I meet a lot of other foreigners who are living and working in Haiti, and oftentimes we get to talking. For those unfamiliar with the ritual of meeting another blan in Haiti, the first two questions that every single one of these conversations begins with are: 1) Who are you working with? and 2) How long have you been here? After a couple of months, I found that this conversation was no longer interesting to me, so I started to try to take it in different directions. No matter how hard I try, though, we always seem to end up talking about the same stuff: Haiti and the work that we are doing in Haiti.
People are generally too polite to comment on or criticize other people's work, at least to their faces. I feel lucky because the organization that I work for is generally well respected, and I think that people mean it when they say complimentary things. With that said, I know there are others who want to cringe when I mention that I work in microfinance, which is just fine. I'm not 100% sold on it either. Most of the time, though, we never get into any real conversations about the nature of our work. Each person thinks he or she is doing a fine job and that's the end of it.
When it comes to Haiti in general, however, the story changes. Here is where every person has an opinion, no matter who he or she is working for, no matter how long he or she has been in Haiti. People love to start their sentences with grandiose generalizations, saying things like: "You know what the problem with Haiti is?" Or, "This is what needs to happen to fix this place." There are a lot of different topics that can come up in a conversation like this, but they become significantly limited when the aforementioned unofficial rule of politeness is imposed. By taking away any sort of criticisms of what all the other benevolent foreigners are doing, the blame list gets narrowed down very quickly: Haitian politicians, Haitian elites, the Haitian poor, the Haitian education system, Haitian natural disasters, Haitian deforestation, and all sorts of other "Haitian" problems.
The conclusion that is often drawn, then, is that all of these "Haitian" problems have piled up on top of each other to the point that the country has descended into a quagmire from which it is nearly impossible to escape. It has become the job of the foreign aid and development community to come in and help Haitians (because God knows they can't do it by themselves). Each person and each organization contributes where it can -- with golden hearts, we're all just "doing our part."
What the conversation almost always fails to include, whether it be between two development workers in Haiti or between several supposed experts in the national spotlight, is any hint of historical context. Haiti has existed in a hostile environment from the beginning, always pitted in an unfair fight against the world's greatest powers. The history of foreign intervention in Haiti's affairs is shameful (and, by the way, completely on the record). Here are some examples (a lot of this is taken from a chapter in Noam Chomsky's book, Year 501):
- Haiti wins its independence from France in 1804, completing the only successful slave rebellion in history. The French immediately levy a debt on Haiti for losses sustained in the war for independence that the government of Haiti does not finishing paying back until 1947. You are reading correctly -- that's 143 years.
- The United States refuses to recognize Haiti as a country until 1862, when Abraham Lincoln decides that Haiti would be a great landing spot for ex-American slaves to land after the Civil War is won.
- Between 1849 and 1913, United States Navy ships enter into Haitian waters 24 times "to protect American lives and property."
- In 1915, the United States begins a military occupation of Haiti under President Woodrow Wilson, who would later win a Nobel Peace Prize (sound familiar?). Wilson's Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, upon learning about Haiti, shows his respect for the country by exclaiming: "Dear me, think of it! Niggers speaking French."
- Between 1957 and 1986, the United States supports the Duvalier (Papa and Baby Doc) "Presidencies for Life," under which 10s of 1,000s of Haitians are killed and terrorized, many of whom were accused of being Communists.
The list goes on. In some cases, the intervention was direct. In others, such as propping up the Duvalier regimes, it was more tacit. The common theme throughout, though, is that in the last 207 years since Haiti won its independence, it has constantly been used for the benefit of foreign powers.
When we frame the conversation in this way (which, again, is completely factually accurate), we see that the conclusions drawn about all the "Haitian" problems are disingenuous. Haiti's problems are, in fact, the direct result of more than 200 years of foreign meddling, which has bankrupted the country and facilitated the creation of a deeply-ingrained power structure, whereby the great majority of poor Haitians are not granted access to any of the country's resources.
The idea that we are all just "doing our part" to remedy these "Haitian" problems is equally troublesome. By approaching our work in this way, we ignore the root causes of the issues and resign ourselves to the Sisyphian task of palliative care. While it is noble to care for the sick, feed the hungry, and shelter the homeless, we must constantly ask ourselves whether or not the work we are doing is helping to change the structures of power that are keeping people sick, hungry, and homeless. If our work is not doing that (or, worse, if it is in fact helping to maintain or strengthen those structures), we need to re-think what we are doing. If not, we are all just "doing our part" to keep the Haitian people down.
Now that I got that out of my system...
Another random note: The band Arcade Fire, recent Grammy winners, played a surprise show at the Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince on Tuesday (here are some pictures from Rolling Stone). It would probably be cooler to say that I loved the show and that it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but I showed up 45 minutes late and only caught the last song. RAM, the local band who have been on a hiatus from their weekly show for the past few months, came on after them and were great.