An op-ed in today’s New York Times begins by saying:
Those who know a little of Haiti’s history might have watched the news last night and thought, as I did for a moment: “An earthquake? What next? Poor Haiti is cursed.”
The author, Tracy Kidder is a well-respected journalist who penned Mountains Beyond Mountains, about public health guru Paul Farmer and his work in Haiti. But to use the “cursed” meme to sell people on an otherwise uncontroversial op-ed seems, to me, sensationalistic at best and at worst irresponsible. The word conjures up racialized images of voodoo (the fact that voudoun is actually a religion and not just a mockery is another battle I can’t even fight here) that people with far worse intentions are all too eager to exploit.
Take, for example, evangelist Pat Robertson, who says that Haiti “swore a pact with the devil” to become free of the French. (See the video below.)
The truth is far more inspiring, humbling, maddening, and challenging to our notions of freedom. The Devil probably could have cut Haiti a better deal than the French did. (And can we just talk about who that woman is sitting next to Pat Robertson and how she can stand looking at herself in the mirror after murmuring assent to Robertson’s words?) After being defeated militarily by revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture, the French colonial powers who held Haiti demanded reparations in the form of 150 million gold francs in order to recognize the new, free nation. That number was later, generously of course, reduced to 90 million gold francs, or over $20 billion current U.S. dollars.
The ripple effect of this bargain cannot be underestimated. A free Haiti was hobbled economically from the start. They did not finish paying off the “independence debt” to france until 1947. The triangle of Haitian/French/US relations also paved the way for the Louisiana Purchase, which expanded and enriched the United States. Deposed former Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide wanted to get the money back from France. The current President has forgone any such claims. (A good primer on the claim for the return of the money comes from this article from the Wall Street Journal.)
At a time when racialized language is under deep scrutiny (just call Harry Reid), we have to realize that the meme of the “curse” has its own racial baggage in this context. It’s a phantasmagorical way of dis-engaging Western history from the literal rubble of Haiti. Just as individual enslaved people in America worked day to day to buy their freedom, the Haitian people collectively worked themselves to the bone to buy theirs. But freedom without resource is a shaky freedom indeed. The enslaved Americans who worked themselves free and gained manumission often found themselves, both before and after the end of slavery, in a form of legal limbo, where their few rights (and land and possessions) as free blacks could be taken away by a capricious legal system, with lynching as a lever for those who stood too proudly. It was precisely the legal technique of inverse reparations — in this case, “reparations” that Haiti paid to the French — that set the foundation for the massive poverty of the nation.
We use language, like the selective telling of history, to confuse things sometimes. So Haiti becomes “cursed” instead of shackled by a post-Colonial debt that no Western nation ever had to bear. (Can you imagine if the U.S. had to pay England for its freedom? Talk about taxation without representation.)
I imagine, somehow, what might have happened had the billions of dollars in gold not been exported out of Haiti but helped to build its infrastructure and education. I imagine the fallen buildings rising off of the broken bodies, and rearranging themselves into new shapes: stronger, earthquake-resistant schools, homes, and roads; a countryside not stripped by the desperation of deforestation; and then, in this alternate Haiti, the stronger one built by its hard-earned resources, an earthquake could still hit, but the country would withstand more of nature’s blows and remain a land blessed by the fruits of the hard work of its people.