Institute of the Black World 21st Century. Revisiting Haiti after 19 years. Haiti is too rich to be poor.
Revisiting Haiti after 19 years
By Don Rojas
“Haiti is too rich to be poor”. This
seemingly contradictory statement uttered by a well-known Haitian educator
the night before our departure echoed repeatedly in my mind as I flew back
to the USA after a brief but eventful visit to Haiti in mid-February, 2014.
To be sure, we had witnessed the
bone-crushing material poverty in the cities and towns of Haiti. We had
seen the horrible conditions that millions of people are forced to endure
each day. We had traveled by mini-van from Cap Haitien (Haiti’s second city
and original capital) in the North passing through many rural towns and
villages along the route to Port-au-Prince in the South and all along the
way we saw evidence of dire economic underdevelopment and social
But amidst these bleak scenarios, we also
observed the rich spirit of a proud people with a unique history and a
vibrant culture. We could see it in their eyes, hear it in their voices,
feel it in their warm embraces, all of which served to remind us of the
invaluable contributions of so many talented Haitian artists, writers,
musicians and intellectuals to the enrichment of world culture.
As I contemplated the words of the noted
Haitian educator, many snapshot images of an intense four-day visit that
had lodged somewhere in my sub-conscious mind began to surface, providing
clarity and insight into the living paradox that is Haiti today.
I recalled the impeccably dressed school
girls in their pressed uniforms and with cute hair bows walking back from a
day of learning to their tiny, mud-walled homes in villages perched on the
steep hillsides of the mountain range where the great Citadel sits;and
images of their mothers and grandmothers who, after sending these kids off
to school, would venture into the fields to plow the land or to the rivers
to wash their clothes; images of the enterprising and intelligent young
crafts vendors and horse guides at the Citadel, barely literate youth who,
nonetheless, can communicate effectively in the native tongues of visiting
English, Spanish, Dutch and German-speaking tourists.
On the flight back I recalled, as well,
the young man walking by on the crowed sidewalk of a busy street in
Port-au-Prince who saw when my wallet fell out of my pocket onto the
ground, unbeknownst to me. He stopped and drew my attention to it. Without
me noticing he could easily have picked it up and proceeded on his way but
he chose to do otherwise. I breathed a sigh of relief, thanked him and
silently praised this display of honesty and integrity in the midst of
Another unforgettable image that
surfacedwas that of the man who heads up the cultural center in Milot, who
had returned to his village after spending many years in New York because
“there’s no place like home.” He spoke to our delegation as a proud and
patriotic Haitian who had come back to help make a positive difference in
the lives of his people.
So maybe this is what Madame Marie really
meant. Maybe she was pointing to the hidden truths inside the paradox while
making a plea for us “foreigners” to look beyond the stereotypical
depictions of Haiti, to search out and lift up the spiritual riches of a
nation that are embedded, and often hidden, within its poverty, a richness
that is ignored by the Western media.
What her statement prompted in me was a
profound question: with such monumental spiritual and intellectual
richness, why then has Haiti remained the poorest country in the Western
Hemisphere after more than 200 years of freedom and independence? The
answer lies deep in the country’s tortured history over the past 200 years,
a history markedboth by triumph and tragedy, historic victories and massive
betrayals. The flip side of Haiti’s extreme poverty is extreme exploitation
and systemic oppression at the hands of white supremacy spanning several
After defeating the powerful armies of
Napoleon Bonaparte in 1804, thus ending slavery and establishing the first
Black Republic in the Western Hemisphere, the formerly enslaved Africans
and their progeny found themselves paying a heavy toll throughout the 19th
and 20th Centuries to Europeancolonialism and US imperialism for the “sin”
of liberating themselves and for inspiring freedom fighters and
independence movements throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, as well
as abolitionists and anti-slavery activists in the USA.
Bonaparte, one of the greatest military
minds in the history of Western civilization, and a proponent of white
supremacy, once wrote, “my decision to destroy the authority of the blacks
in Saint Domingue (Haiti) is not so much based on considerations of
commerce and money, as on the need to block forever the march of the blacks
in the world.”
Commenting on the defeat of Napoleon’s
military forces in 1804, Haitian scholar Pascal Robert wrote recently: “The
Haitians had already decimated a huge British military expedition, killing
over 10,000 British soldiers in less than two months, and repelled
incursions by the Spanish Crown. Napoleon was determined to keep over
500,000 Black people in bone-crushing bondage in order to keep the lie of
justified white domination over the affairs of the world alive. The
importance of Haiti in choking the life out of that lie forevermore has not
ceased. What Haitian people must understand is that our existence and
history as a people is rooted in being a painful and uncomfortable reminder
to the Western world that on January 1, 1804, white supremacy died a
humiliating death, if at least for one day.”
To punish this “impudent” Black country
that had defeated white supremacy at the beginning of the 19th Century, the
valiant people of Haiti were forced to pay billions in “reparations” to
France throughout the 19th Century, suffer an invasion and years of
occupation by the US military in the early part of the 20th Century, endure
brutal dictatorships propped up by Washington in the 1950s, 60s and 70s,
all of which was exacerbated bythe constant and systematic re-distribution
of the country’s economic wealth upwards to the country’s 1% andto the
corrupt elites that have dominated Haiti’s political economy for decades.
I went to Haiti as part of a small
delegation of seven from the USA that was organized and led by the
indefatigable Dr. Ron Daniels, founder and President of the Haiti Support
Project (HSP), an initiative of the Institute of the Black World 21st
Century on whose board I now proudly sit.
The delegation included three young
leaders of the historic Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, none of whom had ever
visited Haiti before. Their fraternity, like many other African-American
organizations, had raised funds from its members to assist Haiti in the
wake of the devastating earthquake that struck the country in January 2010,
leaving over 200,000 dead, close to two million homeless and vast property
damage across the capital city and its environs.
Now, four years after the earthquake,
representatives of the fraternity had come to Haiti at the invitation of
Dr. Daniels, to explore the possibility of financing the construction of a
“model school” in collaboration with HSP. For the three young Kappa
brothers, this was the trip of a lifetime—eye-opening, gut-wrenching,
possibly even life-changing. By their own admission, they learned more
about the stark realities of extreme poverty and economic under-development
in four days than they had across entire semesters filled with courses in economics,
political science, history, sociology and other related disciplines.
Like me, they too were wrestling with how
to reconcile the apparent contradiction stated so eloquently by that
Haitian educator at a reception for a cross-section of Haitian civil
society leaders who had worked with Dr. Daniels and HSP ever since he first
took a delegation of African-American activists and scholars to visit Haiti
I was on that first pioneering delegation
19 years ago but had never returned to this fascinating country in the
ensuing years. My friend and colleague Ron, on the other hand, had fallen
in love with the people of Haiti, returning for countless visits, sometimes
alone or with his wife, and oftentimes, with delegations small and large.
Over the course of two decades, Ron and
his Haiti Support Project team have built up an incredible track record of
solidarity-based assistance to the people of Haiti, raising hundreds of
thousands of dollars from African-American communities across the USA to
finance a wide range of projects, from scholarships and school supplies for
rural children to micro credit loans for artisans and agricultural workers.
In the immediate aftermath of the massive earthquake in 2010, HSP raised
over $300,000 in relief aid from African-American organizations, churches
and concerned individuals.
HSP’s concept of support and assistance
are not based on the traditional models of charity that tend to patronize
and dis-empower the poor with “acts of kindness”, no matter how
well-intentioned, and which serve ultimately to re-produce dependency.
On the contrary, HSP’s assistance to the
people of Haiti is driven not by the “pity for the less fortunate among us”
syndrome but rather by an understanding and appreciation of the country’s
unique history and its rich culture and a desire to strengthen its
independence and self-sufficiency.
The primary objective of HSP’s various
projects is to help empower and uplift the Haitian people and to contribute
to the country’s national economic development. It is non-partisan yet
profoundly political work, driven and guided by the ideals of
Pan-Africanism. It respects the sovereignty of Haiti and adheres to the
principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of the country. As a
result, HSP today enjoys the respect and admiration of civil society
organizations that cut across political dividesboth in Haiti and within the
HSP’s main mission is to marshal moral,
political and material support to assist the Haitian people to develop a
strong and vital democratic society and a vibrant and sustainable economy
as a free and self-determining people. The project seeks to build a
constituency and base of support for Haiti in the US by focusing on
mobilizing the human and material resources of African Americans in
partnership with Haitian Americans. Working together these two Black
communities can make a significant contribution to the process of democracy
and development in Haiti.
Beyond mobilizing material support and
technical assistance for projects and programs initiated by organizations
within the popular movement for democracy inHaiti (peasant, labor, women,
youth, religious) and providing humanitarian relief in the event of natural
disasters, HSP works to influence US foreign policy towards Haiti so that
it conforms with the aspirations of the popular movement for participatory
democracy inside the country.
HSP also encourages support for
investments in sociallyresponsible business and community economic
development projects and enterprises in Haiti and has acted as a
“good-faith facilitator and mediator” wherever and whenever appropriate to
promote peace, justice, reconciliation and unity within Haitian society.
In 2005, the Haiti Support Project
sponsored two major symposia on the Future of Democracy & Development
in Haiti, one in Washington DC, the other in Atlanta. The symposia brought
together political parties, constituencies and leaders across the political
spectrum to promote a national and international dialogue to explore the
prospects of justice and reconciliation and the possibilities of a
government of national unity. The symposia process was envisioned as a
vehicle to bridge the deep divisions in Haitian society exacerbated by the
US-backed ouster of President Jean Bertrand Aristide in 2004. Ten years
later, HSP remains committed to continuing this process as a means of
building and strengthening a culture of democracy in Haiti.
In 2006, HSP launched a “Model City”
project to transform the town of Milot in Northern Haiti into a “Mecca” for
cultural-historical tourism and the foundation for people-based economic
development. Milot is a town of some 40,000 residents located five miles
fromthe mountain on which the great Citadel sits. The Citadel is one of the
architectural and engineering wonders of the world, conceived by Black
minds and built by the hands of former Black slaves who had won their
liberation by defeating Napoleon’s occupation army in 1804. It was built by
King Henri Christophe to defend the freed territory against any future
attempts by France to re-take Haiti.
For me and the rest of the delegation,
visiting the Citadel during the recent trip to Haiti was akin to going on a
pilgrimage to a shrine that symbolizes freedom and self-determination for
Black people all over the world. It is the largest fortress in the
Americas, declared by the United Nations a few years ago as a world
heritage site….a truly breath-taking place with huge tourist potential.
The town of Milot is the gateway to the
Citadel and it is HSP’s intention to work with Milot’s residents to
ultimately transform this lovely town into a showpiece that celebrates the
history, ingenuity and freedom-loving spirit of the Haitian people.
Dr. Daniels explains that this Model
Cities Initiative (MCI) exemplifies HSP’s constituency building strategy of
engaging the African-American community in collaboration with the
Haitian-American community to mobilize development assistance for
sustainable projects in Haiti.
From the outset of the MCI, education has
been a major priority. In recent years HSP has provided school supplies for
up to 4,000 young students in Milot and scholarships for scores of the most
needy students in the region. This assistance is channeled through a local
development committee composed of civic-minded community leaders dedicated
to making Milot a model city.
“We want to enable the people who are
committed to building the town to provide vital services,” says Dr.
Daniels. “By so doing, the committee is able to more effectively engage
residents in projects that advance the vision of creating a model city in
Central to HSP’s model city vision is the
construction of a modern, fully equipped school/academy and Dr. Daniels
hopes that African-American organizations such as the Kappa fraternity will
consider supporting the establishment of the “Henri Christophe Academy,” an
institution whose name will honor the memory of one of Haiti’s “founding fathers.”
Today, 210 years after its liberation
from French slavery and colonialism,Haiti continues its struggle to realize
the promise and potential for meaningful independence and
self-determination.Evidence of progress is starting to emerge.
Post-earthquake re-construction, glitches notwithstanding, is well underway
spurred on by the legendary resilience of the Haitian people. In recent
years Haiti has broken out of its regional isolation and is now an active
player in CARICOM, the Caribbean community of nations, and in ALBA, the
organization working towards closer economic integration between Latin
America and the Caribbean.
Even though its economy grew by an
impressive 5.6% in 2013, it will take a continuous flow of foreign aid
coupled with sustained job growth and efficient economic management over
the next several years to lift Haiti out of a state of extreme poverty. A
very long road to recovery lies ahead and HSP and its collaborators will be
fellow travelers on that road,marching hand-in-hand with the people of
Undeniably, the role of
African-Americans, acting in concert with their Haitian-American sisters
and brothers, is crucial to Haiti’s future.For a nation whose example
inspired and informed the Black liberation struggle in the United States it
can be argued that, in no small measure, Black people in this country have
a moral duty to assist in Haiti’s overall economic and political
development in the years ahead.
As for me, I am determined that the long
hiatus of 19 years not visiting this amazing country, will not be repeated.
I plan to visit again with my friend Ron Daniels before the end of 2014 and
to make whatever contribution I can to the noble work of the Haiti Support
Maybe on my next visit I will unravel new
insights into Madame Marie’s tantalizing proclamation that Haiti is,
indeed, “too rich to be poor.”