By Don Rojas
Don Rojas at the great Citadel in Northern Haiti built by King Henri Christophe in the early 19th Century. The Citadel is an architectural and engineering masterpiece conceived by Black minds and built by Black hands. It has been designated by the UN as a “World Heritage Site”.
By Don Rojas
“Haiti is too rich to be poor”. This seemingly contradictory statement uttered by a well-known Haitian educator the night before our departure echoed repeatedly in my mind as I flew back to the USA after a brief but eventful visit to Haiti in mid-February, 2014.
To be sure, we had witnessed the bone-crushing material poverty in the cities and towns of Haiti. We had seen the horrible conditions that millions of people are forced to endure each day. We had traveled by mini-van from Cap Haitien (Haiti’s second city and original capital) in the North passing through many rural towns and villages along the route to Port-au-Prince in the South and all along the way we saw evidence of dire economic underdevelopment and social deprivation.
But amidst these bleak scenarios, we also observed the rich spirit of a proud people with a unique history and a vibrant culture. We could see it in their eyes, hear it in their voices, feel it in their warm embraces, all of which served to remind us of the invaluable contributions of so many talented Haitian artists, writers, musicians and intellectuals to the enrichment of world culture.
As I contemplated the words of the noted Haitian educator, many snapshot images of an intense four-day visit that had lodged somewhere in my sub-conscious mind began to surface, providing clarity and insight into the living paradox that is Haiti today.
I recalled the impeccably dressed school girls in their pressed uniforms and with cute hair bows walking back from a day of learning to their tiny, mud-walled homes in villages perched on the steep hillsides of the mountain range where the great Citadel sits; and images of their mothers and grandmothers who, after sending these kids off to school, would venture into the fields to plow the land or to the rivers to wash their clothes; images of the enterprising and intelligent young crafts vendors and horse guides at the Citadel, barely literate youth who, nonetheless, can communicate effectively in the native tongues of visiting English, Spanish, Dutch and German-speaking tourists.
On the flight back I recalled, as well, the young man walking by on the crowed sidewalk of a busy street in Port-au-Prince who saw when my wallet fell out of my pocket onto the ground, unbeknownst to me. He stopped and drew my attention to it. Without me noticing he could easily have picked it up and proceeded on his way but he chose to do otherwise. I breathed a sigh of relief, thanked him and silently praised this display of honesty and integrity in the midst of destitute poverty.
Another unforgettable image that surfaced was that of the man who heads up the cultural center in Milot, who had returned to his village after spending many years in New York because “there’s no place like home.” He spoke to our delegation as a proud and patriotic Haitian who had come back to help make a positive difference in the lives of his people.
So maybe this is what Madame Marie really meant. Maybe she was pointing to the hidden truths inside the paradox while making a plea for us “foreigners” to look beyond the stereotypical depictions of Haiti, to search out and lift up the spiritual riches of a nation that are embedded, and often hidden, within its poverty, a richness that is ignored by the Western media.
What her statement prompted in me was a profound question: with such monumental spiritual and intellectual richness, why then has Haiti remained the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere after more than 200 years of freedom and independence? The answer lies deep in the country’s tortured history over the past 200 years, a history marked both by triumph and tragedy, historic victories and massive betrayals. The flip side of Haiti’s extreme poverty is extreme exploitation and systemic oppression at the hands of white supremacy spanning several generations.
After defeating the powerful armies of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1804, thus ending slavery and establishing the first Black Republic in the Western Hemisphere, the formerly enslaved Africans and their progeny found themselves paying a heavy toll throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries to European colonialism and US imperialism for the “sin” of liberating themselves and for inspiring freedom fighters and independence movements throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as abolitionists and anti-slavery activists in the USA .
Bonaparte, one of the greatest military minds in the history of Western civilization, and a proponent of white supremacy, once wrote, “my decision to destroy the authority of the blacks in Saint Domingue (Haiti) is not so much based on considerations of commerce and money, as on the need to block forever the march of the blacks in the world.”
Commenting on the defeat of Napoleon’s military forces in 1804, Haitian scholar Pascal Robert wrote recently: “The Haitians had already decimated a huge British military expedition, killing over 10,000 British soldiers in less than two months, and repelled incursions by the Spanish Crown. Napoleon was determined to keep over 500,000 Black people in bone-crushing bondage in order to keep the lie of justified white domination over the affairs of the world alive. The importance of Haiti in choking the life out of that lie forevermore has not ceased. What Haitian people must understand is that our existence and history as a people is rooted in being a painful and uncomfortable reminder to the Western world that on January 1, 1804, white supremacy died a humiliating death, if at least for one day.”
To punish this “impudent” Black country that had defeated white supremacy at the beginning of the 19th Century, the valiant people of Haiti were forced to pay billions in “reparations” to France throughout the 19th Century, suffer an invasion and years of occupation by the US military in the early part of the 20th Century, endure brutal dictatorships propped up by Washington in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, all of which was exacerbated by the constant and systematic re-distribution of the country’s economic wealth upwards to the country’s 1% and to the corrupt elites that have dominated Haiti’s political economy for decades.
I went to Haiti as part of a small delegation of seven from the USA that was organized and led by the indefatigable Dr. Ron Daniels, founder and President of the Haiti Support Project (HSP), an initiative of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century on whose board I now proudly sit.
The delegation included three young leaders of the historic Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, none of whom had ever visited Haiti before. Their fraternity, like many other African-American organizations, had raised funds from its members to assist Haiti in the wake of the devastating earthquake that struck the country in January 2010, leaving over 200,000 dead, close to two million homeless and vast property damage across the capital city and its environs.
Now, four years after the earthquake, representatives of the fraternity had come to Haiti at the invitation of Dr. Daniels, to explore the possibility of financing the construction of a “model school” in collaboration with HSP. For the three young Kappa brothers, this was the trip of a lifetime—eye-opening, gut-wrenching, possibly even life-changing. By their own admission, they learned more about the stark realities of extreme poverty and economic under-development in four days than they had across entire semesters filled with courses in economics, political science, history, sociology and other related disciplines.
Like me, they too were wrestling with how to reconcile the apparent contradiction stated so eloquently by that Haitian educator at a reception for a cross-section of Haitian civil society leaders who had worked with Dr. Daniels and HSP ever since he first took a delegation of African-American activists and scholars to visit Haiti in 1995.
I was on that first pioneering delegation 19 years ago but had never returned to this fascinating country in the ensuing years. My friend and colleague Ron, on the other hand, had fallen in love with the people of Haiti, returning for countless visits, sometimes alone or with his wife, and oftentimes, with delegations small and large.
Over the course of two decades, Ron and his Haiti Support Project team have built up an incredible track record of solidarity-based assistance to the people of Haiti, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars from African-American communities across the USA to finance a wide range of projects, from scholarships and school supplies for rural children to micro credit loans for artisans and agricultural workers. In the immediate aftermath of the massive earthquake in 2010, HSP raised over $300,000 in relief aid from African-American organizations, churches and concerned individuals.
HSP’s concept of support and assistance are not based on the traditional models of charity that tend to patronize and dis-empower the poor with “acts of kindness”, no matter how well-intentioned, and which serve ultimately to re-produce dependency.
On the contrary, HSP’s assistance to the people of Haiti is driven not by the “pity for the less fortunate among us” syndrome but rather by an understanding and appreciation of the country’s unique history and its rich culture and a desire to strengthen its independence and self-sufficiency.
The primary objective of HSP’s various projects is to help empower and uplift the Haitian people and to contribute to the country’s national economic development. It is non-partisan yet profoundly political work, driven and guided by the ideals of Pan-Africanism. It respects the sovereignty of Haiti and adheres to the principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of the country. As a result, HSP today enjoys the respect and admiration of civil society organizations that cut across political divides both in Haiti and within the Haitian-American communities.
HSP’s main mission is to marshal moral, political and material support to assist the Haitian people to develop a strong and vital democratic society and a vibrant and sustainable economy as a free and self-determining people. The project seeks to build a constituency and base of support for Haiti in the US by focusing on mobilizing the human and material resources of African Americans in partnership with Haitian Americans. Working together these two Black communities can make a significant contribution to the process of democracy and development in Haiti.
Beyond mobilizing material support and technical assistance for projects and programs initiated by organizations within the popular movement for democracy in Haiti (peasant, labor, women, youth, religious) and providing humanitarian relief in the event of natural disasters, HSP works to influence US foreign policy towards Haiti so that it conforms with the aspirations of the popular movement for participatory democracy inside the country.
HSP also encourages support for investments in socially responsible business and community economic development projects and enterprises in Haiti and has acted as a “good-faith facilitator and mediator” wherever and whenever appropriate to promote peace, justice, reconciliation and unity within Haitian society.
In 2005, the Haiti Support Project sponsored two major symposia on the Future of Democracy & Development in Haiti, one in Washington DC, the other in Atlanta. The symposia brought together political parties, constituencies and leaders across the political spectrum to promote a national and international dialogue to explore the prospects of justice and reconciliation and the possibilities of a government of national unity. The symposia process was envisioned as a vehicle to bridge the deep divisions in Haitian society exacerbated by the US-backed ouster of President Jean Bertrand Aristide in 2004. Ten years later, HSP remains committed to continuing this process as a means of building and strengthening a culture of democracy in Haiti.
In 2006, HSP launched a “Model City” project to transform the town of Milot in Northern Haiti into a “Mecca” for cultural-historical tourism and the foundation for people-based economic development. Milot is a town of some 40,000 residents located five miles from the mountain on which the great Citadel sits. The Citadel is one of the architectural and engineering wonders of the world, conceived by Black minds and built by the hands of former Black slaves who had won their liberation by defeating Napoleon’s occupation army in 1804. It was built by King Henri Christophe to defend the freed territory against any future attempts by France to re-take Haiti.
For me and the rest of the delegation, visiting the Citadel during the recent trip to Haiti was akin to going on a pilgrimage to a shrine that symbolizes freedom and self-determination for Black people all over the world. It is the largest fortress in the Americas, declared by the United Nations a few years ago as a world heritage site….a truly breath-taking place with huge tourist potential.
The town of Milot is the gateway to the Citadel and it is HSP’s intention to work with Milot’s residents to ultimately transform this lovely town into a showpiece that celebrates the history, ingenuity and freedom-loving spirit of the Haitian people.
Dr. Daniels explains that this Model Cities Initiative (MCI) exemplifies HSP’s constituency building strategy of engaging the African-American community in collaboration with the Haitian-American community to mobilize development assistance for sustainable projects in Haiti.
From the outset of the MCI, education has been a major priority. In recent years HSP has provided school supplies for up to 4,000 young students in Milot and scholarships for scores of the most needy students in the region. This assistance is channeled through a local development committee composed of civic-minded community leaders dedicated to making Milot a model city.
“We want to enable the people who are committed to building the town to provide vital services,” says Dr. Daniels. “By so doing, the committee is able to more effectively engage residents in projects that advance the vision of creating a model city in Milot”.
Central to HSP’s model city vision is the construction of a modern, fully equipped school/academy and Dr. Daniels hopes that African-American organizations such as the Kappa fraternity will consider supporting the establishment of the “Henri Christophe Academy,” an institution whose name will honor the memory of one of Haiti’s “founding fathers.”
Today, 210 years after its liberation from French slavery and colonialism, Haiti continues its struggle to realize the promise and potential for meaningful independence and self-determination. Evidence of progress is starting to emerge. Post-earthquake re-construction, glitches notwithstanding, is well underway spurred on by the legendary resilience of the Haitian people. In recent years Haiti has broken out of its regional isolation and is now an active player in CARICOM, the Caribbean community of nations, and in ALBA, the organization working towards closer economic integration between Latin America and the Caribbean.
Even though its economy grew by an impressive 5.6% in 2013, it will take a continuous flow of foreign aid coupled with sustained job growth and efficient economic management over the next several years to lift Haiti out of a state of extreme poverty. A very long road to recovery lies ahead and HSP and its collaborators will be fellow travelers on that road, marching hand-in-hand with the people of Haiti.
Undeniably, the role of African-Americans, acting in concert with their Haitian-American sisters and brothers, is crucial to Haiti’s future. For a nation whose example inspired and informed the Black liberation struggle in the United States it can be argued that, in no small measure, Black people in this country have a moral duty to assist in Haiti’s overall economic and political development in the years ahead.
As for me, I am determined that the long hiatus of 19 years not visiting this amazing country, will not be repeated. I plan to visit again with my friend Ron Daniels before the end of 2014 and to make whatever contribution I can to the noble work of the Haiti Support Project.