Right now there are containers in the harbor at Port-au-Prince, laden with medical supplies, food, and other relief items, stalled in customs disputes between the government and the charitable organizations who have arranged for and funded their delivery. The Haitian government, which immediately after January’s earthquake was eager to let these containers into the country to aid their people, now view these “imports” as a potential source of revenue. So they are levying tariffs upon the containers, even though they hold badly needed supplies which are being donated to the Haitian people for free. The tariffs are so high that some organizations are forced to leave the containers in customs rather than pay the tariffs, hoping to reach some kind of agreement with the Haitian government so that the items can clear customs and be distributed among the people.
Such is the somehow endless and insurmountable conundrum of the foreign-aid cycle: impoverished populations, corrupt and bankrupt governments, and languishing relief create an atmosphere of eternal triage, where little progress is ever made in addressing the problems of poverty at their roots and building sustainable societies. Though some work tirelessly for change, they are no match for the powers that rule the world and seek to preserve the status quo for their own benefit, while their spokespeople pay lip service to the concepts of “progress” and “equality”. The scenario is further complicated by the after-effects of centuries of human history, and by the repercussions of conquest, colonialism, and imperialism which have driven human relations since the invention of property. It’s a rock from under which we may never be able to crawl as a human society.
In Haiti and elsewhere, foreign corporations, NGO’s, and powerful governments such our own are vying for influence and opportunities in the brave new world of “disaster capitalism”, where devastated societies are rebuilt from the inside out according to capitalist models. As Nation columnist Naomi Klein put it in her introductory essay on the phenomenon back in 2005, disaster capitalism “uses the desperation and fear created by catastrophe to engage in radical social and economic engineering.” Wipe the slate clean of the byzantine ways of the old “failed state” and start fresh with spanking new factories, new uniforms, and planned communities. A new spin on an old tale: exploit and profit from it, and justify it with some jive about God or Democracy or “progress”…. Unfortunately it never really works the way the wizards behind the curtain envision it to work. It just causes more problems that eventually come back to bite us all in the ass, while in the short term a few people make a few bucks.
In its heyday as a tourist destination, during the time of my great-grandparents, Haiti was known as “The Pearl of the Antilles”. It was a beautiful piece of island, with endless bays and coves, white sand beaches, crystal blue Caribbean water, and elegant colonial architecture. While the 100-year-old black republic had never been wealthy, never stable, never free from the dark memories of its bloody revolution and its brutal slave past, it was still a beautiful if somewhat mysterious place.
400 years earlier, when Columbus discovered the island, it had been densely forested and home to the all-too-easily-conquered Taino Indians, who lived off its fertile seas and bountiful forests, wanting for nothing. But the conquering Spanish, and the French who followed them, did not see the island of Saint-Domingue as a tropical paradise worthy of a Jimmy Buffett song and a beachfront bar thatched with banana leaves. They were interested in only one thing: resources that could be turned into wealth to fuel empires. And while Columbus’s journey failed to provide an abbreviated passage to the Spice Islands of the east, and failed on the second front to produce gold, the Europeans quickly discovered the island’s latent talent: a perfect growing environment for Europe’s greatest new addiction, sugar. And so, to provide Marie Antoinette and the rest of the world with sweetener for their dumplings, profiterolles, tea and crumpets, the colonists and traders of Saint-Domingue shipped in thousands of slaves and cleared huge tracts of tropical forest to create one of the largest sugar-producing operations the world had ever seen. The work was brutal and labor-intensive, and the slaves were literally worked to death through 16-hour days and 7-day work weeks, with little food, clothing or shelter provided for them. Most slaves only lasted a few years before perishing, so there was a steady stream of new African labor to Haiti from the Kongo, the Senegalese coast, and from other African slave ports.
At the turn of the 19th century, after a long and bloody rebellion, the Haitians won their independence from France and became the first free Black republic in the new world, laying the seeds for black emancipation worldwide. But, ever fearful of the negro, Europe and the United States conspired to keep Haiti an impoverished pariah state, a policy that has continued to this day. A small elite of mixed-race aristocrats, who have held most of the power and wealth in the country, have shown little concern for their darker-skinned brethren, and have driven the country into the ground through shady deals with foreign investors and blatant corruption. Compounding this, the few blacks who have risen to power in Haiti have squandered their privileges, established brutal dictatorships, or been driven out in a sad cycle of coup d’etats.
Our attitudes towards race and equality may or may not have progressed over the centuries; but in Haiti the damage of hundreds of years of oppression has been done, and, as the people know all too well, the strange complications of their history and the overwhelming extent of their condition have become culturally embedded in the national psyche, to the extent that suffering, survival, corruption, and despair constitute the baseline of the “normal” in Haitian culture.
Just thinking about the plight of Haiti is enough to drive one to despair. To actually dream up a strategy to help the brave and struggling nation rise up from the rubble of its present condition and its historical legacy requires almost magical thinking. And then, to implement that strategy, to lead the country forward into a new and brighter era, well, that will require a revolution the likes of which the world has never seen. But the revolution has already begun. It began two hundred years ago. It is just taking a lot longer than anyone ever imagined.
The great shame in all of this is that underneath all the politics, poverty, and disaster porn, there is a beating heart full of magic and music in Haiti. A heart full of fantastical artwork, mesmerizing Vodou ritual, soul-shaking rhythms, and joyful dancing. And if the Haitian republic were only allowed to thrive, whether through acts of politics, aid, planning, or providence, we just might see an explosion of culture that could help revive our jaded world with a much-needed injection of heart, soul, and belief in magic.
Maybe that’s too much to ask for, and too much to expect. But it’s not too much to dream, and to hope, and to pray. It’s preferable in my mind at least to the alternative vision of Haiti, a planned community of sweatshops, workers wearing red t-shirts with company logos on them, churning out cheap goods for the world’s disposable consumer economy, and half the country still living in tents. But though I can voice my opinion on the subject, it is not a battle for me to fight, nor is it one I understand enough to engage. I just hope that those who do devote themselves to the Haitian cause do so for the right reasons, and that ultimately human dignity will prevail.
This is probably where I should throw in some inspirational quote from Ghandi or Mandela or Margaret Meade, but in the end I must plead a certain agnosticism and uncertainty about the world we live in. I look at our own country and where we are heading and I think, what hope does Haiti have when the great “United” States is sinking into its own pit of despair, and partisan factions are tearing apart the fabric of democracy with endless bickering, mudslinging, and fearmongering? The future seems a little bleak, for all of us. But I suppose the lesson we can learn from Haiti, is just this: survive, and live to see your offspring survive. All else can be sorted out in time.