As we watch from afar as the extraordinarily impoverished Caribbean nation of Haiti gets pummeled by Hurricane Matthew, it’s hard to take in just how many forces of destruction have hit the Haitian people throughout their existence. Most recently, the destructive forces in the news that have registered with the rest of the world have been forces of nature: the 2010 earthquake (staggering loss of lives, loss of basic infrastructure, and an accompanying cholera epidemic) and now this massive hurricane. However, the most destructive forces, time and time again, have been successive rulers and their governments, including colonial (Spanish and then French), “foreign interests”, and domestic rule, sometimes despotic, other times “just” inept. A country that could be feeding itself, engaging in healthy exports, and welcoming tourists eager to leave their money, is instead a tragic case of shameful abuse from its leaders over centuries. As a country with a truly unique history and with a culture that is also unique in the Americas, it has much to offer. And that’s not including their beaches, which rival any in the Caribbean. But just as Haiti needs help to recover from these staggering natural disasters, it is also desperate for enlightened leadership that puts the needs of its people front and center.
We actually visited Haiti as tourists, taking our teenaged sons with us for a holiday in the sun – to a place that would be different and interesting. That was 30 years ago, in May of 1986. It was a time of cautious optimism for Haiti. Their long-time ruthless dictator, Baby Doc Duvalier, had fled in February of that year after massive public protests, and Baby Doc’s thugs, the notorious Tonton Macoutes, seemed to be in abeyance. There were ribbons tied to trees and poles as symbols of the successful public resistance.
The Club Med in Haiti, as well as other resorts there, had made the decision to reopen and, always looking for something a little different, off we went. As it turned out, we were there during a brief window of calm. Something like nine months after we were there, the hope of open government faded and resorts closed again. But of course, we weren’t to know the precarious timeline of calm and stability in a Haiti without Baby Doc, and we were observing a new landscape with eyes of optimism.
What did we see? First of all, I think it is useful to remind ourselves that Haiti shares a large island in the Caribbean with another country, the Dominican Republic (DR). One island, which began both its pre-colonialized and early colonialized existence (Columbus arrived in 1492) as one entity, but two different stories. Once the island of Hispaniola was split up into Haiti (which the Spanish ceded to the French in 1697) and the DR (Spanish), their paths diverged significantly.
Many people in eastern Canada take winter holidays in the DR. Charter flights leave from the smallest of Canadian airports on a regular basis every winter and head for one of several DR destinations, where people enjoy pleasant stays in nice resorts. DR offers very good value and derives significant revenues from tourism. [As, I might add, does nearby Cuba, which has been a happy tourist destination for Canadians for many years, but that’s for another post.] We know DR as well through its contribution of many exceptional baseball players, including our very own Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion! But Haiti, which is right next door and has the same weather and beaches to offer, and a fascinating story to share with visitors, has been challenged to maintain a tourism industry or any other industry, first because of some much unrest … and now of course because of the heartbreaking natural disasters.
So, what did we see and learn, those 30 years ago.
- Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. But in 1986, in the immediate aftermath of Baby Doc’s departure, people were getting on with life. There was a sense of cautious optimism, not one of an emotionally downtrodden population that had given up.
- Haiti is a mountainous country. For millennia the mountain sides were covered by mahogany trees, along with others. Most of the valuable mahogany trees were cut down to sell to European furniture manufacturers by the colonial overseers, leaving denuded mountainsides. Also, most people have no fuel for heating and cooking except for wood, so the mountains have continued to be stripped of trees, producing an environmental catastrophe.
- Because the mountains have been denuded, the country is prone to flooding and landslides. The resulting soil erosion takes away remaining fertile soil and sends it into the sea, where it destroys the fish habitat, putting yet another source of food at risk. If there were ever a lose-lose situation, this is it.
- Haiti’s main religions are Catholicism, Protestantism, and voodou. We saw signs of both Christian and voodou everywhere, with unique Haitian interpretations.
- Haitian art, like its religions, blends influences from its African and indigenous roots, as well as European. It is notable for its use of bright colours.
- 95% of Haiti’s 10 million inhabitants are black, a legacy of the vast number of slaves imported from Africa by the French to work the sugar and coffee plantations they established to milk their territory while the milking was good. The story of slavery in Haiti is hard to read for its brutality. By 1789 there were at least 500,000 slaves in Haiti.
- The only bright spot to come out of this appalling history is that in the late 1700s the enslaved population rose up and staged the only successful slave revolt in history. Haiti became an independent country in January 1804, a sovereign country run by non-white former slaves, and recognized as such by France. If only things could have turned out better after that.
- Haiti’s two languages are French and Haitian Creole. The only other country in the western hemisphere to have French as an official language is … Canada! However, in Haiti, most people speak only Creole. French is the language of government and the educated. Sadly, this is a story heard around the world (including in Canada) of colonizers imposing their language on others and discounting the critical importance of language and identity.
Haiti’s story is torturous for sure. But there have been some new signs of optimism in the gradual recovery from the 2010 earthquake. Despite huge remaining challenges, investors were encouraged enough to start returning, including opening resorts again. Cruise ships have been visiting, bringing more than 1 million visitors last year. These may sound like callow examples of economic investment, but the reality is that tourism has many advantages for the host regions. Tourists want to spend money on services, arts, crafts, culture, and tours. All of this provides employment for local people. It also helps get the word out to the world that Haiti is a real place, with real people wanting to make a living and show you the cultural aspects of their country of which they are justifiably proud. Visiting places makes things real. If you would like to help a population that needs all the help it can get, aside from donating to Plan International or the Red Cross on their behalf you might consider putting Haiti on your bucket list!
Photo credit for Grand Cemetery: http://www.thebohemianblog.com/2015/04/encountering-haitian-vodou-the-grand-cimetiere-of-port-au-prince.html