Hello my friends,
I’m so thrilled to share my stories, deep personal truths, and some emotionally expensive lessons during 25 years of work in Haiti. From the start, I’d like to speak directly to you as if we were sitting together now. First I’d like to share a chapter of my book Angels of a Lower Flight to get us all started, on the same page “so to speak”. Here we go, “Side by Side”. Hang on tight and come along….
“The Invisible World”
As we touched down on the landing strip that day, I knew little about Haiti. Since then I have come to know there are more demons than humans inhabiting the little Island of Hispaniola. Evil congregates on the west side, on the eroded, deforested mess known as Haiti. It’s important to grasp a sense of apocalypse to understand the level of conflict that occurs here. It rages visibly and invisibly as members of this ungodly junta go to work.
Violence, anarchy, and a turbulent history make Haiti a curious study if you’re an intellectual, a mysterious challenge if a missionary or philanthropist. The grinding rhythm of dysfunction isn’t as confusing when you begin to list Haiti’s problems: the reign of rapacious dictators, a reliance on witch doctors instead of modern medicine, a legacy of slavery and the understandable suspicion of foreigners. You might be better off to leave logic and sanity behind so as not to lose them while in Haiti.
Things could be different.
The Dominican Republic occupies the eastern two-thirds of the same island—it’s lush and breezy, filled with beaches and open-shirted tourists. The sharp disparity between the neighboring countries is clear. Border traffic grinds to a standstill as all Haitian dust and grime is literally washed off every vehicle entering the D.R.
Mostly, it’s only island nationals who traverse the two countries. Haiti swung for a few decades with cruise ships and buffet tables, but reports of rampant AIDS surfaced in the early 1980s and tourism dimmed. The door listed shut a few years later when the Haitian government closed its promotion office in New York City. Haiti’s Club Med closed, and Holiday Inn pulled its name off its Port-au-Prince hotel a few years later. Today, Haiti is unknown by most of the world and overlooked by those who once came. Lingering are a collection of television images from recent decades—riots, boat people, poverty, instability. Most visitors to Haiti today are missionaries or aid workers, sometimes a few business people. Who wants to vacation in hell?
Haiti has potential. It could be the next St. Kitts or St. Lucia. By plane, it’s only an hour and a half from Miami. Fly south across Cuba and the Greater Antilles, turn east at Jamaica, and you’re there, a Maryland-sized isle in the heart of the Caribbean.
Haitian Shangri-Las do exist. South of Haiti’s capital are the quiet, surfy beaches of Jacmel. The city’s name derives from an Indian word which means “rich land”. Wealthy merchants once built New Orleans-style mansions here. Residents beg outsiders to stop focusing on the madness in Port-au-Prince and realize there’s still beauty and peace left in some Haitian areas.
Some outsiders even chose Haiti. For those with capital, it’s a cheap, albeit risky investment. For about $350,000 American you can snap up a five-bedroom, three-acre mountain lodge in Kenscoff complete with tennis courts, swimming pool, and maid’s quarters. A majestic landscape of peach, plum and apple trees camouflages a security gate made of cinderblocks topped with broken bottles. Almost no Haitians own estates like these. They remain in the palms of the slightly-less-than 3 percent of the country’s populace who control the majority of the country’s wealth.
Jacmel and Kenscoff, like La Citadelle and the historic Hotel Oloffson … and a few other places … are exceptions. For the rest of the country, reports of degradation are not exaggerated. Haiti has been plagued for decades with poverty, corruption, decaying infrastructure, dictatorships, and military conflicts.
Present-day statistics come bullet-like and wounding:
About 80 percent of Haitians live in abject poverty. Haiti suffers from rampant inflation, a lack of investment, a severe trade deficit, and frequent natural disasters.
Average annual salary is $350, less than $1 a day.
For most Haitians, eating one small meal a day is considered normal. Two-thirds of Haitians depend on the agriculture sector, mainly small-scale subsistence farming. The unemployment rate is more than 70 percent.
Approximately 280,000 Haitians are known to be living with HIV/AIDS. (The country has about 8 million residents. So the illness is not as widespread as once believed. Still, HIV/AIDS is a major, uncontrolled problem in the country.)
Average life expectancy in Haiti is age 53. In the U.S. it’s age 77. More than 10 percent of Haitian children will die before age 4.
Some 7 percent of children in Haiti are believed to be enslaved. Some 300,000 children as young as 3 consistently suffer sexual, emotional and physical abuse.
Almost half the Haitian population is illiterate.
Some 30 percent of Haitians are either ill or underweight.
Haiti is an alleged major Caribbean trans-shipment point for cocaine en route to the US and Europe. The country is rife with money-laundering activity, illicit financial transactions, and pervasive corruption.
Think of Haiti’s history in four general time periods: colonization, dictators, tyrants, and modern oppression. This analysis is not overly negative: Haiti has been a country for the taking, and the world has grabbed.
In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed from Spain across the Atlantic and landed on the east coast of Hispaniola on his first voyage to the New World. He met the original inhabitants of Haiti—Taino/Arawak Indians, who referred to the west side of their homeland as Ayti, their word for mountains. Columbus pronounced it Haiti.
Columbus wanted gold but found coffee and sugar instead, luxurious treasures to post-medieval Europe. The gateway opened, and in exchange for commodities and labor, Columbus gave Haiti Catholicism, and gave away its land. Spain instituted Repartimiento, a system where any Spanish-born person residing in the New World received a large grant of land and the right to compel labor from native Indians. Abuse, sickness, and death followed in sweeping numbers. By 1550, only about 150 native Indians lived on the Island of Hispaniola. Soon, there were none. It is believed that none of the Haitians in Haiti today are descended from the country’s original native Indian inhabitants. Simply put, they were all destroyed.
While Spain was preoccupied controlling the right side of Hispaniola; the English, Dutch and French began using the established Spanish trade routes to the New World. With Spain focused on the right side of Hispaniola, Huguenots crept around the top of the island and settled the northwest shoulder, establishing the town of Cap Francois (now called Cap-Haitien) in 1670. The French also found fields ripe for coffee and sugar harvest, but the same problem as Spain: few original inhabitants left to do the hard work.
There seemed a straightforward solution. Satan can offer people clear thinking for wickedness. Over the next century, France and Spain imported ship-loads of slaves from black Africa. By 1791, 500,000 to 700,000 slaves were tilling Haitian soil. For a country that few people even think of today, Haiti was the world’s gold star in the late 1700s: the majority of the world’s coffee was produced in Haiti; just under half the sugar in Britain and France came from Haiti; and 40 percent of French foreign trade revolved around Haiti.
The majority of Haitians today are descended from these slaves. Races mixed as the white slave owners co-habited with the slaves, creating a class division that survives today. The rich white colonialists, called blancs, never comprised more than 1 percent of the population. Free blacks and mulattos, called gens de couleur (people of color) or affranchis (freedmen), were also few in number. The remaining 87 percent, slaves, called noirs (blacks), were poor, uneducated and downtrodden. Classes seldom got along.
Slaves brought two things still found in Haiti today: an obvious resentment of their imprisonment, and a mixture of African religions that meshed and evolved into present-day Voodoo.
Resentment among the slaves escalated. Some escaped and banded together, hiding in forests and mountains. They organized in simmering fury and ignited a full-scale revolt in 1791. In the end, 10,000 slaves and 2,000 whites lay dead. By then the pattern for revolution was set in motion. Wars and rumors of war followed. On January 1, 1804, a final revolt led to victory, and the victors proclaimed independence. Haiti became the first free black republic in the world.
Democracy enjoyed a short celebration. A series of dictators and tyrants fought over Haiti for the next two hundred years in a struggle for power. Between 1843 and 1915, there were twenty-two heads of state: one served full term; three died of natural causes before their terms were up; one “exploded” while at his palace; one was poisoned; one was hacked to pieces by a mob; one resigned; and fourteen were deposed by revolutions.
Another course was established when the slaves revolted. On August 14, 1791, a group of houngans (Voodoo priests), led by a former slave houngan named Boukman, made a pact at a place called Bois-Caiman. The priests sacrificed a black pig in a Voodoo ritual and drank its blood. Boukman asked Satan for his help in liberating Haiti. In exchange, the Voodoo priests dedicated the country to Satan and swore to serve him. They signed no Bill Of Rights. They wrote no Declaration of Independence. It would be a government of the Devil, by the Devil, and for the Devil.
Until recently, Voodoo was practiced mostly in secret, but Voodoo is overt in Haiti today, and it’s everywhere, including politics.
In 1957 Francois Duvalier, a medical doctor and Voodoo priest, was elected president of Haiti. Duvalier was loved at first, and paternalistically referred to as “Papa Doc.” He established a constitution in 1957 that prohibited Haitian presidents from running for re-election once their terms are over. In 1961 Duvalier broke his own law and ran for re-election. He won by an official vote of 1,320,748 to 0. Three years later, Duvalier declared himself President for Life.
In 1964 Duvalier established an elite military force called the President’s Guard, whose sole purpose was to maintain Duvalier’s power. He also established a fear-inducing rural militia called Tonton Macoutes, the Creole word for bogeyman. Duvalier became known for his corruption, industries that made money solely for the government, bribery, and extortion.
Duvalier rose to the rank of a Voodoo sorcerer. He incorporated his friends, other sorcerers, into the ranks of governmental leadership. Few people dared trifle with a leader with such dark forces at his command. It is estimated that during his time in office Duvalier killed 30,000 Haitians.
When Papa Doc died in 1971, his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, began ruling at age 19 by prior decree of his father. “Baby Doc,” as the new ruler was called, had little interest in politics, but loved the money his new–found position gave him. He left much of the government’s administration to his mother, Simone Duvalier, and lived the life of a playboy.
By the mid 1980s, a widespread spirit of hopelessness permeated Haiti under Baby Doc’s rule. The economy worsened, malnutrition spread. In March 1983, Pope John Paul II visited and declared, “Something must change here.” Haitians agreed. Within two years there were massive street demonstrations and raids on food distribution warehouses. Baby Doc tried to quell the revolts, but rioting spread. Baby Doc fled the country. Haiti was completely ravaged.
In recent years, Voodoo has seen an upswing in acceptance. On April 8, 2003, Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide approved Voodoo as an officially recognized religion in Haiti. Later he proclaimed Voodoo the “national religion” of Haiti, and a source of national pride.
It has been said that four-fifths of Haitians practice or fear Voodoo. Some argue this is a harmless belief system that adds intrigue to multiculturalism. But I would learn that broadmindedness does not mean we must endorse malevolence.
Many have witnessed pain, suffering and death as a direct result of this deception. Voodoo encourages drunkenness, violence, lying, stealing, sexual excess, and even the rape and murder (in not altogether rare cases) of infants and young children. There is an Abandoned Infant Unit at the public hospital in Port-au-Prince that on any given day has between fifteen and thirty children who have been left to die. Many are found bent and broken in boxes, simply placed in front of the hospital gates. Some have had their anuses and vaginas ripped open thanks to Voodoo practices.
This belief system is beyond superstition. There is some sort of actual spiritual force at work. The laws of nature are shifted. Using Voodoo, sorcerers can transform themselves into werewolves known as loup garou and cause fatal accidents and illnesses. The most maleficent of sorcerers, a bokor, can manipulate the forces of darkness—even Satan himself—to command the dead to inflict terrifying punishment on a victim. The intended victim will become weak and thin and spit up blood and then die. He can avert this fate by paying an obligatory fee to the bokor to break the dead spirit’s hold. When asked how a loved one died, the answer from many peasants around the slums is a sad and fearful shake of the head. “Loup garou,” they whisper; the werewolf.
Haitian newspapers sometimes chronicle such practices. Mostly, it’s quietly accepted. In certain quarters in Port-au-Prince, vats of human hands and heads are popular sales items. A “long pig” is commonly-understood street slang for a human sacrifice. A ritualistic dinner of a baby’s arm or foot is more rare, but isn’t unheard of.
In Haiti, a handicapped or deformed child is considered among Voodoo practitioners a curse to be discarded. Some people label this type of selection as horse-shooting benevolence. A poor country, it’s argued, is better off without the infirm; better to kill a disabled child than have her grow up a beggar. But a child breathes and dreams and feels and dies. I know. I was a child once whom some considered a curse.
Welcome to Haiti.
Come to this island.
Come to this country