Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Haiti's history of slavery and bravery

DESPITE SO MANY deprecating descriptions of Haiti, this country whose capital city is in ruins because of last week’s deadly earthquake, has produced remarkable individuals that shine in the field of art, music and literature. Right now when I think Haiti, I think reggae, too.
Last month, before the great destruction in Port-au-Prince, journalist Joel Dreyfuss who is of Haitian origin and who calls himself a “diasporate,” wrote for The Haitian Times an article titled “A cage of words” where he lamented the frequent use of what he called “The Phrase” to describe Haiti. And that is “the poorest nation in the western hemisphere.” (Sorry, I have to repeat it here.)
True enough, when I opened my Time magazine that arrived Wednesday just before I wrote this column piece, “The Phrase” was there. Time’s cover story (“Haiti’s Agony”) was about the earthquake that is believed to have killed at least 100,000 Haitians and foreign nationals working there, Filipinos included. “The phrase” is right smack on the first paragraph. It is the second sentence of the cover story. “Tragedy has a way of visiting those who can bear it least. Haiti is the poorest nation in the western hemisphere….”

Indeed, “The Phrase” has become a boilerplate, a sentence in the perspective paragraph in articles about Haiti.

Wrote Dreyfuss: “The phrase still grates with us because it also denies so much else about Haiti: our art, our music, our rich Afro-Euro-American culture. It denies the humanity of Haitians, the capacity to survive, to overcome, even to triumph over this poverty—a historical experience we share with so many others in this same western hemisphere.”

Imagine if, in articles about the Philippines, there would always be the boilerplate sentence that says, “the most corrupt country in Southeast Asia” or, as one Hong Konger wrote, “a nation of servants.”

When Dreyfuss asked the correspondent of a foreign news organization why “The Phrase” was always in her stories, she answered that even though she did not put it there, her editors always did.

What Dreyfuss said is instructive to journalists: “What a difference it would have been if American, or French, or British journalists had looked through the camera at their audience and declared, ‘Yes, this is a poor country, but it has also produced great art, like Ireland or Portugal. Yes, this country has suffered a brutal government and yet produced great writers and scholars, like Russia or Brazil. Yes, many of Haiti’s downtrodden have fled—and achieved more success in exile than they ever would at home—like those Jews in America or the Palestinians in the Middle East.’”

Such statements would have linked Haiti to the rest of the world, Dreyfuss said, but then Haiti would become less mysterious and exotic and those who report about Haiti over the last few years would not want it that way. “Keeping the veil over the island was easier than trying to understand factions and divisions and mistrust and history. And it gave America an out if the intervention failed.

“So foreign journalists fell back on The Phrase. It was shorthand. It was neat. And it told the world nothing about Haiti that it didn’t already know.”

Haiti, a Caribbean country with a population of more than 10 million, shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. Haiti has a very unique historical and ethnolinguistic background. It was the first independent nation in Latin America, the first post-colonial nation whose independence was won partly through rebellion by African slaves who had been brought in by Spanish and French colonizers. French is an official language along with Haitian Creole which is based largely on 18th-century French and with African, Spanish, Taíno and English influences. Haiti is predominantly Catholic.

Christopher Columbus landed in Hispaniola in 1492 and claimed the island for Spain. The Spaniards mined the island for gold. They also brought in diseases that virtually rendered the indigenous Taino extinct.

The French also settled on the island, which gave rise to hostilities with the Spaniards. In 1697 the island of Hispaniola was divided between France and Spain. The eastern side went to the Spaniards and the western side to the French who named it Saint-Domingue (not to be confused with the Dominican Republic). By 1790, Saint-Domingue had become a bastion of sugar, coffee and indigo industries and the richest French colony in the New World.

It is said that the French ran one of the most “brutally efficient slave colonies” in that part of the world and one-third of their newly imported African slaves died within a few years.

It was former slave and leader of the slave revolt Tousaint l’Ouverture that helped bring peace and prosperity. He led the ousting of both the Spanish and British invaders. But the French did not like l’Ouverture’s creation of a separatist constitution. So they kidnapped and sent him to France where he died in prison. Native leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines emerged and defeated the French troops.

On Jan. 1, 1804, the former slaves declared independence and named the new nation Haiti, in honor of the indigenous Taino who called the island Haiti. The revolution resulted in a massive multiracial exodus. Well, Dessalines turned out to be a despot and was assassinated.

The next 200 years would be a series of rise and falls. Enter Simon Bolivar whom Haiti helped in the fight for independence of South American colonies. Haiti was a young republic straining toward the future. The US occupied the island from 1915 to 1934. After that Haiti would experience a series of unfortunate events, upheavals and despots. And now…

We fail Haiti and we fail ourselves. It must rise again.