Redemption in Haiti?

At the moment, the focus in Haiti must surely be on rescuing people trapped in rubble and treating the wounded. Soon the focus will shift to the grim task of burying the countless dead. Then comes the long struggle to rebuild. This will require sustained aid from the rest of the world. So far, the response is awesome for its speed and breadth. Teams are coming to Port-au-Prince from around the world. I worry that in our world of short news cycles and people with brief attention spans, we will not offer the kind of sustained assistance that will be necessary. People will need assistance with shelter, food, water, clothing, and medical care for months, if not years. Even before the disaster, living conditions and poverty in Haiti were breathtaking.

I watch the news and, perhaps like many of you, it’s hard to refrain from crying in sorrow. Perhaps we should also be crying in rage. It turns out that Haiti has been the victim not only of a recent natural disaster, but of a long-term moral disaster. I knew something about this, because my parents as part of church medical mission traveled to Haiti a number of times as I was growing up . My father offered dental care and my mother would do what she could to help out the medical teams. I was too young to go. Anyway, our house was full of carvings and paintings from Haiti, and I watched my father give dozens of slide presentations to church groups on Haiti and its people. So, while I’ve not yet been there, Haiti and its history were not totally unfamiliar to me as the distressing news began to break.

For those of you who may not be familiar with the 300-year woeful history, it goes something like this. The French were “awarded” the western part of the island of Hispaniola in 1697. As a Times of London article puts it,

[The French] planted sugar and coffee, supported by an unprecedented increase in the importation of African slaves. Economically, the result was a success, but life as a slave was intolerable. Living conditions were squalid, disease was rife, and beatings and abuses were universal. The slaves’ life expectancy was 21 years. After a dramatic slave uprising that shook the western world, and 12 years of war, Haiti finally defeated Napoleon’s forces in 1804 and declared independence. But France demanded reparations: 150m francs, in gold.

Yes, you read that correctly. The people who won their freedom from an oppressive regime had to pay “reparations”. This budding young nation, instead of celebrating the radical idea that slaves could win their freedom to found a nation, were saddled with unimaginable debt.  These people faced a new servitude: the slavery of debt.

There was no relief from major western powers.

By 1900, it was spending 80% of its national budget on repayments. In order to manage the original reparations, further loans were taken out — mostly from the United States, Germany and France. Instead of developing its potential, this deformed state produced a parade of nefarious leaders, most of whom gave up the insurmountable task of trying to fix the country and looted it instead. In 1947, Haiti finally paid off the original reparations, plus interest. Doing so left it destitute, corrupt, disastrously lacking in investment and politically volatile.

Then, just 10 years later, the Duvalier family took over. Even by developing country dictator standards, “Papa Doc” Duvalier was astonishing in his brutality. Thousands were executed. The country mostly slipped further into poverty, while the regime lived extravagantly. The Duvalier lifestyle was financed by deals with American commercial interests and government loans.

In 1967, American-owned plantations in the Dominican Republic paid Papa Doc directly for rounding up 20,000 Haitians to work on their lands. In 1972, his son and heir, Baby Doc’s minister of the interior, was exposed for literally selling Haitian blood to private American hospitals: $3 a litre, no questions asked.

Yes, friends their blood is literally on American hands. And the debt of this corrupt regime still enslaves the people of Haiti.

The debts incurred by the Duvaliers make up 45% of Haiti’s total current debt. None of the creditors finds the fact of their complicity a compelling argument for cancellation. Those creditors include the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, the IMF and the governments of the US and France.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Boing Boing has this to say:

Today, Haiti is still paying off the debt of an oppressive dictator no one would help them get rid of for 30 years. The rest of the world refuses to forgive this debt. So, in a way, maybe Robertson is right. Haiti is caught in a deal with the devil, and the devil is us.

So what can be done? Well, it’s obvious. The nation of Haiti needs debt relief. Complete and total debt relief. There’s a bill in Congress now to do this. It’s the only way they have a prayer of getting ahead of the curve. But that’s just the beginning.

The people of the developed world must demonstrate unprecedented magnanimity. We must be boundless in our financial generosity and willing — when the time is right — to travel to Haiti to do rebuilding work. Everyone who has a safe place to sleep at night can afford a few dollars, which will go a long ways in Haiti. Our government’s ability to fight discretionary wars at a cost of $100s of billions suggests that we could find tens of billions, at least, to rebuild.

There is an opportunity for redemption here — a chance to rebuild Haiti so that it is a different kind of nation. Rather than being a nation defined by the extremity of its suffering, it could be a nation defined by the resiliency of its people. My parents, who mostly worked in rural Haiti, spoke about the joy of the Haitian people. Given their challenges, this is remarkable. If we could free this nation from its economic shackles, and support fair government as well, perhaps there is real hope.

Rebuilding efforts should be geared primarily toward efficient and study construction, using local labor and materials as much as possible. This must not become another opportunity for the Halliburtons of the world to get richer. We have to think bigger than “buy American” and think “buy Haitian” when possible in this work. This could provide the economic boost that would permanently change the cycle in Haiti. One of the reasons Europe prospered in the 20th century was the Marshall Plan. Bombed city centers were rebuilt carefully (though often using unfortunate architecture, given the period). Economic aid was generous. People prospered. The same is possible here.

Now is the time for us to start contacting our legislators in Washington. We need to ask, first, for immediate debt relief. Second, we should ask that rebuilding efforts be geared toward thoroughly aiding the Haitian people and economy, not rewarding American corporations. Having been involved in some USAID-funded work in Africa, I know that often the aid contracts written by our government, with “buy American” requirements, are often inefficient and ineffective. Where materials can be purchased locally, we should do that and thus doubly help the Haitian people.

We cannot say this tragedy is a good thing. It is a disaster of epic proportion. But it does represent an opportunity for redemption and rebirth. Let us pray that we end the cycle of disasters and begin a new cycle of hope.

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4 Responses

  1. Matt Gunter says:

    Or it could be that the Haitians made a pact with the devil:

    How’s that for blaming the victim?


    This is a fine post. It is important to remember that there are reasons beyond bad luck for Haiti being the poorest country in the hemisphere. Injustice and tyranny take a toll as do international systems that favor the wealthy countries.

  2. I do agree with this text… though I think what is happening now tells us more about the redemption of the whole planet than about the redemption of Haïti… it is thanks to Haïti that the world gets this incredibly powerful opportunity for experimenting true compassion, true brotherhood,suddenly realizing what is important and what is not in this life, sharing with everyone on the planet different feelings: fragility, humility, strength, faith… The sufferings of Haiti enables the western countries to get rid of this conscious or unconscious feeling of guilt vs this country, haitian people’s pain is so immense that our ‘western’ hearts suddenly “melt” and at last we open our arms to the haitian people. Now, we are able to answer positively to the question the haitian people have been asking for some centuries : ‘NE SUIS-JE PAS TON FRERE ?’. We are the ones who must say THANK YOU to the haitian people for this spiritual relief…

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