Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Don't demonize Haiti (or any other nation)

By Rosemary Joyce

For starters, that would be a help.

Media coverage of the disaster in Haiti has exemplified the worst over-simplifications possible, lending itself to the storyline: Haiti as a society doomed to failure.

Let's stop a moment and reflect: the US is also subject to earthquakes, hurricanes, suffering, and yes, starvation.

You will object that this is different: these are not the dominant experiences of the majority of the population, and when natural disasters hit, we can recover from them-- although part of that recovery too often involves amnesia. It is not just the ineradicable destruction of one of this country's most beautiful, historic cities, New Orleans, that we forget. Visit cities like Detroit, or my hometown of Buffalo NY, and then ask yourself if we actually are confronting the human disasters we create with our economic and social policies.

A centuries-long history of economic oppression that followed the successful revolution that freed Haiti from political control by France has been more significant than inherent cultural failings or geographic bad luck in Haiti's current position of extreme poverty. Perhaps a little history will place this in context.

In 1825, following an economic embargo by France, Spain, Great Britain and the US that began in 1804, Haiti acceded to French demands for repayment of the value of its lost property-- not just the land, but the bodies of the enslaved people who became the citizens of the new country. The amount demanded was 150 million francs, later reduced to 90 million francs, which amounted to more than twice the economic capital of the nascent country. In order to pay this debt to its former colonizers, Haiti was forced to take out loans-- from banks in France. Repayment of those debts continued to drain the capacity of Haiti to develop its own economy well into the 20th century, with final payments only completed in 1947.

Haitian poverty, in other words, was constructed by economic and political policies. Imagine if the new United States of America had been obliged to repay Great Britain more than twice the value of its economy as the price of independence, at terms dictated by British banks?

Nor did Haiti's economic disadvantage stop with the end of payments to France. Instead, as documented in many online news sources foreign aid to Haiti in the form of loans ended up putting the nation into continued, debilitating debt: by "2003, Haiti spent $57.4 million to service its debt, while total foreign assistance for education, health care and other services was a mere $39.21 million" (quoting Blog the Debt). Relieving Haitian debt is a first step toward allowing the country a chance to build its own economy and society.

Want to do your part to start the process of really helping Haiti, without assuming Haitians are somehow incompetent to manage their own society? Medical Anthropologist Paul Farmer, and the organization he co-founded, Partners in Health, have 20 years of experience developing collaborations that work with and for the Haitian people.

And if that is too much to do, consider simply contesting the imagery that describes Haiti and Haitians as doomed to fail. It isn't destiny: it's history, and we can acknowledge it even if we cannot change it.