Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Thoughts on recent Haiti commentaries

As a progressive reporter and analyst working on the ground in Haiti, I have gotten fairly used to reading ignorant commentary on the Caribbean nation of 9 million over the years.

Last month, the dust had not even settled from the earthquake that destroyed large sections of Port-au-Prince and killed some 2000,000 people when the voices of intolerance and opportunism set about savaging a country that was already on its knees.

The irony of Rush Limbaugh - a man so obese that he can barely stand maligning a nation of the chronically underfed - telling listeners not to support the hundreds of thousands made homeless by the quake met the venomous snake-oil rhetoric of Pat Robertson, who denounced those buried under the rumble for having made “a pact with the Devil.” Further libeling the dead, the American basketball player Paul Shirley wrote that “shouldn’t much of the responsibility for the disaster lie with the victims of that disaster,” a remark that got him wisely fired by ESPN.

Unfortunately, though, the right are not the only ones whose views of Haiti seems to have been colored by political prejudice and misunderstanding. In recent years, a small but noisy sector of the international left has been equally irresponsible in its commentary about Haiti, with some commentators wishing to see all foreign countries in terms of facile good guy-bad guy scenarios

Center for Economic and Policy Research co-director Mark Weisbrot - a man so intellectually lazy he often gets the basic details of Haiti’s history wrong - characterizes despotic former Haitian ruler Jean-Bertrand Aristide as “Haiti's democratically elected president...kidnapped by the US and flown to exile in Africa,” Naomi Klein, interviewing Aristide in his gilded South Africa exile (where the South African government underwrites his expenses to the tune of that of a government minister), wrote that Aristide is proof of her own anti-globalization credo, as she credulously repeats Aristide’s contention that he was ousted because of his resistance to the “privatization” of Haiti’s state industries. Writing in the Guardian after having spent only two months in Haiti and having written of his support of Mr. Aristide before having ever set foot in the country, the academic Peter Hallward concludes that “Aristide's own government...was overthrown by an internationally sponsored coup in 2004 that killed several thousand people and left much of the population smouldering in resentment.”

These assertions would likely be news to the people I spoke to in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, when the city was still reeling from the impact of the quake, the fires still smoldering and the bodies still perfuming the air with the sickly-sweet decay of human flesh. To the people I did speak to in places like the capital’s crowded Delmas road, along, the busy Route Freres and even in Aristide’s former home of Tabarre, the reaction to the former president’s January offer to be flown to Haiti veered between disparaging comments that Aristide was a criminal to bitter observations that Aristide should buy a ticket and come dig with his hands through the rubble like everyone else, rather than waiting to be ferried home like a returning emperor. During a visit to Haiti’s countryside last summer, I found the response to the mention of Aristide’s name even more hostile. The president’s Fanmi Lavalas party, badly divided and unwisely banned from upcoming legislative elections, can still rouse a few thousand people for street rallies in the capital, but the movement seems largely a spent force and Haitians seem largely to have moved on.

In Haiti, a small, poor country where few people can speak or write English proficiently, the left, like the right, seems to feel that they have found the perfect canvas on which to outline their own theories and agendas, no matter how irrelevant they may be to the struggles of Haitians as whole. This cock-eyed view of history is only heightened by the habit of visiting foreigners to surround themselves with the capital’s political class, a strata of society that the Haitians themselves have learned to despise to such a degree that many poor people I spoke to last month openly hoped for a U.S. occupation of the country (something I think would be a mistake).

Perhaps the palme d'or of recent ignorant commentary on Haiti may belong to Lawrence Harrison, director of the Cultural Change Institute at the Fletcher School of International Affairs at Tufts University and the former director of the USAID mission to Haiti from 1977 to 1979.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Harrison lays the blame for Haiti’s ills at the altar of the country’s indigenous religious construct of vodou, opining that “its followers believe that their destinies are controlled by hundreds of capricious spirits who must be propitiated through voodoo ceremonies...a species of the sorcery religions that Cameroonian development expert Daniel Etounga-Manguelle identifies as one of the principal obstacles to progress in Africa.”

Further, Harrison informs his readers, following the overthrow of the French in 1804, free Haitians “were left with a value system largely shaped by African culture” and quotes the economist Sir Arthur Lewis (“himself a descendent of African slaves”) as saying that former slaves “inherited the idea that work is only fit for slaves."

Let me say this plainly: Lawrence Harrison would collapse of exhaustion if he put in half a day’s work that I have seen peasant farmers and urban laborers put in during the course of a single day in Haiti. In Haiti, securing the most basic necessities of existence is a daily, titanic struggle that people like Harrison, Limbaugh,Weisbrot et al, secure behind their desks and probably never having had to put in a strenuous day’s work in their lives, will never understand as they hide behind their pompous theories.

Vodou and its value system, in the nearly 15 years I have been traveling to Haiti, are no more arcane or nonsensical than the cosmology of Christianity, Judaism, Islam or Hinduism. I have, in fact, seen vodou it act as an important spiritual succor for people in a place where death, premature and unnatural, is a blighted daily companion, and a sense of disconnect from one's heritage a real concern.

Several years ago, while chatting with a vodou priest known as Ti Papi in the crowded Bizoton quarter of Port-au-Prince, he told me the following:

When there's tires burning in the streets, when there's coup d'etat, when there's everything else, we are still doing our ceremonies, we are still beating our drums. Politicians come and go but voodoo is always here. If it wasn't for voodoo, we would already be occupied, either by the Americans or the Dominicans. Voodoo? It's been our sovereignty, over the years.

It’s a Haitian point of view, like the political point of view of Haiti’s people, that outsiders would do well to listen to.

Between the corrosive racism of some on the right and the tired rhetoric of some on the left - each based in no way in the reality on the ground in Haiti - we have an irresponsible, ahistorical approach to the country that in no way helps to ameliorate the situation of Haiti’s poor majority. When novice commentators try and shove Haiti into their own unsophisticated binary worldview, it damages, rather than advances, the cause of Haiti’s poor. By attempting to bestow a sheen of legitimacy on a disgraced leader or by maligning Haitians’ spiritual beliefs, these commentators, far from engaging in genuine inquiry and scholarship, are in fact showing the most grievous disrespect to Haiti and its people.

Haiti deserves better than this, and it is time that foreign commentators on the country actually spent some time there, away from their comfortable desks and apartments, speaking to actual Haitians in the back of sweltering camionettes, in crowded shantytowns and in hardscrabble peasant fields, far away from the echo-chamber of the intelligentsia in which so much of the right and the left often marinate.

The Haitians, the everyday Haitians who have struggled so long against such great odds to build a decent country and to provide for their families despite so many obstacles, deserve to have their voices heard without the filter of the prejudices of perhaps well-meaning but ignorant foreigners. We owe them at least that, I think. The Haitians have a lot more to teach us about their country than we can teach them.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. I read the WSJ piece with astonishment and anger that so-called educated people could write such nonsense, and that the WSJ would publish it. I also read with skepticm an OpEd piece in the Jamaica Observer lauding Aristide--but the writer is famously polemical, so I absolve him. I found a more nuanced position on Aristide by J. Michael Dash in the NY Times.

Stephen said...

Very well put.

Stephen said...

Thanks for this important analysis Michael.