The Common Good

Voodoo Haiti, Voodoo West

[En español] Haiti is an example of how both flesh and bones politicians as well as countries can look convincingly like demons. Several friends from aid and development agencies responding to the earthquake say that NGOs are having to take on tasks that the government should be responsible for. Many of these organizations have offices in Haiti. The earthquake is one more scratch -- a thick and painful scratch -- on Haiti's devastated social skin.

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But let's talk about demons. The Christian Spanish reached America at the end of the 15th century, a discovery that fit their ambitions well. A gruesome killing ensued, led by Christopher Columbus' troops against the original population living on the island that today houses the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Around 1540 the island's indigenous population had all but disappeared. This genocide was caused by diseases introduced by the Europeans, the slavery that they were submitted to, the killings and famines, all at the hands of the same men who kissed the cross of Christ.

Years later in 1697, the Christian French pushed the Spanish out of half of the island and Haiti became the point of arrival for countless slaves from Africa. The slaves arrived and died by the thousands, then more were brought to replace them. It was a country of newly arrived young people. The France of the Revolution for individual freedom had a completely different outlook in Haiti, the country whose cane fields provided the sugar that supplied the European tables. Independence for the Haitians was a gruesome and surrealist process, without a trace of humanity. "Mini dictators" who managed to further sink the country rose up from among the Haitian population.

But Haiti was unable to "take off" despite there being no reason for them to be condemned to extreme poverty. Surely the poor local leadership was a contributing factor. However, with nerve more extraordinary than the great Parisian monuments, Christian France demanded a severance fee for having plundered, enslaved, and treated this small nation so brutally. The debt was paid by taking on other loans over the course of 50 years, and the weight was too much. Crisis was everywhere.

Then, the (Christian?) bankers from New York enter the scene. They control most of Haitian credit and do not wish to lose these debts. It was 1915 and President Wilson sent the Marines to Haiti to take control of the country. They practically ruled Haiti for more than 20 years. Christian North Americans reinstated the recruitment of young people for forced labor, brought more of the country into the elite class, and did little to care for the poor.

Demons have no nationality, however. In 1957, Francois Duvalier, one of the most harmful characters to have governed any country on this continent terrorized Haiti with an unhealthy concoction of religion, politics, voodoo, and power. The U.S. government gave him its blessing. Known as "Papa Doc," Duvalier left power and was succeeded by his teenage son, Jean Claude, nicknamed "Baby Doc." He had the International Monetary Fund as economic advisor and enjoyed the approval of many transnational companies involved in Haiti. His dictatorship fell in 1986 and democratic elections took place under international supervision. The rest is more recent history, with Jean Bertrand Aristide's presidency, his loss and regaining of power. The United States did not like his closeness to Cuba or timid reforms. But Aristide did not do much either; he got wrapped up in a gruesome political conflict with his opposition. He assures us now that he did not resign voluntarily, rather due to political pressure from the country to the north. The crises hit in waves: banks, election frauds, rampant corruption, a nearly non-existent state, a population of 9 million in a country of only 27,000 square meters.

Charles Spurgeon once said something to the effect of "men generally teach the devil himself how to be bad." Haiti does not deserve this type of life. It does not deserve the thousands of dead in its streets and throughout its history. Will we Christians be able to do more than cast out the demons from others, without as much as looking at our own? Will be able to take global solidarity seriously, setting aside racial, religious, and national prejudices? Haiti does not need charity, it needs justice. Part of this, of course, is standing to support Haitians through this tragic natural disaster, but the biggest part comes later when the cameras stop flashing and Haiti is no longer front-page news. May God help us to think critically about how we live out the gospel.

portrait-alfonso-weilandAlfonso Wieland is a Peruvian lawyer, with studies in sociology, theology, and human rights. He is co-founder of Paz y Esperanza in Lima, Peru.

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