavalas. To quote DTF’s conclusion at length:

“… this era, in spite of the astonishing levels of repression it aroused, has indeed opened the door to a new political future. There is little to be gained from judging this opening by the standards of either armed liberation movements on the one hand or entrenched parliamentary democracies on the other. Over the last twenty years, Lavalas has developed as an experiment at the limits of contemporary political possibility. Its history sheds light on some of the ways that political mobilization can proceed under the pressure of exceptionally powerful constraints…

“…Members of Lavalas organizations populaires have for many years worked alongside representatives of the more militant PPN [National Popular Party]; in spite of many obstacles, a stronger version of such a collaboration may well manage to mount and win an anti-imperialist campaign for the presidency in 2010. Damaged by its wars of aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq, the capacity of the US to deter such collaboration is perhaps weaker today than at any time over the preceding century. Just as importantly, the capacity of the US or its allies France and Canada to pose as friends of the Haitian people is for the forseeable future damaged beyond repair…

“Over the last couple of years the Lavalas organization has also begun to confront some of its own internal limitations, by becoming less dependent on Aristide’s personal charisma and influence, and by purging itself of many of the opportunists who manipulated this influence in the late 1990s… younger grassroots leaders are more prominent now than when their organization was in office. They have learned from Aristide’s example as well as from his mistakes. The combination of disciplined resilience and strategic flexibility that won the election of 2006 suggests that parts of this organization may have emerged from the crucible of repression stronger than before.” (pp. 315-316)

Just over 200 years ago Haitians gave the world an unprecedented gift: they showed it was possible to overthrow slavery and colonialism, by doing it. DTF’s gift, much more humble, is to point out something perhaps as important: that Haitians are still nobody’s hard-luck case, but a place to look to to learn about what can and should be done to make the world a more decent place.


Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer. He can be reached at justin@killingtrain.com.


Posted Nov. 4, 2023