Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Future of Haiti as an International Success Story

The immediate and mid-term future of Haiti after the massive destruction in Port-au-Prince will largely be dependent on the aid that flows in from outside sources. That aid will in turn be heavily dependent on the narrative within which it flows. Already the news is full of descriptions of what a mess Haitian infrastructure was before the devastation, along with descriptions of Haiti as being the US's poorest neighbor, the most squalid and so on. Aid that is generated out of those descriptions can only follow the logic of pity for a nation that is incapable of caring for itself.

But there is a completely different historical perspective on Haiti that has been kept largely invisible in western media, one in which Haiti is a remarkable success story, for whom success came ahead of the rest of the hemisphere and for which it was severely punished by the international community.

In the Winter 2005 issue of Bomb Magazine, there is a conversation between Gina Ulysse and Sibylle Fischer about Fischer's book, Modernity Disavowed: Haiti and the Cultures of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, in which Fischer explores the influence of Haiti on Modernism.

The Haitian Revolution in 1804 was an uprising where black slaves forcibly took control of the country, wrested it out of the control of its French colonial masters and created their own country. At this time a black state in the Americas was the nightmare of every neighbor, most of whose economies ran on slavery. The birth of Haiti forecast the emancipation of slaves throughout the hemisphere, but in itself was severely punished.

Haiti was immediately censured and ostracized by the international community and was allowed into international relations only after they agreed to pay massive fines to France for which they took out usurious loans from the French themselves. Haiti started from the ground up with no outside help--a nation of slaves who freed themselves and attempted to form a nation far from their countries and cultures of origin, in a part of the world where a black state was a symbol of some of the greatest fears of its neighbors. Haiti is formed as a country by "the only successful slave revolution in Western history."

Although Modernism doesn't come together in the West for almost another century, many of its principles and problems are present in the birth of Haiti as a nation. In the words of Fischer:

But I don’t think we can explain the current situation without also talking about the isolation of Haiti in the Western hemisphere. To give just one of the more egregious examples: in his recent Clash of Civilizations Samuel Huntington argues that Haiti belongs to the category of countries that are not part of any of the world’s great civilizations; and I really have to quote this to you: “Haiti, ‘the neighbor nobody wants,’ is truly a kinless country.” And there are other factors that need to be considered to explain the current disaster, especially the history of U.S. interventions on the island, the half-hearted actions of the UN, and so on...
...To me the Haitian dilemma is how to make the telling of the past visceral to inveigle a sort of awakening. It’s like being awake and everyone else is in a dream world. It is precisely because of that state of unawareness that January 2004 [the bicentennial celebration of the revolution] came and went, most newspaper articles questioned just what did Haiti have to celebrate given its 200 years of turmoil.
We need to rapidly appreciate Haiti for the success that it was, for the fact that it exists in the first place. The massive destruction in Haiti today is catastrophic on a level rarely seen in the Americas. In the next weeks and months, huge amounts of money and aid will amass, with organizations springing up to raise it, channel it and distribute it. The aid will be distributed along lines heavily influenced by a narrative understanding of Haiti's past. To what extent was it a failure and to what extent is it a revolutionary success? The answer to that question in western media will have a great deal of influence on the local futures of Haitian themselves, for it will direct the nature and character of foreign initiatives to help them build again. How the world perceives the possibilities of Haiti's future will depend on it's sense of value for its past.

Update: CJR has a post this morning detailing recent successes in Haiti. It counters the tone of the New York Times piece this morning that basically details Haiti as an ongoing hopeless situation.


Néo said...

I hope for them that this is a new beginning

neojudgment (Brussels, Belgium)

professional photo editing said...

Interesting article ans some great photographs on your website. My one question about the aid to Haiti is what percentage of each dollar contributed will actually reach the needy. 5% if they are lucky I think.