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.
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.
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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
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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.
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