There are two key, consistent facts about Haiti: an enduring lack of information (and sometimes misinformation) about its history, and the continuing resilience of its people.
It is thus the task of any relevant and responsible education institution to seek to enlighten. This week Florida Gulf Coast University hosts events that move beyond simply commemorating the second anniversary of the dreadful earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010.
Aptly titled, "What's Up With Haiti: Continuing Support for a Resilient People," it will throw light on some of the real issues that continue to plague Haiti.
The most important and challenging task is to reframe Haiti's image as "the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere." The glib phrase neither provides a deep understanding or explanation of the origin of Haiti's material poverty, nor the wealth of the spirit of the Haitian people. For one thing, the continuing description of Haiti that focuses on its material poverty, intentionally or not, and threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, if not a blight. On a more critical level, there are those who believe the constant emphasis on Haiti's structural poverty is intended as a strategic reminder of the dreaded repercussions for a courageous people, bold enough to take on a major world power to free themselves from slavery in 1804.
Haiti has not always been poor. In the 18th century it was one of the most lucrative colonies in the world, the jewel in the crown of the French Empire. This earlier Haiti fed the world almost one-third of its sugar and more than half of its coffee, provided, of course, by the sweat and blood of the enslaved Africans.
No wonder Haiti's real, though whispered, fame lies in its execution of the largest and most effective slave revolt in the world, and the squashing of several attempts to revoke the hard-earned victory and re-enslave the Haitian people. After turbulent rivers of blood Haiti declared independence in 1804, and became the first Black Republic in the world. Haitians had defeated the most powerful empires in the world — Britain and France — and received help from not one country.
A thrill of pride and hope rippled through enslaved Africans in the Americas that terrified slaveholders and colonizers near and far. Haiti had to be punished, to discourage other revolts.
The United States refused to recognize Haitian independence. In 1825 France, with warships circling the island, forced Haiti to pay compensation for the loss of French "property" — the Haitian citizens themselves, former slaves of French landowners. The repaying of this "ransom" has taken priority over housing, education, health and agriculture, and has robbed Haiti of the capacity to take care of its people. Moreover, it has sunk it into the grave of foreign debt and accompanying political interference; exploitative trade practices; internal corruption and intense divisions. A miniscule Haitian elite formed an alliance with foreign economic elites, who together prioritize, protect and enhance their own wealth, leaving death and inhumane suffering in their wake.
Among the Haitian masses, there is a sense that the wealthy would prefer Haiti without them. Shortly after the 2010 earthquake, I met a Haitian artist, who, in spite of her lavish, walled Port-au-Prince mansion with a staff of five, empathized with her less-fortunate brethren, and confided, with great shame and embarrassment, that she often overheard wealthy associates wishing the hurricanes would come and drag the poor out to sea, thus cleansing Haiti of its vastly impoverished masses. Well, the January 2010 earthquake almost did.
Yet despite the massive death and destruction wrought by the earthquake, Haiti's spirit of struggle, endurance and resilience live, with an incredible joie de vivre. It is to their credit that as part of FGCU's week of activities (www.fgcu.edu/CAS/History/index.asp) Haitian students have added their cultural essence to the academic menu. In addition to a keynote speech by acclaimed University of Virginia political scientist Robert Fatton Jr. and an academic roundtable, there will be a Haitian concert, Haitian films, and a candle light vigil to honor the souls lost in a tragedy that was natural, but in circumstances that emerged from an unnaturally violent history. The music and dance, as part of the Haitian concert, represent the resilience of a people who know that their continuing struggle is embedded in their cultural strength and in the Haitian diaspora.
La lutte va continuer!
James-Sebro is managing director of FirstWorks International, a consulting firm that focuses on poverty eradication; gender and empowerment; and youth and community development, with special emphasis on gender, violence against women, faith traditions, effective leadership and entrepreneurial development. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and a master's degree in Latin American and Caribbean Studies from New York University; and a doctorate in Anthropology from American University.