Haiti Debate: Peter Hallward Responds to Michael Deibert’s Review of Damming the Flood

In 2005 the journalist Michael Deibert published a book applauding the overthrow, the previous year, of Haiti’s elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.  More recently he wrote a long and critical review of my own book about this 2004 coup, Damming the Flood, and posted it on his blog.  Since we have both already written substantial books on more or less the same topic I will keep my response to this review as short as possible and leave it to readers to make up their own minds.

The main argument of Damming the Flood is pretty straightforward, and it runs roughly like this:

(a) The Lavalas popular movement that took shape in the late 1980s posed a significant and unprecedented threat to the power and privileges of the US-backed Haitian elite, which responded in 1991 with a military coup d’état that left around 5,000 people dead.

(b) After disbanding the murderous army and forming a more disciplined political organisation, in some ways the Lavalas movement became more rather than less threatening to the Haitian establishment when in 2000 its leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected president for the second time, with a massive parliamentary majority.

(c) Since the Haitian army was no longer available to do the job in the usual way, and realising they stood no chance of beating Lavalas in an election, in order to prepare the ground for a further coup d’état Aristide’s enemies in Haiti and their supporters in the US, France and Canada waged an elaborate disinformation and destabilisation campaign to weaken his government.  Among other things this campaign involved: starving the Lavalas government of funds, challenging its legitimacy internationally, entangling it in futile negotiations with an unpopular ‘democratic opposition’, misrepresenting it as exceptionally violent and corrupt, and provoking its supporters via sustained ‘Contra’-style paramilitary assault.

(d) Once this destabilisation campaign had succeeded in bankrupting the government and in undermining its international standing and domestic popularity, Aristide’s political enemies then helped to engineer a full-on military insurgency which led directly to his involuntary expulsion from Haiti by the US on the night of 28-29 February 2004.

(e) From 2004 to 2006, and with extraordinary forms and levels of international support, the illegitimate and unconstitutional administration that the US and its allies rigged up to replace the Lavalas government adopted repression of its supporters as one of its main priorities, at a cost of several thousand more lives.

Rather than systematically consider the pros and cons of its argument, the basic strategy of Deibert’s review is to discredit the book by suggesting that it was written by an ignorant outsider who is indifferent to the plight of Haiti’s ‘hugely decent, gentle, honest, hardworking and always-struggling populace.’

It’s true that Damming the Flood is based more on research than on personal experience.  It’s true that I’m an academic, not a journalist, and I have never pretended to write about Haiti (or anything else) as any sort of ‘insider’.  The book is an attempt to make sense of a broad range of published material and recorded testimony in order to explain how and why Aristide’s second government was overthrown — and in particular, how and why the government of my own country, and its allies, contributed to this overthrow.  To research it I read as widely as possible and spoke to people from as many perspectives as I could; some shared the view of Lavalas expressed in the review, most did not.  I believe that the argument presented in Damming is a fair and reasonable interpretation of the way the Lavalas movement was undermined and discredited by its adversaries.  People from different political perspectives are entitled to argue with this interpretation, of course, but in my opinion this is more a political argument, precisely, than it is an argument between knowledge and ignorance, or between insiders and outsiders.

There are perhaps four points in the review that merit some brief discussion.

1. The first point concerns a detail in my description of the 17 December 2001 paramilitary assault on Haiti’s National Palace (Damming the Flood, p. 125).  This is a simple mistake, and the review is quite right to pick it out: I accept that the several witnesses who told me about the use of a helicopter in this attack must have misunderstood what took place, and that I should have spotted this error when I revised the manuscript.  The helicopter that accompanied the attackers as they returned to the safety of the Dominican Republic was tracking them, not supporting them.

2. The second and most serious point concerns the claim that I deliberately misquoted one of the people I interviewed during a trip to Haiti in April 2006, Fonkoze director Anne Hastings.  The review implies that this misquotation demolishes “the credibility of Hallward’s own minimal reporting.”

The published version of the quotation reads as follows (Damming the Flood, page 107):

There’s very little substance to the accusations people make about Aristide, but my experience is that there’s a real pattern in Haiti that things become reality once they’re articulated enough times; after a while you’re never going to change the view that people have, no matter what evidence you put in front of them.  Things that seem totally illogical and without merit come to be taken as the God’s truth.

After looking again at a word-for-word transcription of this part of the interview I accept that a more accurate and more complete rendering of what Anne Hastings said during this part of our conversation would read:

It’s very difficult to find any significant evidence for the things that people say about Aristide, but my experience is that there’s a real pattern in Haiti, and no doubt in some other countries as well, that things become reality once they’re articulated enough times; after a while you’re never going to change the view that people have, no matter what evidence you put in front of them.  It’s very strange around here, how things that seem totally illogical and without merit come to be taken as the God’s truth!

Although the difference in words may seem slight, I appreciate that this difference obscures a point and a distinction that Hastings was trying to make.

Needless to say, I believed that I had checked the final wording of the published quotation from this interview shortly after my 2006 conversation with Hastings, as I did with hundreds of other quotations cited in the book; it appears I failed to do so on this occasion and I regret this oversight.  After looking at the transcription last week Hastings acknowledged that I had not deliberately misrepresented her position but concluded that the published quotation did not accurately summarise what she meant to say.  At Hastings’ request I’m making the verbatim transcription public (see the footnote below)1 in order to allow her words to speak for themselves; if I misunderstood their meaning I apologise for any further misunderstanding this may have caused.

As for whether Hastings’ observation regarding the political role of rumours and the media undercuts the argument I make about the misrepresentation of Aristide, this is something I’ll leave to others to decide.

If Damming the Flood is reprinted I will rectify these first two points, along with any other factual errors that are brought to my attention.

3. The third point concerns my allegation that the human rights group NCHR (whose Haiti-based office was subsequently rebranded as RNDDH) received financial support from the US.  The paragraph that includes this assertion (pp. 98-99) ends with a footnote, which reads “Cf. Anthony Fenton, ‘US Gvt. Channels Millions through National Endowment for Democracy to Fund Anti-Lavalas Groups in Haiti’, Democracy Now! 23 January 2006.”  Since this particular interview doesn’t mention RNDDH by name the review concludes that “Hallward simply made it up.”

No, I didn’t.  This matter is as well known and well documented as is, for instance, US support for an NGO like CARE or a trade union like Batay Ouvriye.  NCHR/RNDDH’s political orientation is a familiar topic on Haiti-related websites and listserves, and its funding is a matter of public record (and in the case of NCHR’s receipt of USAID money in e.g. 2003, a matter of the US Congressional record).  RNDDH’s receipt shortly after the 2004 coup of a large grant from USAID’s Canadian counterpart to fund its investigation of alleged Lavalas crimes is also well known.  More to the point, even a superficial glance at the paragraph in question is enough to show that my evocation of Fenton’s interview was never intended to provide backing for all the claims it makes.  The review ignores or misunderstands the fact that my reference to this interview is preceded by the abbreviation ‘cf.’ — a routine academic convention for mentioning a publication not as the immediate source for a particular fact but as a point of comparison or further reference.  The paragraph begins by referring more generally to the work of ‘young researchers like Anthony Fenton, Yves Engler and Jeb Sprague’, to whom I refer on several other occasions in the book.  On the specific point in question, if space had allowed for even more footnotes than the substantial number that survived the final cut of the book then I could easily have referenced several other pertinent pieces by Fenton alone, including the illuminating book he co-authored with Engler, Canada in Haiti (2005).  People interested in NCHR/RNDDH’s contribution to human rights work in Haiti can find plenty of other things to read as well; Ronald Saint-Jean’s two books on NCHR/RNDDH are a good place to start, as is Kevin Skerrett’s article ‘Faking Genocide in Haiti’.

4. The fourth and final point concerns this same RNDDH’s description of a clash between pro- and anti-government groups in the town of Saint-Marc (at the height of the anti-government insurgency in February 2004) as a government-orchestrated ‘genocide’ that killed around 50 people.  The review reads: “In further trying to cover up government violence, Hallward writes that ‘no credible news organization or human rights group was prepared to corroborate’ that a massacre of government opponents took place in the northern city of Saint Marc in early 2004 [. . .].  In fact, that statement, like so many other of Hallward’s claims, is simply false.”  The review then refutes this apparent falsehood by referring to an article that the former deputy-director of NCHR Anne Fuller published in Le Nouvelliste a year after the event, in which she claimed that a total of 27 people were killed in Saint-Marc in February 2004 over a period of several weeks.

Like many other critics of NCHR’s ‘La Scierie Genocide’ story, however, I never denied that some people died during the violent anti-government insurgency in Saint-Marc, although the number of victims and the circumstances of their death have from the beginning been a matter of vigorous debate.  The falsity here lies with the way the review quotes from Damming the Flood (pp. 159-160).  After noting how RNDDH’s Pierre Espérance described the Saint-Marc clash as a government-coordinated ‘crime against humanity’ and ‘genocide’, my discussion of this point actually reads as follows:

The problem with this particular genocide, as Ronald Saint-Jean was quick to demonstrate in convincing detail, is that NCHR wasn’t able to provide much evidence that it ever took place.2  No credible news organisation or human rights group was prepared to corroborate Espérance’s story, not even NCHR’s own parent organisation in New York (which soon cut its links with the discredited Espérance, obliging him to rename himself as the RNDDH).  Espérance made no attempt to interview members of the Bale Wouze gang, and tried to explain away the lack of incriminating corpses by suggesting that the bodies might have been ‘eaten by dogs’.  By the time the UN’s human rights officer Louis Joinet finally came to consider the case in April 2005 he rejected the term ‘massacre’ in favour of the account of a ‘confrontation’ originally proposed in the press.3  Thierry Fagart, MINUSTAH’s human rights director, later condemned the RNDDH’s investigation of La Scierie as a ‘real failure’; rather than any sort of massacre ‘it was just a fight between two different gangs.’  Neptune and Privert were kept in jail until the summer of 2006, even though Fagart himself admitted in March 2006 that ‘it is clear that they have never had any legal grounds to prosecute [Neptune]’, and that ‘from the very beginning until today, all the proceedings against him were illegal.’4

To my mind these are the only four points in this long review that warrant a direct response.  The rest of it, when it doesn’t involve various kinds of misrepresentation, is a matter of profoundly debatable presumption, interpretation, or priority.

Lavalas and Aristide will always be controversial and divisive topics, but some debates are more worthwhile than others.  In my opinion the most compelling rebuttal of the general position defended in Damming the Flood was written not by Deibert but by Alex Dupuy, in his well-argued book The Prophet and Power (2007).  I don’t agree with Dupuy but I respect the way he presents his position, and I responded to his critique of Aristide and Fanmi Lavalas at some length in an article published by Haïti Liberté, online at <haitianalysis.com/2007/8/18/hallward-reviews-dupuy-s-
>.  Meanwhile readers who are still trying to make up their minds about what actually happened to Aristide on 28/29 February 2004 can compare Deibert’s version of events (in his Notes from the Last Testament, pp. 410-413) with chapter nine of Damming the Flood, or with the more detailed reconstruction I contributed to Haïti Liberté some months ago, online at <haitianalysis.com/2007/12/7/did-he-jump-or-was-he-pushed-

There are now several book-length accounts of Haiti 1990-2006 available; readers are free to weigh up their relative strengths and weaknesses, and to reach their own conclusions.



1  Verbatim transcription of interview between Peter Hallward and Fonkoze director Anne Hastings, Port-au-Prince, 24 April 2006 [N.B.: This interview lasted around an hour.  After talking about Fonkoze in some detail, towards the end of the interview we moved on to consider the recent political situation, and some of the accusations made against Aristide, Lavalas, the organisations populaires & the so-called “chimères”.  My questions in this section were informed by long discussions I’d had with several rather strident critics of Aristide during the previous days.  Our conversation was informal and was not intended for verbatim publication, and it reads that way]:

Peter Hallward: Do you have any way of assessing, maybe through Fonkoze clients, all these accusations that are made about the organisations populaires, the way that people like Dred Wilme and others are treated as “bandits”, etc?

Anne Hastings: No, no.

PH: There are all these claims that Aristide armed them, these quote-unquote “chimères”.

AH: Yeah I know.

PH: It’s very hard to verify these things — apart from extremely self-confident people at the Oloffson or Montana who will tell you “I don’t need to prove it because I know.”  And you say well that’s not good enough for me.

AH: Yeah, exactly.

PH: And it doesn’t go any further than that.  Or outraged priests who used to be close to Aristide.

AH: Yes.

PH: And they don’t give you any proof!  It’s very difficult for me to [assess].

AH: I agree with you completely about that.  I find it very difficult to get, to have any significant evidence of all that they say.  But you know, and maybe it’s true in all cultures, there’s a real pattern in Haiti that things become reality once they’re articulated enough times, you know.  And so you’re never going to change the view that people have, irrespective of whatever evidence you put in front of them.  It’s very strange to me, the way someone starts articulating something, and suddenly it becomes real.  But maybe that happens in all cultures, and that’s the way the media has its impact.  But it’s very strange around here, because things that on the surface appear to be totally illogical and without merit, suddenly everybody acts like it’s the God’s truth, you know? [laughs].

PH: Like this [inaudible] campaign in Haiti, where Aristide won 75% of the vote!

AH: Yes.

PH: And they’re able to present him as the subverter of democracy, in the name of an opposition that refused every single compromise [AH laughs] and that said we’ll only have elections once the party which happened to win the last few elections in a row, very easily, is not allowed to stand.  That’s surreal!

AH: I know. It is.  That’s it.


2  Ronald Saint-Jean, A propos du ‘Génocide de la Scierie’: Exiger de la NCHR toute la vérité (2004); cf. Kevin Skerrett, ‘Faking Genocide in Haiti’, ZNet 23 June 2005.

3  Guy Delva, ‘UN Says Former Haitian PM Jailed Illegally,’ Reuters 4 May 2005.

4  Christian Heyne, et al., ‘Thierry Fagart on La Scierie’, HaitiAnalysis 22 February 2007; cf. Brian Concannon, et al., ‘Petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’, IJDH 20 April 2005.

View Peter Hallward’s university page: <www.mdx.ac.uk/www/CRMEP/staff/PeterHallward.htm>.  This article was originally published on HaitiAnalysis on 6 April 2008.

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