“Haiti Then and Now” Interviews Professor Greg Beckett

“Haitian & Haitianist Thinkers in the Public Space: An Interview Series”

“Haiti Then and Now” Interviews Professor Greg Allan Beckett

Conducted by Dr. Celucien L. Joseph

July 18, 2022

HTN: Please tell us about yourself, your background, education, upbringing, connection to Haiti, etc. Who is Dr. Greg Allan Beckett?

GB: First, let me say thank you for inviting me to participate in this amazing interview series!

Dr Greg Beckett

I’m from Canada originally, although I spent almost two decades living in the United States. I am back in Canada now, and I live in southwestern Ontario. I was born in the mid-1970s and came of age, intellectually and politically, in the 1990s. It was an interesting decade, because there were some really big things happening around the world, from the breakup of the former Soviet Union and the rise of militarized “humanitarian” intervention from Western countries to the first US invasion of Iraq. I think that the so-called international community, or countries in the West / Global North felt as if their version of neoliberalism was triumphant. But there were also new and expanded political movements all over the world, like the anti-globalization, indigenous rights, anti-war, and environmental movements. It was in that broader context that I first really became aware of Haiti. I was learning about the democratic struggle there, and the military coup that ousted Aristide during his first presidential term. Haiti was being held up by some as an example of the “third wave” of democratization, but it seemed that there was a big gap between the narrow vision of democracy promoted by the international community and the more substantive demands and desires coming from the democratic movement in Haiti itself. I was studying undergraduate anthropology and taking classes on the Caribbean and Latin America. I feel fortunate to have had teachers who focused on the long history of colonialism and imperialism in the region. I was reading anthropologists like Eric Wolf and Sidney Mintz, who, in different ways, tried to show how the Caribbean and Latin America were essential regions for any adequate understanding of the making of the modern world—and yet, of course, those regions are often marginalized or ignored in standard accounts of that history from the West. And then I learned about Haitian history. When I read about the Haitian Revolution, all I could think was how did I not know about this?

Of course, I have a much better understanding now of why I didn’t know about it then, and why so many people still don’t know about the Revolution now. But at the time, it was still a bit of a mystery, because it seemed so obviously important. So that was what drew me to studying Haiti—Haitian history was not just fascinating in its own right; it also felt like it was the hidden understory of the world.

HTN: You are a trained cultural anthropologist who studies crisis, trauma, and disaster in North America, Haiti, and the Caribbean.

  1. How have the lived experiences of the Caribbean people, especially in the context of the historic January 12, 2010 (a 7.0 magnitude) earthquake that struck Haiti, influenced your own ethnographic research as a scholar and sensibility as a human being?
  2. How have some of the individuals you interviewed or encountered in fieldwork been able to cope with environmental traumas and ecological crises? In other words, how have they been able to find courage and hope in the midst of disaster and catastrophe, as well as to anticipate future possibilities or construct new meaningful lives?

GB: I came to Haiti first through reading about the country’s history, which is to say that I learned about the past as I was thinking about the present. I first went to Haiti in 2002 and began to go yearly after that for a time, as I conducted graduate and then post-graduate research. I should say that I didn’t set out to study crisis. It emerged as a focus in my research because of what was happening in Martissant, the neighborhood of Port-au-Prince where I have conducted most of my research. My first research project was centered around various attempts to make a botanic garden at the property known as Habitation Leclerc. The botanic garden project had come out of the broader political struggles of the democratic era. Its supporters had come of age under the dictatorship and had taken part in the popular movements against it. The idea for the garden was partly about conservation (and thus a response to the environmental crisis) and partly about a project of national redemption or restoration. What I mean is that those involved in the project saw it as both a site and symbol for a much larger effort to build “another Haiti,” but their vision of the future was firmly anchored in their idea of the past—notably, in their idea of the importance of the lakou (the extended family homestead) and jaden (family plots or gardens) as both types of rural spaces and modes of social relationships. However, Habitation Leclerc was taken over by squatters and an armed gang and there was a tense and sometimes violent standoff between neighborhood groups that backed the garden project and the gangs. Things changed after the arrival of the UN peacekeeping mission in 2004, and the area was eventually turned into a national park. But along the way, a lot of other things happened, and as I followed the struggles of people in Martissant to build the kind of future they wanted to inhabit, I came to study more and more their own sense that those futures were becoming foreclosed, that those futures they once dream of and hoped for no longer felt possible.

Those quite particular struggles in Martissant seemed to mirror things that were happening elsewhere in the city and the country, and the political crisis of the 2004 coup and its aftermath seemed to coincide with both an explosion of political violence and a series of devastating disasters, including several tropical storms and hurricanes in 2004 and 2008. And then came the earthquake.

I don’t think many people outside of Haiti fully appreciate the scale of the disaster wrought by the quake. The earthquake was so big that it seemed as though it touched everyone, although it certainly did not touch everyone equally or in the same way. But because of the scale of the event, it brought a renewed sense of hope in its wake, a sense that finally, things will change. But they didn’t, or not in the ways that people hoped they would. And yet, people have to go on, they have to keep chache lavi, looking for life. There is a lot of talk among humanitarian and aid workers of the resilience of the Haitian people. They are resilient, without a doubt. But the idea of resilience is an imperfect one. It has its origins in engineering, where it means structures that are able to withstand damage. When it is applied to individuals, as in the sense in which it is commonly used in North American now to mean “grit,” it means that people can overcome adversity. What the word misses, though, is the larger political and social context. It is a concept without a theory of power.

Source: Haiti Libre

People keep going in Haiti. They hold strong. They bend but they do not break. And they do that because they have no other choice. They do it by drawing on networks of support—on social relationships and cultural practices that have, historically, helped Haitians survive collectively through difficult times. It reminds me of Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s critique of the discourse of Haitian exceptionalism. The idea that Haitians are uniquely resilient and that they can overcome extreme suffering is too often used as a way of covering over the powerful structures and systems that are actively killing and harming them. Trouillot contrasts the idea of Haiti’s exceptionality with an account of the Haitian ordinary. Like people everywhere, Haitians eat and drink and laugh and dance and do all the things that ordinary people do all over the world, in their own unique ways. And they also, as Trouillot puts it, suffering from “quite ordinary” kinds of suffering—diseases, disasters, and deaths that are so “ordinary” they are treatable or preventable. This sense that disasters and crisis do not have to happen in Haiti is, I think, what animates a kind of political feeling that gives people hope—it is not necessarily a triumphant hope that things will be better, but rather a sense of hope in the possibility that things could be different. This sense of the possibility of possibilities is a powerful one, although as I tried to show in my book, it has to contend with another powerful feeling that is rooted in a sense that some things have become politically impossible.

HTN: As a doctoral student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago, you studied with the brilliant Haitian anthropologist and intellectual Professor Michel-Rolph Trouillot.

  1. Can you share your experience with the reader of Haiti Then and Now in working with Professor Trouillot? As you respond to this question, would you please discuss what you have learned from him and how he has shaped you as a scholar and anthropologist?
  2. You collaborated with Yarimar Bonilla and Mayanthi L. Fernando (former students of Trouillot as well?) to gather in a book all the major essays written by Trouillot. Trouillot Remixed: The Michel-Rolph Trouillot Reader is the result of your collaborative efforts, and Duke University Press published this excellent volume in 2021. How did your team go about to select the essays that are collected in the Reader? What is the objective of The Michel-Rolph Trouillot Reader?

GB: I applied to the graduate program in anthropology at the University of Chicago specifically to work with Trouillot. I had already come to his work while I was doing research for an MA thesis on the relationship between political movements and historical narratives in 19th and 20th century Haiti. I first read State Against Nation (still one of the best books on Haitian history and politics) and that led me to Silencing the Past, which is a masterpiece. So, in one sense, it was an amazing experience to be able to work with Trouillot at Chicago. When I entered the program, he was teaching the famous “Systems I” course, which is the first course that everyone takes in the program. It was fantastic. The course really helped me understand his work better and it provided the intellectual foundations for a lot of my own thinking. But of course, it was a difficult experience too, as Rolph became ill early in my time at Chicago. It was also a bit of a strange experience because I felt quite acutely that I would not have been accepted into the program had it not been for Trouillot, and after his illness many members of the faculty saw me as his student. In practical terms, that meant that many faculty members were not so interested in advising and mentoring Trouillot’s students. Luckily, Rolph had very quickly begun to build an intellectual network of people interested in the Caribbean at Chicago. This included his students in anthropology, as well as students and faculty in other departments. There were several workshops and other kinds of things. I was lucky to be able to draw on that network and especially to have the support of Yarimar Bonilla, who was also Rolph’s student and, who, like me, had come to Chicago specifically to work with him.

I suppose you might say that is where the idea of a book of Rolph’s work was first developed. Yarimar and I were very much immersed in his intellectual approach. Mayanthi Fernando, who was also working with Rolph but not working in the Caribbean, was similarly drawn to his methodological and theoretical framework. So, we continued to think alongside and with his ideas, among ourselves and at times still in conversation with him, when we were able to visit his home and chat with him. There are so many things that I have learned from Rolph and from his work, far too many to recount, but one of the most enduring is his insistence that we take Haiti, and the Caribbean, seriously. But to do that, we need to move beyond the silences and erasures that have marginalized the region, and we need to think more critically about the long historical relationship between “the West” and the Caribbean. That, in turn, means questioning—or as we put it in our introduction to Trouillot Remixed, “unsettling”—some of the most enduring concepts and categories that have anchored the West’s self-conception. Those concepts and categories have become central to whole fields of inquiry (e.g., the concept of the “savage slot” and anthropology).

In making the Reader, we wanted to do something more than just catalog Trouillot’s work. We wanted to provoke people to continue to think with Trouillot, to be inspired by his work, which has remarkable breadth and depth. And we wanted to show how his work speaks to many different disciplines and to many different lines of questioning. Putting the Reader together, I was surprised, still, at just how fresh his work feels, even when it is decades old. It feels as relevant as ever. We also wanted people to come to his work as theory and method, so that they could use it to shape their own thinking and ask their own questions. And finally, we wanted to show how crucial it was for him to put the Caribbean at the center of theoretical conversations about globalization, modernity, the West, and so much more.

HTN: Excellent! You happen to be the author of one of the most moving books on the Haitian people that I have read in a long time. The stories you discussed in the book on the lived experiences of the Haitian people with crisis, disaster, trauma, and human suffering and pain have deeply affected me as an individual and given me a different perspective about the problem of human suffering, loss, and death in Haiti. The book is a discourse on the fragility of human life and the possibility for rebirth and renewal.

The hardcover edition of your excellent book, There is No More Haiti: Between Life and Death in Port-au-Prince, was published in 2019 by University of California Press, and the paperback version came out in 2020. I would like to share the description of the book with our audience:

“This is not just another book about crisis in Haiti. This book is about what it feels like to live and die with a crisis that never seems to end. It is about the experience of living amid the ruins of ecological devastation, economic collapse, political upheaval, violence, and humanitarian disaster. It is about how catastrophic events and political and economic forces shape the most intimate aspects of everyday life. In this gripping account, anthropologist Greg Beckett offers a stunning ethnographic portrait of ordinary people struggling to survive in Port-au-Prince in the twenty-first century. Drawing on over a decade of research, There Is No More Haiti builds on stories of death and rebirth to powerfully reframe the narrative of a country in crisis. It is essential reading for anyone interested in Haiti today.”

I must confess that the provocative title of your book, There is No More Haiti, reminds me of the provocative title of another book: Haïti n’existe pas, 1804-2004: 200 ans de solitude, published by Christophe Wargny, the former advisor of former President Jean-Betrand Aristide.

Are there any events, economic and political forces, popular violence, trauma, chaos, catastrophes, or foreign military interventions associating with Haitian history that led you to this conclusion that “there is no more Haiti”?

GB: I don’t think of it as my own conclusion, although I am responsible for it as the title of the book. I see it as a widely shared sentiment among some people, mostly men of a certain generation who live in poor neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince. In one sense, that feeling comes as a reaction to the 2004 coup, but in another sense, I think it is a feeling that has built up over years, as the hopes of the democratic era and the popular movement went unfulfilled.

It is interesting to think of it in connection with Wargny’s book. He notes that he deliberately chose that title to be provocative, and in his book, he documents the political forces that have worked to suppress the popular movement, which are the same forces that have systematically tried to destroy Haiti since independence. Wargny wonders: did Haiti ever exist? I read that as a kind of critical commentary about how those outside forces have sought to destroy the country. It is, however, different from the repeated expression that “there is no more Haiti.” When people say the latter, it can also be referring to those oppressive forces, and to the political context of the coup. But it carries an added sense of something lost; it is a comment rooted in grief.

Unlike Wargny, I didn’t intend the title to be a provocation, in the sense that he did. It is a certainly an unsettling phrase, but my hope is that it is not a hurtful of offensive one. I didn’t choose the title lightly, or merely to be shocking or to sell books. It is such a common sentiment in the areas where I work, and it is just so fundamentally what the book is about. What I mean is that the book is not about why I think there is no more Haiti, but rather my attempt to take that claim seriously and to think about what it means for those who say it. What kind of political feeling is being articulated when people say, “there is no more Haiti”? What do they mean? The phrase seems so common in some parts of Port-au-Prince that there are also other common phrases that respond to it, phrases like “a country never dies” or Ayiti pap peri (Haiti must not perish). The feelings behind those phrases are perhaps easier to understand, as they reflect a political commitment to fighting against the oppressive forces that are killing people and destroying the country. In the book, I wanted to really understand what it might be like to feel as if there is no more Haiti, and not to write that feeling off as fatalism or resignation, or even as a wrong statement.

source: Frank Thorp V

As I see it, the phrase is rooted in the shared experience of a certain social and political generation—the generation of the dictatorship and the first decade or the democratic era. For many people in Martissant who come of age during those periods, their vision of Haiti was tied to the political project associated with Aristide. They imagined another Haiti that they were working to build, and that vision of the future was animated by an attachment to the past—an attachment to the peasantry, the lakou, and a whole way of life that is the material and symbolic center of a cultural and political nationalism. What happens, then, when both the ideas of the past (a vibrant peasant economy, control over one’s own labor process) and the visions of the future (as a democratic society in which everyone can sit at the table) both suddenly seem out of reach, maybe even gone? I think that is what the phrase “there is no more Haiti” really points to—a feeling of being stuck in a present that is unlivable and a feeling that the present just keeps expanding, never ending and never going anywhere. I think we can see a lot of those same sentiments in Haiti today, too, as people feel the country is being held hostage, that people’s ability to live meaningful lives are being blocked, just as the roads themselves are being blocked by armed gangs. But what I also hear in the phrase “there is no more Haiti” is a question—how do we build a future in a Haitian way, even if it might seem unrecognizable to us from our own present moment? If the future of Haiti cannot be a return to the past, what might it look like?

HTN: Thank you. There is No More Haiti is a book about how the Haitian people think about crisis and “how crisis feels” (p. 11), and how crises have transformed their existence, experience, lives, and relationships.  You also explain, “I have chosen to write this book as a series of stories because I think that intimate ethnography accomplishes two things. First, it helps us understand the lived experience of others in all its complexity and ambiguity. Second, it helps us get away from the common understanding of crisis as a discrete event, to be reported only in the news, and to focus instead on how crisis can be an everyday experience” (p. 11).

In your discussion of various stories, some of your Haitian interlocutors locate the “Haitian crisis” to the country’s political history (i.e., political corruption, bad governance, and political instability), foreign military interventions and invasions, and environmental problems. Others attribute the problem of crisis to religion, a form of theodicy.  Can you discuss the relationship your interlocutors established between religion, human suffering, and crisis in Haiti?

GB: That’s an interesting question! I don’t directly address the issue of religion in the book, although it is suffused throughout many parts of it. The precise relation between religion and ideas of suffering and crisis would vary depending on different religions, but it seemed to me that there was a common sentiment that certain kinds of suffering—perhaps hardship in daily life is a better way of phrasing it—are expected and regular occurrences, that they are just a part of a this-worldly life. And there is a strong sense throughout Haiti that one thing religion does for people is make them stronger, that faith and connection to the spiritual world helps people deal with those kinds of everyday hardships. For Vodouizan, there is the added sense that religious practices are fundamentally about healing and that the lwas and the ancestors can help people address social and spiritual problems in their lives.

Source: Le Figaro

Yet, the kinds of crises I describe in the book are largely regarded as something other than everyday hardships. They might have become routine through sheer repetition, but they are not understood to be normal or natural; they are the result of human action. Maybe a good comparison might be to think of the difference between an illness caused by god or by the lwas, versus a “sent sickness,” which is caused by a person using sorcery to harm someone else. Religious experts can help diagnose the work of sorcery and mediate the social relations involved. That underlying view entails a different understanding of agency and responsibility too. The morality of sent sickness might be a template for thinking about the morality of crisis and disorder, for they are also “made” by human action and some people directly benefit from that disorder, materially and politically, just as some directly benefit from sorcery and sent sickness. So, I think that the underlying moral values that anchored the cosmological view of the world in Haiti also provide an ethical and political language for talking about crisis.

HTN: In the Introduction of the book, you attempt to establish a rapport between crisis, despair, and future hope in Haiti. You write:

“I resist the dominant trope of tragedy in stories about Haiti. Why does this matter, the difference between a sad story and a tragic one? It matters because in tragedy the end is always preordained. The essence of tragedy is that we can never escape our fate, try as we might. The saddest part of the story told here is the realization that things could have been otherwise, should have otherwise; that what happened did not have to happen and does not have to happen again. And so, even though there is sadness and despair in what follows, there is hope—fleeting, perhaps. No sweeping transformations, no revolution. But a persistent dream, a dream that those who have died will be remembered, that those who are hungry will be fed, that those who are homeless will be cared for, that the world can be remade again. It is a dream in which the future can be imagined as good and just. A dream that the future remains open, that the end has not yet come, not just yet. That even if death has come for some of us, for some it has not. In the time that remains, we can hope. And we can live” (p. 10).

In the same Introduction, you reflect upon the bankruptcy of democratic dreams in Haiti and paradoxically anticipate future possibilities in the country:

“Looking back now, the decades-long democratic transition and the popular movements that have arisen have all been response to this constellation of crises. The dream of democracy that animated those movements was a king of radical hope, a hope for what was once called “another Haiti” (yon lot Ayiti). A hope that the violence and death of the past would give way to new life, to a world reborn, a future world in which the many crises shaking the country would be resolved. A future in which people would be able to farm, grow food, and be fed. A world in which there would be electricity, water, and houses. A world in which the people would have a voice, a world free of the threats of coups. A future in which Haiti would not be the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, in which there would be jobs, in which people could be able to live and not merely survive. A future world in which people would not die “stupid deaths” or be crushed by structural violence. Where people would not have to make a choice “between death and death” (p. 12).

“Those dreams are still dreams for some, but for many of the people whose stories I tell here, the future that once seemed possible now seems largely closed. Looking back on the past couple of decades, looking back after the disasters that have killed so many and destroyed so much, it has become harder and harder for them to imagine anything but future disaster, a disastrous full of more crises, more suffering, more death” (p. 12).

At the end of the last paragraph, you asked two stimulating questions that stuck in my head after I read the book.  Can you help us make sense of the interconnecting questions: “How does it feel when the future seems impossible? Where does hope go when disaster swallows the horizon of possibility?”  How did your Haitian interlocutors respond to this question? What have you learned from them concerning this matter?

Source: Radyov wapep

GB: I think that before 2010 there was a sense, at least among those with whom I was working, that crises and disasters were piling up on top of each other. They didn’t seem to have much faith that things would change, and they certainly didn’t think that things were going to get better. They were mostly from the generation that came of age in the 1970s and 1980s. For them, the politics of hope had been connected to the broader popular movements of that era, when it seemed as though Haitian society was about to go through a revolutionary transformation. They were living in the wake of a political revolution that did not happen and in the years after the 2004 coup, many of them were feeling disappointed and disillusioned. They felt that the promises of the democratic era had not only failed to materialize but they also no longer generated the same sense of hope for the future that they once had. If the future is going to be a truly open future, we need to see it as a horizon of possibility. What happens when crisis and insecurity cast doubt not only on any particular future, but on the possibility of possibility itself? How can you have hope if the future seems impossible?

Many of the people with whom I worked initially tried to respond to that sense of impossibility through projects focused on the past—conservation projects that were meant to restore the environment, social projects that were meant to revitalize the relations of reciprocity associated with the lakou. Or they sought to build new relations of respect and reputation in the city, as urban dwellers with social networks that extended throughout the capital. Either way, by the 2000s, those various projects—all, in one way or another, already responses to crises—were becoming less and less viable. The old solutions that made it possible to still chache lavi were breaking down too. I think the image of the blackout captures that so well—it is a symbol not only for the lack of electrical light, but also more broadly for the felt sense that one lacks power, in the sense of the capacity to do things.

In many ways, I think that the earthquake changed all of that for a lot of people. It might seem paradoxical, but it is quite a common aspect of the experience of disasters that people feel them as moments that produce a renewed sense of solidarity and mutual reciprocity. We know that the most immediate and important responses after the earthquake came from other Haitians, from people helping people, even as they were unsure of what had happened to their own families. The sheer scale of the disaster changed things too. It generated a new sense of hope that finally things would really change. Looking back now, we can see that they didn’t. And the generation that has come of age after the earthquake (more than half of the population in Haiti is under the age of twenty-four) has seen first-hand how empty the promises of reconstruction have been. Yet, that generation, the reconstruction generation, seems to be responding by building a whole new political movement. The Petro Challengers are the clearest example of this. They are not focused merely on backing a political party in order to take control of the state apparatus. They are demanded a fundamental change in the government and in the relationship between the state and society. No one can know for sure what will happen next, and there are a lot of violent and oppressive forces holding onto power or trying to take it from those who already have it. But it is worth remembering that the anti-corruption demonstrations and political protests that began in 2018 have been some of the largest political mobilizations in Haiti since the 1980s. It is astonishing. There is a pervasive sense now that the country is stuck at an impasse, that the entire country is being held hostage. But underneath that sentiment lies another one—that Haiti really is at a crossroads. Things look bleak and it is easy to imagine a future in which the days of dictatorship return. But it is also possible to see something else, something harder to articulate, something radically different coming on the horizon. You just have to know where to look.

It is all too easy to be pessimistic about the state of the world today, but to give up on the future, to say things cannot change, or to resign yourself to doing nothing—those are all luxuries and privileges that most people around the world don’t have. Those who are willing to abandon hope probably never needed hope in the first place. What I learned from Manuel and the others who appear in the book is how not to abandon hope. I learned that hope is a stance. It is not something you have or don’t have. You need to cultivate it. It takes practice, and sometimes you falter.  I was so struck by Michel’s claim that “there is no more Haiti” because I think ultimately there was a kind of radical hope contained in it. I don’t think he was really saying that there would be no future at all for Haiti (what would that even mean?). Rather, I believe he was saying that his own vision of Haiti no longer seemed a viable one. He could imagine a future time for the country, but he couldn’t necessarily picture what it would look like. Or he worried it would be a disastrous future. Or maybe he thought the future would take care of itself, but he didn’t know how or where he would fit in it. If that is what he might have meant by his comment, then there is a profoundly human lesson in it—that a truly radically hope requires us to work for the future even if we can’t imagine what it will look like. To go on even though we know we won’t live to see that future world, that even though the future is not for us, we still have a responsibility to help bring it into being. That is, I think, a political lesson for all of us.

HTN: In the next segment of our conversation, I would like us to consider the connection between environmental crisis, peasant economy, and (urban & foreign) migration. As you explain, “I had learned that the environmental crisis had led to the collapse of the peasant economy, which in turn had sent hundreds of thousands of peasants to the city or overseas in search of work” (p. 21).
Can you discuss some examples of how environmental crisis has heightened the poverty rate among Haitian peasants and deepened the problem of centralization in Port-au-Prince?

GB: This is such an important issue! The research for the book began with a project on the efforts of some community organizations to make a botanic garden in Martissant. That project seemed to bring together so many things—the urban crisis and the rapid expansion of informal settlements along the slopes of Morne l’Hôpital, the need to protect the aquifer system located in that area, the problems of deforestation and the lack of old-growth forests in the country, and the legacies of decades of economic policies that were designed to shift the country away from agricultural production and toward industrialization. In 2002, when I began research for the book, Martissant was a divided neighborhood. On the one hand, there were wealthy families with large estates as well as members of the professional middle class living there. Some families had been in the area for generations and had fond memories of it as a verdant suburb on the edge of the capital. On the other hand, there were newer residents who had moved to the area either from the countryside or, more commonly, from other areas of the capital. They were part of what some urban residents called the “bidonvillization” of the city. It was a class divide but also a social divide. The old spatial division of city people (moun lavil) and country people (moun andeyo) had collapsed, but the social cleavages between those groups remained.

What I learned from those involved in the botanic garden project and from residents in Martissant is the long history of centralization had brought hundreds of thousands of people from the countryside to Port-au-Prince. And I learned about their own experiences of coming to the city, and of how the city did not have the capacity to absorb them, in terms of housing, services, or jobs. People talked about the “problem of the city,” but they were always also talking about the countryside, the collapse of the peasant economy, and the broader economic mode that has been used by Haiti’s economic elite and by foreign powers to extract surplus value from the peasantry (through indirect taxation, license fees, or just extortion). That same extractive economy has also forced peasants to become mobile wageworkers, either in the capital or overseas. Haiti still has a large rural population, especially compared to the rest of the Caribbean (where rates of urbanization are quite high), but most peasant families rely on remittances sent back by wageworkers. So migrant labor is now necessary to holding up the peasant economy. There have been many consequences of this shift. Haitian migrant labor is generally the lowest paid in the region, and Haitian migrants face all kinds of racism and abuse wherever they go. Meanwhile, the peasant sector has also reached some internal limits, as population pressure and lack of capital investment have meant that cultivators have fewer and smaller plots and that soil erosion and deforestation have made those plots less and less productive. I heard agronomists and others say repeatedly that the main cash crop for peasants now is charcoal, which means that peasants are stuck in a vicious cycle of cutting down trees to make money, and then being left with barren fields.

Many rural migrants ended up in Port-au-Prince, where they initially found jobs in the export-sector or the tourist sector. For over fifty years the international community, development exports, and the Haitian state have all held up export-led development and tourism as the only viable economic model for Haiti. That model has not worked, and the consequences have been disastrous. The tourism sector has vanished and the factories in Port-au-Prince have only ever employed a small fraction of the number of migrants who came to the city. Most people work in the informal sector, which means that wages are scarce and livelihoods precarious. Most housing is informal too, which means there is a direct link between these broader economic policies and the infrastructural vulnerabilities that made the 2010 earthquake so devastating. After the earthquake, some people left the city and returned to their home villages. There was also talk of the need to decentralize and to shift the focus away from the capital. But the rural economy cannot absorb migrants returning, so people have had to go elsewhere. We’ve seen some of the effects of that post-quake movement recently, in the number of Haitian migrants who are being displaced from Latin American countries and are arriving at the southern border of the United States. The political crisis of the last few years is part of this story too. As the entire system gets squeezed, political and economic elites have had to look for new ways to extract surplus value. Political control has been a key mechanism for that, since it allows people to control reconstruction and development funds, but other modes of extraction, like control over critical infrastructure or over fuel, as well as drug and arms trafficking, have become leading economic enterprises. Through it all, a continued lack of investment in the peasant economy and lack of attention to the problems of deforestation and soil erosion mean that Haiti is now a net food importer and poor households are even more vulnerable to the vagaries of food prices on the global market. The cost of most basic goods today is out of reach for many families.

In some ways, as I was writing the book, I felt that it might also be a story about climate change, and I’ve begun to wonder if it makes sense to see urban migrants in Port-au-Prince and overseas migrants elsewhere as climate refugees, as people who have been displaced by climate change. The Caribbean region is one of the most humanized landscapes in the world. There is a centuries-long history of environmental destruction and landscape change caused by humans. Many of the plant and animal species in the region came from elsewhere, as part of European colonial projects of extraction. Geographers now refer to our geological era as the Anthropocene, the era of human-induced climate change. Some Caribbean scholars have suggested it might better be called the plantationocene, because the plantation has been more central to that story for far longer than has industrial capitalism or fossil fuel extraction (which are comparatively more recent). Sylvia Wynter notes that we move beyond thinking that all of these things began in European factories during the industrial revolution and look to the plantation system in Europe’s overseas colonies first. Island colonies have also witnessed the effects of environmental changes before continental zones have, and the Caribbean is now considered to be one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change in the world.

In Haiti, that planetary story has a particular resonance that connects the environmental issues of the colonial and postcolonial systems with the reconstitution of the peasantry after independence and the relation between the peasantry and the urban elites and the state. Trouillot named the central dynamic in that relationship the “state against the nation,” and for him the peasantry was the nation. Land has been such an important issue since independence and the emergence of a peasantry after the destruction of the plantation system during the revolution came to stand, materially and symbolically, as the concrete expression of the freedom and autonomy gained from the revolution. However dependent the peasantry has been on elites or export markets, it has also brought a very real form of freedom to many people—the control over one’s labor process. That freedom was guaranteed by access to or ownership of land. Now, the entire relation between land and labor, work and freedom, is in question. I think it was the US Occupation of 1915–34 that really heralded the decline of the peasantry and the shift to migrant labor. Since then, it has been a long story of displacement, as people have been forced off the land, pulled into the city, or pushed overseas. And that story of displacement, in turn, is central to any explanation of the current vulnerability and precarity that people face in Port-au-Prince and elsewhere in the country.

HTN: The subtitle of your book is “Between Life and Death,” an intricate matter you discuss in the final chapter (# 4) in the book.  What is the conception of death in the Haitian worldview?

GB: That’s a great question—and it speaks to one of the reasons that I still see hope in the idea that “there is no more Haiti.” The book is not just an attempt to wrestle with the meaning of that phrase, but also to come to terms with the death of my friend Manuel. As I tried to show in the afterword, I think that it is important to realize that death is only the end of one part of life—after death, a person continues on, though in another form. Many of the people whose stories I tell in the book are vodouizan, though not all of them. Some are Christian. In either case, concepts like body and soul or life and death are anchored in a much broader cosmology than they are in the Western secular view of the mind-body dualism, with its focus on biological life and death. Death, in a wider cosmological sense, is only the end of one kind of life, and for many people the after life—the life you live after death, let’s say—is just as important as is our material life in this world. Those after lives, those lives after death, are part of one’s social relationships too, and the relations we might have with the world after death rely on relations and obligations of care and concern, of respect and remembrance.

This is what makes that sense of an ending—of a “no more”—so stark. It is not just about an individual’s own death; it is also about the end of the social and spiritual relations that ensure that one will be remembered well after death. Being remembered is important because it is what allows you to join with the ancestors in that other life. I think that this sense of death as a relationship in the world is important, and it can help us understand the full weight of the environmental crisis too, since the destruction of the material world threatens not only our material survival, but also our spiritual and cosmological survival. In that sense, to be stuck between life and death is to be stuck in that “no more,” in the endless present of crisis in which you can’t live as you would like to live and can’t die as you would like to die. It is a sense that the wider social and cosmological relationships that make life and death meaningful are themselves breaking down.

HTN: I really like the way some of your interlocutors theorized or framed the Kreyòl word “blackout” beyond its tradition understanding “losing power” connected with electricity.  Can you offer some examples to our readers?

GB: It really struck me when people began to talk about blackouts in that way! The Kreyòl word blakawout, or blackout, is usually used to talk about electrical power outages, which are very common in Port-au-Prince. Haiti has some of the lowest rates of electrification in the world, and some of the highest energy costs too. Most people use fuel wood for energy, and maybe kerosene or paraffin for lighting. Those who can afford it have generators and make their own electricity from imported diesel. In fact, there is more electrical power made through private means than through the public power grid. Access to electricity, like other services, has been a key issue for many years. In the poor neighborhoods in the capital, people often use unofficial or informal connections to the grid. So electrical power already has many resonances and meanings. It is seen as something that ought to come with city life, and indeed can be a necessary component of city life (e.g., charging cell phones, lighting at night, power for home businesses). Yet, it is a stark and quite visible reminder that the state does not provide basic services. Even for those who have formal or informal connections to the public grid, there is little power—often just a few hours a day. That means blackouts are common, everyday occurrences. And when the lights go out for some, they come back on for others—for those who can afford private power generation. That means that electrical power is an intimate way the privatization of power among the elite and the failures of the state to be responsible to its citizens enters into daily life.

In the poor neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince, places like Martissant for example, people talk about blackouts quite a bit. Usually, they joke about the power going out, or they make plans for using and sharing access to electricity when the grid has power. In 2004, after a coup that removed Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power for the second time, I began to hear people talk about “living in a blackout.” I was immediately struck but that usage. As I note in the book, some people used the blackout to talk about how they felt. It was as if the blackout was a bodily condition, like hunger (grangou) or insecurity (ensekirite). But people also seemed to use it as an indirect way of talking about Aristide’s removal, and of a feeling of a loss of political power among his supporters. In that sense, the blackout was a kind of pwen—a pithy and pointed comment that can have both direct and indirect meanings for various audiences—that connected the most immediate aspects of life, one’s bodily autonomy and agency, the capacity to do something, with the national political crisis of the coup and provisional government, which many of the people I worked with saw as a kind of end of the political project associated with Aristide.

HTN: Finally, can you share with the audience of Haiti Then and Now what writing project (s) you are currently working at this moment?

GB: I recently finished an online series that I co-edited with Laura Wagner. We began the series as a way of thinking about how to put the assassination of President Moïse into a broader historical context, but the project shifted as things changed dramatically over the last year in Haiti. The series is freely available online and is meant to be widely accessible, in the sense that we asked people to write without much academic jargon. We also felt it was important to have the series include as many voices of Haitians and Haitian-Americans as possible and to include not only academics but also journalists, activists, and citizens. Finally, we also worked hard to publish the series in three languages—English, French, and Kreyòl. The series offers a great resource for thinking more broadly about the historical, social, and political context for the current political crisis. You can read it here!

Source: Photo by Vincent Joos, June 2019

Over the last few years, I have also been looking more at electricity and energy. The issues of electrical power are part of a largest story about energy, a story that connects the state to both global fuel markets and to international financial institutions. The public power company, Electricité d’Haïti (EDF) makes most of its electricity from imported fuel oil (some energy comes from the Pelilgree dam, but not much these days). The Haitian state has been responsible for all fuel imports since about 2008, when the country joined the regional alliance known as PetroCaribe. The energy story is a complex one, and it connects Haiti to Venezuela and to worldwide shifts in the supply of hydrocarbons. In 2018, the PetroCaribe program fell about due to US-imposed sanctions on Venezuela. Haiti now has to import fuel from the open market, whereas before the regional alliance provided oil at a reduced rate, coupled with low-interest loans. At the same time, the International Monetary Fund has been pushing the Haitian government to end fossil fuel subsidies. Those price controls have been a key mechanism in Haiti for ensuring that gas, diesel, and kerosene remain affordable. There were immediate protests when news broke that the subsidies were to be ended. The government backed off from the plan (but the IMF still has it as a condition for future loans). Since 2018, there has been an escalating fuel crisis, resulting in supply issues, gas rationing and shortages, rolling blackouts, and escalating costs. That has gone hand-in-hand with rising inflation and a devaluation of the local currency, and as a result the cost of basic goods and necessities have rising dramatically in just a few years. To make matters more complicated, the PetroCaribe program was meant to not only reduce fuel costs but to have the money saved be used for social development programs. Since 2018, there have been a series of audits and reports showing that billions of dollars in development funds have been mismanaged, lost, or simply stolen. That, in turn, sparked widespread protests against the government, against corruption, and against the high cost of living. In 2021, gangs in Martissant seized control over Route Nationale 2, a key road that connects the capital to the southern departments. (Other gangs have likewise taken control of key chokepoints and critical infrastructure around the capital.) Now, when there is fuel available, it is hard to find drivers willing to deliver it because fuel trucks are regularly hijacked, and drivers are kidnapped. After an earthquake and hurricane in the southern provinces last year, Route Nationale 2 has been essential to the supply of fuel, aid, and other necessities. But passage along the road is largely under gang control. I’ve been working on a book project that looks at these underlying issues of energy and infrastructure as a way of thinking about how ensekirite and the political crisis of the state enter into people’s everyday lives in immediate and intimate ways.

HTN: Thank you Dr. Greg Allan Beckett for the interview and your time. We wish you a successful academic semester and good luck on your writing and research projects.


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