Fact or Fiction? Five Myths About Haiti
“Haiti is incapable of being a self-sustainable nation.” Based on media coverage of Haiti’s devastating earthquake and recovery efforts, this statement from a reader of the Huffington Post has come to sound like “conventional wisdom” about Haiti and its people.
Trouble is, such conventional wisdom and statements like this one are like urban legends—a partial picture, arguable, and in many cases simply flat wrong.
Here are five of the most common myths about Haiti and some alternate perspectives that come closer to the truth.
Myth 1: Haiti is a backward country of poor and illiterate people who cannot govern themselves.
The fantasy of Haiti that came alive in media reports following the earthquake focused on images of people running amok in the streets, tearing food out of abandoned shops, fighting over packages dropped by military helicopters, and preying on anyone who seemed weak or ill. These images embody two meanings of the word “partial.” In the one, we say something is partial if it is fragmentary or incomplete. In the other, something is partial if it is biased or unfairly predisposed.
Haiti’s complex history has frequently been glossed over. For example a sound bite can’t capture the impact of the sickness of new slaves, mal d’estomac, that Benjamin Rush, a signer of the U.S. constitution and a mental illness treatment pioneer, attributed directly to the profound grief of being enslaved. Haiti was the first slave-nation to fight for independence and win.
Did journalists reporting from the island know of Haiti’s isolation from other nations in the 19th century that left the young nation with few resources of its own and a huge debt? When they wrote of “inept government,” were they aware that the country’s elite provided the kind of leadership in Haiti’s government that lined their own pockets while keeping others in poverty? Or of the 21-year occupation of Haiti by U.S. Marines?
The second meaning of partial embodies the predisposition of bias and discrimination. Leslie G. Desmangles of Trinity College says today’s images of Haiti had their genesis in the U.S. military occupation during the early 20th century and attributes them directly to racial bias.
“The Marines in 1915 wrote about what they expected to find—not about what they actually saw,” he says. Raoul Peck, writing from Port-au-Prince in the days after the quake concurs. “[Journalists] want us to conform to the image they have of us,” he writes. “The worst thing is not the showing of these images, it is the imbalance, the fact that it leaves no room for other images that are perhaps more coherent.” Room for other images on television would have shown:
- People removing rubble by hand so someone buried alive could be moved.
- Groups of Haitian women singing their hope and tenacity.
- Artists exhibiting their paintings and other artwork beside the doors of a tent city.
Myth 2: Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
While it is true that many people in Haiti are impoverished, this tagline tells only a superficial story.
Soon after independence in 1804, the Haitian peasantry had the highest standard of living in the Americas, after the United States, writes Patrick Bellegarde-Smith. Now it has the lowest.
Neocolonialism—in large part sponsored by the United States and other powerful countries—impoverished all Haitians. International capital favored the lighter-skinned “elites” with whom international governments and corporations felt more comfortable. It was inconceivable, Leslie Desmangles says, that “dark-skinned people could be well-established professionals.” The desire of these players for political stability over development serving Haitian needs contributed to a spiral of starvation among the majorities and greater enrichment of the already rich.
Today, writes Bellegarde-Smith, “[fewer] than 1 percent of Haitians receive about 44 percent of all income but pay only 3.5 percent of taxes.” The rest of the bill goes to the already overburdened majority. Yet, in the words of United Nations worker Nigel Fisher, ordinary Haitians “have been clear about their priorities—an income to get their lives back together, education for their children so they have a stake in their country’s future, and housing where their families are safe.”
Myth 3: Haitians themselves depleted their own resources.
While it is true that to produce an income for their families Haitian farmers have clear-cut the island forests for charcoal, this only partially accounts for the deforested mountainsides. Systematic plunder of wood and other resources from “the Pearl of the Antilles,” as Haiti was known, was a practice of European and North American nations that occupied Haiti throughout its history.
Barbara Miller, a specialist in the anthropology of international development, writes, “Colonial plantation owners grew fabulously rich from this island. It produced more wealth for France than all of France’s other colonies combined and more than the 13 colonies in North America produced for Britain. Colonialism launched environmental degradation by clearing forests.”
Beginning around 1685 cleared forests made room for French sugar cane and coffee plantations, says Leslie Desmangles. Thereafter corporate interests that wanted trees for construction paid off the elites of Haiti who often invested in the very practices that plundered their country. Later, the Haitian American Sugar Company (HASCO) became one of the largest foreign-owned enterprises during the U.S. occupation. Displacing thousands of farmers by expropriating their land and cutting trees, HASCO (and its backers in the U.S. military through the elimination of city markets and vendors) undermined local production in favor of large-scale agriculture in what Valerie Kaussen calls “the commodification of land and bodies.” In the building of the HASCO railroad, plantation and sugar refinery Haitians relived the bondage of slavery in the bondage of poverty wages.
Myth 4: Aid from the United States is pouring into Haiti’s recovery. The United States alone pledged $1.15 billion for reconstruction.
U.S. funds for military, emergency rescue, medical treatment, transport, machinery and workers to operate heavy equipment were available almost immediately, according to an Associated Press report.
But the promised $1.15 billion for reconstruction projects has been held up by red tape and maneuvering in the U.S. Congress around the internal politics of the deficit. As of the quake’s first anniversary January 12, 2011, not a penny had been disbursed by the State Department.
UMCOR is a member of InterAction, an alliance of humanitarian aid organizations that reports on progress in Haiti. According to InterAction’s January 10, 2011, report, members have raised over $1 billion in relief and reconstruction funds and have spent about $471 million. UMCOR reports slow but steady progress.
Myth 5: The centuries-long war against Vodou was justified by Europeans and North Americans because Vodou is all about evil spells, irrationality or downright silliness.
Without hesitation Leslie Desmangles names his choice for the most pervasive myth about Haiti: the fiction created around the religion of Vodou. Desmangles, who has written extensively on Vodou and Haitian culture, points to some examples:
- Television advertising for a credit card issuer showing a man sticking pins into a doll while his colleague jumps in pain.
- Ronald Reagan’s catchphrase “voodoo economics.”
- Night of the Living Dead, a movie that popularized—and distorted—the notion of zombies.
- Opinion columnist David Brooks and author Lawrence Harrison, who this year characterized Vodou as irrational and Haitians who practice it as “progress resistant” and anti-planning.
Instead, Vodou is a system of beliefs and practices both uniquely Haitian—“shaped by the events in Haitian history,” writes Desmangles—as well as an amalgam from Europe, Africa and the New World. Vodou strengthened its adherents, or vodouists, as they revolted against slavery, and it continues to be seen as a way of life rather than a belief.
In theological terms Vodouists revere a sacred god, Bondye, and many spirits, or Lwa, who link humans to the divine. The Lwa are often represented by icons similar to those found in the Roman Catholic pantheon of saints. In this recycling of images Vodou stays fresh while reanimating the beliefs and practices brought to Haiti from Central and West Africa and expanded there through Creole traditions.
American Museum of Natural History, “Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou.”
Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, “Uprisings, Insurrections, and Political Movements: Contemporary Haiti and the Teachings of History, 1957-2010,” in Martin Munro (Ed.), Haiti Rising: Haitian History, Culture and the Earthquake of 2010 (Kingston, Jamaica: University of West Indies Press, 2011), 134-146.
David Brooks, “The Underlying Tragedy,” The New York Times, January 14, 2010.
Leslie G. Desmangles, The Faces of the Gods: Vodou and Roman Catholicism in Haiti. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.
Nigel Fisher, “Quake Hit Haiti Slowly Rises From the Rubble,” BBC News, July 11, 2010.
InterAction, “Haiti Aid Map.”
Valerie Kaussen, Migrant Revolutions: Haitian Literature, Globalization, and U.S. Imperialism. Plymouth, UK: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008.
Barbara D. Miller, “Why Is Haiti So Poor?”
Raoul Peck, “Dead End in Port-au-Prince,” in Martin Munro (Ed.), Haiti Rising: Haitian History, Culture and the Earthquake of 2010 (Kingston, Jamaica: University of West Indies Press, 2011), 43-48.