Haiti Is the Future (review of Amy Wilentz’ book “Farewell Fred Voodoo”)

wilentz(the following review has just been published in Books & Culture and is reproduced here with kind permission from the editor)

Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti
Amy Wilentz
Simon & Schuster, 2013
352 pp., $16.00

Haiti is the Future: A counter-narrative.

Since the 2010 earthquakes, thousands of well-intentioned Americans have traveled to Haiti as missionaries or aid workers. Some didn’t expect development work to be complicated, or thought they could fix everything on a short trip, and they sometimes experienced bitter disappointments when their efforts failed or spectacularly backfired. Those still contemplating a trip to Haiti will benefit from reading Amy Wilentz’s book, which provides many cautionary tales on the theme “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” But it provides much more than that. Wilentz is an American journalist who has lived in Haiti and returned for visits many times over a span of more than twenty years and has thus a long acquaintance with the country’s history, language, and people. She is best known for her 1989 book The Rainy Season, which contributed in particular to make Jean-Bertrand Aristide—the liberation theology priest who became president of Haiti in 1990—known to the American public. (Wilentz was a strong supporter of Aristide at the time even though she later on distanced herself from him.) She offers in this new book much more than a travel diary: a long “letter from Haiti,” providing a wealth of information about Haiti’s current situation, nicely blended with personal reflections and precious food for thought about Haiti and the country’s relations with the outside world.

The book seeks to counter common misrepresentations of Haiti and to balance the prevailing discourses on Haiti in the United States and the rest of the Western world. Contrary to what the title suggests, there is little in the book about Voodoo (or Vodou). Wilentz explains that the “Fred Voodoo” of the title “is the old foreign correspondents’ tongue-in-cheek name for the Haitian man in the street.” She wants to bid farewell to the Haitian equivalent of Joe Sixpack and debunk deep-rooted clichés; her book attempts to present to the American public the Haitian’s point of view, an explanation or interpretation of facts that foreigners find incomprehensible and therefore judge as (depending on the circumstances) funny, evil, puzzling, or dangerous. Haiti, she observes, is routinely portrayed in the U.S. as “the poorest country in the western hemisphere,” with a severely degraded environment, a failed state, and endemic violence. More often than not Haitians are blamed for the unfortunate state of their country: in the view expressed by Pat Robertson in January 2010, Haitians are poor because they “swore a pact to the devil” when they rebelled against their French masters in 1791. This very conveniently ignores the reasons for the initial revolt: the appalling injustice, inhumanity, and abuse imposed on a society of slaves. It also forgets the better documented causes behind the poverty of Haiti: the isolation and shunning of the country during much of the 19th century by the U.S., France, and other nations; and the constant interference in Haitian affairs from the same powers, sometimes—not always—with good intentions, but often with devastating results.[1]

In one respect, though, it is misleading to suggest that Wilentz wants to “balance” the familiar accounts of Haiti’s plight. Rather, she wants to turn those judgments upside down. Haiti, backwards? Not at all. On the contrary, she writes,

Haiti’s history has been a harbinger of the modern world since the landing there of the white man in the 1400s. First came the initial and signature act of globalization: the genocide of a population, in Haiti’s case, the indigenous Arawak or Taino Indians, who were eradicated … through enslavement, disease, and overwork within two generations of the white man’s appearance on the island’s shores. The colonial economy that followed the destruction of the indigenous islanders was one of the first entirely globalized economies in human history, at every level a model for the modern global economy.

The first and only successful slave revolt in history also took place in Haiti. Now, Haiti has also perhaps become a harbinger of what the whole world might look like fifty years from now if business as usual continues to prevail. Haiti, Wilentz argues, gives us a peek at what “Ronald Reagan’s dream of a privatized state” looks like when it is realized, where schools and hospitals are privately owned, private security forces flourish even as the police are increasingly unreliable, and public works are virtually nonexistent. It is also a country where the absence of any kind of environmental protection agency and a severe scarcity of resources mean most of the trees have been turned into charcoal—and, as a consequence, most of the soil has washed into the sea. Of all the nations in the world, Haiti has recently been ranked as the most vulnerable to climate change.

If Haiti is perhaps a sign of what is to come, a lot of Haiti’s current problems are rooted in history. For example, Wilentz traces the often-prevailing duplicity in politics and in personal dealings in Haiti back to slavery. Bondage contributed to general mistrust within society: “the habits of masquerade acquired during two centuries of intense slave conditions have continued to play out in Haitian governance and society.” As social scientists know well, trust is a crucial component of social capital, bonding people and lowering the cost of transactions, and a widespread lack of trust is detrimental to society in many ways. Wilentz traces legacies of the slave period even in the ambiguities of Kreyòl (Haitian Creole, the national language). A willingness on the part of the slaves to mislead their owners led them to develop a language where, for example, “he, she, it, him, her” is expressed indifferently by just one pronoun, “li,” or “we, us, you (plural)” by “nou”: “This effectively hides identity and agency, and can—sometimes intentionally—mislead those who do not fully understand the whole context of a narrative. Nonnative speakers often confuse the use of these slippery pronouns with simplicity of grammar, but it is not that, or not only.” (For a contrasting view, see “A Farewell to Haiti,” an essay by Mischa Berlinski, an American journalist and novelist who spent five years in Haiti from 2007 to 2012. Berlinski attributes Haiti’s culture of mistrust instead to the widespread belief in sorcery: “[The Haitian] magical world is a world in which things make sense, where cause provokes effect. It is a rational world. It is a world without existential despair. It is a world in which one is never wholly responsible for one’s misfortunes. But it is also a world that supposes that one’s neighbors are vicious and predatory; that suffering is directly the result of somebody else—somebody in your community, somebody close to you—wishing you ill.”[2] This view is shared by many Americans living in Haiti, including the director of a small Christian non-profit who told me recently he only started to understand this culture of mistrust after he married an Haitian woman and saw things “from the inside.”)

Wilentz’s efforts to counter the dominant discourse in the West and to act as a pro-bono international advocate for Haiti, while largely successful, did not always entirely convince me. For example, she mentions a project by architects to promote the planting in Haiti of a species of tree that could provide food, construction, clothing material, medicine, and more to poor Haitians. But she says that this kind of tree will never appeal to Haitians because it is not in their culture to eat leaves of trees. She’s probably right about an initial resistance, but is it wrong to promote such a tree if it indeed has these virtues? The potato was looked down upon by many in Europe until its numerous advantages became evident to everyone. (The potato today has a bad reputation, but it has an exceptionally high yield compared to other crops. Humans can also live healthily on a diet of potatoes supplemented only with milk or butter, which contain the two vitamins, A and D, not provided by the tuber.) Was Antoine Parmentier, the most vocal promoter of the potato in France, wrong in advocating (agri)cultural changes to peasants so as to improve their nutrition and their lives? Does respect for Haitian culture mean that foreigners should not challenge Haitian customs or offer improved crops? Of course, trying to change a culture is fraught with potential problems: as Nicholas Kristof reported a few years ago, in Southern Africa “you see the very sensible efforts of aid groups to get people to grow sorghum rather than corn, because it is hardier and more nutritious. But local people aren’t used to eating sorghum. So aid workers introduce sorghum by giving it out as a relief food to the poor—and then sorghum becomes stigmatized as the poor man’s food, and no one wants to have anything to do with it.”[3]

The broader question of whether one should help Haiti—and how—is in fact central to Wilentz’s book. She offers many illuminating anecdotes and reflections, including the cautionary tale of a missionary couple who, after the earthquake, armed with good intentions, decide to buy land and build houses for poor people but run into innumerable difficulties (land tenure in Haiti is very complicated issue). Haiti, she scornfully remarks, has become a “feel-good tourist destination” where people in search of “redemption” try to help but sometimes (often?) create more problems than they solve.

She is particularly critical of foreign NGOs, for bypassing the Haitian state and further weakening the government in Port-au-Prince. But channeling money directly to Haitians is a very difficult because of the corruption at various levels of government, as Wilentz herself recognizes. (There is an interesting discussion about corruption in Haiti—highly visible to a lot of people—versus corruption and conflicts of interest in the United States—which often do not trigger the same indignation—in Jonathan Katz’s book,The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster, which can be usefully read alongside Wilentz’s book.[4]) Gerald Murray, an anthropologist well acquainted with Haiti, remarked just after the earthquake, illustrating this conundrum, that there are no good solutions as to how to channel aid to Haiti: if you give money to NGOs, “you are not developing the institutions of the country, but if … you give the money to the Haitian government, it will disappear.”

Wilentz also recalls the American government’s sorry history of meddling in Haitian affairs over a long span of time. The U.S. occupation of 1915-1934, for example (which most Americans today don’t even know about), further exacerbated racial tensions in the country because of the racism of most in the American administration at the time. America’s longstanding support for the brutal and corrupt regimes of “presidents for life” François and Jean-Claude Duvalier helped to sustain the culture of unaccountability and impunity that continues to plague Haiti. (One feels the bitter sadness of Wilentz, who witnessed the departure of Duvalier in 1986, when she tells of the recent return to the country of Jean-Claude Duvalier and the warm welcome he received from the current president Michel Martelly.) Problems created by the U.S. in the past make it difficult for Americans, or Haitians, to develop Haiti today.

Another issue Wilentz raises is the recent pressure from the U.S. State Department to lower the minimum wage in Haiti, from 61 cents an hour to—at least for textile workers—31 cents an hour. Most readers will probably be sickened to learn what appears to be a well-documented fact, as I was. However, I found that Jonathan Katz’s book The Big Truck That Went By did a better job on this specific point at providing the larger context: even though Katz is equally critical of the State Department’s policies and dubious deeds in Haiti, he emphasizes how the ruthless pressure to lower wages is part of a larger worldview. In this view, Haiti’s salvation can only be obtained by following Taiwan’s or South Korea’s path to development, to become a hub for exporting cheap, labor-intensive products such as textiles. By pressuring the Haitian government to lower employment costs, the State Department hoped to help Haitians (if the employment costs are too high, companies will not come to Haiti, or so the reasoning goes). Wilentz and Katz are both skeptical that this path of development can work—what will prevent textile companies from relocating to other countries if wages rise in Haiti or trade unions bother them?—and one can also disagree with foreign interference in Haitian affairs, but the story is more complicated than what Wilentz suggests here. Prominent economists such as Jeffrey Sachs and Paul Krugman among others have defended sweatshops as a pragmatic “necessary-evil” approach to development. Perhaps this would be an illustration that, to reverse the proverb, “the road to paradise is paved with evil.” However pragmatic that may be, I still find the pressure to lower wages for poor Haitians disturbing. (After the threat of communism diminished in the 1990s, an imperative for U.S. Haiti policy has been keeping Haitians in Haiti. Many feel that the U.S. will do the minimum required to discourage Haitians from leaving their country, but not enough to really improve things for Haitians, because that would harm U.S. economic interests.)

Despite these quibbles, Farewell Fred Voodoo offers an excellent introduction to Haiti today and a provocative counter-narrative to the simplistic stories told about Haiti in the mainstream media. It is well-written, witty, funny, yet profound; the author never takes herself too seriously, avoids the trap of Manichaeism, and provides a powerful analysis of Haitian society in a manner accessible to the general reader. This is a book that should rank very high on the reading list of people who have an interest in Haiti or in international aid and development issues more generally.

Jean-François Mouhot is a Marie Curie Fellow at Georgetown University.

1. For two contrasting views of Haitian history, see Laurent Dubois’ recentHaiti: The Aftershock of History (2011), which blames Western interference (particularly by France and the U.S.) for most of Haiti’s current problems; and Philippe Girard’s Haiti : The Tumultuous History—from Pearl of the Caribbean to Broken Nation (2010), which argues that Haitians themselves are mostly to blame.

2. “A Farewell to Haiti,” The New York Review of Books, March 22, 2012.

3. “Aid: Can It Work?”, The New York Review of Books, October 5, 2006.

4. Jonathan Katz, The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

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