Executive Editor Elaine Maisner’s interview with Jean Casimir, author of The Haitians: A Decolonial History

The following is a Q&A between UNC Press Executive Editor Elaine Maisner and Jean Casimir, author of The Haitians: A Decolonial History. The Haitians: A Decolonial History, which opens with an eloquent foreword by Walter Mignolo, was translated by Laurent Dubois. The original book, Une lecture décoloniale de l’histoire des Haïtiens de 1697 à 1915, was published in 2017 by Imprimerie Lakay in Port au Prince, Haiti. In this sweeping history, leading Haitian intellectual Jean Casimir argues that the story of Haiti should not begin with the usual image of Saint-Domingue as the richest colony of the eighteenth century. 

The Haitians is in our series Latin America in Translation. The Haitians was also featured on our Understanding Haiti’s Past and Haitian Heritage Month reading lists.

When I acquired Jean Casimir’s book for publication—for publication in English for the very first time—I learned about Professor Casimir’s concept of lakou. In Haiti, lakou, small plots of land often inhabited by generations of the same family, were and continue to be sites of resistance even in the face of structural disadvantages originating in colonial times, some of which continue to be maintained by the Haitian government with support from outside powers. Having now read the book, titled The Haitians: A Decolonial History in UNC Press’s English-language edition, I understand not only the centrality of lakou for Haiti’s moun andeyo—the largely African-descended rural peasantry—but, in turn, the centrality of lakou for understanding Haiti’s modern history and contemporary realities. 

I also have come to understand that, just as lakou are central to Haiti’s history, so Haiti is central to global history. As Gerald Horne puts it, after 1776, “the unpatriotic settlers who had broken from the British Empire were busily developing ties with the French Caribbean, heightening the profitability—and the exploitation—of those enslaved in what became Haiti. It was a process that would backfire spectacularly with the transformative revolution sparked in 1791; indeed, this was the revolution that led to abolition.” (As Horne wrote in his review in The Nation of UNC Press’s new third edition of Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery https://www.thenation.com/article/society/eric-williams-capitalism-slavery/.)

I hope you’ll enjoy listening to Professor Casimir’s own recent remarks on Haiti’s past and present, in the following Q&A. Thank you, Jean, for taking the time to do this with me.

Elaine Maisner

Elaine:  My first question is: Where did you grow up and how did you become a scholar of Haiti?

Jean: I grew up in Haiti during World War II. My years as a teenager corresponded to the outbreak of the fever of economic and social development that was prevalent in the post-World War II era. Destined to be a cleric, then a physician, I chose to be a social sciences schoolteacher. Later, I became a trained scholar.

  Elaine: What are your connections with Haiti today, and how are you getting information from your contacts in Haiti at present?

Jean: At the dawn of the Duvalier dictatorship, I left my country to initiate my academic studies. I returned to Haiti after thirty years and then witnessed twenty-five more years of efforts to set up a minimum of democratic governance. I live in Haiti, where I spend most of my time.

Elaine: What are the current conditions regarding people’s health, safety, and economics in Haiti right now?

Jean: The current conditions regarding people’s health, safety and economics differ from what obtained during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, due to the acceleration of failing conditions since 1915, with the occupation of the Haiti by the United States. Health, safety, and economic conditions have been the responsibility solely of the general population, without any outstanding participation by governing institutions. Efforts to develop the domestic market and to achieve food sovereignty have been curtailed by unfair competition originating in the international market and by stances taken by the political authorities. 

Health was and is mainly entrusted to community-based professionals: urban private practitioners, midwives, and barefoot doctors. Private hospitals, as well as private educational institutions, are mushrooming in urban centers. Rural institutions have tended to be self-sufficient in these matters. As far as security is concerned, government was and remains the main source of insecurity since the times of enslavement. And since 1915, with the hold that the United States has on Haiti, the uncertainties of daily life have only increased. 

Elaine: What do you think are Haitians’ greatest needs and responsibilities in the coming year?

Jean: Readers cannot understand the Haitian situation if they do not realize that since 1492 the Taïnos, the inhabitants of Saint-Domingue and of Haiti have never been governed in a language and by laws they understand, appreciate, let alone discuss and challenge. So, the greatest need and responsibility of Haitians in the coming year is to enhance their presence in all public spheres and to progress toward self-expression and local governance. On a basic level, too, the vast majority of the Haitian population does not speak French on a wide scale, and so it is urgent to assess in the coming years what percentage of Haitians are able to converse and negotiate their well being in the language—French—by which they are ruled.

Elaine: What do you think non-Haitians can do to best support Haitians in respect to their greatest needs and responsibilities in the coming year?

JeanThe Haitians was originally written for Haitians themselves, and to have it now widely available in UNC Press’s English-language edition gives me to hope that the book will lead non-Haitians to see Haiti and its people with new respect. I hope that the book will help to put an end to the eternally patronizing attitude of the powers that be. I hope that the book will help to expose the lies that those in power—both locally and internationally—employ to disguise their mischiefs.

Elaine: Tell us how your book may have predicted Haiti’s current realities, and how it may provide guidance for Haiti’s future course.

JeanThe Haitians: A Decolonial History shows how our nation crafted its sovereignty despite the policies of the colonized, modern, and now supposedly independent national state. With our diminutive size and our enormous fragility, we have been fighting an unfair war against the modern state. 

Originally, the nation coalesced while opposing the enforcement of policies formulated by an emerging western bourgeoisie against its own proletariat. Having had the opportunity and means to sever its links with these outside modern states as they were moving toward global imperialism, the Haitians did not have the need to negotiate their well-being with the external powers of the era—and they do not seem to have subsequently learned how to do that, either. Rather, they created their own confederation of stateless communal authorities that took care of the well-being of their village system—at the very time when human and material resources of the Caribbean colonies were being squandered by modern empires. 

Subsequently, during the nineteenth century, succeeding Haitian governments were handcuffed by a lack of international support, in part due to the nation’s insularity. Simultaneously, Haitian authorities were, strikingly, ignored by the rural populations; this was possible because, even while the population multiplied fivefold, a near totality of Haitians lived as moun an deyò, in their vernacular languageThis is an expression I translate as “inhabitants” or “settlers.” The settlers resisted and nullified the policies crafted by a citizenry restricted to large landowners and French-speaking, middle-class city dwellers. The settlers perceived themselves as alien, living outside the values and principles of a state-administration mimicking the imperialist community. 

During this period, rural Haitians singlehandedly achieved food sovereignty, and structured their village society to safeguard their private lives. This is the key point. Their communities, engineered to care for participating members, ensured their joie de vivre even in the face of the real precarity of their existence. 

Over time, traditional Haitian oligarchies were renewed but now they were infiltrated slowly by the settlers, notwithstanding recurring conflicts between the groups. Indeed, the miniscule oligarchic class was on the verge of being completely absorbed by the settlers, when, for its own reasons and purposes, the United States occupied Haiti and transformed its power structure into a political-client body. Formal democracy around a centralized bureaucratic nucleus became more and more unpracticable, given the original divide between government and nation. The outward orientation of the traditional oligarchs led them to welcome the U.S. occupation, which initiated a gradual destruction of the village economy. 

The state administration moved toward implementing a totally outwardly oriented political system, and an imported oligarchy was superimposed on the traditional one. The occupying newcomers, who became known as the MRE—Most Repugnant Elite—came under the guidance of all-powerful U.S. military and civilian advisers. The MRE shared the racial prejudices prevalent in the Euro-American world and had no true relationship to the historical processes through which the Haitian nation and society had emerged. 

Meanwhile, the village society—what I call our counter-plantation system—aimed to achieve a non-negotiable equality among its participants and could not compromise with the new political and economic structure that was designed to produce and reproduce inequalities. The landing of the Marine Corps in Haiti initiated the decline of the moun an deyòand their way of living, while the urban political class, along with religious, educational, judicial, and media institutions, became enthusiastic intermediaries between the foreign occupying sponsors and the settlers.

By extrapolating the ideas developed in The Haitians, A Decolonial History, I would first emphasize how the efforts made by a nation of moun an deyò settlers to freely express their political will were stifled from the first years of U.S. occupation. Further attempts at self-expression were defeated by increasingly efficient policies implemented by the United States, assisted faithfully, after World War II, by France, Canada, and the so-called friends of Haiti, including Caricom and OAS.  

To conclude, I would point out that Haitians will never be powerful enough to achieve on their own the kinds of local structural changes that would fundamentally support their sense of equality and the way of life that is more beneficial for them. But if they keep to their course, I am convinced that they will overcome what seems to be a hopeless repetition of the conditions that repress them. If they adamantly maintain their orientation until they occupy the national public sphere, then they may wish to knock at the doors of the oppressed groups that are burgeoning in the rich countries and participate in the struggles of those groups to express their political will and sovereignty. This alliance may devise strategies that can lead out of the common condition of worldwide exploitation. Haiti will salvage its sovereignty, or it will perish, not alone but together with the Global South.

Jean Casimir, who served as Haitian ambassador to the United States and as a United Nations official, is Professor of Humanities at the University of Haiti.

Elaine Maisner is Executive Editor at UNC Press.