"The Haitian state: something alien".

Author:Saye, Lisa Macha


For more than 200 years Haiti has operated devoid of solid institutions and political stability. Haiti is currently undergoing its second United Nations (UN) peace-keeping mission following the second successful deposition of a democratically elected president. The World Bank states that Haiti is "limited in capacity to establish law and order or to create conditions for economic growth and poverty reduction." (1) In 2006, Transparency International ranked Haiti as the most corrupt nation in the world out of the 163 countries in its annual corruption survey. (2) And speaking in anonymity, an Intelligence Official stationed in Haiti passionately described Haiti as "the worst country he had ever seen on all levels and where corruption is so entrenched that it is accepted as part of the everyday culture." (3)

In 1979, David Nicholls referred to Haiti's state government as "something alien." (4) Nicholls' thirty-year old comment may have indeed inadvertently set the seeds for a discussion that the discipline finally needs to have. This article uses existing research on Haiti spanning the past 160 years, as well as current interviews with Haitian politicians and citizens, to examine and investigate certain characteristics that when present contribute in making Haiti "something alien."


In 1492, after the ship the Santa Maria ran aground, Christopher Columbus left part of his crew ashore, thereby establishing Hispaniola, the first Spanish settlement in the New World. In 1697, following the War of the Grand Alliance in Europe, the French acquired the western half of Hispaniola from Spain in the Treaty of Ryswick and renamed their portion of the island Saint Dominque. By 1789, Haiti produced more wealth than the thirteen North American colonies combined, two-fifths of the world's sugar and fifty percent of the world's coffee. (5) By 1801, thanks to the efforts of Toussaint L'Ouverture (Toussaint), Haiti became the first free black republic in the New World, the first and only country where a slave revolt was successful and the first non-European post-colonial state of the modern era. (6) By 1804, Haiti was independent, it was operating without state institutions, and it was being governed by a confederation of mulatto elites and black Haitian military generals called the "ancient regime." (7) Haiti's early combination of the military and the elite resulted in the early and ongoing dominance of the new nation's government, and the introduction of increased divisiveness based on color differences between the elite mulattos (light-skinned blacks) and the noirs (dark-skinned blacks). (8) No other nation in the world had ever been created by slaves and no other country in modern times has confronted freedom under the same circumstances. (9)


John Drysdale called post-independent Africa "the unimaginative application of alien systems of government." (10) The same can be said of the Haitian system of government. David Nicholls described the Haitian state as "something alien" and stated further that "at no time in the history of the country has there been a significant degree of long-term popular participation in the political process." (11)

While Nicholls finds it hard to find the terminology necessary to describe the Haitian system of government, other scholars have attempted to try. For example, Mats Lundahl and Ruben Silie write that in Haiti state kleptocracy was established as the main methodology of government as early as 1804, and similar findings call Haiti's government predatory as well. (12) Nicholls did suggest that a better definition of the Haitian state should include its heavy reliance on the military. (13) Carlene Edie points this out and writes that in Haiti "traditionally the state has served as the instrument of the elite and the military to suppress and extort from the ordinary people" and adds that "Haiti's elite has historically viewed the majority poor as objects to be exploited, not as subjects in a shared political system." (14) Haiti has had a long history of constantly changing patterns of lawless non-functioning governments. Robert Fatton Jr. explains this by stating that Haiti's history is despotic. The early 1800's struggles for independence have contributed to Haiti's authoritarian and military-dominated structure as well as to the practice by Haitian presidents of bringing to office with them their own constitutions as a means of legitimizing their power. (15)

Because of a history of instability, George Fauriol writes that Haiti as a state is hard to categorize because its political ideology and economies are not coherent. (16) Brian Weinstein and Aaron Segal define Haiti as a pariah state with weak political and bureaucratic institutions and add that Haiti's strong national and cultural identity defies the models of how political development should occur in the Third World. (17) The Haitian state has also been described as a parasitic force siphoning economic resources from the peasants through extreme taxes and intimidation and enforcing its will through controls, threats, and the use of force. (18) And in 2005, Patricia Taft and Jason Ladnier reported that Haiti is "one of the most persistent examples of unresolved political violence in the Americas." It is often viewed as "an anomaly in the Americas" due to the fact that Haiti's state collapse, "continued alarming poverty and developmental crises are not acutely duplicated anywhere in the region." (19)

These descriptions and summaries demonstrate the range of literature available concerning the system of government on Haiti. These attempts also suggest that what is necessary to define the system of government in Haiti is more examination and investigation of specific characteristics and nuances that are germane to Haiti's system of government. The following sections of this article will examine specific characteristics that have historically contributed to Haiti's system of government and may help to explain why Haiti's government seems to be "something alien".


Perhaps one of the first dysfunctions concerning the newly liberated Haitians and the administration of the newly independent Haitian government was the institutionalization of skin color as a determination of status. During pre-independence, both France and Spain enacted laws that made distinctions between slaves born in Haiti and slaves not born in Haiti, and between slaves that were Christian or non-Christian. The early documentation of these racial differences codified racial separation and transferred to the newly independent Haiti during the 1800s. John Reader found proof of this racial codification and wrote that shortly after Christopher Columbus discovered the island in 1492, Spain codified the distinction between Catholic and Christian slaves by giving preference to slaves born Catholic, and issued ordinances outlawing "the direct importation of African slaves to Hispaniola [Haiti]." (20) Elizabeth Donnan also presented evidence of Spain's efforts in this regard and found that Spain lifted bans on shipping African slaves to Haiti if slaves were made Christians before reaching Haiti. (21) France not only shared the island of Hispaniola with Spain, but also equaled its efforts to impose racial separation of its enslaved inhabitants by issuing the Black Code (Code Noir), which was established by French King Louis XIV in 1685. The Black Code stated that births and marriages in Haiti between slaves had to follow certain compliances (French colonists were told to teach and baptize their slaves in the Catholic faith) and outlawed any religion other than Catholicism. Bellegarde noted that by 1681 Catholicism was consolidated in Haiti. (22) Administratively, the French Black Code used the distinction "Negres Creoles" or black Creoles to distinguish a Catholic slave born in Haiti and "Negres Bossales" or untamed or wild blacks to describe the new African arrivals that had not received a Catholic baptism. (23) The Negres Creoles and Negres Bossales composed one-half of the skin color differentiation in Haiti, and following independence they would become the noirs or the blacks. The other half of the skin color differentiation was the mulatto, defined as the offspring of white slave masters and African slaves, or the 200 families who traced their ancestry to colonial times. Immediately following independence, the superiority of the white slave master was transferred to these mulattos as well as the skin color tensions between the mulattos and the blacks, who by all accounts were technically the same race. (24)

Early leaders of Haiti did not depart from the pre-independence dominance of Catholicism. Toussaint L'Ouverture's 1801 Constitution made Catholicism Haiti's official religion and demonstrated the country's acceptance of colonial racial separation. The 1801 Constitution represented an early codification of Haiti's color distinctions and by 1806 contributed to the country's split into the mulatto south and the black north. (25) When speaking of the color issue in Haiti, Alcius Charmant stated that "color prejudice and conflict between blacks and mulattos were the greatest national problem" in Haiti. (26)

Although Catholicism was introduced early in Haiti's history, Haiti's first constitutions labeled all Haitians black, in what may have been an attempt to satisfy the issue of blackness with the masses. Despite Rome's rejection of Haiti as a member of the Catholic Church until 1860, Toussaint L'Ouverture (1801 Constitution; Article 6), Henri Petion (1806 Constitution; Article 35) and Henri Christophe (1807 Constitution; Article 30) declared Catholicism as Haiti's state and official religion. (27)

Catholicism represented only one part of the skin-color tensions introduced during Haiti's early beginnings. With the majority of...

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