Unfinished Business, a Proverb, and an Uprooting

July 1, 2010

On July 8, 2009, Haitian journalist Joseph Guyler Delva published a short Reuters article titled “Bill Clinton Surprised by Discord in Haiti,” which reported on the former president’s first trip to the country as UN special envoy. According to Delva, Clinton—who, we can surmise, takes his new UN position to heart, given his key role in furthering Haiti’s economic demise in recent years—found that “a lack of cooperation between Haitian politicians, aid groups and business leaders was hurting efforts to help the impoverished nation.”

“The most surprising thing to me,” Clinton was quoted as saying, “ . . . is how little the investor community, all the elements of the government, including the legislative branch and the NGO community seem to have taught and absorbed each others’ lessons.” Delva ended with some promising, yet contradictory words from Clinton, pledging his determination to bring the change that seemed to have come to the United States that January to the ever so fragile Haitian Republic. “If it is a question of money, that’s my problem,” Clinton said, but if it is not about money, that’s something Haitians need to resolve among themselves” (emphasis mine).

This assessment, though diplomatic, smacked of cultural illiteracy. Not only was it ahistorical in its disavowal of key features that created the Republic and remain at the country’s social core (plurality, discord, dissidence), but this comment also attempted to revise the history of imperialism—as if Haitians’ problems among themselves could be dissociated from money. As if it were possible for the UN special envoy, in his role as the moneyman, to avoid affecting local policy, especially given the role that foreign capital has historically played in creating, stoking, and augmenting discord among Haitians.


After the quake, Clinton became even more important as Haiti’s moneyman. And the discord, which he noted months before, would not only be exacerbated by the disaster but played out in predictable ways. Although the earthquake indiscriminately affected all Haitians, regardless of their socioeconomic status, its immediate aftermath made clear that, indeed, tout moun pa menm (not every human is the same), as the Haitian proverb goes.

This was especially evident during the initial rescue efforts, when valuable foreigners were saved first. Rescue teams ignored overpopulated slums coded as “red zones” or high-security risk areas. Children labeled “orphans” were whisked off to foreign lands. Disputes over payment for medical treatment in the United States suspended medical airlifts and endangered lives. The United Nations tear-gassed desperate and hungry people into submission. The people without means, who could not afford to fly out to the Dominican Republic or who lacked U.S. passports and visas, died not because of the earthquake but because of neglect.1

Perhaps nothing reinforces the truism in this old proverb than the government’s inaction around the tent cities. The mass graves—crimes against humanity, which must not be forgotten—were early warnings of what would become official practice months after the quake. Indeed, the state was being called upon to do something it has never done: to have and show responsibility for the entire nation and not just a privileged few. Historically the lives that matter in Haiti have always been determined by socioeconomic status, and nothing made this more apparent than the graves; the state treats the dead as it does the living.2


The absence of the state has meant that the nation is forced to continually depend on the kindness of its diaspora (which acts as a social welfare system), NGOs, humanitarians, and—in some cases problematically—missionaries. In the aftermath of the quake, missionaries’ help would become even more needed, even as some of them launched an attack on Vodou that can only be described as a spiritual dechoukaj (uprooting).

Those of us concerned with cultural heritage must take into account the fact that family temples, so crucial to the practice of Vodou, have been fractured and in some cases destroyed by seismic activity. Few people speak of these temples, or when they do, it is an soudin (in secret). The stigma is taking hold. There have also been incidents of anti-Vodou violence. This backlash is a mechanism of social control. The silence on this loss needs to be broken. Plans must be made to address the destruction of these familial archives. The temples need to be repaired.

Vodou is not merely going underground as it did when it was persecuted after the Revolution and during the U.S. occupation.3 It is being eradicated in part because the missionaries continue to play a significant role in providing much needed services for the desperate nation. This moment, which Pat Robertson claimed to be a blessing in disguise, sets the stage for more explicit rules of engagement: food, shelter, clothing, and education in exchange for one’s soul. People are desperately converting. Incessant chants dominate the hills and tent cities. The sound of drums is fading in too many parts of the nation. At the fault lines something else is happening. A religious cleansing is in effect.

And Haiti’s past continues to loom largely in the present.

Gina Athena Ulysse is Associate Professor of anthropology, African American studies, and feminist, gender, and sexuality studies at Wesleyan University. She is the author of Downtown Ladies: Informal Commercial Importers, A Haitian Anthropologist and Self-Making in Jamaica (Chicago University Press, 2008).

1. Gina Athena Ulysse, “Haiti Will Never Be the Same,” huffingtonpost.com, January 21, 2010.

2. Gina Athena Ulysse, “Haiti’s Future: A Requiem for the Dying,” huffingtonpost.com, February 4, 2010.

3. See historian Kate Ramsey’s The Spirit and the Law: Vodou and Power in Haiti (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming).


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