(Photo by John Carroll)
January 24, 2010
Piling Insult on Seismic Injury
It took no time at all for the politically conservative and the just plain complacent to extend the blame for Haiti's trauma to Haitians.
Not just poor folks, but a "culture of poverty," one pundit intoned. A beggar nation in need of some "tough love."
Cursed for presuming to liberate themselves from French slavers two centuries ago, a noted televangelist assured us.
A corrupt government, whose subjects the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would warn us not to "throw money at" if he were here for the earthquake that greeted his birthday, a blogger for The Star surmised.
On and on. And there's worse. Some of the invective long-suffering Haitians have elicited from readers of my columns would make these armchair patronizers seem like advocates for them.
And Haiti has advocates, among them some of the best minds and hearts in America. If the mainstream media and the average Joe would listen to them and read some history, the Haiti we know would cease to exist -- because the Haiti we think we know would precede it into oblivion.
Martin Luther King? Here's how the distinguished author and Boston Globe columnist James Carroll summed that matter up in his holiday piece:
"The catastrophe of Haiti would be no mere symbol of global inequity to King. He was attuned to the real suffering of individual human beings, and would be part of the effort to alleviate it there. But would he be satisfied with the compassion of the moment? Moral sentiment unattached to structural analysis, and to changes in systemic causes of poverty, is worse than useless. The Haiti earthquake might be deemed an act of God, but King would rage at any characterization of the foundational Haitian plight that left out historical factors like slavery and colonialism, or the defining contemporary influence of the United States, which, across the years since King's death, has, in relation to Haiti, defiled the meaning of neighbor."
Want specifics? Margaret Trost, author of "On That Day Everybody Ate," a chronicle of her volunteer work in Haiti, notes that Haiti was self-sufficient in rice, its staple, until the 1980s, when a loan from the International Monetary Fund required reduction in tariff protections for agricultural products. Subsidized rice from the United States poured in, most Haitian farmers went out of business, U.S. rice leaped in price, and millions of Haitians fell into starvation (hence, needing Margaret Trost) and fled to the coastal cities, sitting ducks for hurricanes and earthquakes.
This is called context. It takes more work and more imagination to appreciate the history of foreign influence in Haiti than it does to write its people off as heathens who cannot govern themselves. The white largesse upon which these proud, struggling people are said to depend has been lavished mostly on their oppressors -- dictatorships, military juntas, corporations paying slave wages and no taxes, election opponents of the country's true populists.
One prominent Haitian who suffered personally from American foreign policy, the late Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, delighted in telling me his country vastly enlarged this one by forcing the French, hurting for cash because of the Haitian rebellion, to offer the Louisiana Purchase.
France, of course, billed the breakaway nation at gunpoint for the loss of its property, creating a debtor status that has never changed.
Is it unfair to suggest that the debt goes both ways?