Haiti: From Alienated Hope to a Durable Future

Haitians have been struggling for decades to build what they call yon lot Ayiti — “another Haiti.” The popular movement of the 1980s, which helped end the Duvalier family dictatorship and launch the democratization of Haitian society, was based on the radical hope that the future was open and full of promise. Hope was thus a central political category, often intimately connected with suffering and misery — the most common names for the stark reality of daily life.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, no one captured this utopian spirit better than Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former Roman Catholic Priest, a liberation theologian, and the man who would emerge as President of the country. Aristide’s political speech was not just utopian, it was millenarian. But though he promised a total revolution, Haiti lacked the material basis for such a transformation. The objective conditions for change did not yet exist.

After two decades of an endless transition, hope has faded away into pessimism and fatalism. Well before the recent earthquake that destroyed the capital city and decapitated the state, many Haitians had already begun to speak of the death of their country. For years, a common sentiment in Port-au-Prince has been Ayiti mouri, Haiti is dead. What does it mean to say that one’s country, one’s society is dead?

One explanation is rooted in the concrete experience of the destruction of the landscape. Haiti has one of the most degraded environments in the world. It is over 99% deforested, and has experienced extensive soil erosion. Many mountains are now bare, exposing the limestone rock underneath — or what Haitians call the “bones” of the mountains. The material destruction of the landscape has gone hand-in-hand with the decline of the peasantry, the collapse of the agricultural sector, and successive waves of migration to Port-au-Prince in search of non-existent jobs. Urban migration has exacerbated deforestation, as the mountains around the capital have been cleared to make way for shoddily constructed houses.

Seen in this light, invocations of the death of Haiti express a deep sense of loss. It is a form of mourning attuned to the loss of the peasantry, the loss of land, and the loss of the symbolic and material ground of the nation itself. Mourning is a way of coming to terms with this loss. Often, it is through the social act of mourning that we find a richer faith in the continuity of life. It is a way of letting go of that which has already been lost. But how does one let go of a nation? Does the “death of Haiti” mean that there is no way out of mourning?

The proclamation of the death of Haiti speaks not just to the past and the present, but also to the future. It is a pessimism born of great despair. It is a fatalism that says “nothing will change,” “nothing can be done.” This sentiment is rooted in the sense of what in French one would call le futur sans l’avenir — a future without positive content. While no one denies that time marches on, and there will be some future, to proclaim the death of Haiti is to proclaim that there will be no meaningful future. From that perspective, the sense of crisis that plagues the present would simply extend outward into an empty time, an endless now.

If the hope of the popular movement was utopian because it could not be realized in the present, then the hope of recent years is alienated because both hope and the future no longer appear as meaningful elements of historical development. The future is not ours to make, and hope is reduced to a slogan or an acronym for business as usual. The former can be seen in President René Préval’s own party, which is called Espwa (Hope), but which has done little and promised even less. The latter can be seen in the HOPE act (Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement) passed in 2006 and extended in 2008 by the US government. Designed to provide tariff-free access to US markets for garments manufactured in Haiti, the HOPE act is but the continuation of the long-standing commitment to developing Haiti as a site for cheap labor and offshore manufacturing. Minimal government and neoliberal economic policies are both deemed to be the only possible historical trajectory. Hope is alienated, and the social process becomes externalized, governed by a hostile alien power.

Today, we have the chance to forge a new path. The terrible destruction wrought by the recent earthquake has highlighted the desperate need for a concerted and ambitious plan to rebuild both the Haitian state and Haitian society. This means that the question of the future has once again been opened up. What vision can we now have for the future? What would a transformed Haiti look like, in the coming years and decades? Can we reclaim hope as a political category and envision another Haiti?

I believe that hope for a radically transformed Haiti is no longer a utopian hope. We now possess the objective means necessary to change the country. The question before us is do we — the global community — have the political will and the imagination to engage in a bold, ambitious, and comprehensive plan to help build a durable, democratic Haiti? To do so would mean to claim a richer conception of progress, freedom, and autonomy. To, once again–in the great spirit of the Haitian Revolution–blast open the horizon of the future.

Greg Beckett is Collegiate Assistant Professor and Harper Fellow in the Social Sciences Division at the University of Chicago. He studies environmental, urban, and political crises in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

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