It seems appropriate to share this today, the one year anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti.
Originally published January 19, 2010
Here’s an embarrassing little secret among American Christians with a connection to Haiti: most of us have heard the story of Haitian revolutionaries selling their souls to the devil. I heard it long before Pat Robertson clumsily passed it along on television last week. The story was told to me years ago, while I was in the process of adopting from Haiti. It was told to me, as fact, by someone living in Haiti and I accepted the story as such. I didn’t question it, either historically or theologically. Like I said, it’s embarrassing. All I can say in my defense is that, thank God, over the years since then I’ve rethought a lot of things. The story of Haiti’s cursed history is one of them. I can now say, along with my fellow blogger Adam, that Pat Robertson doesn’t speak for me. But I do feel a certain empathy for him. We are all tempted to try to make sense of history through simple narratives in which bad things happen for good reasons, in which evil is punished, good triumphs in the end, and it’s easy to identify the white hats and the black hats. I don’t believe that Robertson sees contemporary Haitians as evil, at least not as a group, but in his narrative the sins of the fathers are still being visited upon the children – this time, in an “act of God” of biblical proportions.
I find Rush Limbaugh’s narrative even uglier. Pat Robertson may believe that Haiti is cursed, but at least his account leaves room for acts of compassion. For Limbaugh, everything is political warfare. If helping Haiti may benefit Limbaugh’s political enemies (the Obama administration), then Haiti must not be helped. Limbaugh also used the earthquake in Haiti to give us his version of Haitian history: Haiti is poor now because Haiti has always had corrupt dictators, and because money donated to Haiti has undermined the notion of self-reliance in Haiti. So whose fault is it that Haiti lacks the infrastructure to respond to disaster? The Haitians, of course. And while Robertson may think that God is still punishing Haitians, Limbaugh seems to think this is as good a time as any for us to start punishing them.
There’s no denying that Haiti’s history is tragic, though tragedy is never the whole story. Westerners like myself are often unaware of the rich tradition of visual art and music in Haiti, but there’s no reason to remain unaware. For starters, check out the kompa music on YouTube and you may be hooked. People are always more than their hardships, and Haitians are no exception. But still, what lies at the heart of the poverty? Is it the history of corruption in government? Dependence on foreign aid? Satanic oppression?
I’m not a scholar on Haiti, just someone whose life is irrevocably tied to the country through my son. I’d like to pass on a few pieces of Haiti’s story that Limbaugh and Robertson’s narratives overlooked.
1) What is probably the worst case of depopulation in history took place on Hispaniola (the island now comprised of Haiti and the Dominican Republic). The original inhabitants, the Taino indians, were almost completely wiped out by both disease and violence after the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. The decimation of the native population led to the importation of 790,000 African slaves. Tiny Hispaniola accounted for one-third of the entire African slave trade between 1783 and 1791.
2) As a measure of the brutality of slavery in Haiti (then called Saint-Domingue), the majority of slaves, at all times in Haiti’s colonial history, were African born. Both labor conditions and harsh treatment prevented the slave population from growing, so a constant influx of new slaves was required. This helps explain the strong, lasting influence of African culture among the slave population, particularly in the area of religion.
3) The colonial period in Haiti instituted a complicated form of racism that continued to shape the country long after the revolution. At the bottom of the ladder in Haiti were African slaves. Above them were the gens de colour (people of color), the offspring of French colonists and slaves. Gens de colour were free under colonial law, and could hold property and amass wealth. Some even became slaveholders themselves. However, they were banned from marrying whites, or mingling socially with them, as well being prevented from wearing European clothing, holding certain jobs.
4) The Vodou ceremony which is believed to have launched the Haitian revolution in 1791 is a widely (though not universally) accepted piece of Haitian history. But let’s give this story a little context, whether it’s historically true or not. The African slaves of Haiti had been forced to convert to Roman Catholicism by brutal oppressors. Is it any wonder that they turned to the gods of their traditional religions, not the god of the colonists, when seeking the power to free themselves?
5) The struggle between France and the revolutionaries of Haiti lasted for 13 years. All warfare is brutal, but the war between France and Haiti rose to a level of cruelty that has seldom been seen in the United States. The French tried to terrorize Haiti into surrendering – I’m talking about burning alive, boiling in molasses, burying in piles of insects – but the Haitians repaid each act of brutality, blood for blood. If the history of free Haiti often seems marked by government-sanctioned torture and terror, I have to ask – when did that begin? And whose sins, exactly, have been visited upon the children of Haiti’s revolution?
6) France refused to recognize Haiti as an independent country until 1825, in exchange for a payment of 90 million francs. That payment was for “lost property”, by the way, property which included the former slaves themselves. So why did Haiti pay? To end a crippling embargo against Haiti by England, France and the United States. The U.S. certainly had a vested interest in punishing Haiti for it’s independence, lest its own slaves get ideas. In fact, the United States did not recognize Haiti as an independent republic until 1862. As I said, Haiti did make the payment to France, but it was forced to take out high-interest loans in order to do so. It took Haiti another 122 years to pay off those debts.
7) Remember the high number of slaves in Haiti before the revolution? Essentially, France was continually overpopulating Haiti because of the death rate among the slaves. After the revolution the Haitian population finally began to grow as would normally be expected, but in an area about the size of Vermont. This is critical to understanding how densely populated and environmentally depleted Haiti is today.
8 ) I’ll skip over the American occupation of Haiti between 1915 and 1934, except to say that it was done for the economic and military interests of the U.S., not to stablize the Haitian government, which was admittedly chaotic at the time. There were certainly benefits for Haiti, particularly in terms of infrastructure, but they have to be weighed against the violence, forced labor, and racism that came with the occupation.
- photo courtesy of telegraph.co.uk
9) Thirty years ago, Haiti imported no rice, one of the staples of the Haitian diet. Today, almost all of the rice consumed in Haiti is imported. Why? Because when Haiti borrowed money from through the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, it was forced to open its markets to the world. The U.S. then destroyed the Haitian agricultural system by sending heavily subsidized rice and sugar into Haiti. When food riots broke out in Haiti in 2008, after a spike in worldwide rice prices, an article in the New York Times scolded that Haiti, “it’s agricultural industry in shambles, needs to better feed itself.” No mention was made of the global market forces that helped to destroy that industry. It’s a pattern that has been repeated in many countries. To understand it even better, watch the documentary Life and Debt and see what the IMF and the World Bank did to the economy in Jamaica. The “help” that is offered to struggling economies is ultimately a tool for the benefit of economic powers – particularly the United States.
I’m not writing this to portray Haitians simply as victims of European and American aggression and exploitation. That would also be too simple a narrative. For those looking to blame Haiti’s troubles on someone, there’s plenty of culpability for everyone. If I believed in a God who would still be punishing the people of Haiti for a spiritual act by their ancestors over 200 years ago – I repeat, IF I believed in that kind of God – it would seem reasonable that he might also want to punish the descendants of slavetraders, brutal plantation owners, imperialist governments and those would exploit the weak for economic gain.
Yesterday I listened to Dr. King’s “I Have Dream Speech” and was struck by the line in which he acknowledged whites who had “come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny”. Listening to the conjecture about Haiti over the past week, I marvel as how quickly we forget that it’s not just our destinies, but our histories that are tied together. The world helped to create Haiti as it is today. The world will help decide what Haiti will be like 50 years from now.
Note: A reader directed me toward a transcript of the Rush Limbaugh broadcast that I linked to above. The transcript includes more of the broadcast than the clip that I linked to, so I pass that along to you here.