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1843-1888 - Decades of Instability

Leyburn summarizes this chaotic era in Haitian history. "Of the twenty-two heads of state between 1843 and 1915, only one served out his prescribed term of office, three died while serving, one was blown up with his palace, one presumably poisoned, one hacked to pieces by a mob, one resigned. The other fourteen were deposed by revolution after incumbencies ranging in length from three months to twelve years." Coups and assassinations became commonplace. Economic stagnation plagued the country, as rulers repeatedly subdivided agricultural lands, causing yields to plummet.

When in 1843 France had agreed to give up all claims to Haiti, it negotiated an indemnity payment of 150 million francs as well as preferred tariff rates. The indemnity dragged down Haiti's struggling economy. Political solutions rarely overcame the deep-seated hostility between blacks and mulattoes. Elite mulattoes, for the most part, either held the presidency or managed to install puppet black presidents who served their interests.

In the midst of this political chaos, only three Haitian presidents enjoyed relatively stable and progressive tenures. General Nicholas Geffrard (1859-67), during a generally peaceful and progressive administration, succeeded in gaining recognition for Haiti from the United States in 1862. Louis Lysius Félicité Salomon (1879-88) made populist reforms and established a national bank, telegraph system, and rural school system. Florvil Hyppolite (1889-96) created the Ministry of Public Works, which built much needed bridges, docks, and public buildings throughout the country.

During the wide gulf between the 1843 revolution and occupation by the United States in 1915, Haiti's leadership became the most valuable prize in an unprincipled competition among strongmen. The overthrow of a government usually degenerated into a business venture, with foreign merchants--frequently Germans--initially funding a rebellion in the expectation of a substantial return after its success. The weakness of Haitian governments of the period and the potential profits to be gained from supporting a corrupt leader made such investments attractive.

Rivière-Hérard enjoyed only a brief tenure as president. It was restive and rebellious Dominicans, rather than Haitians, who struck one of the more telling blows against this leader. Nationalist forces led by Juan Pablo Duarte seized control of Santo Domingo on February 27, 1844. Unprofessional and undisciplined Haitian forces in the east, unprepared for a significant uprising, capitulated to the rebels. In March Rivière-Hérard attempted to reimpose his authority, but the Dominicans put up stiff opposition. Soon after Rivière-Hérard crossed the border, domestic turmoil exploded again.

Discontent among black rural cultivators, which had flared up periodically under Boyer, re-emerged in 1844 and led to greater change. Bands of ragged piquets (a term derived from the word for the pikes they brandished), under the leadership of a black, former army officer named Louis Jean-Jacques Acaau, rampaged through the south. The piquets who were capable of articulating a political position demanded an end to mulatto rule and the election of a black president. Their demands were eventually met but not by the defeated Rivière-Hérard, who returned home to a country where he enjoyed little support and wielded no effective power. In May 1844, his ouster by several rebel groups brought to power Philippe Guerrier, an aged black officer who had been a member of the peerage under Christophe's kingdom.

Guerrier's installation by a mulatto-dominated establishment represented the formal beginning of politique de doublure; a succession of short-lived black leaders was chosen after Guerrier in an effort to appease the piquets and to avoid renewed unrest in the countryside. During this period, two exceptions to the pattern of abbreviated rule were Faustin Soulouque (1847-59) and Fabre Nicolas Geffrard (1859-67). Soulouque, a black general of no particular distinction, was considered just another understudy when he was tapped by the legislature as a compromise between competing factions. Once in office, however, he displayed a Machiavellian taste for power. He purged the military high command, established a secret police force--known as the zinglins--to keep dissenters in line, and eliminated mulatto opponents. In August 1849, he grandiosely proclaimed himself as Haiti's second emperor, Faustin I.

Soulouque, like Boyer, enjoyed a comparatively long period of power that yielded little of value to his country. Whereas Boyer's rule had been marked by torpor and neglect, Soulouque's was distinguished by violence, repression, and rampant corruption. Soulouque's expansive ambitions led him to mount several invasions of the Dominican Republic. The Dominicans turned back his first foray in 1849 before he reached Santo Domingo. Another invasion in 1850 proved even less successful. Failed campaigns in 1855 and in 1856 fueled mounting discontent among the military; a revolt led by Geffrard, who had led a contingent in the Dominican campaign, forced the emperor out of power in 1859.

Geffrard, a dark-skinned mulatto, restored the old order of elite rule. After the turmoil of Soulouque's regime, Geffrard's rule seemed comparatively tranquil and even somewhat progressive. Geffrard produced a new constitution based largely on Pétion's 1816 document, improved transportation, and expanded education (although the system still favored the upper classes). Geffrard also signed a concordat with the Vatican in 1860 that expanded the presence of the Roman Catholic Church and its preponderantly foreign-born clergy in Haiti, particularly through the establishment of parochial schools. The move ended a period of ill will between Haiti and the church that had begun during the revolutionary period.

Intrigue and discontent among the elite and the piquets beset Geffrard throughout his rule. In 1867 General Sylvain Salnave -- a light-skinned mulatto who received considerable support from blacks in the north and in the capital -- forced Geffrard from office. The overthrow profoundly unsettled the country, and Salnave's end came quickly. Rural rebellion among anti-Salnavist peasants who called themselves cacos (a term of unknown derivation) triggered renewed unrest among the piquets in the south. After several military successes, Salnave's forces weakened, and the leader fled Port-au-Prince. Caco forces captured him, however, near the Dominican border, where they tried and executed him on January 15, 1870. Successive leaders claimed control of most of the country and then regularly confirmed their rule ex post facto through a vote by the legislature, but none succeeded in establishing effective authority over the entire country.

Rebellion, intrigue, and conspiracy continued to be commonplace even under the rule of Louis Lysius Félicité Salomon (1879-88), of the National Party (Parti National--PN), the most notable and effective president of the late nineteenth century. During one seven-year term and the beginning of a second, Salomon revived agriculture to a limited degree, attracted some foreign capital, established a national bank, linked Haiti to the outside world through the telegraph, and made minor improvements in the education system. Salomon, the scion of a prominent black family, had spent many years in France after being expelled by Riviére- Hérard. Salomon's support among the rural masses, along with his energetic efforts to contain elite-instigated plots, kept him in power longer than the strongmen who preceded and followed him. Still, Salomon yielded--after years of conflict with forces led by the Liberal Party (Parti Liberal--LP), and other disgruntled, power-hungry elite elements.

Political forces during the late nineteenth century polarized around the Liberal and the National parties. Mulattoes dominated the Liberal ranks, while blacks dominated the National Party; both parties were nonideological in nature. The parties competed on the battlefield, in the legislature, within the ranks of the military, and in the more refined but limited circles of the literati. The more populist Nationalists marched under the banner of their party slogan, "the greatest good for the greatest number," while the blatantly elitist Liberals proclaimed their preference for "government by the most competent."




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