I arrived after dusk at Toussaint Louverture Airport and was relieved to see someone holding a board with my name on it. The State Department and Foreign Office websites had been very discouraging. A taciturn young man from Sécurité whisked me through passport control and into a tacky VIP lounge, then down some steps to an exit, watched over by an unsmiling female security guard. Without saying a word, the young man left me in a dark and deserted parking lot beside the terminal. I had been warned that airport taxis routinely kidnap their passengers, but there were no taxis around anyway. I decided to return to the VIP lounge, where I eventually met a few other invitees to the Unesco conference. Outside, a bus was waiting to collect us.

Explaining that he didn’t want to enter Port-au-Prince by the main road because it was blocked by a police checkpoint, the driver headed along a bumpy track through a slum, the headlights picking out the shapes of half-built shacks. His distrust of the police, someone said, was disturbing, but our fears proved groundless. We eventually reached our hotel, a palace of light, without any problem.

Port-au-Prince is obviously very poor – more than half the population live in bidonvilles – but it is also vibrant and colourful, in the way such places often are, with kerbside markets, women carrying piles of produce or washing on their heads, men rolling tyres along the street or playing cards, and young people chatting on their mobiles. After reading about extensive deforestation I was surprised at the number of trees in the city, and at the greenery in the suburbs and surrounding hills.

The statistics tell us that the majority have no formal employment and that 76 per cent of Haitians live on less than $2 a day. The abysmal state of the roads, occasional power cuts, unreliable water supply and the fact that only 13 per cent of children are enrolled in state schools, all testify to a failure of the powers that be to furnish basic services. On two occasions – in 1991 and 2004 – Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the elected president, was forced out. And on two occasions – in 1994 and 2004 – the US and the international community sent in troops. There was a time when imperialists would seek to justify their presence with public works and health programmes: in the era of neoliberalism this is no longer the case.

The latest foreign occupation began in February 2004, when Aristide faced a spreading but disparate revolt and was persuaded to leave the country by Western emissaries. First restored to power by Clinton in 1994, he had tried to dissolve the army which had overthrown him, but he had great difficulty disbanding it and forming a reliable replacement. The revolt he faced in 2003-4 was led by former army commanders and, according to the later testimony of Guy Philippe, one of its leaders, had been fostered by the CIA. Aristide had armed some of the chimères, his followers in the bidonvilles, but they didn’t have the discipline, training or weaponry to supply the protection he needed and their gun-toting exploits alienated potential supporters. Some of the president’s makeshift militia were genuine Lavalas militants – members of his own movement – but others were guns for hire who deserted him in his hour of need. Aristide’s predicament was made clear by his decision to entrust his own security to a Californian organisation, the Steele Foundation, which tamely acceded to the requests of US and French special forces and escorted him into exile. Atlanticists saw the kidnapping as the dawn of a new epoch of Franco-American understanding after the differences over Iraq.

Several hundred French, Canadian and US troops soon wound up the revolt. The Bush administration, already overstretched in Mesopotamia, wasn’t prepared to involve itself any further in Haiti, however much it feared Haitian radicalisation, civil war and a torrent of refugees. Washington, Paris and Ottawa withdrew their troops and handed over control of the country to a mixed UN force of around 9000. Brazil supplied the commander and about 5000 of the soldiers.

Subsequently, the UN occupying authority – MINUSTAH – acted with considerable circumspection. In presidential elections in 2006 a candidate endorsed by Lavalas, René Préval, was allowed not only to stand but to win. At one point the citizens of Port-au-Prince were required to show ID if they wanted to use the roads around the UN headquarters, but this measure was abandoned after it was met with street protests. The UN authority asked the Préval government to allow it to run a radio station but the request was denied on the grounds that the Haitian constitution requires 51 per cent Haitian ownership of broadcasting facilities.

Préval’s unanticipated victory testified to the continuing influence of the deposed president. Préval is not formally a member of Lavalas though he has twice been its presidential candidate. (In 1996 Aristide was prevented from running by the constitutional ruling that prevents presidents serving two terms in a row.) He comes from Marmelade and has a reputation as an effective local leader. With Cuban help he set up a string of popular clinics, and he has attracted considerable investment from Taiwan. As president in 1996-2001 he built hospitals and schools, and dealt firmly with senior commanders implicated in Duvalier’s repression. The more inspiring Aristide was less effective as an administrator and fixer than Préval, who is close to Chávez and persuaded him to supply cheap oil to Haiti and to invest in the upgrading of two badly needed electric power stations (Aristide got on better with Chávez’s predecessor, Carlos Andres Pérez). He also seems to have good contacts among the Brazilians who still lead the occupation force. One of his advisers told me that he is currently negotiating with them to bring military training under Haitian control and to set a date for the recuperation of full Haitian sovereignty.

The conference I was attending was, in its way, a consequence of the crisis of 2004. There had been plans at that time to celebrate the bicentennial of Haiti’s independence, proclaimed in January 1804, but as the island began sliding into chaos they were abandoned. The next two years were marked by continuing tension and violence, but once Préval was installed things gradually improved and the conference plans resumed. Unesco and the Haitian government agreed to sponsor an event in Port-au-Prince. Its title – ‘The Haitian Revolution and the Universality of Human Rights’ – had a certain chutzpah. It not only celebrated Haitian independence but also drew attention to the fact that Haiti was the first state in the world to embody ‘general liberty’ – and to be based on the rejection of slavery and racial privilege. We were gathered not to commiserate a poster-child for victimhood but to mark the country’s role in establishing international standards of human rights.

The conference was opened by the prime minister, Michele Pierre-Louis, who was appointed despite a scurrilous campaign by opposition forces, who argued that appointing a lesbian to such a prominent position was a violation of Haitian manhood. Pierre-Louis had been the director of an NGO known as Fokal (Fondasyon Konesans ak Libète). In choosing her, Préval was thought to have made an adroit move, pleasing the NGO and donor communities: Fokal is supported by George Soros and various Canadian charities.

Haitian historians have long argued for Haiti’s pioneering role at a time when British and US abolitionism was being contained and defeated. It isn’t clear who first raised the standard of ‘general liberty’ in Saint-Domingue (as the French colony was then known), but nobody at the conference tried to argue that the concept was formulated during or immediately following the great slave uprising of 1791. The rebel leaders had been willing to settle for their own liberty and a shorter working week for the mass of slaves. Having failed to achieve this, most of them then signed up as soldiers of the Spanish king.

The first proclamations of universal emancipation were made separately, but on the same day – 29 August 1793 – by Sonthonax, the Jacobin commissioner, and by Toussaint Louverture, then still a Spanish general. I was impressed that Florence Gauthier, a French historian and ‘doyenne des études robespierristes’, could document a mass meeting of the commune of Le Cap, which adopted a resolution of general emancipation three days earlier. But Franklin Midy, a Haitian sociologist, insisted that a letter signed by three black rebel leaders had urged universal liberty as early as July 1792. Others cited the Kreyol saying, tout moun se moun, ‘everyone is human,’ as supplying the philosophical basis for general emancipation, though the date of this saying is unclear. On sale at the conference bookstore was a new edition of De l’égalité des races humaines, the classic study by the Haitian anthropologist Antenor Firmin, first published in 1885, at a time when many respectable European and US thinkers were the victims of racial fantasy.

When I met Pierre-Louis I asked her what she thought were her most satisfying achievements so far. First, she said, would be the way Haiti had coped with four deadly hurricanes in 2008: 12,000 hectares of land had been recuperated, seeds and fertiliser had been distributed and the loss of life kept within bounds. Twelve bridges had been repaired and 300 schools built. Next, the rehabilitation of three voodoo shrines in the Artibonite region – these also served as shelters for the destitute. But, she added, there was a great deal yet to be done, and it was dispiriting that the political factions could not unite to tackle such national threats as the hurricanes, the deplorable state of the country’s infrastructure or the extent of the poverty.

The main difficulties she faced were the desperate shortage of funds and the continuing consequences of narco-traffic. Members of the National Assembly have immunity, so that drug traffickers seek to recruit them, or even try to get elected themselves. The root of the drug problem, she thought, was First World demand not Third World supply: Haitians consumed only 5 per cent of the drugs moving through the country, according to US estimates. The era of neoliberal deregulation, she said, had ‘killed our manufacturers’. The country used to produce fine textiles – her mother had been a seamstress – but now the street stalls were full of dumped T-shirts and trainers. However, the US Congress – prompted by the Black Caucus – had recently voted to remove all tariffs from up to a billion dollars’ worth of Haitian textiles each year. She was pleased, too, that public sector pension funds in the US had been persuaded to back a scheme to build social housing for Haiti’s teachers and health workers.

Meanwhile, the power of the wealthy and well placed, including drug traffickers, the military and ex-military and corrupt businessmen, is still very great. Haiti is due to have a presidential election in April next year. Since the downfall of Duvalier, one or other of the Lavalas candidates – Aristide or Préval – has won every election. Aristide and Préval are both banned from standing in 2010, Préval because he cannot succeed himself, Aristide because the Assembly will not rescind a banishment decree. Recent student protests suggest that calmer conditions are allowing for some recovery in the popular movement. By next year the identity of the new Lavalas standard-bearer should be clearer.

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