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For Haiti to move forward, we must return to our culture

By Jacky Lumarque

Is Haiti a country condemned to poverty and chaos?  Does the combination of bad governance and natural disaster constitute a fatal impediment to the rebuilding of this poor nation? Why has a country once called the “Pearl of the Antilles” turned into a place most observers compare to hell?

Some attribute the amplitude of the January 12 earthquake to Haiti’s “culture of poverty.” For decades, Haiti has been on the receiving end of an endless stream of foreign aid, which has made zero impact on growth and development. Competent Haitians are condemned to poverty in Haiti, while they seemingly get rich overnight when they emigrate to the United States or Canada. To many, lack of natural resources and the burden of colonialism, racism, international exclusion and even the independence debt to France are insufficient to explain Haiti’s permanent state of poverty. They argue that unless this country adopts a counterculture it will never get on the path of prosperity.

I, however, would argue that Haitian culture represents a force for the country and must play a fundamental role in the rebuilding process. Sure, many of the most beautiful manifestations of this culture have been destroyed by the earthquake: Nader Museum and Art Gallery in Desprez lost thousands of unique paintings; important private collections of books, paintings, photographs, voodoo artifacts have perished under the rubble, and the murals at the Ste Trinity Church have been destroyed. But the soul remains.

One can regret that the leadership of the country has long ignored its cultural patrimony, and has, in many cases, worked to destroy it. From 1860 when the Haitian government signed its first convention with the Vatican (Le Concordat) to 1957 when the country was subjected to ”anti-superstitious campaigns” orchestrated by the government and the Catholic Church, the country  saw the destruction of many temples and sacred objects, and the imprisonment of many peasants and the urban poor. As it often occurs in history, the oppressed took refuge in the arts: painting, sculpture, music, dance, handicraft and literature.

Isn’t it a surprising fact that without government support and subsidies, without institutional structures for research, training and promotion, Haitian art and literature continue to blossom?

In 2009, 12 international prizes have been awarded to Haitian writers, all educated and living in Haiti (except for Dany Laferrière who chose to live in Canada). How can Haitians show such a force of expression, innovation and creation in music, dance, painting, sculpture while everything in the country seems intent on discouraging these impulses ?

Haiti doesn’t need a counterculture, but, rather, leaders who recognize the vitality of Haitian culture and encourage its production by mobilizing public resources and support.

Jacky Lumarque is the president of Université Quisqueya in Port-au-Prince.

Related: Haiti’s Lost Music

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