Colin Dayan says the best aid for the earthquake-ravaged nation is to empower its people
by Jim Patterson
An earthquake kills more than 150,000 people in Haiti. President Obama promises to help and the military mobilizes. There’s a televised concert to raise money, and people can text $10 donations though their cell phones.
The wheels are in motion. Aid is on the way. Cleanup will begin soon. We’ve done what we can for those poor people. On to the next story.
But wait – with the help of Vanderbilt’s Colin Dayan, let’s take a closer look. Why did this happen, and how should we react? Dayan says the destruction wrought by the 7.0 earthquake that struck on Jan. 12 was, in part, “man-made.”
Consider this: Until the 1980s, the population of Port-au-Prince was much lower than the 2 million who were affected by the earthquake. Before that, many Haitians lived in the countryside as farmers of rice and pigs.
“In the 1980s, there was a big move, mostly by the United States Agency for International Development, to get Haitians out of the countryside and into the cities for multinational assembly industries,” said Dayan, author of Haiti, History and the Gods. “The promise was to put Haitians to work in industry. Some called it the Taiwanization of Haiti.”
To push along the move, rice was imported from Miami at prices Haitian farmers couldn’t match. A swine flu scare led to the killing of all the pigs in the country, which were replaced by less hardy pigs from Iowa – called “cochons blancs” by Haitians – that were only given to peasants who converted to Christianity. Because they couldn’t survive in the countryside, the new pigs had to be housed at the Christian missions. Haitians actually traveled to visit their pigs.
As a result, Haitians moved en masse to the cities from the countryside. Instead of growing their own food on plots of land given to their families following independence in 1804, many Haitians were working and living in the cities and more vulnerable when the earthquake struck.
“Haitians don’t need our compassion, which too often translates into ‘taking care of people who can’t take care of themselves,’” said Dayan, the Robert Penn Warren Professor of the Humanities and professor of English.
What Haitians yearn for is to be respected for the proud and resilient people they’ve proven themselves to be, Dayan said. They could help themselves if business interests and the Haitian elite would stop looking to poor Haitians as a cheap labor force, and if unfair debt dating back 200 years were wiped out.
“You get this representation of Haiti as utterly helpless and retrograde every time there’s a crisis there,” Dayan said. “You’ve got reporters saying, ‘We’ve got to change the culture. We’ve got to be tough on them. We’ve got to impose middle class values of achievement, and we’ve got to get rid of the cultural backwardness in that country – voodoo.’”
Long before the earthquake, Haiti was repeatedly a victim of Western exploitation, including a brutal occupation from 1915 to 1934 by the United States, Dayan said.
“Citibank pushed for that invasion,” she said. “It was a disaster. There was some progress in terms of building roads, but that was accomplished by using Haitians doing forced labor.”
Additionally, the Haitian Constitution was rewritten during the U.S. occupation. One change eliminated a provision that prevented foreign whites from being proprietors in Haiti.
“After that, foreign proprietors were everywhere in Haiti,” Dayan said.
Much media commentary continues to contribute to the perception of Haiti as a backward nation in need of Western reform. A television evangelist declared that the earthquake was the fruit of a deal with the devil by the people of Haiti. More shocking to Dayan, a New York Times columnist advised that sweat shops are needed to build the country’s economy.
“It seems like people think that the only way to help is to re-enslave Haitians as a captive labor force,” Dayan said.
As the first black republic in the New World and the second independent nation in the Western hemisphere, Haiti is still a beacon to many developing nations. Cuba and Venezuela were the first to send aid after the earthquake.
“Haiti was once considered Paris in the Caribbean,” said Jane G. Landers, associate professor of history and author of Atlantic Creoles in the Age of Revolutions. “There were huge cathedrals, libraries and artwork. The French made it the most profitable colony, based on sugar, which depended on slave labor.”
Landers said the successful Haitian slave revolt from 1791 to 1803 led to fear that the urge for freedom would spread.
“The papers were so fearful that they equated freedom for slaves as a plague or disease,” said Landers, who grew up in the Dominican Republic. Those attitudes continue to this day, she said, with press accounts of Haiti focusing on “poverty and tires burning around people’s necks.”
Haiti paid a huge price for its independence from France: 150 million francs to compensate the French for lost property – slaves. The country has been saddled by debt ever since. Debt forgiveness could make a massive difference, Dayan said.
The impulse to provide aid after a natural disaster is heartening, but it would help if as much of it as possible were provided through Haitian organizations instead of the U.S. military.
“I think the really important thing is to look at how we may be able to help Haitian organizations, which exist and are very important,” Dayan said. “They have tremendous expertise, and they’re already on the ground helping.”
In the longer term, Dayan hopes that calls for sweat shops and other uses of Haitians for cheap labor will fail. Haitians could industrialize or not at their own pace, hopefully with local ownership. And the voodoo traditions that are so feared and maligned by Westerners and the media should continue to be a source of hope and strength to many Haitians. Stigmatizing voodoo as a backward “zombie religion” is incorrect and harmful, Dayan said.
“To this day, many of the strongest Haitian communities are those that practice voodoo,” Dayan said.
“Voodoo is a fascinating religious practice,” she said. “It’s a way of reinterpreting history, a thinking-through of the history of Haiti that springs from the people rather than from enslavers or occupiers like the French or the Americans. The only thing that can destroy voodoo is Protestantism, because if you don’t have rum and you can’t dance, the gods are not going to come.”
Vanderbilt is contributing to the relief efforts in Haiti in a number of ways. Commodore basketball fans donated 120 bags of shoes (approximately 3,000 pair) to Soles for Souls at the games on Jan. 23 and 24. Manna Project International, an organization founded by Vanderbilt students to combat poverty in Ecuador and Nicaragua, held its annual “Mannafit” on Jan. 26, raising more than $2,500 for Haitian relief. American Red Cross blood drives have been held across campus, and a variety of student groups are hosting fund-raising events. Visit www.vanderbilt.edu/myvu for up-to-date details on opportunities to help.