In an op-ed “The Underlying Tragedy” published in the New York Times of January 14, 2010, David Brooks blames Haitian culture as the cause of its poverty: “Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile.” Asking the question, “Why Haiti is so poor?” he goes on to compare Haiti to other countries like Barbados and the Dominican Republic that, supposedly, have similar histories: “[Haiti] has a history of oppression, slavery and colonialism. But so does Barbados, and Barbados is doing pretty well. Haiti has endured ruthless dictators, corruption and foreign invasions. But so has the Dominican Republic, and the D.R. is in much better shape.” Coming soon after Pat Robertson’s denunciation of Haiti’s “pact with the Devil” as the cause of its calamity, one is flabbergasted by the blatant racism of such assertions—to say nothing of the intellectual laziness they manifest.
Although Pat Robertson placed his “pact with the Devil” remarks in the spiritual realm, essentially what his conservative movement has problem with is the practical impact the Haitian antislavery revolution had on the plantation system in the United States, bankrupting many interests that relied on its maintenance. Thus, the vehemence of its ideological inheritors who never forgive Haiti for that sin, as they believe that colonization, slavery and US imperialist policies are part of its “manifest destiny,” its very raison d’être.
According to Brooks’ s reasoning, in order to make a dent in the problematic of the poverty of Haiti, one only has to replace “parts of the local culture with a highly demanding, highly intensive culture of achievement…”
Critics like Mark Danner and Bill Moyers have already discredited the comparison with Barbados and the Dominican Republic, noting the tremendous, crippling impact the century-long independence recognition payments imposed by France, and the no less damaging half a century-long US embargo have had on Haiti’s development project. But it’s not futile to add here some emphasis to the context.
It’s very interesting to note that this kind of remarks has a long tradition behind it, which includes (to cite only these two) the book of Spencer Saint-John, Hayti or the Black Republic (1884), and that of Hesket Prichard, When Black Rules Whites, A Journey Across and About Hayti (1910), in which Haiti and the Haitians are depicted as uncultivated, anthropophagic savages bestialized by the practice of Vodou. The Code Noir of France’s King Louis XIV has since 1685 legislated this belief.
The reported damage and destruction are normal consequences one would expect from a 7.3 magnitude earthquake that rocks a third-world country with rudimentary infrastructure and preexisting geological, tectonic plate faults. But because of Haiti’s special history and its ambivalent, unsettling place in the West’s consciousness, other elements are at play in the apprehension of the quake. Chief among these elements is the fact that Haiti is the only successful slave rebellion in the history of humankind. As history it is an interesting narrative in the realm of legends and fables, but I don’t think it is registered among the general public, nor apprehended as real human history that took place in our world, not too long ago.
Indeed, if one makes the effort to understand the context of Haiti’s poverty, that is the historical, geopolitical and epistemological climate the country was born in, it is not that difficult to understand its poor economic shape today: The rancor of three European powers—France, Spain and England—was brought to bear on the young nation, one imposed a debilitating independence recognition payment under threat of invasion that lasted more than a century (from 1825 to 1947); another power, Spain, actually warring against it in support of its lost colony (the Dominican Republic); and an emerging power, the United States, neighbor to the north, that imposed a strict embargo for fifty years, despising it for constituting a “bad example” and a threat to the maintenance of its own slavery-based economy. As for England, while not actively engaging in sabotage, it pretty much acquiesced to its rivals’ politics in Haiti. If you add to that decades of foreign occupation and absence of investment in the country’s development, unending depredatory collusion among international lenders, a parasitic bourgeoisie, and tyrannical governments, the picture becomes clearer. Naturally for people like Pat Robertson and David Brooks, it’s rather ideology, not ignorance, that motivates their ire toward Haiti.
Reporting of the damage of the quake from the Western media always includes the litany that Haiti is “the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.” The question one should ask, first of all, is how “riches/richness” is defined in relation to its opposite “poverty,” and to what calculation of degree is Haiti deemed “the poorest”?
If you define “riches/richness” in terms of quantitative measurement of production; in terms of how many banks there are, how many people are unemployed, and how many people are getting rich on the backs of the poor, who are getting poorer and poorer; if you define “riches/richness” in terms of how many people who have villa-size homes per square mile, in relation to the many millions (in a total population of 9 million) who live in shanty-towns and rudimentary huts; in terms of how many can eat at their ease and receive proper medical care when they’re sick, in relation to how many others who go to bed hungry almost every night and who die in the hundreds of thousands for lack of medical infrastructure and care; if you define “riches/richness” in terms of the degradation of the environment, of its noxiousness and the precariousness of life; yes, if you apply those statistics and methodology of measurement, Haiti is certainly poor, even “the poorest in the hemisphere,” as the phrasing goes.
On the other hand, if you define “riches/richness” by a different methodological measurement and epistemological perspective, by a different standard and criterion, a different ontological valorization of Having and Being, you will certainly come up, in assessing Haiti, with a different grade-value. For example, compared to most countries in the world, Haiti has had historically a tremendous number of artists, writers, poets, storytellers, musicians, painters, sculptors, etc., in relation to its population. This is a fact that has been observed—and lauded.
If you define riches/richness in terms of human resourcefulness and resilience; in terms of intellectual and philosophical validation and achievement; in terms of the country’s human potential and the beauty of its land (in spite of the deforestation and soil pollution); if you define riches/richness in terms of the value of the Haitian Revolution in the foundation of our modernity, in terms of both the Revolution’s direct impact on the establishment of liberated nation-states in the Western hemisphere (aid in the forms of arms, money and people to South-American liberators Sebastian Francisco de Miranda in 1806, and Simon Bolivar in 1811), and its symbolic reference on the slave plantations in the United States; if you define riches/richness in terms of the acquisition, through the Louisiana Purchase, of almost half of the United States of 1804, which Haiti’s pro-independence and anti-slavery revolutionaries forced Napoleon to sell in order to finance the wars he was fighting against them and against England; if you define riches/richness in terms of the Haitian state’s anticolonialist stand in world politics, which benefited countless countries fighting for national independence, including Greece; if you define riches/richness in terms of the humanism and hospitality of Haiti’s people; yes, if you use instead this measurement, Haiti is among the richest countries in the world.
Fortunately—in spite of imperialist, opportunistic reflexes many may harbor—, there is a silver lining even amid the tragic devastation and the years of hard reconstructive work that they will entail: the genuine, universal human empathy and solidarity that the quake has generated. Joined with the Haitian people’s willingness to use the quake as an opportunity to rebuild the country on better, sounder grounds, the international—or interpeople—solidarity, if it remains resolute, can constitute a transcendent human project with universal dimension. A project to build something good, beautiful and elevating from the rubble of destruction, chaos and suffering. That was the promise of the Haitian Revolution.
Maybe that sounds like utopia, but utopia in the service of human wellbeing and elevation is not a bad word—or deed.