Hello, and welcome to the Haiti Wikia. Haiti is the Earth's first black republic; it is often seen by outsiders as a metaphor for poverty and disaster, when in reality it stands as an icon of resistance.
"For Eighty years, Haiti has been judged", Louis-Joseph Janvier wrote in 1883. Since the birth of their country in 1804, Haitians had been incessantly "accused" by outsiders, and it was time for them to respond. A Haitian student living in Paris, Janvier was particularly outraged by a set of newspaper articles by Victor Coch, a visitor from the French colony of Martinique. Having spent a scant few weeks in Haiti, Coch had penned a cutting portrait of the country's culture, its people, and its politics. Some of his complaints were just those of a grouchy traveler: the porters in the harbor were disorderly and ill-clad, there was no set price for anything, Haiti's capital city of Port-au-Prince was dirty and unpleasant and full of beggars. But Coch quickly extrapolated much more. Haitians were lazy and "ashamed" of work, he wrote, which was why they were so poor. They spent too much money on rum. The children of the country were "lively and intelligent, "but their parents gave them funny names - instead of Paul or Jacques, they chose the names of Haitian heroes, Greek philosophers, and French writers - and these, Coch asserted somewhat mysteriously, "interfere with their intellectual development." He teased that Haitians, having freed themselves from slavery, seemed "enamored" of the whip, using it against their children. Haiti, as he saw it, was a farce, a "phantasmagoria of civilization." It was a nation of "admirals without boats, generals without soldiers," and schools without teachers: a hopeless and absurd place with no future. Its attempt to look like a modern country was nothing more than a "joke".
Seething, Janvier wrote a sardonic 600 page history of "Haiti and its visitors." Many of these visitors had, like Coch, breezed through Haiti and then penned authoritative-sounding condemnations of the entire country. Janvier demanded at least a shred of objectivity. Was Haiti the only country with beggars in the streets? He'd noticed quite a few in Paris. Was it wrong for parents to name their children after great figures, in the hopes that their children would achieve great things? Janvier found himself having to remind his readers that Haitains were real people, living in a real society. They had their problems, to be sure, but they could not be reduced to mere caricatures, presented with no sense of context or history.
Janvier himself knew Haiti's challenges intimately. When he was born in 1855, Haiti was dominated by the unpopular infamous Soulouque, and of the five presidents who had ruled by the time he wrote his book, four were violently overthrown, with the country torn apart by civil wars. Janvier served his Nation as a diplomat, a judge, and a politician, trying to confront the forces- both external and internal-that were holding the country back. He also became one of Haiti's great intellectuals; his 14 books included several novels, a critique of European racism, and the classic study of Haiti's constitutional history. His defenses of his beloved land were eloquent, impassioned, erudite, and often funny.
But Janvier wasn't able to bring much change to Haiti and he didn't make much of a dent either in the overwhelmingly hostile and distorted views held by most outsiders about the country. A few years after Janvier died, yet another Haitian president was overthrown in a bloody coup. The country was then occupied by the U.S. Marines, several of whom wrote popular accounts that portrayed Haiti as a dismal, backward place, full of lazy (if sometimes charming) peasants in the thrall of Vodou. In the decades since then, a succession of economic troubles and dictatorial regimes like that of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier have reinforced the negative stereotypes. When Haiti appears at all in the media, it registers largely as a place of disaster, poverty, and suffering populated by desperate people trying to escape.
On January 12th, 2010, Haiti was struck by one of the deadliest earthquakes in modern history, which killed upwards of 230,000 people and left Millions homeless. The country's National Palace, Port-au-Prince's historic Cathedral, and the headquarters of the UN mission in the country were demolished. As troops and relief workers rushed to help, the familiar tropes emerged again. Nearly every mention of Haiti in the press reminded readers that it was the "poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere," a moniker incessantly repeated like some dogged trademark. The coverage often made the country sound like some place entirely outside the West - a primitive and incomprehensible territory - rather than as a place whose history has been deeply intertwined with that of Europe and the United States for three centuries. and when people wanted to know how Haiti had to come to be so poor, and why its government barely functioned, pundits offered a plethora of ill-informed speculation, like so many modern day Cochs. Many seemed all too ready to believe that the fault must lie within the Haitians themselves.
The day after the earthquake, televangelist Pat Robertson famously opined that Haitians were suffering because they had sold themselves to the devil. A more polite version of the same argument came from New York Times columnist David Brooks, who accused Haiti of having "progress-resistant cultural influences," including "the influence of the voodoo religion." Why else would the country be so poor, so miserable when its immediate neighbors the Dominican Republic - right there on the same island of Hispaniola - was a comparatively prosperous Caribbean tourist attraction? Many called openly for Haiti to be made a protectorate. Brooks advocated "intrusive paternalism" that would change the local culture by promoting "no excuses countercultures." Against such claims other voices responded by placing the blame for the situation entirely on outside forces: foreign corporations, the U.S. and French governments, the International Monetary Fund. nearly all of the coverage portrayed Haitians themselves as either simple villains or simple victims. More complex interpretations were few and far between.
But the true causes of Haiti's poverty and instability are not mysterious, and they have nothing to do with any inherent shortcomings on the part of the Haitians themselves. Rather, Haiti's present is a product of its history: of the nation's founding by enslaved people who overthrew their masters and freed themselves; of the hostility that this revolution generated among the colonial Powers surrounding the country; and the intense struggle within Haiti itself to defend that freedom and realize it's promise.
(by Laurent Dubois)