Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Election Time in Haiti

April is election time in Haiti.

One of the few international journalists who covers Haiti is Jacqueline Charles, whose story can be read here. There is not more international coverage of Haiti because there is no one who will cover the expenses of journalists to go there. Except, evidently, the Miami Herald. Ms. Charles has been doing an excellent job at reporting on the ground for years and is to be applauded for her work.

Among those running for office are Guy Phillippe, who led the rebellion which overthrew Aristide. Many have said that he was a US pawn, since he received training in Ecuador via the US. Lavalas supporters, strong on the US left, assert that Aristide was "overthrown" by imperial external forces. and make no mention that there was any opposition to him on the ground, any corruption in his administration, any withdrawal of support from the population.

Others say the Phillippe was just a strong armed drug lord, wanting to depose the head drug lord, making use of the discontent on the ground against the slow progress in Haiti, to lead an armed rebellion.

Armed rebellion is a time honored way to change governments in Haiti. In the entire 200 year history, only the current President, Rene Preval, who is now serving his second term, retired in peace in his own country. All others were either executed or left in exile. Such, at least, is the history that I have read. Of course, there may indeed have been people who served as president for a month or two and retired. It is possible, I don't know.

The US has said that it has tried to "capture" Philippe three times. I assume that the Haitian government has allowed such an intervention.So, if Philippe wins the election, it will presumably be easier to capture him if and when he takes his Senate seat. Hardly a cave in Tora Bora.

The US would have a great deal more credibility in this region if it did not have a history of training and protecting assassins, and leaders of coups. People would be so much more likely to believe that we might, just might, be on the side of the people, if we did not have such a long history of being--- well-- against them.

We have most often in this hemisphere been on the wrong side of the struggle for democracy. Our nation has historically sided with dictators against freedom seekers, and with oligarchs against the peasants.

In our rabid fear against "communism", or "socialism" , we have placed the values of capitalism and "free market economics" above the values of democracy.

Now is the time to change that. Since it is clear that unfettered capitalism was no more a successful system than unfettered communism, and has sunk, has it not, under the weight of its own excesses, let us seek a better way.

Haiti's agriculture must take priority over everything else. The US must do everything that it can to support the agricultural sector in Haiti, lest the 10 million people become even more food aid dependent, and the flood of illegal immigrants to the DR increase, and the narco trafficing become worse and worse, and the entire island, these two nations, descend into chaos.

We are counting on you, President Obama

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Why is Haiti so Poor?

A Friend from my home meeting in Asheville, NC, recently asked me why Haiti was so poor and why, after 200 years of independence, they did had not been able to establish effective self governance. On this topic, I cede to the authority of Bob Corbett, who has run an English speaking list serv on Haiti for over 20 years and is surely one of the best friends that Haiti has ever had.

This particular essay only takes us up to the beginings of the Aristide era. For more information on that, I refer readers to the excellent book by Michael Deibert, Notes From the Last Testment. Deibert was a Reuter's reporter on the ground in Haiti, speaks Kreyole, and will guide you through a fascinating time in Haiti's most recent history. In addition to being packed with first hand insightful information it is, in addition, an excellent read.

Many of the predictions of worsening conditions in Haiti have already come to pass. Haiti is already almost completely dependent on imported food. Most of the jobs in the manufacturing sector to which Corbett refers have disappeared. In addition, Corbett had not yet come across the influence of the narco trafficers and the influence of their corrupting money.

However, as a beginning to understanding the situation, it is, I believe an excellent essay.

Why is Haiti so poor?

By Bob Corbett

Fall, 1986 Director, PEOPLE TO PEOPLE

1999 note: I wrote this essay some 13 years ago. I still agree with most of it, but have some changes in my own knowledge and thinking over the years. But, I've decided to leave the essay as it originally appeared in The Haiti Project Newsletter where I published this.

The question I am asked most frequently is: WHY IS HAITI SO POOR? This is a difficult thing for people to understand, especially for those of us living in a country as rich as the United States. There are some very obvious conditions to note in Haiti's case: the long history of political oppression, soil erosion, lack of knowledge and literacy, a large populace in a small country. But a question of CAUSES for such poverty is extremely complex. I have tried to respond to the question in a manner that points up this incredible complexity. Nonetheless, to stay in the confines of paper that could be read at one sitting, I have had to highlight, condense and simplify.

This issue is a difficult one for you the reader. I urge you to stick with it, to wade through. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The Haitian masses suffer some of the most debilitating and depressing misery of any people in the world. Yet, virtually all that misery is human caused, in most cases, by a tiny minority inside and outside Haiti who have the wealth and power to control.


The story of Haiti is- heavy and depressing. Yet I see hope too. To know the causes of Haitian poverty is to clarify the problem. It helps people like us to know where to focus our energies, our work and our wealth in attempting to lessen this misery.

Not only is this a difficult issue, but a controversial topic as well. I've tried to reflect the various thrusts of the argument as I've encountered them. But, ultimately I've had to decide where the evidence seemed strongest. I'm sure some will disagree and do so with vehemence. I urge you to reply. One of my central aims is dialogue, because it is in dialogue that we grow.

I. Root, but Less Visible Causes of Haitian Misery

The ultimate causes of Haiti's misery are human. They are rooted in greed and power. Both the international community and Haiti's rulers have continuously assured the destruction of Haiti's colonial wealth and the creation and continuance of her misery.

  1. The international community's role.
    1. French colonial contribution.
    2. The international boycott of the new nation of 1804.
    3. The French debt of 1838.
    4. The United States Occupation, 1915-1934.
    5. Post World War II United States domination.
  2. The role of Haiti's rulers.
    1. Slave-like labor systems in the early republic.
    2. The elite's protection of its wealth.
    3. Haitian corruption.
    4. Human rights violations as a tool of oppression.
II. Secondary, but Immediate Causes of Haitian Misery

The international and national political climate of Haiti has assured her misery. But, little by little these forces have caused other factors to emerge that assure the continuance of Haitian misery even if Haiti were to secure good local government free from international intervention. (An unlikely prospect in either instance!) Some of the most noticeable secondary causes of Haiti's poverty are:

  1. Language as an oppressor.
  2. Ignorance and illiteracy.
  3. The system of education (or miseducation).
  4. Soil erosion.
  5. Export crops vs. local food crops.
  6. The lack of a social infrastructure: inadequate roads, water systems, sewerage, medical services, schools.
  7. Unemployment and underemployment.
  8. Underdevelopment in an age of international economic competition.
  9. Haitian self-image.

As well as arguing why Haiti is so poor, I address two factors which are often claimed to be causes of Haitian poverty. One category I will call MYTH. The contention that the Voodoo religion is a serious factor in causing the misery of Haiti is a myth, and an exceptionally pernicious myth at that.

The second category I term PUZZLES. These are areas which are not clear to me. They may or may not be causes of misery. In this section I will try to point out the complexities of two cases: foreign investment in manufacturing and overpopulation.


Haiti, once called The Jewel of the Antilles, was the richest colony in the entire world. Economists estimate that in the 1750s Haiti provided as much as 50% of the Gross National Product of France. The French imported sugar, coffee, cocoa, tobacco, cotton, the dye indigo and other exotic products. In France they were refined, packaged and sold all over Europe. Incredible fortunes were made from this tiny colony on the island of Hispaniola.

How could Haiti have once been the source of such wealth and today be the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere? How could this land that was once so productive today be semi-barren? How did "The Jewel of the Antilles" become the Caribbean's hell-hole?


    One of the primary reasons that Haiti was such a productively rich land was because of slave labor. When people are willing to put productivity above all other values, then productivity is likely to soar. Not only did the slaves work long days under tremendously unsafe conditions, with little or no technology beyond hand labor, but Haiti's slave system was the most brutal in the Caribbean. Many documents of Western slavery explain that the ultimate threat to a recalcitrant slave was that he or she would be sold to Haiti.

    Unfortunately for the masses of Haitians, slavery did not die with French rule. Rather, the basic concept of forced cheap labor was passed on to the emerging native Haitian elite. The French system allowed for some slaves to earn their freedom by exceptional work. This system worked well to get more productivity from the slaves, and the system was tough enough that very few slaves were able to earn their freedom. Thus slave owners got increased productivity with little loss of slaves through freedom.

    A second group of slaves who became free were the mulattos, the children of white masters and slave women. These children were in a middle ground, uncomfortable to both slaves and whites. The slaves never knew how the white man would respond to his child, but often the slave owner didn't want to be reminded of his paternity. Thus mulattos were not welcomed in either community. Many mulattos received their freedom and formed a special middle class in the colonial period.

    A special class of freed slaves emerged. About 1/2 of them were freed black slaves and about 1/2 of them were mulattos. They could receive some education, operate businesses, own property and in general imitate the French.

    This imitation of the French became the hallmark of these freedmen. They wanted a clear separation from their slave backgrounds. Thus they imitated the whites. They adopted their religion, language, dress, culture, education and ways. But, most importantly for this story, they learned the value of slave labor. The colonial French heritage carried on in the Haitian elite's imitation of the French labor system. This is an important factor in Haiti's later misery.


    After the revolution which concluded in January, 1804, Haiti became the second free country in the Western World (after the United States), and the first black republic. However, the United States was still a slave nation, as was England. While France had freed the Haitian slaves during the revolution, France and other European nations had slaves in Africa and Asia. The international community decided that Haiti's model of a nation of freed slaves was a dangerous precedent. An international boycott of Haitian goods and commerce plunged the Haitian economy into chaos.

    It is difficult to measure the exact impact of this international conspiracy. Here was a nation of ex-slaves trying to rise to democratic self-rule, rising to run an economy in which the masses had only served as slaves before. The international boycott of Haitian products at this time was devastating for Haiti's long-term economic development.


    The Haitian governments were extremely anxious to be recognized by France and the Europeans. But France would not recognize Haiti unless indemnities were paid for lands of former slave owners taken over after the revolution. Finally, in 1838 President Boyer of Haiti accepted a 150 million franc debt to pay this indemnity. This debt plagued the economy of Haiti for over 80 years and was not finally paid until 1922. In the meantime Haiti paid many times over 150 million francs in interest on this debt. It is difficult to measure the incredible harm which this did to the Haitian economy, but by the most conservative measures it was extremely significant.


    Perhaps the most serious blow Haiti ever had to her independence and self-image was the occupation of the United States Marines in 1915. The marines took over control of the collection of revenues, the banks, and forced through a new "Haitian" constitution which repealed the 1804 provision that foreigners could never own land in Haiti. The U.S. decided who would and would not be government servants. The only factor of Haitian life which seemed to escape U.S. domination was education. The elite's identification with French culture was too strong for even the marines to overcome and the schools remained French in language and structure.


    The occupation ended in 1934. However, the U.S. presence in both the economy and internal government affairs was well established. Ever since the occupation and increasingly since 1946, the United States, through the power of its aid packages, has played a central role in Haitian politics. In this way the U.S. has contributed to the misery of Haiti since it has given oppressive governments comfortable aid packages which kept these rulers in power. The United States was not interested in furthering Haitian misery itself, rather this is the price the U.S. has had to pay to keep friendly governments in power so that American military, propaganda and economic interests could be served. The result may well have served the interests of U.S. control in the region, but the issue here is the cause of Haitian misery. U.S. backed governments have certainly been a major factor in this suffering.


The international community has done and continues to do its share in causing Haitian misery. But the contribution of the Haitian elite and Haitian governments has been and continues to be a root cause of suffering.


    After the French left there was a scramble for power and control in Haiti. The elite emerged as the dominant power. Given their superior educations, and experience in running businesses and other affairs, their control was not at all surprising. But, a pattern arose because the only model they knew for successful agriculture was the slave system. It was impossible to return the masses to slavery, but Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the first president, tried to enforce a system of labor on the peasants which resembled medieval serfdom, i.e., tying the peasants to particular plantations owned by the elite. This system failed miserably and in the process created a labor system which has been instrumental in the developing misery of Haiti.

    What happened in the 1804-1820 period set the tone for Haiti's future and is directly responsible for much of her misery. The former slaves ran away from the lowlands, the plantations, away from the cruel rulers who would have effectively enslaved them again. They ran to the mountains where they would be safe from the soldiers and police of the realm. And here they have in large measure remained. This pattern of relocation has defined several aspects of Haitian life which undermine the development of a healthy economy.

    1. The price the Haitian masses have paid for their freedom has been to live at or below subsistence, remaining in their tiny huts and non-fertile mountain regions in order to have peace and freedom from oppression.
    2. For nearly two centuries they have sub-divided their small plots among their generations of descendants until the plots of land are very tiny and relatively unproductive.
    3. A widespread attitude has developed holding that no government could ever be good government. Folk wisdom seems to demand that one retreat ever further from government and eke out an existence outside the mainstream of society.

      All of these factors contribute greatly to the misery the Haitian people suffer, and they are a direct legacy of Haitian politics and government. These evils are brought to the Haitian people by the greed of the elite.


      For the most part the 3% of the people who constitute the Haitian elite are descendants of those same families who were free prior to the independence of 1804. There is an elite which is mainly black and an elite which is mainly mulatto. These two groups have their own fights and battles, but in the few cases when the masses have attempted to rise up and assert the rights and needs of the people as a whole, the elite has rallied together using its wealth and power to crush the masses.

      The Duvalier family's rise to power was just another in a series of such moves. The present government of General Namphy continues the pattern even today. There has been no revolution in Haiti, just a change of government.


      Corruption is common in all governments, especially prominent in highly authoritarian regimes, and practiced beyond measure in Haiti. The elite have used their positions in government ever since 1804 to gather the wealth and power of Haiti for themselves. What little wealth the country had has been manipulated into the hands of this elite. Foreign governments and humanitarian and religious organizations have often attempted to aid the suffering people of Haiti. Time and again, over and over in the 182 years of so-called freedom, the Haitian elite and government officials have sidetracked much of this wealth for their own purposes. Haiti faces the incredibly difficult task of dealing with corruption that is so established, so all-persuasive as to be an accepted social practice.


      One would never expect that the Haitian masses would have sat placidly by and allowed such a tiny elite to inflict the conditions of misery on them. Indeed, the people did not sit willingly by. The history of Haiti from early colonial days until the present is one of constant resistance, constant rebellion. But the elite have been equal to the challenge. For 182 years the Haitian rulers have used terror, killings, beatings, illegal arrests and detentions, forced exile and other such measures to keep the masses in line.

      Even recently when it seemed that the overthrow of the Duvalier dynasty would end the dreaded Tonton Macoute and ease the pressure against resisters, we are reading of the activities of the Leopards. This is a crack military organization which has been implicated by Amnesty International in recent attacks on literacy workers and others aiding the masses in attempting to non-violently break out of two centuries of oppression of the Haitian elite.


    The poverty and misery in Haiti are human created. The root causes are the political and economic systems which have dominated Haiti for the whole of her 182 years. These oppressive factors have come from the international community, especially France and the United States. However, the Haitian elite, comprising only 3% of the Haitian people has also been a major factor in creating and continuing these oppressive conditions.

The causal roots are generally not very visible. Rather, they are the basis of the more visible and immediate factors which I will explain in the next section. Even the overt human rights abuses are not mainly visible on a daily basis. However, the Duvalier years were especially bad. Tens of thousands of people died or disappeared. Hundreds of thousands more felt forced to flee their homeland and seek a safer life elsewhere. Nearly everyone in the country felt the terror of the Duvaliers and their Tonton Macoute.


    Perhaps the oddest cause of poverty anywhere in the world is the fact of language in Haiti. In a word, the imposition of French on the country is an immediate cause of Haiti's misery.

    French is the official language of the country. All state business is carried on in French, the schools educate mainly in French. Social prestige is related to the ability to speak French. Yet only about 10% of the people can even get along in French, with less than 5% knowing the language fluently. Creole is the language of the masses. 100% of the Haitians speak and understand Creole as their mother tongue.

    The road to social, economic and intellectual development is reserved to the speakers of French, while the masses are kept in their misery because their language is not recognized nor allowed as an official language.

    Creole is not a patois or dialect of French. It is a recognized language in its own right, with its own syntax which is significantly different from French. The Creole grammar is rooted in Central African languages, though most of its vocabulary is influenced by French.


    One of the results of this oppression of language is a national illiteracy rate which is very close to 90% in the cities, and higher in rural areas. It is hard to calculate the suffering tied to illiteracy and the ignorance of alternatives which comes with illiteracy and lack of education. When a whole people cannot read, they are cut off from advances in knowledge.

    Thus they are condemned to repeat the forms of life they have developed whether or not those practices have negative aspects. Haitian life has many disastrous practices and these account for much of her misery. These will be detailed below. The point here is to note that the immediate cause of many negative practices is rooted in ignorance of the alternatives. It is ignorance that allows traditional practices in agriculture or education, health care or house-hold hygiene. Some of these practices are killing Haitians unnecessarily and destroying the agricultural base of this agricultural land. This harmful ignorance is the direct result of the illiteracy which defines the nation.


    Legally, education is free and open to all. Actually, state-sponsored education is limited and most secondary or university education goes to the children of the elite. Only about 30% of Haitian children ever begin school, and of the 30%, only 2% stay in school beyond the 5th grade.

    There are many factors which contribute to the lack of education, among them are:

    1. Education is mainly in French, a foreign tongue to the masses of Haitians. In the past 6 years Creole has begun to creep into the school as part of a reform movement. However, books are still primarily in French, and after the 5th year in school, even classroom instruction reverts to French. More importantly is the indoctrination that only French is the language of intelligent and well educated people. Thus peasants, who speak only Creole, despise their own real language and demand that their children be educated in French, thereby assuring that their children will not succeed in school.
    2. After the fifth year students must pass a difficult examination, the "sertifica" in order to continue. This examination is in French. Few children of the peasant masses pass this examination.
    3. Teachers are very poorly prepared. Materials are totally inadequate. In the rural schools it is common that only the teachers have books. Rote learning is the most common form of instruction, even in schools in the capital. Students are taught to parrot the teacher. They learn little beyond the immediate textbook.
    4. Schools are terribly overcrowded. Teachers have many too many children in each class and discipline is a problem. Of course, the fact that class centers around a language the children do not know does not help discipline either. The response to serious discipline problems is a harsh punishment system which relies on beating and serious physical assaults on misbehaving children.

    In a word, the school system is in shambles. It does very little to help Haiti out of her massive ignorance and illiteracy. If anything, it helps to continue the reliance on French, a primary controlling tool of the Haitian state.


    Nearly everyone has heard about Haiti's disastrous soil erosion. Haiti is a mountainous country. For the past 200 years people have been cutting the trees on their mountains without replanting. Now, when the rainy season comes with its four or five months of daily pounding rains, one can see the brown rivers torrent down the mountain sides and watch, helplessly, as Haiti's little remaining soil flows out into the Caribbean Sea. How has this terrible situation come about?

    There are four primary reasons for the soil erosion:

    1. The need for fuel.
    2. The need to earn a living.
    3. Ignorance.
    4. Lack of motivation to reform.
    1. Haiti has no fuel except wood. People cook with charcoal. This requires massive amounts of wood to provide fuel for 6 million people. Thus the demand on wood as a crop is the immediate cause of the denuding of the mountains of Haiti.
    2. The immediate motivation of much of the cutting is economic. Peasants are hungry. They have little available work. But wood is in constant demand as charcoal, or to sell to others to make charcoal. Peasant wood-cutters who do understand the soil erosion problem will argue that they have no alternative. They either cut and sell wood or they starve. Mainly they are right. Haiti suffers massive unemployment and most peasants have inadequate access to farm lands.
    3. Because of the problems of illiteracy and lack of education detailed above, Haitian wood cutters do not really understand the extent of damage their cutting does. These uneducated peasants have little sense of history. In their generation Haiti has always looked denuded like it does today. Thus to convince them that they are contributing to Haiti's misery by cutting the few trees which any one of them cuts, is not a very convincing argument. When compared with the alternatives of hunger or even starvation facing the wood sellers, the argument fundamentally makes no sense.
    4. There is little motivation for wood cutters to replant more trees. Mainly they do not own the land. They cut here or there as sharecroppers or renters, then move on to other lands. The land owners are often city people or more wealthy village folks and they do not keep a close watch on their lands. Were they to replant, it is likely that the neighbors' animals would eat the seedling trees since there is little forage left in Haiti. The land tenure system--the way land is owned and used in Haiti--provides little motivation to anyone to replant the trees. Of course, it is in the interest of the nation as a whole to replant trees. But, no individuals who own, share-crop or rent lands are personally motivated to do this costly and troublesome, and non-economic work.

    The largest portions of Haiti's best lands produce crops for export. Sugar cane is the dominant export crop, but tropical fruit and other crops are grown as well. With most of the very best land out of production for local food crops (beans, rice and corn), the masses of people do not have access to land to grow food for eating or selling on the local market. Ironically, Haiti, a primarily agricultural land, is a net importer of food. At first one might think that this is not such a bad thing. After all, by selling crops on the international market income is generated for Haiti, jobs are produced and money circulates. Unfortunately none of this happens in any positive way for the great masses of people. First, these lands which produce the export crops are controlled by the elite of Haiti. Most of the imported cash goes to these owner/controllers of the land and most of it is not spent in Haiti, but in the more interesting markets of the United States and Europe. Not even a trickle down effect is felt from this flow of cash. Further, the farm wages are among the lowest in Haiti. Cane cutters spend an entire day in back-breaking work to cut a ton of sugar cane. For this long day one can expect $1.00 a day OR LESS! When one compares this with the high prices of imported food, one can see the contribution to Haiti's difficulties from this concentration on export crops.


    Haiti does not have the basic social infrastructure to allow a viable economy. There are inadequate roads in the rural areas. Thus shipping goods to the market in Port-au-Prince is expensive and risky. Travel by workers is difficult and extremely time consuming because of bad roads. During the rainy season many areas cannot be reached at all by motor vehicles.

    Water presents difficulties for the people as well. Only the houses of the wealthy in Port-au-Prince and the major regional towns have running water. The masses do not have access to potable water and the death and disease related to water is critical. It is said that 80% of all disease in Haiti is water borne. Sewerage systems are limited to the homes of Port-au-Prince's elite. The rest of the people make do with outhouses or worse, just use the outdoors. This presents a terrible medical problem in the crowded slums of the capital.

    Electricity is not available except for a tiny percent of the populace. I've already written about the deplorable conditions of schools and the inadequate health care facilities. Haiti simply doesn't provide the basic infrastructure which allows a healthy people in a healthy economy.

    Haitian governments plead that the country is too poor to provide such services. There is some truth to this claim. However, millions and millions of dollars donated by foreign governments and charitable groups for infrastructure projects have been stolen by government officials. Cheating and corruption in dealing with these funds are widespread. Lastly, the economy is run for the benefit of the rich elite. There are too few just taxes to provide the needed income for the basic infrastructure which makes a decent life possible.


    Masses of people have no work, or work for pay which cannot come close to providing a living wage a one's family. Because of the soil erosion and structure of agriculture, thousands pour into Port-au-Prince looking for work.

    Most of them have heard of a friend's friend or an uncle's cousin said to have found work in the tourist industry, or manufacturing sector. But there are few jobs to be had, and the slums grow. These unemployed masses put increasing pressure on the already inadequate city infrastructure.

    The problems of unemployment and underemployment are caused in large measure by the lack of an adequate infrastructure and the domination of all wealth by the few. The political instability of the present moment does not help. Members of the Haitian elite and foreign investors are leery of investing in Haiti since no one knows where the government will move.


    Today's world economy is international. Competition is bitter and severe. We are all familiar with this competition between the United States, Western Europe and Japan. But this is a competition of the strong fighting the strong for a piece of the market. Haiti is in a terribly disadvantageous position. Haiti is an undeveloped country. It is not even a developing nation. The economic structure of Haiti has in large measure deteriorated in the 29 years of Duvalier rule. Haiti cannot compete. It's a case of being hopelessly behind in a long distance race of superstars. Instead of catching up, Haiti falls farther and farther behind each day.


    My own experience has been that large masses of Haitian people suffer from a self-defeating image of themselves. They know they are poor in a rich world. They have heard that they are ignorant and illiterate. They speak Creole and are told that this is not a "real" language, but a bastard tongue. They experience their own powerlessness and are told it is their own fault. Such a self-image creates its own cycle of misery. The victim, the masses of Haitian people, blame themselves for their own suffering.


I have painted a grim picture. Haiti is a devastatingly poor country. The causes of this misery are many and varied. Most of them are stubbornly resistant to change or amelioration. Many of the woes of Haiti are beyond Haiti's capacity to cure even if a just government and economic order were to appear, which, of course, is highly unlikely.


Haiti suffers many many ills which I've tried to catalogue above. Ironically, one often hears that Voodoo is the major cause of Haiti's misery. I want to address this claim because I believe it is a complete myth. That is, I hold that Voodoo in no serious way causes Haiti's misery. But, the concentration on this non-cause dissipates much energy from more useful tasks.

Christian missionaries claim that the Voodoo religion is some sort of satanic worship and thus Haiti's suffering is caused by a combination of divine punishment and the ineptness of the satanic powers.

I will not comment one the supernatural part of it. But, the factual claim that Voodoo is a satanic worship is flatly mistaken. Voodoo is an African family-spirit religion. The spirits (not gods, but spirits--sort of like angels in Christianity) are invoked for moral advice and help with daily affairs. Additionally, Voodoo is a healing religion. Much of this healing is effective for local health problems. In general my strong impression is that people are very pragmatic about their healing. If a houngon or mambo (priest or priestess) heals, then people will use them again, otherwise not.

I don't want to paint a romanticized picture. There is widespread use of healing practices which go beyond the houngon and mambo's abilities. Wherever this occurs it should be combated as poor healing practice. Similarly, the Haitians have added a new rite to African Voodoo. This is the petro rite, a black magic rite which includes such exotic and socially damaging practices as death curses and the creation of zombis. There is no question that these practices are harmful. But, the observers of the Haitian scene whose evidence I find most plausible, maintain that these petro services probably account for no more than 5% of Voodoo practice.

I have no personal stake in defending Voodoo. But, it is factually wrong to blame Voodoo's excesses for seriously contributing to Haiti's misery. The reason that this is such an important issue is tied to the question of Haitian self-image and the rights of the Haitian people to their own culture. The problem is not Voodoo, but some excesses and superstitions in an otherwise legitimate religion. More importantly, it is the religion of Haiti's people.

My suspicion is that the criticism of Voodoo is not really because of its alleged harmful practices, but simply because it is not the religion that Western missionaries would prefer the Haitian people to follow.

A second version of the myth is to claim that Voodoo is filled with harmful medical practices and superstitions and must be erradicated. Again, I believe the extent of this harm is greatly exaggerated, but I do agree that there are indeed harmful medical practices and superstitions in Voodoo's present form.

However, when I balance these factors against the importance of Haitians having their own culture, their own ways; when I balance these negative factors against the poor self-image that Haitians already have of their culture, it seems more important that critics of Voodoo concentrate their criticisms not on the religion as a whole, but on the harmful practices themselves.

If we look back in Western culture to the Middle Ages we find a Christianity riddled with superstition. The process that won the day in that struggle is precisely what I advocate for Voodoo. Medieval Christianity was purged of its worst superstitions and the religion survived. This is the need in Voodoo.


Haiti needs jobs. Hundred of thousands of people are unemployed in Port-au-Prince, or can only find part-time work. Thus, at first glance it would seem that the arrival of American manufacturing operations in the 1970s would be a boon to Haiti. Well, are they really? The case is not so clear.

On the positive side, some 350,000 jobs now exist in the manufacturing sector which did not exist 15 years ago. 350,000 people have full-time employment; people who were unemployed before.

However, the national minimum wage is $2.60 daily. Most companies evade even this pittance by shifting their pay system to piece work and then making it so that the typical wage is closer to $2.00 than the minimum wage.

Until the fall of Duvalier, labor unions and labor activity were illegal. Even now few people know what a labor union is and the government continues to harass any labor activity. Additionally, the press of the hundreds of thousands who have no work, and who would very much like even these $2.00 a day jobs, keeps workers disciplined not to rock the boat.

The $2.00 a day actual wage is nearly double the $1.00 typically earned in the agricultural sector. However, the American firms who own and run these plants earn fantastic rates of return on capital, profits entirely generated by the labor of the Haitians. Any sense of justice one can muster calls for a fairer distribution of the wealth created in these plants.

Are these plants a way out of Haitian poverty? Yes and no. Immediately, they do employ the unemployed and that is a positive factor. But, the non-living wage which is paid insures that people will not rise out of their squalor and misery, but will remain at subsistence level.

This situation is quite like the early Industrial Revolution in the United States and England. Most of us are familiar with the hard and long battles which labor had to fight to get a fairer portion of the wealth their own labor created. The Haitian fight is hampered by many factors which were not as limiting in the United States--the high level of illiteracy, more severe levels of government oppression than existed here, more competition for jobs, etc.

So, I find this new development in Haiti to be a puzzle. Does it help or hinder Haitians? I just don't know. With just reforms this manufacturing sector could profit both Haiti and foreign investors. At present some Haitians do survive because of these jobs, and fortunes are made by the investors.


Haiti is a small country, about the size of Maryland. It has between 6 and 6.5 million people. The soil erosion, inability to compete in the international economy, backward agricultural technology and many other factors combine to make this population of 6 to 6.5 million one which Haiti cannot easily support.

The overwhelming portions of the best Haitian lands are used to grow export crops for North America and Europe. This production benefits only a handful of the Haitian elite. Thus, if only the land were returned to the Haitian people and used for local food crops, Haiti would have no difficulty in providing a sound diet for all her people.

Even minimal improvements in agricultural technology (wider use of oxen and plow, for example), or improved understanding of agricultural problems (stronger national help in fighting soil erosion) and the land that is in production of local food crops could be much more productive.

Since hunger is caused by the present social system, it would seem that it is not overpopulation which causes the crisis in Haiti. But this view is shortsighted. A reformed use and understanding of agriculture (both highly unlikely) would make it possible for Haiti to feed its present population and even the expected population into the next century. But, eventually, Haiti will face a population crisis. Certainly by 2025, only 38 years from now, Haiti's present 2.2% growth rate will make Haiti incapable of feeding her people in the best of circumstances.

There are population control programs throughout Haiti. But they simply don't work. Much research shows that moral preaching, sex education, available contraceptive measures and even force do little to reduce populations in very poor nations. This is because people NEED lots of children. They need them for 4 reasons:

  1. As workers in the farm fields.
  2. As old age insurance for parents who have no other security.
  3. Because in a life of low material gratification, raising children is among the few joys and delights one can have.
  4. Because they suffer high children mortality rates, people must have many children so that enough will survive to accomplish 1-2-3.

Sociologists know that only economic development can effectively lower the birthrate, and that economic development--providing old age security, and some level of material comfort, almost invariably lead people to voluntarily limit birth rates. Such a rise in material standard is also accompanied by higher levels of education, which further contributes to voluntary birthrate limits.

Is it really overpopulation which causes Haiti's misery, or is the overpopulation another result of Haiti's misery? It's not a clear case at all. With more humane social planning, Haiti could provide for its people NOW. But what about in a few years? Population is a puzzle.


This paper has tried to explain Haiti's terrible situation. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere because of her history, her present social structures which grew out of her history and because she is caught in the impossible competition of modern economics.

Haiti needs the help of goodwilled people everywhere. She needs you.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Drums of Aristide

I do not want to spoil the bliss of the moment on the eve of the election of our new President.

But I do wish to reach out across the waters to my friends on the American left, the ones who might perhaps listen to Amy Goodman.

I wish to ask for your Light and attention for your sister republic here in the Caribbean, for Haiti, first independent Black Nation in the world, second oldest independent nation in the hemisphere.

This coming week in Boston, Ms. Goodman will be hosting a forum in Boston, complete with Matt Damon, and Paul Farmer, and Brian Concannon, who was Jean Bertrand Aristide's lawyer. Although the title and stated purpose of this forum is to discuss "health and security" in Haiti, my personal intuition is that it also a publicity launch for the campaign of Aristide's chosen successor for the Presidency of Haiti, Yvon Neptune.

You may see this quite clearly if you follow the pages announcing this event.

Ms. Goodman, whom I used to respect as an independent journalist is, perhaps unwittingly, risking introducing back into this fragile island, some extremely dangerous characters.

One of pages of my blog that consistently, over the last three years, has received the most amount of traffic, is the post that I ran entitled "Aristide's Gang of Drug Dealers". You may read the full post here.

I urge to walk with EYES WIDE OPEN at this critical juncture for the history of our nation, our hemisphere and our planet.

Already, WILPF (Women's International League for Peace and Freedom) has thrown its support to Mr. Concannon.

Although I certainly admire Dr. Farmer's work, I cannot fathom his continued support for Aristide.

I ask for the particular attention of Senator Christopher Dodd, who served here in the Dominican Republic as a Peace Corps worker and has long held a continuing concern for this Island.

Do not make the same mistake again, Congressional Black Caucus.

You can fool some of the people only some of the time.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Advising Obama from Offshore

Dear President Obama,

I am honored to advise you on how to proceed in Hispaniola.

First, on the matter of Ambassadors, who are the public face of our Nation, let us just talk casting here, since the Ambassadors are only here to carry out your policies as delivered to the State Department.

Both these countries have very young populations so it would help if you could appoint people who actually knew who Juan Luis Guerra and Wyclef Jean are.

Would it be too much to ask that they be able to program their own ipods?

For the Dominican Republic, we are looking for someone who is, well, simply gorgeous. I wonder if Antonio Banderas is free? Now, he would do just perfectly. But, it would also be subtly important here in this land of machismo, if you could find us a Latina who can dance salsa in three inch heels.

As for Haiti, we would need someone Black. This seems elementary to me. And someone of some stature, some importance, which will signify that we are indeed taking a serious interest in our sister republic. An Elder - a Statesman. Would Andrew Young do it? Do you suppose he might? or Julian Bond? I know that Haiti is not an easy place to be, but I think that it very important that after all these years, we signal to our sister republic that we see and hear her and will take her plight to heart.

I will keep you briefed with further policy recommendations,.

Thanks so much for your attention.

May the Light continue to shine upon and within you

Respectfully submitted,


Santo Domingo

cc: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

Monday, January 12, 2009

Missionaries and Farm Subsidies

I am a bit snippy today. I posted to one of my internet groups a "snippy" response to an honest request from an earnest person who was going to come down here to the DR, to one of the Haitian batayes and do some "missionary" work. He wanted to know if they, the group of 20, would be welcomed. Would the Dominicans resent their helping the Haitians? Did the government want them here?

So I said, well, sure. They would certainly be welcome to come down here and do the work that that back in the States they would pay the Dominicans and Haitians to do for them. This would allow the Dominicans more time to play dominoes. If they built some really nice places, the Dominicans could take them from the Haitians. I said that here is a very big industry here, "volunteers" are charged up to $1000 a week to "work" with the poor.
I said that the Dominican government would be welcoming since that would allow them not to have to deal with the problem. The US Embassy would be happy to have them since it would show how warm and generous we Americans are so that we can continue to subsidize our rice and flood the world with it, destablizing agriculture all over the world,,,,,,,,,, I closed with saying that I particularly liked the missionaries who came with the "gold crosses in their ears.'

I got slammed for the post, of course, and rightly so because nobody likes a cynic.

I reposted a quasi apology, pointing out that indeed it was a noble effort, that they could indeed be playing golf ---- but also they might bear in mind that the money that they spend on their air fare would send a Haitian to college for a year in Haiti.

Non- profits outside of the United States do not work the same way as they do inside the US. Here they are a HUGE business.... and quite a disgraceful one at that. I could refer you to one of the six books that are on my list on the subject -- which would depress you and make you perhaps you as much of a cynic as I have become

But here is my point-

If you come here on "mission", check out what that "mission" really is..

Now if you want to ome here on your knees to labor in the hot sun in repentance for the slavery of our past, That, I can certainly understand, because that is what brought me here. But I don't volunteer here anymore. Volunteering is not part of the culture here. They don't do it.

A representative from Friends Journal called to thank me for my contribution and we spoke for a bit (I called him back to absorb the cost of the call!). He had read my journal article from three years ago and some of my blog, and said, "Well, it sounds like you could use some help. What would you do if a group of us came down there. Say you had five Quakers for a week, what would you do with them?" I was silent for a while. Then I said: "I don't want five Quakers for a week, I want one Quaker for five years."

So if we "white folks" want to get down on our knees and repent, then I am down with that..... but somehow...... I just don't think that that is what is going on with these missionary trips.

Perhaps I am wrong.

Wouldn't that be grand?
If we wanted to actually stand in solidarity with them, figure out something that might help them long term, something that we can learn from them, or that we might do that would affect their lives, or how we could live with as little as they do, that would be an interesting trip. (The Lambi Fund of Haiti runs such trips -- and charges close to $400 a day to do so!)

I think that what will happen is that these missionary folks will come down here, feel sorry for the poor people, go back home, feel self righteous, and be really grateful to God for their "stuff" . And think nothing about the agricultural subsidies.

But they will have seen the batayes... and that -- at least-- will have changed them.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Quaker School- Quaker Values

A TV report showed the first day of school of the Obama daughters going to Sidwell Friends, alma mater of Chelsea Clinton, closing with the phrase that the school was "permeated with Quaker values." This sent me into a reflection of my 14 years in Quaker school in New York City, in a school which was established before George Washington was the president.

It was small, and red bricked, not quite one roomed, but so small that of the 25 in our graduating class, 13 of us had been in kindergarten together. We were all, at that time, of the middle and affluent classes, the tuition being steep, the endowment small, the practice of educating only the children of the Meeting long forgotten or overridden by economics. But the Quaker values were there, although I did not recognize what an extraordinary education it had been until I left and compared it to other types.

The core Quaker value is that there is that of the divine within each being. Quakers, following George Fox, a radical Englishman who lead the movement in the 1650's, seek to contact that divine voice within them so that informs their lives. This was the core of their teaching method. Children, although trained in academic excellence and respect, were held to carry that core within them and were treated therefore with the concomitant respect. Co-operation was stressed over competition.

I remember the very early days, in grammar school, starting the days with a moment of silence. It was a practice that has served me well all my life, although I have wished that it had been more, and more stressed. There was no effort to convert us or proselytize. We had only one brief course in Quaker history, in sixth grade. I suspect that most alumnae of Friends Schools know little of Quaker history. I know more because I became a convert, or a "convinced" Quaker years after my graduation.

By senior year, the rumor about Dr. Hunter's history class was confirmed. There was indeed a quiz every Friday. And, if you were not prepared, all you had to do was to tell him and you did not have to take the test. Just tell him when you were ready. The purpose was that you would actually have done the work and knowthat you had done the work. Radical. Astonishing. Amazing.

When I approached that same Dr. Hunter one day, to explain (with some trepidation) that I would not be in school the following day as I would be marching with the Congress of Racial Equality, he replied: "Good for you, Eames."

In retrospect, I marvel that so many of us assembled a half hour early, before school on Friday mornings, to take a completely non-credit course from Dr. Hunter on Comparative Religion.

Despite the plain grey habits and simplicity exemplified by the smiling face on the oatmeal box, the Quakers are a most radical small (very small and growing sadly smaller) group. Although now there are many forms of the sect, some almost indistinguishable from evangelical protestant churches, the original roots of the group were radical in several aspects.

Quakers are well known as pacifists, as being opposed to war, but are actually among the three traditional "peace" churches in the United States, along with the Mennonites and the Brethren. Perhaps it was because the Quakers were a bit more "worldly" that they have gained more publicity for their stand, helping to establish their rights as conscientious objectors under Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. Quakers are known as pacifists because Quakers are more likely to take public stands, such as shipping medical supplies to Hanoi, or shipping water filters to Iraq, or loading themselves and school supplies into school buses and going to Nicaragua.

I remember one of the seminal moments of my convincement, when I was considering going to Nicaragua (I did not, in the end) with Witness for Peace, which requires that you have a home "congregation" to report to. I was wavering between the two religions Witness for Peace had said "Oh, could you come as an Episcopalian? We have so many Quakers." I went to my local Episcopal Church deacon, who informed me, quite honestly, that she did not think, really, that the congregation "would be interested." I could not imagine a congregation that would not be interested in war.

Perhaps the most radical act of the Quakers did was to completely dispensed with the clergy, asserting that each person has the power to contact the divine within. Some Quakers put this rather as abolishing the laity, making each of us a minister, for indeed each Quaker is expected to shoulder the responsibilities of ministry. This prehaps accounts for the diminishing number of Friends.The challenge of leading a “simple life” in today’s world along with the burdens of running a Meeting can be overwhelming. I had to leave for a “simpler” country, which, ironically, tore me from the active life within the Quakers since, as yet, I am the only Friend here in the Dominican Republic.

Following the abolition of the clergy, the Friends accepted the complete equality of women, following Fox's observation that Paul must have been mistaken since the Old Testament was full of women testifying. The orginial form of worship, followed still by some branches of Quakers, is to sit in Silence, awaiting a “message”- hopefully from “that of God” rather than “that of NPR.“ At its best, a “gathered” Friends Meeting, in which the assembled members are alive in the Spirit and Vocal Ministry, is a powerful spiritual experience, sufficient to nourish the soul through many droughts and refresh the belief in the Living God. Every Friends School is, I believe, under the direction of a Quaker Meeting and has a Quaker Board.

This abolition of the clergy led to the rise and power of women within this religion as I have seen in no other. Quakers were the first to establish co-educational schools in the United States, perhaps in England as well, although I am not sure of this. Every woman leader in the Seneca Falls conference was either a Quaker or Quaker educated: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, the Grimke sisters. Finally, Alice Paul led the radical hunger strike for the final establishment of the right to vote.

Quakers are often given much credit for the abolitionist movement and it is true that they were the first of the established churches to "abolish" slavery, in that by 1790, any Friend who still held slaves was "read out" of Meeting. And Quakers do credit themselves with being the first to educate Blacks. Yet there was still a "brown bag" test for the Meeting Houses, and Quaker Meetings, at least in the United States, remain for the most part, a bastion of white, middle class liberals, although, to our credit, we do work and struggle with this issue. As for the actual "running" of the railroad, a more accurate history reports that the abolitionist movement was not the purview of any one religion.

If you ask Quakers about their "beliefs", we will not be able to answer for others, for we only answer that question for ourselves. We do hold common "testimonies", shared historic witnesses: these are what would be considered the Quaker "values" that Obama daughters will absorb along with their academic courses. Some of these are explicit, some implicit. Quakers have an explicit testimony against war, gambling, alcohol and tobacco, although it is left to each Friend to discern for herself her own direction. We have implicit testimonies for simplicity, for service to others, for hard work, for respect for the earth, for respect for all forms of life.

At Friends Seminary, we had no proms, just dances in the school gym. We had no ski trips, just outings to the museums. We were expected to start volunteering as soon as we were old enough (14). We had no idea of class ranking.

The only actual competition that we had, on a school level was to collect money for charity. That was fiercely competitive, with seniors presenting their pet projects to the vote of the entire upper school. Our graduating class, in 1964, chose a project through the American Friends Service Committee which brought a black student from Florida into our formerly, shamefully, previously all white school.

I am pleased to report that when I went back to address the assembly at Friends Seminary about the Witness for Peace in Vieques in 2002, I was faced with a school twice the size and a sea of mixed colored faces.

We may be a small group but we have been historically blessed from from the Power Within. The children of the President are well placed and will be well nurtured within the heart of Friends.

They will be nurtured to grow up to "answer their Call, which is all in all."

We are honored to have been entrusted with them.