This photograph from early 1946 is a rare record of a gathering of the intellectual vanguard of Haiti's postwar generation. Fiercely idealistic, they had weeks earlier incited five days of massive street protests that caused Haitian President Elie Lescot to resign and flee into exile. They had overthrown, they believed, the cabal of mulattoes and U.S. bureaucrats who had been denying them their rightful share of power, and put on notice the small commercial-and-industrial sector dominated by Arabs, Europeans and a few U.S. immigrants.
But instead of the leftist democracy they hoped for, their moment of change ushered in a doctrinaire black nationalist political force that has ruled Haiti for more than six decades — including 30 years of Duvalier dictatorship. An important reason that Haiti remains poor is the stranglehold of a pernicious ethnic provincialism that now permeates all sectors of society. It is a mentality allergic to talent and merit and, today especially, fearful of the vast, wealthy and well-educated Haitian diaspora.
Nearly all the men at the banquet would go on to intellectually rewarding literary, academic and professional careers. All came from modest homes, in the second tier of Port-au-Prince's highly stratified social order. Their households had few luxuries, but all were educated at the nation's best schools.
René Dépestre is No. 4 in the photograph; he gained lasting fame in 1945 with his collection of poems and the prescient title Etincelles, or "Sparks." Me voici — "Here I am" — he declares in a characteristic poem: Je sens vibrer en moi la rage des exploités ("I feel stirring inside me the rage of the exploited"). These words made Dépestre, 19 years old and barely out of high school, a celebrity. His poems were recited to the largely disenfranchised, impoverished and illiterate majority in Port-au-Prince. He was speaking for an entire generation when he wrote:
poursuivant un rêve immense d'amour et de liberté.
("Here I am, poet, adolescent, chasing an immense dream of love and liberty.")
Dépestre recalls in Le métier à métisser (1998) that to make ends meet, his widowed mother, a seamstress, never wandered far from her Singer sewing machine. But there would be servants to do household chores, and mothers like that of French Guyanese poet Léon Damas, who settled for nothing less than "le français du français, le français français … " ("the French of the French, French French").
Those at the banquet leaned left politically, but most of them were not ideologues and had little regard for skin color. Several around the table — Ghislain Gouraige (No. 10), Laurore St. Juste (No. 11), Gérard Chenet (No. 5), Roger Gaillard (No. 9) and my father, Roger Savain (No. 8) — would at some point be associated with La ruche, a journal Dépestre and friends created in late 1945 to antagonize the authorities. Present as well were Odnel David (No. 2) and Edris St. Amand (No. 13), leaders in the Communist youth movement.
All were drawn to risky agitation and to the proposition that the country's resources and the fruits of its prosperity should be broadly distributed to the nation's poorest. They had no specific blueprint or precise economic program to implement.
In 1928 Jean Price Mars, scion of a prominent black Haitian family, affirmed the legitimacy of Haiti's African cultural traditions in his seminal treatise, Ainsi parla l'oncle ("Thus Spake the Uncle"). It was a timely and compelling argument that resonated throughout a world on the brink of decolonization. In Haiti, at first it inspired a positive celebration of indigenous culture. It also hardened loyalties based foremost on family, color and clan that, across all social and economic groups, degenerated into administrative dysfunction.
David Nicholls' From Dessalines to Duvalier: Race, Colour, and National Independence in Haiti (1979) provides a detailed account of these young men's futile attempts to leverage the successful undoing of Lescot into tangible political influence. The coalition of students, labor unions, black nationalists and leftists did not hold. Challenging their claim for leadership were less advantaged, very ambitious and older members of a rising black middle class whose political message centered on "noirism," or black nationalism.
In Bonjour et adieu à la négritude (1980), Dépestre judged the mortal sin of his generation to be its abdication to ethnic nationalism. There was the U.S.-trained military, led by Col. Paul Magloire, who would be the next president, and an all-star noirist team. Prominent among them were the future dictator François Duvalier and his mentors, Lorimer Denis and Clovis Désinor, who would serve in successive cabinets. These men had little interest in economic development. They wanted power and would settle for whatever personal gains they could extract from a shrinking treasury.
No one noticed at the time, but in the tumult of '46, when all rejoiced at the coming end of formal American influence, the country was at the peak of its organizational and economic performance. It is difficult to imagine today, but in 1950 Haiti's gross domestic product surpassed the Dominican Republic's. According to the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), Haiti's GDP that year was $3.2 billion, versus $2.5 billion for the DR. The per capita income for Haitians was then $1,051, and for Dominicans $1,045.
Two decades of routes disrupted by World War II had created unprecedented demand for all the sisal, coffee, cacao, cotton, banana, sugar and other agricultural products Haiti could spare. Traders in Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haitien found their coffers overflowing from goods sold to the United States.
Robert and Nancy Heinl, in their history of Haiti, Written in Blood, observe that the newly emancipated politicians had millions in cash from duties in both directions and other levies, including a new income tax introduced in 1947. Sadly, there was no reinvestment in the agricultural sector that produced wartime fortunes.
In August 1946, a parliamentary body of questionable integrity selected Dumarsais Estimé, an attorney and senior civil servant, as president. And soon after, the men in the photograph and many other Haitian intellectuals set aside their vision of a transformed Haiti. Dépestre accepted a fellowship to study in France. Someone not in the photo — the very influential Jacques-Stephen Alexis, physician, novelist, Marxist and co-founder of La ruche — also took off for Paris.
Estimé put the final nail in the coffin of Haiti's troubled foreign-investment environment. In 1947 he annulled American Standard Fruit's banana-export license. Then he turned over the business to seven of his closest friends. These men knew even less about bananas than Estimé did about modern governance. Banana exports — Haiti's second largest by value — fell from 500,000 stems in early 1947 to 134,257 stems in 1949, a 75 percent decline in two years. Exports soon ceased altogether.
Haiti's chronic hostility toward foreign investments, and the government du jour's successive confiscations of corporate property, continue to earn the country a high-risk designation for global capital. While the Dominican Republic attracted $13.5 billion in foreign direct investments between 2000 and 2009, Haiti drew just $371.9 million.
Long before the added complication of a Marxist regime next door in Cuba, the young men in the photograph would have warranted the attention of a U.S. intelligence officer, perhaps one about their own age. This may explain why this photo, carefully annotated with a typed list of names on the reverse side, found residence in a file cabinet at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince. In a soon-to-be-published memoir, my father explains how the photo ended up in his hands a decade later.
Nearly all of the young men in the photograph were gone from Haiti within five years; most went to universities in Europe and North America. Some never returned. Others became victims of the Duvalier terror. And Haiti, entrenched in a parochial and paranoid cult of color and familial alliances, is poorer than ever.
Yves Savain is a Haitian-American entrepreneur based in the Washington, D.C., area.