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Don't count Haiti out

From its earliest days, the nation now reeling from a devastating earthquake has been called doomed. But the capacity of its people for survival, even greatness, has been demonstrated over and over.

January 15, 2010|By Amy Wilentz

Almost since its inception, outsiders have proclaimed Haiti doomed. In the wake of its 1791 slave rebellion, which led, in 1804, to independence from France and the establishment of the world's first black republic, observers were convinced the island nation would not survive. The sin of the triumphant Haitians was not only their blackness. Even worse, while many professed Christianity, the great majority followed traditional African practices, or voodoo.

More recently, doomsayers have focused on Haiti's corrupt leadership, on its environmental disasters and its failure to find a good fit with globalization. And yet, the country has limped on, defiantly resilient.

With Tuesday's devastating earthquake, Haiti's inevitable demise is again being heralded, most egregiously by fundamentalist minister Pat Robertson, who declared the earthquake evidence that Haiti was under a curse because it had made "a deal with the devil" to get out from under French rule. Well, Robertson is an unvarnished speaker, let's put it that way. But he is not the only one who thinks like this.

As Paul Farmer, the doctor and international humanitarian, has written, even the media, which should know better, have helped "to perpetuate a series of peculiarly potent myths about Haiti and Haitians." Robertson, in other words, is saying out loud what many have been thinking, without knowing why. I have at least seven e-mails in my in-box from well-meaning friends using the word "cursed" in the subject line or text.

Not surprisingly, Haitians often feel this way too, and never more than right now. It's a kind of brainwashing: They've been hearing they are cursed for so long that they believe it. Also, it's hard to feel proud of your historical legacy when your family is buried under the rubble of a slum and your presidential palace, symbol of Haiti's patrimoine, looks more like a deflated pan of muffins than a shining beacon to the nation and to the oppressed everywhere.

One doesn't have to think back too far, though, to a time when things were better. It's no wonder Haitians often long for the days before globalization, when Haiti's farmers did not have to compete with cheaper produce from abroad, when the countryside was more or less self-sufficient, when people were not starving. I'm not saying Haiti was a tropical paradise, but when I started going there in 1986, at least there was a local economy of sorts, and poverty hadn't pushed peasants to cut down all their trees. There was dirt to farm and a vibrant culture. There was the coumbite, a get-together in which Haitians sang and helped each other till the earth, bring in the harvest, roof a house. You can still find this kind of life in some spots in Haiti.

In recent years, however, extreme poverty in the countryside has driven huge swaths of the population into Port-au-Prince, looking for a job, a way out, a boat to Florida or the Bahamas, anything. Haiti has traditionally been highly centralized -- it modeled itself on France, where there is the metropole (Paris) and les provinces (the rest of the country). In large measure, Port-au-Prince is Haiti, which is why the headlines refer to Haiti's devastation, though large parts of the country seem not to have been much affected by the quake.

Today, the capital is home to at least a sixth and probably more of the population. The city has spread out like an urban ectoplasm, over hillside and ravine, scattering concrete and asphalt wherever it expands. Country people who moved to town built slanting, uncontrolled favelas to accommodate the new arrivals, slums that now have crashed down to the bottom of the ravines.

Haitians will have a lot to consider when they finally can gather themselves up from this awful catastrophe and think again about more abstract things than food, water, shelter and medicine.

When your country is a shambles, it concentrates the mind. When the symbols of state -- the National Palace, the justice ministry, the Parliament, the police headquarters -- have been reduced to a nonsense pile of broken construction materials, you have to re-imagine your national aspirations. (The United States did this to a degree after 9/11, and think what might have happened if those planes had hit the White House too.) The United States as well as Brazil, Canada, Cuba, Venezuela, Taiwan, France and others can provide construction and medical material, as well as expert advisors, for building a new Haiti.

We cannot know yet how many who would have participated in constructing that Haiti lie dead beneath what, only days ago, was Port-au-Prince. Every few hours I hear further dispiriting news about who has perished, about who is presumed dead. Friends who lived in apartments near the center of town have remained ominously silent.

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