I have struggled for days with the situation in Haiti. I have never witnessed such extreme suffering. One surgeon I spoke with described the necessary amputations without anesthetic as Civil War medicine. We, like many others, have prayed for the people and have opened our wallet to make contributions.
Amid the outpouring of prayer, concern, and money for the earthquake victims in Haiti, racism has once again reared its ugly head. “What do you expect—they did not build earthquake proof houses.” (Many of their houses are cardboard lean to shanties.) “I am not giving money because their leaders are corrupt and will steal the money.” (Some leaders in Haiti as well as elsewhere have been lining their own pockets.) “The problem in Haiti is the low IQ of the people there and it cannot be fixed.” These last two comments come from the blog of a New York Times editorial writer and are reported in his column (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/21/opinion/21kristof.html?ref=opinion)
Fortunately, most people’s hearts are not as hardened as the hearts of those who wrote such inhumane comments. The people in Haiti are suffering great pain and loss. Devastated by hurricanes two years ago, they are now facing the aftermath of a massive destructive earthquake. Yet, in the midst of utter tragedy, we see them praying and praising God. They are a hearty people of faith.
Mark Danner contends that some of the blame for the condition of Haiti can be attributed to a history of corrupt government. Just as the French colonizers plundered Haiti’s crop wealth on the back of slaves so has the government of Haiti plundered wealth on the backs of its people. (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/22/opinion/22danner.html?pagewanted=1) This history of corruption must be addressed if Haiti is to have any hope of renewing itself.
Other salient factors also come into play. Bryan Massingale, theologian from Marquette University, has written extensively on racism. In particular, he has analyzed how racism was operative in our response to the devastation of New Orleans (http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/pdf/2008-29.pdf). Massingale says that we moralize poverty. The Calvinist attitude that prosperity is a reward from God for hard work and industry gives credence to the myth that God so blesses people. Under this theory then, we can blame Haitians because they did not build earthquake proof houses (Housing of any kind takes money.) and do not work hard enough (even though there is no work).
If we think of the victims in New Orleans and in Haiti as somehow less competent, less worthy, less capable, less industrious than us, then we can absolve ourselves of any responsibility for alleviating their human misery. Yes, we will and should have a compassionate outpouring of dollars and compassion. That is much needed at this stage in the disaster. But, we cannot and should not stop there. We need to evaluate and change the structures which are impoverishing Haitians.
We have to first of all follow Merton’s advice and condemn the evil in our own hearts before we “attack” these structures. What vestiges of Calvinism, racism and white privilege influence our own thinking and action? For example, were the African American survivors of Katrina looting or getting life’s necessities for survival? The press would have us believe they were looting while whites who were doing the very same thing were surviving. How is the media portraying people in Haiti who are trying to get water and food? Do we think of Haitians as less competent, less industrious, less intelligent and somehow less worthy than we are? The responders to Kristof’s blog, unlike the editorial writer himself, seem to think so. Might our material prosperity not be the result of having been born in the “right” place, of the “right” parents, at the “right” time, and the “right” color?
Second, we have to look at the structural causes which made the hurricanes and earthquake more devastating than they should have been. Haiti was a slave nation that overthrew French colonialism and oppression in 1804. Immediately, France and the United States boycotted Haiti. The United States refused to recognize Haiti until 1862. The policy was based on fears that recognition might provoke rebellion among slaves in America. The nation that once thrived economically on sugar cane and other products was slowly strangled to death by the dominant world powers:
It quickly became the richest French colony in the New World due to the immense profits from the sugar, coffee and indigo industries. This outcome was made possible by the labor and knowledge of thousands of enslaved Africans who brought to the island skills and technology for indigo production. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haiti, emphasis added)
Mark Danner offers a more complete description of life in Haiti before the revolution:
In 1804 the free Republic of Haiti was declared in almost unimaginable triumph: hard to exaggerate the glory of that birth. Hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans had labored to make Saint-Domingue, as Haiti was then known, the richest colony on earth, a vastly productive slave-powered factory producing tons upon tons of sugar cane, the 18th-century’s great cash crop. For pre-Revolutionary France, Haiti was an inexhaustible cash cow, floating much of its economy. Generation after generation, the second sons of the great French families took ship for Saint-Domingue to preside over the sugar plantations, enjoy the favors of enslaved African women and make their fortunes.
Even by the standards of the day, conditions in Saint-Domingue’s cane fields were grisly and brutal; slaves died young, and in droves; they had few children. As exports of sugar and coffee boomed, imports of fresh Africans boomed with them. So by the time the slaves launched their great revolt in 1791, most of those half-million blacks had been born in Africa, spoke African languages, worshipped African gods. (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/22/opinion/22danner.html?pagewanted=1)
Over time, in their efforts to survive, Haitians denuded the countryside for fire wood. The first thing I noticed when we visited Haiti was that there were very few trees. Just as this week the heavy California rains caused mud slides where the land had been laid bare by fires the denuded soil in Haiti heightened the impact of the recent hurricanes.
Haiti devolved from being the most prosperous to the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Haiti was even forced to make reparations to the French and today international debt continues to impoverish this nation where most people thrive on less than two dollars per day:
Haiti’s first “debt” was 150 million francs owed to France as the price of their freedom. After winning their freedom, slaves were required to pay for that freedom in order to be eligible participants in the world market. That payment was considered “debt.” Haiti is currently paying down a $1.2 billion debt at $50-80 million each year, twice the public health budget, three times the education budget and four times the agriculture budget. Debt makes up 35% of Haiti’s GDP.(http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Caribbean/Haiti_Enslaved_Debt.html)
Paying down a heavy debt siphons money away from needed human services like health care and education. The enormity of the debt continues to strangle Haiti economically.
The United States has repeatedly invaded Haiti and/or meddled in its internal affairs. The United States occupied the island from 1915 – 1934. Later, the US supported the dictators, Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier. During the presidency of George W. Bush, the US, falsely claiming that the president wanted to be exiled, captured its lawfully elected leader, Aristide, and whisked him away. He awoke in Africa and has vehemently denied that he asked the US to get him out of Haiti.
Bill Quigley summarizes our oppression of Haiti:
The US has worked for centuries to break Haiti. The US has used Haiti like a plantation. The US helped bleed the country economically since it freed itself, repeatedly invaded the country militarily, supported dictators who abused the people, used the country as a dumping ground for our own economic advantage, ruined their rods and agriculture, and toppled popularly elected officials. The US has even used Haiti like the old plantation owner and slipped over there repeatedly for sexual recreation. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bill-quigley/why-the-us-owes-haiti-bil_b_426260.html)
Yes, it is easy to blame the problems on the people and their leaders, and the leaders definitely bear their share of responsibility, when one does not know the history of the people. During our visit with Food for the Poor in the 1988 we found the people to be very poor but energetic, hard working (when they could find work), caring, resilient and hardy. We saw Mother Teresa’s sisters caring for terminally ill children and TB and AIDS victims. We visited a facility for lepers. We saw people producing bamboo decorated cards for Ferdinand Mafood’s Food for the Poor program. (It is hard to think that the hotel we stayed in (Hotel Montana) has collapsed and claimed many lives.)
The truth is that the Haitian people have been oppressed and exploited by outsiders and their own leaders ever since their forebears dared to rebel and throw off the yoke of slavery. We, as Americans, cannot wash our hands and absolve ourselves of complicity in the actions of our government in Haiti.
By giving money (This is called charity.) to responsible agencies, we can alleviate the immediate suffering of the people in Haiti; however, it is incumbent upon us to speak up, to advocate and work for the long-range re-creation of Haiti, not in our image and likeness but in the image of the people of Haiti (This is called justice.). Paulo Friere says we need to re-form our consciences. In doing so, we need to listen to wisdom of the Haitian people. They know what is best for them and they need to take the lead in redevelopment with our strategic assistance. We are called as Christians to see that justice is done, see that right relationships are created.
Merton reminds us that we are one with all other people. Rabbi Loewy reminds us of the strong Judeo-Christian tradition. Each of us is “created ‘b’tselem Elohim- in the image of God.” We are not smarter or more industrious—we are just one, created in the image of Abba God.
We have a Christian responsibility to alleviate human misery and suffering in the short term and over the long haul. Justice cries out and rolls down like a mighty stream. Justice creates and renews relationships—our relationship with Abba God, ourselves, one another, and God’s first revelation—creation. Jesus was very explicit, “I have come that they might have life and that they might have what they need” (Jn 10:10). The resources of the earth are not rewards for industry. They are gift for all to share regardless of economic level, class, race, or creed. When we do justice, we challenge and change the unjust structures which impoverish and exploit.