A Look At Haiti's Political History Robert Siegel talks to Laurent Dubois, professor of romance studies and history at Duke University, and author of Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Dubois, who was in Haiti last May, talks about the political history of Haiti and how it affects the current political situation.

A Look At Haiti's Political History

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It's common wisdom that Haiti was a disaster zone even before the earthquake. Generations of dictators stripped the nation of wealth and resources. More recent flirtations with democracy have been punctuated by coups and corruption. The current president, Rene Preval, has been criticized for keeping a low profile post-earthquake.

Joining us to talk about the political landscape of Haiti is Laurent Dubois, who is a professor of history at Duke University and an expert on Haitian politics. Welcome to the program, Professor Dubois.

Professor LAURENT DUBOIS (Professor of History, Duke University): Thank you.

SIEGEL: And let me ask you, I know that this is your field of study, but if there were a short answer to the question, why Haiti has not been able to develop some stable form of democratic self rule over all these years, what is it? Why? What do you say?

Prof. DUBOIS: Well, I think it's useful. I'm a historian, of course. I think it's useful to take the long view. This is a country that's born out of slave revolution in an ocean of slavery, right? It's born in 1804. Everywhere else is dominated by slave-owning empires. So, from its birth, it's been a source of kind of tension in some ways or it's been seen as dangerous by many elites. And the Haitian elite has been constantly dealing with both these extremely strong forces from outside, as well as an extremely serious set of conflicts within Haiti itself. And that balancing act has been extremely difficult from the beginning.

SIEGEL: How would you describe the historic role of the United States in Haiti?

Prof. DUBOIS: Well, the U.S. has been involved with Haiti from the very, very beginning, starting especially with the U.S. occupation - the 20-year occupation in 1915. The U.S. has been a very dominant force in Haiti. And our next - our engagement now is just one in a very, very long series of extremely deep engagements with Haiti. Haiti and the United States have been incredibly connected through migration and politics. So, there's really no way to escape that connection. And the question is what we do with it.

SIEGEL: If you can, can you explain to people what role the former president, Jean Bertrand Aristide, plays in Haitian life to this day, several years after his removal from the presidency?

Prof. DUBOIS: Mm-hmm. Well, Aristide - the just, the biography and story of Aristide is such a dramatic and important one and it's one that, of course, is extremely tied to Haitian politics because of where he came out of. He was a priest in the poor neighborhoods in Haiti. He was a symbol of so much hope of resistance against the military regimes. And the various things that happened since are still a matter of debate. So, people - you know, people who are still very strongly supporters of Aristide see the way that he was treated by the international community, the choices of the United States, of the IMF and of other forces as having really kind of demolished and destroyed any possibility of change. For people who are more critical of Aristide, he's seen as somebody who made a lot of mistakes himself and really he is to blame for much of what happened within the country.

SIEGEL: One legacy of President Aristide is his disbanding of the army.

Prof. DUBOIS: So Aristide, on his return, having been expelled by a coup essentially organized by the Haitian Army, disbanded the Haitian Army. And essentially the idea was that this army had been mostly a force of it, for internal oppression. It's true that the modern Haitian Army really was created by the U.S. occupation in the 1920s or so, as an army to fight against internal insurrection against the U.S. occupation. So, it has that lineage. Of course, people will now point to the fact that not having that kind of force obviously is maybe a disadvantage during a moment of disaster like this one.

SIEGEL: So where does the current president, Rene Preval, where does he fit in in Haitian politics with respect to Aristide, with respect of former coup plotters against Aristide? How would you describe his position?

Prof. DUBOIS: Well, Preval was part of the movement with Aristide. And, I mean, he is considered as someone of a much more lower profile and was not, you know, is a charismatic speaker and so forth in the way that Aristide was, I think hailed by many people outside of Haiti as someone who would, you know, understand the bureaucratic context and so forth. But he's certainly still continues some of that movement. Now there are fissures within that party as well that continue to activate Haitian politics. But he's certainly - you know, he comes out of the last movement and that's still in many ways what helps define his stature in Haitian society.

SIEGEL: What had been Aristide's movement.

Prof. DUBOIS: Yeah, which had been Aristide's movement.

SIEGEL: Professor Laurent Dubois, professor of history at Duke University, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Prof. DUBOIS: Thank you.

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