January 22, 2010
Even some of the most hardened reporters I know, old hands at covering famine, disaster, and war, are shaken by the carnage in Haiti. Over my own long life in journalism I've had my share of the sounds and smells that linger in your head long after you have left the scene. But I've found it especially hard this past week to absorb the pictures coming from Haiti.
Perhaps it's that as we get older, we become more melancholy watching history repeat itself, seeing people suffer all over again, when you've already seen them suffer so much. As if you know now some things will never change.
You have to ask, why does this country suffer so?
The reverend Pat Robertson gave us his answer, recycling his theology of a vindictive god.
REV. PAT ROBERTSON:
Something happened a long time ago in Haiti and people may not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon the Third and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the Devil. They said, "We will serve you if you get us free with the French." True story. And so the Devil said, "Okay, it's a deal."
This is the same Pat Robertson, of course, who agreed with his soul mate, the late Jerry Falwell, that God had allowed the terrorist attacks on 9/11 because America needed a come-uppance for tolerating gays, women's rights and the separation of church and state.
But this time Robertson's callous idiocy toward the suffering in Haiti created such a backlash that his press agent came out to explain that the good Reverend does indeed have compassion for Haitians and is actually sending relief and recovery teams to help them.
Another controversy was triggered when the conservative David Brooks offered a less superstitious explanation for Haiti's suffering than Pat Robertson's. Brooks opined that it's because Haiti is "progress-resistant" a society held back by voodoo religion, high levels of social mistrust, poor child-rearing traditions, and a lack of any internalized sense of responsibility. Critics fired back that brooks should read a little history.
The journalist Mark Danner has done just that. He's also lived some of Haiti's history, almost losing his life a few years ago while covering unrest there. Writing in the New York Times this week, Danner said "There is nothing mystical in Haiti's suffering, no inescapable curse that haunts the land." It was brought on, he said, by human beings, not demons.
Start with the French. They ran Haiti as a slave colony, driving hundreds of thousands of slaves to early deaths in order to supply white Europeans with coffee, sugar and tobacco. In 1804, the slaves rebelled and after savage fighting defeated three foreign armies to win their independence. They looked to America for support, but America's slave-holding states feared a slave revolt of their own, and America's slave-holding president, Thomas Jefferson, the author of our Declaration of Independence, refused to recognize the new government.
Their former white masters made matters worse by demanding reparations, and by exploiting and exhausting the country's natural resources. Fighting over what little was left, Haitians turned on each other.
Coup followed coup, faction fought faction, and in 1915, our American president Woodrow Wilson sent in the Marines. By the time they left almost 20 years later, American companies had secured favored status in Haiti. In 1957, the country was taken over by the brutal and despotic rule of Papa Doc Duvalier, whose son, Baby Doc, proved just as cruel as his old man. Don't let the familial nicknames fool you. The Duvaliers were murderous thugs and thieves who enjoyed the complicity of American interests until the dynasty played out in 1986.
Five years later in 1991, when the popular former priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide won the presidency as a champion of the poor, he spooked Washington. Said one U.S. senator, Aristide "wasn't going to be beholden to the United States, and so he was going to be trouble. We had interests and ties with some of the very strong financial interests in the country and he was threatening them."
The Bush/Cheney administration, in cahoots with Haiti's privileged, helped destabilize his government.
Every president from Ronald Reagan forward has embraced the corporate search for cheap labor. That has meant rewards for Haiti's upper class while ordinary people were pushed further and further into squalor. Haitian contractors producing Mickey Mouse and Pocahontas pajamas for American companies under license with the Walt Disney Company paid their sweat shop workers as little as one dollar a day, while women sewing dresses for K-Mart earned eleven cents an hour. A report by the National Labor Committee found Haitian women who had worked 50 days straight, up to 70 hours a week, without a day off. If that doesn't impact the tradition of child rearing and lead to social distrust, I don't know what will.
So, once again, beware the terrible simplifiers and remember that through all its suffering Haiti is a country born of revolution, like our own, whose people sing of their forefathers breaking their shackles, proclaiming their right to equality, and shouting "Progress or Death." Yes, there's still more death than progress. It's the bitter fruit of exploitation centuries old. But even if the Devil were at work, there are Haitians determined that he will not have the last word. The last word is the poet's calling. Listen to what was written by Danielle Legros Georges, born in Haiti and now teaching at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She sent us a poem and we asked our colleague Kamaly Pierre, who also has family and roots in Haiti, to read it. Its title: "Poem for the Poorest Country In the Western Hemisphere."
Oh poorest country, this is not your name.
You should be called beacon, and flame,
almond and bougainvillea, garden
and green mountain, villa and hut,
little girl with red ribbons in her hair,
books-under-arm, charmed by the light
charcoal seller in black skirt, encircled
by dead trees.
You, country, are the businessman
and the eager young man, the grandfather
at the gate, at the crossroads
with the flashlight, with the light,
with the light.
That's all for now. I'm Bill Moyers.