The Mirage of Sovereignty

By Christopher D’Urso

In today’s post-colonial world, the political status of various Caribbean states, which are semi-autonomous possessions of overseas powers, appears to be an anachronism.  Remarkably, nineteen out of the thirty-five Caribbean states remain in a condition of non-sovereign “purgatory” where they lack true legal and economic equality to the metropole (Bonilla 2015:xii, 7-9).  This debilitating ambiguity has led Caribbean citizens to frequently question and redefine their meaning of freedom, often resulting in protest.  The most explosive example by far was the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804 which demonstrated that an independent black society in the Americas could be formed.  Learning from the lessons of this upheaval, union workers in the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe have rebelled against an elitist government out of touch with its citizens’ needs, resulting in a massive island-wide strike in 2009.  Although both revolts attempted to craft new visions of sovereignty, their goals and methods reflected the distinctive contexts of the respective time period.  Despite these contrasts, the two uprisings unfortunately revealed that one form of emancipation will always be followed by another form of “slavery.”

Auguste Raffet's depiction of the Battle of Vertières in 1803, a decisive win for the Haitian rebels that ended the war. 

Auguste Raffet's depiction of the Battle of Vertières in 1803, a decisive win for the Haitian rebels that ended the war. 

In examining the objectives of both revolutions, the modern political struggles of the French Caribbean most closely resemble the early stages of the Haitian revolt.  Initially, the Haitians were content with maintaining a relationship with France if slavery was abolished and freed people were granted the same rights as French citizens (DuBois 2011:281).  As DuBois notes, “liberty was won by the slaves of Saint-Domingue, then, not by attacking French metropolitan authority but by pledging allegiance to it” (DuBois 2011:283).  The Haitians decided to demand full independence only when it became clear emancipation and equal rights would be overturned if Haiti remained a French colony under the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte (DuBois 2011:284).  In the modern French Caribbean, activists such as Aimé Césaire adopted a “pragmatic” approach, cautious to embrace independence since free Haiti “‘was more miserable than Martinique, a French colony’” (Wilder 2015:21, 29).  Césaire thus proposed departmentalization in 1946 whereby French Caribbean citizens would be granted equal rights to their metropolitan counterparts, similar to the initial demands of Haitian rebels.  Unfortunately, these enacted policies contained various exceptions which allowed French laws to be “adapted or simply deferred” (Bonilla 2015:23).  This created a situation of startling economic inequality due to the higher cost of living compounded with the lower minimum wage in overseas departments.

Césaire and his supporters disappointingly realized that departmentalization would not solve the problem of non-sovereignty.  As a result, the pendulum of political action in the French Caribbean swung in the opposite direction during the 1970s and 1980s, emphasizing nationalism and, in some cases, armed struggles for independence through organizations such as the Armed Liberation Group (Bonilla 2015:34-35).  However, by the 1990s, it became clear independence was “a once contemplated but no longer imaginable political option” (Bonilla 2015:36).  Consequently, the pendulum has swung back toward Césaire’s mission of securing equality while remaining connected to France.  This desire for increased autonomy and legal protections was fully evident in recent labor strikes where protesters proclaimed, “‘Guadeloupe is ours, not theirs! They cannot do as they please in our country!” (Bonilla 2015:1).  Their demands focused on addressing the disparities created by departmentalization between mainland France and the Caribbean, arguing for a higher minimum wage and fixed prices on key consumer goods (Bonilla 2015: 171).  Accordingly, the current meaning of revolution in the French Caribbean more closely resembles that in Haiti during the early stages of its rebellion.  Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether Guadeloupians will ultimately reach the same conclusion as Haitians that subordination to France is no longer a tenable or desirable political arrangement.

While their objectives may have differed, both Haitian and French Caribbean citizens relied on the slave tradition of marronage to enact revolution.  On one hand, Haitians resorted to gran marronage, defined as “long-term escape” which is “deemed ‘grand’ in both its duration and intent … [and is] more politically ambitious” (Bonilla 2015:43-44).  Instead of complying with Napoleon’s new regime, the Haitians bitterly fought back, declaring their independence.  On the other hand, French Caribbean activists have adopted the strategies of petit marronage whereby they eschew a wholesale departure from the political status quo.  Instead, they “engaged selectively with the dominant system, drawing from its resources when needed” (Bonilla 2015:42).  This is evident in a wide spectrum of actions from Césaire’s attempt to create an “‘Antillean French’ or a ‘Black French’” to the labor unions’ exploitation of the law and media during strikes in the 2000s (Bonilla 2015:50, 55).  Guadeloupian union leader Max explains they use “‘the law as long as it serves us.  As soon as the law holds us back, we break with the law … that is the tradition of the nèg mawon’” (Bonilla 2015:55).  Although unions have increasingly resorted to debilitating strikes which barricade roads and shut down large portions of the island, they refrain from pursuing the complete rupture embodied by gran marronage.

Equally important, Haitians and Guadeloupian activists implemented revolution through an embrace of their creole cultural background.  In fact, many trace the roots of the Haitian Revolution to vodou and the Bois-Caïman religious ceremony where plans for the rebellion were finalized and participants conversed with the deities “whose aid in the endeavor was seen as crucial” (DuBois 2011:279).  Similarly, Guadeloupian union leaders emphasized the use of the Creole language to not only organize the population but also resist customs and regulations which promoted French cultural hegemony.  At the same time, they encouraged a return to traditional gwoka music and dance (Bonilla 2015:31).  However, activists interestingly discouraged reliance on folk religions which “ran counter to the ideals of self-sufficiency and self-determination” (Bonilla 2015:32) needed to challenge French omnipotence.

These notable differences in the goals and methods employed by the Haitians and French Caribbean protestors reflect the distinct geopolitical and economic contexts which characterized their time period.  Primarily, the conditions leading to the Haitian Revolution provided greater prospects for wholescale rebellion.  As Trouillot highlights, insurrection was considered unthinkable by the metropole since slaves were not considered “men” and thus not capable of the organization required for a successful uprising.  In fact, plantation owners remarked the slaves were “‘very tranquil and obedient.  A revolt among them is impossible’” (Trouillot 1995:72).  Additionally, the allowance of Sunday markets where slaves could sell their own crops provided a degree of economic independence which would help slaves sustain themselves after freedom.  The markets also enabled “the creation of cross-plantation community and collusion” (DuBois 2011:277).  Furthermore, the presence of a large and wealthy non-white population in Haiti was one of “the most important source[s] of freedom” where they often clashed with white planters who “represented an extension of French power” (Mintz 2010:99).  While non-white individuals continued to gain economic power and wealth due to inheritance laws, white planters attempted to increasingly restrain the legal rights of their opponents.  Mintz argues this “bitter and divisive struggle” caused planters to ignore the rumblings of restless slaves who exploited this opportunity to rebel (Mintz 2010:105-106).  Combined with the radical new ideas of freedom and the “rights of man” unleashed by the French Revolution, these economic and political conditions provided the ability and motivation for slaves to finally pursue independence.

Conversely, the current environment in the French Caribbean is significantly more restrictive, limiting the types of political action which protestors can embrace.  Primarily, the French government realizes that revolt is no longer “unthinkable” in its overseas departments.  Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy recognized independence was a possible recourse for activists but repeatedly asserted it was “‘out of the question’” (Bonilla 2015:2).  As a result, the French government has attempted to intimidate the unions and forestall uprisings by sending its counterterrorism unit, “heavily armed, in full riot gear, and sporting black ski masks” to arrest labor leader Michel Mandassamy in 2004 merely for the destruction of private property (Bonilla 2015:93).  Moreover, in today’s globalized world, Guadeloupians are unduly reliant upon imported food products, lacking the economic independence needed to support a full revolution.  Additionally, wealth and economic power on the island is highly concentrated where the vast majority of businesses are owned by white individuals (Bonilla 2015:69).  Consequently, political struggles are clearly defined with white entrepreneurs on one side and black or Indian union workers on the other.  There is no third group, like the free non-white class in Haiti, to distract the attention of those in control.  Furthermore, the power of white business owners is so entrenched that they are able to withstand strikes with little to no capitulation.  As union leaders note, the food company Sucré preferred shutting down for weeks and hiring expensive lawyers rather than yielding to employee demands (Bonilla 2015:78).  Unlike Haiti, activists in the French Caribbean do not have the freedom to pursue gran marronage, resorting instead to petit marronage to gain equal rights while resigning themselves to a future under French rule.

In the long-term, these rebellions have reshaped notions of sovereignty both on the international level and for individual citizens.  The Haitian Revolution transformed ideas of human rights and challenged the hegemonic definition of man.  Establishing the first black republic in the Americas, the Revolution suddenly demonstrated that slaves possessed the capacity to revolt, sending shockwaves throughout the sugar colonies (DuBois 2011:274).  Emancipation also destroyed the country’s plantation economy, converting Haiti into a peasant nation (Mintz 2010:111).  Unfortunately, labor strikes in Guadeloupe throughout the 2000s were not as successful whereby many of the 165 concessions granted in 2009 proved difficult to enact (Bonilla 2015:171).  Nevertheless, the strikes transformed how citizens conceptualize their non-sovereign status.  It generated greater solidarity with those on the piquet learning of shared problems and has led to reassessments of everyday life where Guadeloupians now “increasingly assert the need to manjé local” (Bonilla 2015:76, 172).  Moreover, these uprisings have significantly impacted the historical narratives of both nations in distinct manners.  Haiti’s history has been redefined by international perceptions that it is the poorest country in the West, led by a people who have no idea how to effectively govern themselves.  This sadly generates a self-fulfilling prophecy of destitution and dependence.  On the other hand, the strikes reconnected Guadeloupe with its colonial history, combatting its “‘lack of stable narratives about the past’” (Bonilla 2015:136).  Through union-organized memory walks which toured old plantations, workers were able to learn and appreciate even the smallest historical aspects of slavery (Bonilla 2015:142-143).

Despite these political gains, both Haiti and the French Caribbean remain hopelessly under the thumb of foreign institutions.  For instance, Haiti’s control by France has repeatedly been replaced by other forms of domination.  During the United States’ military occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934, the Marines reconstructed the nation, concentrating power in the capital of Port Au-Prince at the expense of regional governance.  The U.S. also undermined Haiti’s cultural autonomy by supporting the prohibition of vodou practices (Ramsey 2005:169).  Currently, nongovernmental organizations exert inordinate influence in providing key services such that “Haiti is sliced up…ceding near-sovereign control to the NGO ‘fiefdoms’” (Schuller 2012:6).   Likewise, Guadeloupe is constantly reminded of the power exerted by overseas political and economic interests.  This tragic reality is epitomized by the story of a woman who pledged only to buy local products but soon realized she could not live without imported yogurt.  However, she exclaimed she would purchase “only one, though!” (Bonilla 2015:170-171).

In summation, these instances of political action in Haiti and the French Caribbean have espoused contrasting goals and methods for achieving revolution.  These differences, where each country emphasized distinct components of slave traditions, reflect the varying geopolitical and economic contexts of the two eras. Although both failed to fully achieve their objectives, the long-term effects provide important lessons for more general political struggles throughout the Caribbean and worldwide.  They demonstrate that true sovereignty is an impossible ideal as even a free and autonomous country like Haiti will be perpetually under some degree of foreign control.  In a globalized world, economic interactions, driven largely by consumerist desires, will further erode notions of self-sufficiency and independence.  Despite that movements may be based on strong sentiments of solidarity, success will be significantly hampered by these unavoidable external forces.  In defining the accomplishments of a political struggle, protestors must thus look beyond the failure to achieve impossible feats and instead emphasize the “‘unspectacular’ transformations that abound in the daily re-creations of ordinary life” (Bonilla 2015:172).  Simply put, activists must not be fooled by the mirage of sovereignty.


Christopher D'Urso is an assistant online editor for the Sigma Iota Rho Journal of International Relations. He is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in International Relations. 

Works Cited

Bonilla, Yarimar.  2015.  Non-Sovereign Futures:  French Caribbean Politics in the Wake of Disenchantment.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press.

Mintz, Sidney.  2010. “Haiti.”  In Three Ancient Colonies:  Caribbean Themes and Variations, pp. 88-133.  Cambridge:  Harvard University Press.

Palmié, Stephan and Francisco A. Scarano (Eds.).  2011.  The Caribbean:  A History of the Region and Its Peoples.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press.

Ramsey, Kate.  2005. “Prohibition, Persecution, Performance:  Anthropology and the Penalization of Vodou in mid-20th Century.”  Gradhiva 1:165-179.

Schuller, Mark.  2012.  Killing with Kindness:  Haiti, International Aid, and NGOs, pp. 1-40.  New Brunswick, NJ:  Rutgers University Press.

Trouillot, Michel Rolph.  1995. “An Unthinkable History.”  In Silencing the Past:  Power and the Production of History.  Boston:  Beacon Press.

Wilder, Gary.  2015.  Freedom Time:  Negritude, Decolonization, and the Future of the World.  Durham, NC:  Duke University Press, pp. 17-48, 167-205.