Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Published on Sunday, February 24, 2019

Haiti’s woes as a parable

Rioting in the streets of Haiti makes good video; the reasons for the riots don’t. 

            It’s been 40 years since I was last in Haiti. Recent news reports suggest that no much has changed. Haiti is, and was, a poster child for the effects of poverty and corruption. For at least a century, Haiti has been the poorest country in the western hemisphere. 

            It wasn’t always. In its early years, France considered Haiti its prize colony. They called it the Pearl of the Antilles. But it was profitable for its white masters, not for its black slaves. 

            Inspired by the revolutions in America and France, the slaves revolted -- the first successful slave rebellion anywhere in the world. Haiti became independent in 1804.

            The main square of Port au Prince, Haiti’s capital city, has a statue of a runaway black slave -- Le Negre Marron-- blowing a conch shell to rally his people against their colonial oppressors. Every time I’ve seen it, I felt a lump in my throat. 

            In a sense, Haiti’s rebellion enabled the U.S. to expand westward. Napoleon had sent a fleet to defend France’s Louisiana properties from America’s incursion. When he diverted part of that force to crush the Haitian rebellion, he lost both battles.


A history of corruption

            But in one of the recurring ironies of history, Haiti’s black masters proved just as brutal as the French had been. Since independence, Haiti has had 32 coups.

            News reports blame the current riots on corruption in government. That’s too easy an answer. Every Haitian government has been corrupt. The only debate might be over which one was least corrupt.

            The only government most non-Haitians have heard of is probably the dictatorship of Papa Doc Duvalier. It’s often forgotten that Papa Doc was legitimately elected, in 1957. 

            Papa Doc ruled with a tyrannical hand, enforced by gangs of thugs known as Tonton Macoutes. But the country did have a sort of law and order under him. The looting shown on television, with people carrying TV sets, microwave ovens, and groceries out through the crowds, would have been ruthlessly crushed by Papa Doc. 

            Government corruption escalated after Papa Doc died, succeeded by his son, Jean-Claude -- scornfully known as Baby Doc. And it has continued ever since. A World Corruption Index ranks Haiti among the dozen most corrupt countries in the world. 


Siphoned off

            Some 300,000 people died in Haiti’s 2010 earthquake; several million were injured; 1.6 million were left homeless. Compassionate aid poured in -- an estimated $13 billion worldwide. The American Red Cross raised a million dollars in donations in a single day! 

            But little of it reached the people it was supposed to help. Unfinished projects litter the capital, from overpasses that go nowhere to roofless apartment complexes.

            Indeed, much of Haiti’s existing infrastructure -- such as its roads and bridges -- dates back to the U.S. occupation, 1915-1934. The U.S. military provided schools and hospitals, a telephone system, and drinking water. And paved about 1700 km of roads -- which, besides helping Haitians get around, also enabled a quicker response to local uprisings. 

            News reports about the current rioting have focussed mainly on the danger to Canadian and American volunteers and mission workers. They rarely mention the number of Haitians dead, or injured. Ever since slavery, Haitians have always been disposable. 


A parable of warning

            So what makes the difference in the current round of riots? 

            I suspect that it’s cell phones. People used to see government officials and foreigners living in luxury on the cool and comfortable slopes of Petionville, high above the reeking squalor of Port au Prince itself, and assumed that was normal. But now they can see on their tiny screens that it’s not. 

            So they riot. Not because they have a better solution, but because they know that traditional solutions aren’t working. 

            I see Haiti as a tragedy, certainly. I also see it as a parable of what can happen when corruption in government becomes endemic. With predictable effects: 

·      deforestation affects the environment, stripping hillsides bare, exposing soil to erosion from torrential rains. 

·      air pollution affects daily life

·      safety codes can be bypassed or ignored

·      people are denied basic education and health care.

·      elites feel entitled to privileges.

Obviously, some of those concerns apply to other countries too. Including my own.

            In the spectrum of national success and failure, Haiti is an extreme. It shows the rest of us how far things can go, when things start to go wrong. We should all pay attention, to make sure it doesn’t, and can’t, happen to us too. 


Copyright © 2019 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved.

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The master computer somewhere that handles quixotic.ca has not played nicely this last while. Although it sends out these email columns without hesitation, it rejects your replies if the “Promotion Stuff” below contains too many URLs -- web addresses. I thought I had this fixed, by putting in “DOT” instead of “.” and “AT” instead of “@” but then I got overconfident, and put the symbols back. The server went back to blocking replies. So I have gone back to putting in “DOT” instead of “.” and “AT” instead of “@” to fool the beast. 

            I don’t intend to make things difficult for you, if you choose to check out any of the links. But you’ll have to substitute the right symbols for the capitalized words. 

            With these changes, though, you should be okay now just hitting the “Reply” button to comment on anything in these columns.


Tom Watson persisted, in spite of having his message blocked, and wrote this about last week’s column on Fitbits and other internet connections that know too much about me. “It's not just about your heart rate. Your one line is (pardon the pun) the heart of the matter: ‘I would bet that someone, somewhere, can hack into that data and learn more about me than I know myself.’ No one has to hack into your data to know about you; people already know. Consider: If all of the social networks are free, how do the companies make billions of dollars in profit? Because they sell what they know about you -- what you buy, where you travel, what you're thinking of purchasing, and so on.”


Isabel Gibson also got through the block by writing me directly: “Our new Internet Age could be seen as a return to village or tribal life, where everyone knew everyone else's business. There's some good in that, as well as a fair amount of bad, especially when people jump to judgement too quickly. I wonder whether we'll ever learn to automate the other aspects that I associate with village living -- a willingness to live and let live, since no one's record is spotless.”


Florence Driedger was the third reader who got through the blockage: “In many ways I agree with you in regard to our privacy and lack thereof, but experience of the opposite is also the case where privacy laws can be so limiting that important information is withheld at danger to some.  Professionals at times do not share when it would have prevented harm or grief to the person in question and/or the volunteer, or family. The professionals say ‘I can't share [this information] because of privacy rules.’  The poor, uneducated, or marginalized get caught in this too often.”






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To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. (This is to circumvent filters that think too many links constitute spam.)

                  Ralph Milton’s latest project is a kind of Festival of Faith, a retelling of key biblical stories by skilled storytellers like Linnea Good and Donald Schmidt, designed to get people talking about their own faith experience. It’s a series of videos available on Youtube. I suggest you start with his introductory section: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u6qRclYAa8

                  Ralph’s “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal -- is still available. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. More details at wwwDOTsinghallelujahDOTca

                  Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. <http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca>

                  I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom

                  Alva Wood’s satiric stories about incompetent bureaucrats and prejudiced attitudes in a small town -- not particularly religious, but fun; alvawoodATgmailDOTcom to get onto her mailing list.

                  Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom or twatsonATsentexDOTnet


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Author: Jim Taylor

Categories: Sharp Edges

Tags: Haiti, riots, poverty, corruption, Duvalier



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