On Nov. 18, 2001 I wrote in an editorial for Windows on Haiti, in which I said:
"If Haiti is the poorest nation of the Western Hemisphere, why then does she have to pay interest to the richest nations on funds promised and not received? Why then do they not forgive her debt? Why do they play a deaf ear to the issue of reparations for the dehumanizing and disfranchising slavery period? And yet... why did WE have to pay reparations to France for our enfranchisement on 18 November 1803?
Why...... why...... why...... ?"
I was quickly challenged by a good friend, in the following message:
Please allow me to respond somewhat to your "18 November 1803-2001 Why..." editorial, and make some comments about a few of the issues you raised. We have known each other since boyhood while growing up in Cap-Haitien, so I know your heart is in the right place and your motives are genuine when it comes to Haiti, but I think the premise for this editorial and the questions they raised is wrong and tends to perpetuate a fallacy which is admittedly popular among Haitian nationals and expatriates in the U.S. and elsewhere. In fact, I think it is a common fallacy embraced by citizens and supporters of many small countries trying to grapple with difficult and seemingly intractable socio-economic and political issues.
The fallacy is this: My little innocent country is poor, has many problems that it cannot seem to begin to solve; and those other countries are rich and they seem to be getting richer all the time; therefore, I conclude that the reason my little innocent country is so poor and has so many problems is because it has been raped, pillaged and plundered by those big bad countries, and they are doing their best to keep my little country from getting ahead. And those big bad countries are so rich because they do nothing but plunder the resources of other smaller ones and at every opportunity prevent those little guys from solving their problems since that's how they get rich in the first place.
Now, of course, I know that you didn't say those exact words, and I would never expect you to put your reasoning in such stark terms, but nevertheless, that's the logic that runs, in various degrees, through much of the conversations that I witness among Haitians and Haitian-Americans. I could not disagree more. This "blame the other guy" logic feels good and makes some of us feel relieved thinking "great, I am glad to know that the reason that we're in the pits is because someone has been unfairly exploiting us, and it's not our fault". But I fear that this "victim" mentality keeps Haiti and Haitians from doing the tough and thorough self-examination necessary to seek and eliminate the "root causes" of the problems. To be sure, I am not saying that slavery did not have serious negative consequences, or that rich, more powerful countries have never exploited smaller countries. I accept that wholeheartedly as a fact. The question is: are those things the fundamental and great underlying reasons for Haiti's current woes. I am afraid not, although there is a kernel of truth in them.
I think we should first admit and accept that most Haitians and Haitian officials are Haiti's worst enemy. Political and government service in Haiti is, and has largely been, a vehicle for self-enrichment, at every level. Corruption is so rampant that most Haitians would think there is something wrong with an official who does not avail himself of the public funds he manages. A personal payoff is needed to get anything done. Once, I asked a former official who was bragging about a great sum he received as payoff for getting some goods out of Customs for someone: "Have you ever thought about the fact that these personal payoffs, kickbacks, and bribes are actually money that should have been paid in taxes and used to build schools, hospitals, infrastructure for Haiti's economy, and that by taking or accepting them as legitimate you are doing more damage to Haiti than any outsider could?" He replied that if I were in his place I would not have turned it down either. When I assured him that anyone who professes to love Haiti would and should, he refused to believe that any human being could turn down such easy money. In Haiti, there are still thousands of no-show jobs, people receiving checks for current jobs when they are here in the U.S. or elsewhere doing other things, and I personally know some of those.
Guy, all I am saying is that the first line of defense (or offense if you choose to look at it that way) is not tackling many of those things Haitians have very little control over like debt forgiveness, reparations, and other grand issues. It is cleaning up our own house that is in a serious mess due mostly to our own shortcomings and failures. If we take care of those, the rest will take care of itself. The real question is: Why can't we manage to clean up our mess and move forward when other small and neighboring countries such as the Dominican Republic have?
Thanks for giving me the opportunity to say those few words. They have been on my mind for a while.
I am so glad you shared your thoughts with me. I absolutely do not believe that my premise is wrong, rather you have misunderstood it through a process of "guilty by association of ideas". The fact is that while I do have some small problems here and there with what you have written, I wholeheartedly agree with the bulk of it. Far from being opposed, I sense and firmly believe that our ideas are complementary. In the context of most of my other editorials, I am also confident that you would understand my position better.
I mentioned some smaller problems I have with what you have written. Let me mention them quickly.
"The fallacy is this: My little innocent country is poor, has many problems that it cannot seem to begin to solve; and those other countries are rich and they seem to be getting richer all the time; therefore, I conclude..."
Well, I don't think I ever intended to phrase my argumentation in that manner, and in addition I haven't come across this too often... I have arrived at my position not based on "I am poor... you are rich", but based on solid historical research readily available. I have never sought to excuse the continued mismanagement of Haiti's affairs by Haitians, but it would be highly misleading, in my point of view, and so based on every conceivable historical evidence, to minimize the part played by the twin evils of colonialism and modern imperialism in the underdevelopment of the poorest countries on Earth. Furthermore, the example of the Dominican Republic is a misleading one in that they have not cleaned up their mess, as you suggest. They are still a very poor country on a human scale, in spite of their rather obvious structural advantages when compared to their much poorer neighbor, Haiti. One should not forget that a good measure of their success can be traced directly to their vicious exploitation of Haitian labor for the last one hundred years, and savagely continuing to this day. You argue that Haiti is mismanaged: I AGREE WITH YOU 100% on that score. But should that excuse the moral inadmissibility of Haiti paying back 5 million dollars of interest on promised funds that she has not received, because of contractual terms that are highly unfavorable to Haiti.
Once again, I agree with most of what you had to say. But I do not think that we should stay mute with respect to the historical and current wrongdoings of the International Community towards Haiti, simply because of the corruption of our own leaders. What I have written was simply a few questions as food for thought, and I am glad that they incited you to write your thoughtful response. My position has been that I will continue to call it as I see it on both sides of the issue, and I do not at all believe that they are exclusionary.
Harry wrote back:
I know we can go on arguing Haiti's problems ad infinitum, but I will say a few more things to clarify and amplify my earlier points. Haiti has not been just "mismanaged", it has been ravaged, pillaged, plundered and bled to death by government and public officials until there is no more blood left to give and only the carcass is left for the masses to fight over. Not only that, most of the situations you mentioned have come about still through the corruption of local and national officials who enrich themselves through the process of exporting cheap labor to the Dominican Republic, or who, at the very least, allow the people to languish in such a horrid state of poverty that they have no choice but to go prostitute themselves to the closest available source of subsistence living, i.e. the Dominican Republic. I don't think the workers are forcibly taken there. They are recruited by corrupt scouts, and though misguided, the workers go seeking a living because there is absolutely nothing where they are. Whose fault is that then? I believe it is the responsibility of the government to look out for its people, create better policies that foster employment and crack down on those scouts who recruit and exploit the people. This does not in any way excuse the terrible mistreatment Haitian laborers receive at the hands of their Dominican "employers" ( or shall we say masters), rather I am just saying that if you don't allow your people to fall into such dire hopelessness, they will not be open to such exploitation by other ruthless and uncaring neighbors.
I am not personally familiar with the details of the loan agreement you mentioned, but I will say this: it is the JOB of the Haitian government and its officials to negotiate better terms for their people, and reject terms as unfavorable as those you wrote about. Could it be that personal gain was involved for the negotiators and their cohorts? Who knows?
As for historically documented injustices and wrongdoings by other countries, I say let it go and focus on the task at hand. One can spend an eternity asking for reparations for things that happened one or two centuries ago. And frankly, that's not the answer to Haiti's problems. I believe you could drop $10 billion into Haiti's coffers tomorrow, and it would all be gone within a few years through the same corruption we have today. The usual suspects would get personally wealthy, but the masses would not be that much better off. Total top to bottom reform is needed in Haiti, not the cosmetic reforms led by one demagogue after another that I have seen so far. Primarily, I believe in the principle of not just giving a person a fish, but in teaching them how to fish.
The very first thing that Haiti needs is a system of public schools to educate the masses in every remote corner of the country. A government university system in the capital of each political Department, North, South, West, etc..., one or more High Schools in every Arrondissement, Elementary schools in every town, and Headstart schools in every village. This should operate as a feeder system, where each level feeds the higher level. Attendance at the head start and elementary levels should be made mandatory. Even though child labor is an important part of the rural economy, the parents can be made to understand that educating the children is better for them in the long run. Meals should be provided and lodging in "pensions" can be subsidized by the government for those who decide to seek higher educations in those cities and towns...
Although this seems to be a simplistic solution, and many kinks would need to be worked out, I believe a pilot project in that genre with just one Department could be tried. I think the biggest obstacles would be corruption and opposition by those who would feel threatened if suddenly the eyes of the people were opened. I believe no priority is or should be higher or greater in Haiti than education of the people. If that is done, all the other stuff, including exploitations by other countries and demagogue politicians, corruption, unemployment, life expectancy, infant mortality, would gradually and steadily improve to where we catch up to the others and finally shed the shameful label of "poorest country in the Western Hemisphere".
Anyway, Guy, this is just a sample of not only my feelings about the difficult issues regarding Haiti, but also some new ideas and solutions. I commend you for caring enough to devote so much of your time and energy to this cause. I think Haiti has been discussed to death by all. What it really needs is innovative ideas and solutions, and a government that does not rob it blind.
Historical truths should never be discarded. The premise that Haitians are intrinsically worse than any other people is dangerously misleading. I also firmly believe in the possibility of walking and chewing gum at the same time. There is in fact no need to let go of anything. We should never. And what you call history is not merely one hundred to two hundred years ago. It is right up there to the present.
Your point appears to be that Haiti should do for itself, and not wait for pity money. Guess what? I am absolutely right there with you. I'll go even further: I believe that Haiti should be the first "Third World" country to say NO to foreign aid. We need not merely education in Haiti, we need nothing short of a revolution in thinking (not another bloody revolution). The educational system that you described is a distant dream for now: not only it is not feasible due to the utter lack of financial resources and currently available human resources, but I do not think of it even as a desirable one for Haiti (I am sorry!) What Haiti needs now is not the educational model that you described at all (which has been tried by various of our governments since 1804) but an entirely new one based on a platform of trades and civism, put to the test through actual civic responsibilities incorporating community development. Sounds far fetched? It's already happening, with a good measure of success, in some of Haiti's communities. Will it catch like fire? That's very doubtful, unless we can simultaneously change the mindset of our elites and truly transform the Haitian Government on a national level as well. Yes, we are talking about nothing short of a revolution, but not one like those of past centuries. Over the last two years, I have traveled through Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and I have seen sparks of this here and there (the most prominent of which, by a large margin I admit, in the locality of Pandiassou, near Hinche.
You describe fairly well the level of corruption in Haiti. You and I are looking at the same realities, though using different scales. Yes, I maintain that Haiti has been seriously mismanaged, in spite of several sincere attempts of some of our governments which unfortunately are all trashed out indiscriminately. Starting with Henri Christophe, then Nicholas Geffrard, then Lysius Félicité Salomon, and to a lesser extent one could even cite Soulouque (in spite of his eccentricities, he accomplished a number of public works) and all the way to the recent Lavalas Governments (which today, obviously, are not worth spit in most people's eyes) I do believe that there have been some serious attempts made to improve the welfare of our population. And many of those efforts have been doomed by a high level of corruption in our administrative system. But let me just repeat something that you wrote:
You said:[quote]"Haiti has not been just "mismanaged", it has been ravaged, pillaged, plundered and bled to death by government and public officials until there is no more blood left to give and only the carcass is left for the masses to fight over." [/quote]
That's the reality that you see, and I do not deny it, though from my way of looking at things, Haiti has indeed been mismanaged, due to many factors such as the inadequate preparation of most of our political leaders, and the ravage, pillage, plundering, and bleeding to death of our country has been done not just by "government and public officials" but by foreign states principally such as France and the United States until there was no more blood to give and they only left the carcass for our own politicians to fight over, and as far as that is concerned, yes some of them have done their damndest best to imitate the worst of the European colonialists and the exceedingly vampirish behavior, past and present, of the United States of America with respect to Haiti.
Reparations? NO, I don't believe in it (contrary to what you might think from what I read, I don't believe in it because I am way too realistic to even think a second that there ever will be reparations from the powerful to the powerless, but I simply like to throw the illogic of impossible reparations in the face of those who have obliged us to pay them reparations for our independence and the economic losses we have caused them for enfranchising ourselves. Do you know that under credible military threats from France, Haiti had to agree to pay them what amounted at the times to FIVE TIMES their national budget? Do you know that Haiti still managed never to default on its internal and external debt UNTIL the Americans, via the administration of the National City Bank of New York, managed early in during the Occupation to make waste of our National Treasury? Do you know that all of our gold reserves at the time were simply frisked away out of the country to the United States? Please, once again it's not that I disagree with your assessment of the corrupt behavior of many of our government officials, but when you start to use the superlatives of "ravage, pillage, plundering, and bleeding to death, etc", let me just say that we are only second to the teachers we have had in Haiti in the persons of those today who are strangling us with their so-called foreign aid, rather the promises of such. What should we do? I say, we should call their bluff, we should simply learn to say NO, and we should look at all other possible alternatives of development, not associated with a dependence on foreign aid.
One of the problems that I see in "our debate" is that you make a lot of assumptions about what I want to say than what I truly want to say. The reason is that with my latest questions I wanted to get people to see the illogic of the current demands of the International Community. I do not expect reparations, repeat I DO NOT. Yes, I believe that it would be best if they forgave us our debt (mildly considering that they have enriched themselves so much through sheer and often violent exploitation of our labor and natural resources), and the youth of the industrialized countries are themselves spearheading such a movement. But, faulting that, we will pay our external debt, best as we can, but we should not continue to accrue more and more debt, because this basically assures our poverty forever. As for the imbellicity of our own government officials accepting to pay sizable interest on money that has NOT been given to us, regardless of WHO is the ass in those transactions, it is simply immoral in my view and I do believe that we should say " Hell no, we won't pay! "
What Haiti needs more, much more, than the system of classic education that you have described (and which has perpetually been tried, based on foreign models) is a civic re-education, trades leading to realistic down-to-earth jobs, literacy, a renewal of our dying environment (extremely urgent), a renewal of our agriculture and the soil that will make it feasible, an improvement of our public health (with special attention to the large rate of people dying from AIDS, basic hygiene conditions that will cit into our high infant mortality rate, some protection and management of our fresh water resources (it rains a lot in Haiti, yet where are our fresh water reserves?), a process for recycling the voluminous amount of trash in our metropolitan regions (the hell with those plastic juice bottles, I don't give a damn how profitable they are), protection for our trees (most of the birds have flown away elsewhere), protection for our seas (our fish, sea turtles, sea mammals, lobsters , etc have gone the same way as the birds, and for similar ecological reasons, pardon me, disasters). In our words, we simply need to go back to basics. I believe in education just as much as you do, believe me, but at this time Haiti needs a different sort of education. It begins and ends with civism and love of country.
Are we that far apart? I don't believe so. I just don't believe that in order to assume our responsibilities, we need to forget any harm done to us whatsoever. Especially if we can learn from it. The Jewish people have not forgotten. Why should we?
I also believe that Haitians are not more corrupt than any other people on Earth. We cannot possibly attain the levels of corruption insidious in many of the most powerful countries, including the good ol' U.S.of A. Our level of corruption cries out more, because on a human scale, our needs are simply a lot greater. So, just as you would want me to set aside the current realities of our exploitation by foreign entities, I would argue that we should all go beyond simply condemning this high level of corruption among our government representatives (after all, yes, they are HUMAN and just as good and bad as every place else on earth), and simply ask ourselves HOW are we going to establish the necessary checks and balances, how do we create the structures (which are existing in other countries) which will have the force to limit the effect of corrupt behaviors? How will we make our government structures finally work in a way to reward good behaviors and unmercifully punish bad ones? That's the ultimate question.
Harry wrote back:
I do understand that some of the points raised in your argument are meant to provoke and promote discussions and that's good. I agree with you on many points and feel that we're not that far apart in our positions but I enjoy a good debate as well. -----
Let me, however, rectify a particularly egregious and incorrect inference you made from my previous arguments. "Haitians are intrinsically worse than any other people". Of course, I do not think such a thing. I am Haitian (Haitian-American now). I would not insult in such a way my hard-working parents and grand-parents whom I deeply respect as salt-of-the--earth, hard working and fundamentally honest folks. The problem is not in the people, it is in the way our government and system operate, and what they have come to accept as normal. The system rewards corruption and penalizes honesty. Only one thing can come out that: more corruption. Most Haitian government officials will tell you that if you work in an area and a kickback scheme is offered to you by, say a co-worker, a superior or even someone under you, and you refuse, you will have mucho problems. I know personally of one honest Head of Department whose life was seriously threatened because he refused to participate in such corruptions within his own department and ultimately had to quit. On the other hand, I went to "Marche Fer" in P-au-Pce to buy some Mahogany, gave a few vendors who came to sell me their goods different amounts of dollar bills as payments, and each one, without fail, went all the way out to their remote selling stations and returned to where I was standing with the proper change, not even thinking of walking away with it. This tells me that the people are fundamentally honest, but the system is badly corrupt.
I agree totally that there have been many serious and relatively successful attempts by several administrations in the distant past to put Haiti on par with the rest of the world. I am very proud of those. They are the few and far between good ones that built most of the infrastructure that we have (now mostly destroyed by all recent administrations and regimes). But in our lifetime, the Duvalier regime perfected corruption to such a degree that it is now an accepted way of governing and doing business even in much of the private sector. And it has gotten so bad and so pervasive that honesty and integrity cannot survive amidst such perversion. And while I believe that there is always some corruption everywhere, there are qualitative and quantitative differences between various systems and countries. The precedents established by those corrupt Haitian administrations are now used as the model by most Haitian politicians, in spite of demagogue pronouncements to the contrary (including the current one).
The litany of problems you described are precisely why education is so important. I am afraid that such lofty prescriptions as civism and love of country are great concept, high minded but not practical and tangible enough. And I don't believe that a serious attempt at education for the entire population has ever been made (if it has, I am not aware of that part of Haiti's history). I am not referring to haphazard literacy projects or disconnected parochial schools in various areas. I mean an integrated system of schools built from the most remote areas to the cities, working and administered in a way calculated to harness the entire intellectual power of the nation. Without that as a pre-requisite, NOTHING ELSE will work, I am certain of that and I know that with a little ingenuity, Haiti could muster the resources to make it work. (The vast intellectual capital living abroad could be part of the solution: I'd volunteer to teach for at least two years ). Follow me for a moment;
[quote]What Haiti needs more, much more, than the system of classic education that you have described (and which has perpetually been tried, based on foreign models) is a civic re-education, trades leading to realistic down-to-earth jobs, literacy, a renewal of our dying environment (extremely urgent), a renewal of our agriculture and the soil that will make it feasible, an improvement of our public health (with special attention to the large rate of people dying from AIDS, basic hygiene conditions that will cit into our high infant mortality rate, some protection and management of our fresh water resources (it rains a lot in Haiti, yet where are our fresh water reserves?), a process for recycling the voluminous amount of trash in our metropolitan regions (the hell with those plastic juice bottles, I don't give a damn how profitable they are), protection for our trees (most of the birds have flown away elsewhere), protection for our seas (our fish, sea turtles, sea mammals, lobsters , etc have gone the same way as the birds, and for similar ecological reasons, pardon me, disasters). In our words, we simply need to go back to basics. I believe in education just as much as you do, believe me, but at this time Haiti needs a different sort of education. It begins and ends with civism and love of country. [/quote]
1. Civic Re-education: This requires basic education for the average person to even grasp the importance of it. The best and most effective venue to teach it is the classroom, thus education. (mass communication could work but it too requires significant resources and sustained efforts over very long periods of time such as a decade)
2. Trades leading to down-to earth jobs: The basic ingredient for learning any viable trade in today's world is education. Even such trades as Auto Mechanic and the like which traditionally required little formal education are now done with highly sophisticated equipments because cars and even appliances are becoming essentially computers with parts, thus education.
3. Literacy: thus education
4. Renewal of our dying environment: The basic intellectual power needed to understand (hence to care about) environmental and ecological issues on a macro level requires fairly sophisticated and advanced education, thus education.
5. A renewal of agriculture: The principles of modern agriculture (beyond subsistence level) require highly sophisticated knowledge and advanced processes regarding soil, environment, erosion, yield per unit, crop rotations, national and global markets, etc... thus education
I can go on and on about hygiene, good health care (really requires high levels of education), management of our fresh water resources, waste management, etc... You cannot escape it. Education is the horse that pulls the cart. Anything else is merely putting the cart before the horse.
Let me just say that I never contested the need for education, just the contrary! But you simply fail to talk of a new curriculum. I believe that we should break from the models of the past, which have merely oriented our youth to overseas throughout the entire process, making good little French men out of Haitians. And I still think that the system of education as you envision it is not coming to pass any time soon, even if you were magically elected President of Haiti. And why: the utter lack of available human and technical resources. But you know what, we can keep working toward your dream... I have no objection.
Civism and love of country are not "great concept, high minded but not practical and tangible enough"as you contend. In fact, I think that they are down right practical and should permeate the new curriculum (I am not talking, mind you, of The Carpenters singing about being on top of the world to our students). Civism and love of country have been successfully taught in countries like Mexico and, closer to our borders, Cuba. Please don't disparage the concept, because if you do, all of your good intentions will fail in a sea of Ph.D.'s.
One concept that I have seen at work in two peasant communities in Haiti is the one of a Popular University outside of the moribund curriculum of our State Education, and offered in one case to youth and adults alike (motto: Everyone is a teacher, everyone is a student), and in the other case to adult peasants, with basic literacy, motivated to achieve a year of educational requirements to obtain the loans they need to start a business or to keep one going. Yes, with only basic literacy, our adult peasants can go to University: Université Populaire Jean Dominique, where they are offered courses in 1) Haitian Law, particularly as it applies to property and business; 2) Economic Principles, and how they apply to the management of their economic lives; 3) Agriculture, techniques to farm the land more productively; 4) a Foreign language, with options in French, English or Spanish.
Out of an initial attendance of some 400, some 169 have stuck it out, passed the exams (I saw for myself, with my own eyes, the exam sheet of a Haitian peasant who opted to answer his Economics exam in French... well, I fervently push Kreyòl as our universal language of education, but more power to him). At the end of the year, Michelle Montas, the wife of martyred Jean Dominique delivered to all successful candidates their diplomas personally. This certificate of achievement now entitled them to apply for their small business loans, which a greater intellectual capacity to use those monies to purposeful ends. No lofty level of education required here, but a sensible one.
Could any of those peasants now repair modern cars and appliances? I seriously doubt it. But you know what? Their lives were immensely enriched, and imagine the impact on their self-esteem.
What about the successful experiences with technical education? Yes, it's also being done. On a small case, we are now producing technically proficient carpenters, shoe makers, electricians, and other trades. Some of the youths attending the technical school also attend the classical State sponsored curriculum leading to Rhetorique and Philosophie. A few of them will succeed, the very lucky ones, and that's good. But at least those who do not attain such lofty levels of education are not exactly be left behind either. Is this really happening? I bet you. On what scale? Not on a scale to change Haiti overnight... or ever (unless we duplicate the experiment on a national scale in every remote corner of the country).
So, I am sure, you'll say "it all boils down to education", and let me tell you: I agree 100%. But all I am adding is that our system of education needs to be revised FOR HAITI and FOR HAITIANS (not French, Canadians, or Americans). Additionally, Civism and Love of Country NEED to be integrated throughout the entire process. It has been done elsewhere, why not in Haiti?
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I was so excited with this exchange that I wrote Guy about it personally. Now I am posting this comment just to get it on the top again until I can add some of my own thoughts. Hopefully we can get contributions from other members here.
Truly amazing dialogue this was and hopefully continues to be...
Truly amazing dialogue this was and hopefully continues to be...