Saturday, January 23, 2010

Haiti Will Rise

photos from flikr

Sami, a fomer student in my women's history class at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, is a fan of Haiti, its music and culture. She spent time there last year and was taken with the resourcefulness and resilience of the Haitian people, their warmth and generosity. She learned dancing, songs and drumming from a master, and shared in the joys of Haiti's vibrant musical traditions.

Now she is saddened by the devastating earthquake that has killed so many and left thousands homeless, without shelter, without family, without resources. The country is destroyed. Poor long-suffering Haiti.
Haiti has been through one catastrophe after another, political, economic, environmental. She suffered under slavery, broke free, became burdened with debt (something Sami is educating me about), and then struggled with political instability, economic exploitation, and arrogant military rule that all but broke her back.

My mother spent a few months in Haiti many years ago with her sister, whose husband worked for a large American company there. Lots of companies did business in Haiti at that time, paid workers very low wages, and made huge profits. My mother recalled the vast gap between the wealthy few and the poor. She enjoyed working with a church-sponsored orphanage, and she loved the people, their language and art, but she was concerned about the rule of the Duvaliers and the fear their rule evoked: the infamous Papa Doc and Baby Doc and their terrorist groups. It seems it couldn't get worse, but Haiti has only gone downhill since then.

The US has ignored Haiti for far too long, perhaps due in part to its overzealous attention to Cuba, perhaps because it is a nation of African people. We have known about the suffering of Haiti for decades, but American foreign policy, like that of other western nations, has pretty much been one of ignorance and neglect. When the western countries could no longer exploit Haiti, they ignored it, a neglect with dire consequences.

Sami reports that her drum teacher, Zaro, the man who taught her traditional Dahomean songs, and his family, are okay, living homeless on the streets like everyone else, but alive, surviving.

Here is something else she wrote: "Without going into the complex and overwhelmingly frustrating history of Haiti's struggles, I just want to share that one of the main reasons for Haiti's extreme poverty is this: when the slaves rose up and won their independence from the French colonizers in 1804, they were simply not recognized by the international community as sovereign. The US, Great Britain & France placed a ONE BILLION DOLLAR fine on Haiti in return for their independence. Haiti had no way of paying this debt, and they continue to be beholden to it, plus the interest that has continued to accrue since that time, more than 200 years ago." Sami refers to the book The Uses of Haiti by Paul Farmer, an American doctor who has worked in Haiti for many years.

I find this so hard to believe. We are holding Haiti responsible for a debt put on her when she gained independence from France and freedom from slavery? Good lord. Sami said there is an organization that has drafted a petition, asking the US Treasury Secretary to forgive this debt. Please take two seconds and visit and sign this petition.
But it seems to me that this is more than a departmental issue: it has to do with US foreign policy and the need for a complete overhaul. What is the purpose of hanging on to this debt now? Why don't we have a coherent and just foreign policy toward Haiti?

Sami finds some comfort in the indominable spirit of the Haitian people. "I bet that they're singing in the streets right now, she writes, "Haitians are always singing! they're making up songs about whatever they see and think and feel, and they're doing it with a prayerful, passionate heart. despite what the media says of violence and 'looting,' I know they're looking out for each other and doing whatever they can to survive."

I join Sami in her hopes for Haiti. I join in mourning for those lost and suffering, among them two cousins of my daughter's friend Laura. They were working among the poor in Haiti, one died, one survived, barely. She was interviewed by Katie Couric, but Laura says it seems Couric neglected to mention what was most important to her surviving cousin, the organization they were working with. We get the heartache sometimes, but not the information we need to help make things better.

We can only hope that the current outpouring of aid will make a difference, rebuild Port au Prince and the country's infrastructure, house the homeless and feed the poor, and that this aid will continue after the country is no longer front page news. Even our small contributions will help (, but the larger issues must be addressed as well.

Sami puts her hope in the spirit of the people: "I think her people... their culture and music and rhythms and food and ceremonies and energy and all-around zest for life are far too beautiful and powerful and strong to let another set-back hold them down for long. Haiti will rise. Haiti will rise."

1 comment:

  1. thanks for this Fran :)

    i must clarify some facts:
    the original debt that was placed on haiti was 150 million francs (the equivalent today of approx 21 billion USD, according to Randall Robinson, "An Unbroken Agony: Haiti, From Revolution to the Kidnapping of a President), along with strict embargos. their current debt to the international community, as i understand it, is one billion.

    there's a nice summary about it by Marie Clarke online at: