Since World War II, economic and political conditions in the Republic of Haiti have unfortunately been slow to progress, perverted by disturbing inequities originating in the country’s early history. Since the emergence of Haiti as an independent republic in 1804, the country has been presided over by tiny economic and political elites committed to ruling the society to their own benefits and with little concern for the toiling, impoverished masses. While the majority of Haitians are the descendants of African slaves who speak a language and perform cultural practices that strongly reflect their African origins, the small elite segments of the population—many among them the lighter-skinned, mixed-raced descendants of colonialist French slaveholders—envision themselves as the enlightened devotees of supposedly superior Francophile traditions. This situation is maintained in part by the effective denial of even basic education to the illiterate masses, while elite children are sent to richly endowed private schools.
Despite the numerous economic and political changes that have occurred in an ever-tumultuous Haiti since World War II, the small band of political and economic elites has maintained a remarkably tenacious hold on their positions of power and privilege, enduring despite the ravaging of the country by cruel dictators, natural disasters, environmental destruction, international blockades, and persistent, widespread poverty. Indeed, since World War II, members of Haiti’s political and economic elites have generally remained faithful to the old traditions of behaving as “classes for themselves,” using graft, corruption, and whatever violent or other means were necessary to maintain their positions, while refraining from implementing policies for the public goods and regarding the impoverished masses as feared elements to be kept in their marginal.
Perhaps the most heinously significant feature of Haitian politics in the post-World War II era was the ascent of the tyrannical Duvalier family dynasty when François “Papa Doc” Duvalier assumed the presidency in 1957 and launched what was arguably the most despicable regime in the country’s troubled history.
- The Duvaliers employed brutal state-sponsored terrorism to promote a climate of intense fear and repression throughout the Haitian Republic.
- The Duvaliers ruled the nation over three decades during which the opposition remained rather weak and the United States lent important support to the regime, despite the occasional international embarrassments that resulted. As Papa Doc lay on his deathbed in 1971, he proclaimed his son Jean-Claude the next president of Haiti.
- Although the Duvaliers claimed to rule on behalf of the country’s downtrodden darker-skinned masses, they did little to alleviate the misery of the Haitian majority and regularly brutalized Blacks in order to maintain their decades-old stranglehold on power.
- The regime of the darker-skinned Duvaliers belied the significance of skin color as a major issue in contemporary Haitian politics while underlining the importance of class as the more important factor.
The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook notes that throughout the post-World War II era—and indeed since before Haiti became an independent republic in 1804—this country has endured recurring cycles of political instability, often marked by extreme violence against the Haitian people. Yet the departure of Aristide in February 2004 marked an especially sad moment in the recent history of the Republic of Haiti. After all, even many of those who opposed his ouster could no longer defend this once locally and internationally esteemed “leader of the people” as a stellar advocate of democracy. At the same time, most observers have little hope that those who ousted Aristide will champion the causes of the nation’s bedraggled masses: many of those who led the rebellion against Aristide have notoriously tarnished records and opposed the president specifically because they feared that he would advance the cause of the poor majority at the expense of the elites. Aristide’s ouster is therefore especially disheartening precisely because his initial ascent was an occasion of almost unparalleled hope amidst the hopeless realities of post-World War II Haiti.