The Common Good

Devils in the Details: Robertson's Revision of Haitian History

Whether or not Robertson had malicious intentions when he declared that Haiti's tragic history was the result of a "pact with the devil" made by early leaders of the revolt against their French colonizers and enslavers, it was still an outrageously irresponsible statement by a major religious leader. To even intimate, much less claim outright, that the reason for Haiti's problems is some undocumented "pact with the devil" by a handful of men two centuries ago is breathtakingly ill-informed. As any clear-eyed perusal of history shows, the roots of Haiti's deep poverty lie in the economic exploitation it has suffered continually, from its colonial period to today's neo-colonialism. The roots of Haiti's chronic impoverishment lie in the reparations demanded by the ousted French plantation owners for their properties following the 1804 revolution. In 1825 Haiti was forced to borrow 24 million francs from private French banks to begin paying off the crippling reparation debt in exchange for French recognition of her independence, a necessity for international trade purposes. Yet, as crippling as repayment of this unjust debt was to its own interests, Haiti never defaulted on a payment until the U.S. invaded Haiti in 1915.

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It must be recognized that the United States has been a generous donor of foreign aid to Haiti for decades. And just days after the earthquake, President Obama had already pledged $100 million in emergency aid to Haiti and sent some 5000 Marines there to help assure the orderly and efficient distribution of crucial supplies and foodstuffs. Yet the U.S. has also played a major historical role in the impoverishing of Haiti. From the first, our nation opposed the liberation of Haiti's enslaved masses just as for centuries it opposed the liberation of its own enslaved population. Then in December of 1914, at the prompting of National City Bank (a precursor of Citicorp), the U.S. Marines came ashore at Port-Au-Prince, marched into the new National Bank of Haiti, and commandeered two strongboxes containing the equivalent of $500,000 in Haitian currency (a huge amount at that time), which was delivered to the National City Bank vaults in New York City. This seizure effectively gave U.S. commercial banking interests control of Haiti's financial system. Then in 1915, at the direction of President Woodrow Wilson but at the urging of U.S. corporate and commercial interests like National City Bank and WR Grace, the U.S. military invaded Haiti. For the entire 19-year duration of the U.S. occupation, maximum attention was given to forcing Haiti to repay its U.S. creditors, with little to no effort or resources committed to developing Haiti's economy or meeting its citizens' needs.

Today Haiti is a severely indebted country whose debt to export ratio is nearly 300 percent, far above what is considered sustainable even by punitive International Monetary Fund and World Bank standards. In 1980 Haiti's debt was $302 million. Since then it has more than tripled to $1.1 billion, which is approximately 40 percent of the nation's gross national product. Today Haiti is forced to pay more in debt service than it does on medical services for its citizens. According to Haitian officials, nearly 80 percent of its current debt was accumulated by the repressive, rapacious regimes of Francois Duvalier and his son and successor, Jean-Claude, both of whom operated with the tacit support of the U.S. because they professed to be anti-Communist.

These are the basic reasons for the mind-bending poverty of Haiti, not some "pact with the devil." But there is another factor that is germane to Robertson's claim: Pat Robertson publicly supported the bloody, repressive regimes of both Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire and Charles Taylor of Liberia (who is currently on trial for war crimes), while extracting significant gold and diamond wealth from those countries (this is documented in my book, The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of Jesus' Teachings and How They Have Been Corrupted (Doubleday, 2006). Thus Robertson's claim about Haiti raises this question: In addition to being sadly ill-informed, does his claim also reflect an actual un-Christian tolerance on his part, if not advocacy, for exploitation of impoverished Third World countries (a stance more in tune with Caesar than with Christ)?

Because Robertson is an influential American religious leader who heads an international communications empire, this is a crucial question that demands an answer.

This is not to demonize Robertson, however, or to attribute racist or consciously nefarious motives to him, for Robertson's Operation Blessing relief mission has been engaged in relief work in Haiti for some time. And by all indications Operation Blessing is extremely active in the present crisis. Moreover, Robertson's "pact with the devil" claim was made in the midst of an emotional appeal to his CBN audience for humanitarian aid and financial support for further rescue efforts. Yet it cannot be overlooked that Operation Blessing was also active in Liberia and Zaire during severe crises there. Robertson's aircraft flew humanitarian aid into those countries as well, yet flew out of them laden with gold and diamonds.

As for the historicity of the "pact with the devil" itself, historians claim that Boukman, the leader of the revolt that ultimately drove the French military from Haitian shores, and his fellow freedom-fighters drank the blood of a pig and secretly made a pact with the spirits of the land for power to overthrow their torturers and enslavers. The "spirits" in question sound much more like the orisha of the Yoruba religion that was practiced by many enslaved Afro-Caribbeans than some westernized notion of a "devil." (For the record, "voodoo," largely influenced by Catholicism, is not devil worship.) At any rate, the story is legendary and apocryphal. Thus it appears that in his public claims about Haiti's plight, the born-again Christian leader Pat Robertson has chosen to overlook the truly demonic, un-Christian history of Euro-Western exploitation of Haiti and instead has blamed Haiti's plight on a version of a centuries-old legend tinged with stereotypically racist overtones.

Whether it was his intention or not -- and I personally believe it was not -- Robertson's statements give aid and comfort to vulgar racist claims about the Haitian crisis such as those of Rush Limbaugh who, incredibly, complained about President Obama's timely humanitarian response to the crisis and actually suggested that his listeners NOT try to relieve the Haitians' suffering.

For these reasons, I believe that Pat Robertson has a responsibility to right his wrong by offering what I'm sure he would agree is the correct Christian response: publicly acknowledging our nation's role in Haiti's poverty and publicly apologizing for reducing that sordid history to a ritual allegedly performed two hundred years ago. As a Christian leader he might also consider apologizing for defaming a fellow Christian nation. Yet whatever Pat Robertson's response, people of faith and goodwill must acknowledge that we have a responsibility to insist that those who speak in the name of religion speak responsibly, faithfully, truthfully, and carefully.

Obery M. Hendricks Jr., Ph.D., is a professor of biblical interpretation at New York Theological Seminary and author of The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of the Teachings of Jesus and How They Have Been Corrupted.

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