United Methodists helped build this medical clinic shown in 1976 in Jeremie, Haiti. File photo by John Goodwin.
Editor’s note: This is part of a series of audio conversations about Haiti and its future hosted by the Rev. Larry Hollon, top staff executive of United Methodist Communications. The Q&A, excerpted from a longer conversation, is a transcript of the audio cast.
LH: I’m Larry Hollon and I’m happy to have as my guest today Haiti expert Colin Dayan from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. Professor Dayan, whose mother is Haitian, spent the first two decades of her career studying Haiti and is the author of “Haiti, History and the Gods.” The professor’s insight into Haitian history and politics is invaluable as we try to understand not only the past of this tortured country, but also as we look to what the future will bring.
Let’s talk a bit about the role that history has played in Haiti’s current situation. How has history affected it?
CD: I’m glad you asked that because one of the things we are not getting from the media is the history, and I think it’s really important in these scenes of ruin and absolute disaster to remember that Haiti had a very proud history. It was the first black republic in the New World, the only successful revolution of slaves. The revolution began in 1791, it ended with the Proclamation of Independence in 1804, and it was a very visionary time. You have to imagine that on one hand Haiti was a terrific threat for the southern United States and other slave-holding countries. And on the other side, for those peoples who were oppressed, Haiti became a beacon. As the poet and writer Aimé Césaire said, Haiti was the first black epic of the New World.
The Haitian Constitution of 1805 proclaimed that anyone who was on the side of Haiti could be considered Haitian. And so it was a redefinition of nationhood and of race that had great promise. There was also, given the long history of slavery and oppression, another article of the constitution that said no white proprietor should ever again step foot on the soil of Haiti and own property.
Now Haiti was, from the time of independence, condemned by the so-called civilized world. France would not recognize Haiti until 1825 unless [the Haitians] paid an indemnity for the property of those planters who had lost their slaves. This saddled Haiti with an onerous debt that kept it extremely impoverished. But the debts kept piling up. And I think that this idea of recognition is so crucial because as close as Haiti is to the United States, it wasn’t recognized until 1862 by the United States.
So Haiti, in the media, its history has always taken a kind of second place to images that are obviously negative—a festering landscape, a primitive people. So most of my life and most of my work has been dedicated to trying to demonstrate another history for Haiti that is certainly part and parcel of a culture.
And finally, I think in terms of a historical background, all of us as Americans have to be aware that the American occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934—although it built a lot of roads and might have modernized in part—had tremendously bad resonances later not only for the relationship between governance and despotism, but the kind of ownership that for Haitians took away a great deal of the initiative from themselves and gave it to foreign colonial or dominating powers.
For example, when CNN says, or [U.N. Special Envoy for Haiti Bill] Clinton says, “We want a new history” to Haiti, I think some Haitians would say, “Wait a minute. Why not retrieve an older history?” Because there is a way in which Haiti just didn’t begin to fester and become impoverished spontaneously. And so I want to say and emphasize that there’s a long history of intervention and exploitation by outside powers and forces who, to a large degree, reduced Haiti to the state that it’s in now.
LH: How will Haitians be able to move toward healing?
CD: I think that’s an excellent, excellent question. I mean, I think the word “healing” is crucial. One of the really disturbing things that just came out was not so much Pat Robertson’s idea—the obscene idea that this [earthquake] is a curse for a pact with the devil—but an op-ed piece that was written by David Brooks in the New York Times, which talked about development, an imposition of tough, middle-class values.
And this is a repetition of an argument that Lawrence Harrison had promoted when he was head of USAID, the agency for international development back in the ’80s that voodoo was a part of a culture that was retrograde. If we could erase voodoo, if we could erase these practices in this culture and substitute instead industrialization, a movement to the cities, an erasure of the peasantry, we might begin to civilize Haiti.
The Rev. Larry Hollon
Haitians have within themselves a great deal, as we see with the initiative they’re taking even now in the midst of this horrific catastrophe—the means to propel themselves into a place that would be a very, very positive locus for healing. And if you have a lot of humanitarian aid organizations, well-meaning it’s true, coming in from the outside, and you also have governmental organizations coming in, they come and they go, as we were saying. They don’t often stay.
And much of the money doesn’t really go into institutions that are Haitian—and there are many Haitian institutions, not just religious practices but institutions for education. There was a vast university—not a vast university system—but the libraries of Haiti, the archives themselves, have been instrumental in many of us who write on Haiti being able to retrieve the 19th century past. Those are destroyed. Mission records are at risk. If there is a rain, many of these libraries will be lost.
So in terms of healing, one wants to deal with Haitians themselves who…maybe we would call them grass-roots organizations, but you could also say that there are Haitians who have expertise in relieving Haitians as well.
So if U.S.-led groups could connect with groups like PAPDA [the Platform to Advocate Alternative Policy], the Lambi Fund, or Partners in Health, which we hear so much about, it would make a tremendous difference because then you would not have people from the outside coming in to give charity, which I think is a dangerous thing, but coming in from the outside to join up with, because Haitians by and large, even though they are impoverished, have a dignity and a pride given their history.
And I think also on the ground there are a number of institutes for democracy and justice that have been instrumental in keeping human rights alive in Haiti at points when they were at great risk. I think that would be the road to healing, to work from the ground up and not to impose other values from above.
LH: You are not a developmental specialist— I say that simply as a qualifier—but you have pointed to, in your conversation, behaviors in the ’80s that led people from the land and pushed them into cities, and that that had economic consequences.
Going forward, Haiti is obviously going to need to rebuild from the center of Port-au-Prince all the way out because of the destruction. In terms of empowerment of peoples and development, how would you see this future playing out? What is needed to be successful in developing?
CD: Again, what is most needed is not the idea of some kind of imperial compassion and care, but working with the groups that already exist, and I would be delighted to send out on your listserv a list. I mentioned the Lambi Group. I mentioned, of course in terms of medical care, Partners in Health. But there are many other organizations throughout Haiti in Port-au-Prince and in the countryside that have been—during dire situations in the past 10 years when there was quote “no government” or very little—helping Haitians to survive: educational institutions as well as groups that provide welfare and services. And so there has to be a much more decentralized effort. The idea that if you are elite you will then bring in big business and you will try to set up a corporate kind of realm for Haiti, which would repeat a lot of the disasters that we have already seen... Haitians are something more than a captive labor force.
And so in closing I would say it is getting in touch with Haitian groups who are there on the ground, helping people right now. Haiti is not a tabula rasa to be reinvented by the U.S. and other forces outside it. But if you could work with these groups as you go in and ask their advice, they know the regions of the country. They know the needs of the people. And if just a bit of that could be done, I think we would avoid the selling out of Haiti to large interests, both industrial and otherwise, because Haiti does have a long history, and I think it needs to be respected.
I did hear, sitting in a shop yesterday, a coffee shop, one possible solution, and I think this is the extreme negative: “Well, maybe we should just move all the Haitians out.” So I’ll leave you with that. There is a lot of education that needs to be done about who these Haitians are. Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to do that.
LH: Thank you.