Fact and fury

By Gavin O’Toole

An Unbroken Agony: Haiti, from Revolution to
the Kidnapping of a President
, by Randall Robinson
Basic Civitas, ISBN 9780465070503, 280 pp

As a blow-by-blow account of the US-backed “coup” that ousted Haiti’s democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in 2004, An Unbroken Agony is a disturbing reminder of the almost invincible forces ranged against left-wing governments in the Caribbean and Latin America. It also makes an effort to provide incontrovertible evidence debunking the myth that Haiti’s populist leader went willingly in order to avoid bloodshed in his beloved homeland.

But as a history of Haiti — or, indeed, of the modern white imperialism in the black Caribbean that the author is so insistent lies at the heart both of Aristide’s removal and, more broadly, of Haiti’s every problem — Randall Robinson’s polemic, like the country itself, is a series of lost opportunities.

A heavyweight among African-American commentators, the author brings all his anger and passion to the task of delineating Washington’s role in Aristide’s removal, allegations that remain hotly contested by the US. At the time, Aristide himself — now languishing in esteemed exile in South Africa — told US television and news agencies that he had been the victim of a coup and had been forced to leave his country, signing documents relinquishing power because of warnings that widespread bloodshed would erupt if he did not comply with the demands of US agents on the ground. Randall relies heavily on interviews with Aristide’s former helicopter pilot, Frantz Gabriel, to assert that the president was removed against his will.

Secretary of State Colin Powell described the claims as “absolutely baseless, absurd,” but the circumstances were such as to provoke outrage among the former Haitian president’s congressional supporters in the US, including the outspoken Democratic party activist Jesse Jackson, who demanded an inquiry into the role of the CIA in the rebellion.

Aristide left Haiti on an American plane a day before rebel insurgents arrived in Port-au-Prince. US marines and French soldiers had also arrived in the capital as part of an international force authorised by the United Nations. The main substance of Randall’s account is that the rebels who had provoked his departure were kitted out with US equipment, had been armed and trained in the neighbouring Dominican Republic, had little or no political support under their principal leader, Guy Philippe, and that the US had shown no inclination whatsoever to protect democracy against these murderous paramilitiaries.

The US, France, and Canada — Haiti’s main overseas sponsors — had indeed grown exasperated at the Haitian president’s social and economic policies, informed by the positions of liberation theology and more traditional socialist ideas. They had begun an embargo of aid to the government, sending funds instead to NGOs, and blocking the government’s loan requests to international financial institutions for education and healthcare projects.

The author remained in personal contact with the Haitian leader throughout this period, and weaves a contemporary account buoyed by personal recollections and primary material of unparalleled historical value. Yet his desire to situate the Aristide era within a much more sweeping account of Haitian history — and to make bizarre personal comparisons with Toussaint L’Ouverture — weaken the narrative considerably, taking the reader back and forward in time with dizzying speed.

Robinson’s tendency to attribute a lack of global or even Latin American solidarity with Aristide — and all of Haiti’s problems — to racism, as opposed to realpolitik, is also overblown. Had he constructed a more convincing argument based on established foreign policy positions and empirical data — to the effect that the US and France, in particular, had long held black Haiti in contempt — this would have provided the essential backdrop for such finger-pointing. But given that he largely fails to do so, this book often does little more than articulate the table-thumping rhetoric of a man so used to political crusades that he seems to have forgotten that fact is far more subversive than fury.

Despite such flaws — born, it must be said, of righteous indignation — Robinson remains a voice in the wilderness whose great contribution has been to ask key interlocutors in the developed world why they have so singularly failed to investigate the veracity of Aristide’s claims and question big-power motives in Haiti.


The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2008

Gavin O’Toole is the editor of The Latin American Review of Books, where this review first appeared.