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Haiti Trembles From The 'Aftershocks Of History'


Haiti has long been regarded as a special challenge for international aid organizations. Haiti has a noble, unique and often bloody history. It was the only nation of slaves to successfully revolt against their colonial overseers, became the first black-led republic in the world. It has also been afflicted with its own demons and tyrants.

Laurent Dubois knows Haiti's history well. His story of the Haitian revolution, "Avengers of the New World," was a bestseller in 2004. He is the Marcello Lotti Professor of Romance Studies and History at Duke, and co-director of the Haiti Lab at the Franklin Humanities Institute. His new book is. "Haiti: The Aftershocks of History." Professor Dubois joins us from the Duke campus in Durham, North Carolina. Thanks so much for being with us.

LAURENT DUBOIS: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: You begin with the fact that the story of a nation of slaves rising up to win their own freedom wasn't necessarily inspiring to the United States in the early 19th century.

DUBOIS: No, not at all. I mean, in fact, the United States was the last nation in the world to recognize Haiti's independence; took it until the Civil War in 1862. And there was a great deal of concern about the example Haiti for the slaves in the United States. And that didn't stop the U.S. merchants from trading with country, which they did avidly during the 19th century. But Haiti did begin at that time and I think has continued to have maybe a particularly harsh and negative set of stereotypes that surround it.

SIMON: Such as?

DUBOIS: There's a lot of visions of Haiti that depict it as a land of strong tyrants, the obsession with a certain image of voodoo that often doesn't have a much broader view of what voodoo actually is. And there's also a sense that its kind of poverty has been eternal in some way, something that I strongly try to debunk in the book.

SIMON: I want to get you to tell us something of the history of the U.S. occupation; 1915 to 1935, this was 20 years, and I'll bet a lot of Americans just aren't aware of it.

DUBOIS: Yeah. It's a very long period. It's one of the longest periods of occupation of the U.S. in another country. And so it also has a lot to tell us I think about our own history.

SIMON: Help us understand this, if you can. The U.S. maintained that it had the right to go into Haiti to, I guess, to guarantee free access to ports.

DUBOIS: Actually, a lot of it was about to help Haiti. There had been a series of violent political events in the years before that were used as a kind of immediate excuse for intervention. But the U.S. had become increasingly economically intertwined with Haiti. So taking control of the nation's main bank and beginning with investments in railroads and larger plantations.

SIMON: Now, the U.S. Marines decided at one point that better roads would be a very good thing for Haiti, would let farmers transport goods into the city, increase foreign investment. Also let the Marines get to more places over the island. But the way they were built might continue to be one of what you call the aftershocks of history.

DUBOIS: Yes. In one of these cases where really a misunderstanding of the kind of reaction this would cause in Haiti, the Marines turned to forced labor and began kind of literally rounding up people and forcing them to go work on the road construction. And in a country founded by slave revolutionaries, this incited really rapid reaction and insurrection against the U.S. occupation.

SIMON: When it comes to signature drawbacks of international aid programs, you kind of offer a case study from Haiti, 1983. USAID decided they had to come up with a program to prevent the spread of swine flu. What happened?

DUBOIS: Well, so they decided that they were concerned about swine flu in this population of pigs in Haiti that were these black pigs that were really indigenous to the island, had been there for hundreds of years. And they were a kind of a mainstay of rural life in Haiti, a kind of bank. These pigs would eat anything. They knew what plants were poisonous and not. They cleaned up garbage. And then, of course, they offered meat for the population.

And USAID, working with the Haitian government, essentially demanded a massacre of these pigs, that they be rounded up and killed to prevent swine flu. That was devastating enough.

They were supposed to be replaced with white pigs that were to be imported from the United States who were really not sort of set for the climate and many of them died. So what was, you know, offered in return in no way replaced what was taken away. And it was a really quite devastating thing for a small rural agriculture.

I'll add a slightly sort of happier note in the sense that Haiti often kind of manages to respond to these changes. When I was just there a few days ago, I noticed a number of brown pigs and asked my friend who I was with about them.

And he said, oh, yeah, those are the pigs that when they - the farmers hid some of the black pigs and kept some alive and we saved some. And then they started mating with the new white pigs. And now we have a new breed that's pretty well adapted and they're taking over. And so, you know, there's an ability to bounce back.

And they actually use an old colonial term to describe mixed race, mixed, you know, African and European individuals, the term cremel(ph), to describe these pigs as a kind of new species.

SIMON: How does the legacy of they slaughter the wrong kind of pig program and other aid efforts affect the way Haitians view international relief programs today?

DUBOIS: I mean, first of all, it's important to say international relief is very varied. And there's so many organizations working in Haiti with different types of projects. So it's hard to paint with a broad brush.

But there is a sense that again and again there's been a kind of misunderstanding or a modernizing impulse, let's say, from outside where people have thought, well, what Haiti needs is a, you know, a whole new kind of agriculture with larger plantations. And not often enough have people stopped to listen.

Haitian agriculture's actually been and is very sophisticated. Sort of has at times anyway been very suited to particular ecologies. It's based on the idea of trying to sustain agriculture in small spaces and in difficult circumstances.

So there's enormous knowledge in Haitian rural communities. And, you know, a more collaborative effort and listening to that knowledge, I think, obviously will bear a lot more fruit than kind of trying to impose something that might sound great in the abstract but can't take root in the context.

SIMON: Laurent Dubois. His new book is "Haiti: The Aftershocks of History."

Thanks so much.

DUBOIS: Thank you.


SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.