If there is anything you need and don’t see, please let us know and we will show you how to do without it. – Haitian saying.
U.S. Marines invaded Haiti in 1915 and ran the Caribbean nation for nearly 20 years. That wasn’t one of the brighter chapters in U.S. history. We said we took control of Haiti to restore order, but the true motive was to take control of the Haitian economy and open it to American businesses.
At the time of the invasion, the secretary of the U.S. Navy – who was in charge of the Marines and overseeing Haitian policy – was Josephus Daniels, founding editor of The News & Observer.
As I spoke to some Haitian students a few weeks ago in their beautiful but impoverished nation, I assured them that I had come in peace. No Marines waited offshore; no invasion was imminent.
Not by a military, anyway. Since an earthquake three years ago, Haiti has been overrun by nonprofits and other groups wanting to help. There’s some question about how much good these groups – sometimes called nongovernmental organizations or NGOs – have done. These problems are documented in Jonathan Katz’s new book, “The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster.”
I was fortunate to be part of a group with a long track record of success in Haiti. Raleigh-based Hearts and Hands for Haiti supports a children’s home and five schools in the Gonaives area.
Hearts and Hands takes all the steps Katz recommends. The group’s director, Stan Wiebe, lived in Haiti for five years in the 1980s. He speaks the native language (Creole) and visits four times a year. He has longtime relationships with a handful of Haitians who run the home and the schools. Wiebe raises money separately for all stateside expenses, including his salary, so that all money donated to Hearts and Hands for Haiti goes to the children’s home and schools.
Wiebe and key members of his group in Raleigh, such as Helen and Freddy Johnson and Temple Sloan, listen to the Haitians and seek to be a partner. They choose their Haitian partners well. Among them is Jean Pere Nadieul, 51, a good and hardworking former construction man. He had the vision for the children’s home, which opened in 1997 and now cares for 70 children up to age 20. Some of the children are orphaned; others have been abandoned.
We were greeted warmly by the children at the home and the schools. Still, given Haiti’s history with outsiders, both recent and otherwise, it’s no surprise that some of the older teens at the schools had some hard questions for us.
There were 14 of us, all from the Triangle. Raleigh lawyer Keith Johnson and I were asked to teach two classes about U.S.-Haitian relations. We relied heavily on an excellent book by Duke University’s Laurent Dubois, “Haiti: The Aftershocks of History,” which was published last year.
Haiti, a French colony, and the United States gained freedom at about the same time. Haitians were still ruled by the French when more than 500 free Haitians helped us fight the British at the Battle of Savannah in 1779.
But the U.S. was ambivalent about the Haitian fight for freedom. Haiti was once the most lucrative colony in the world, producing much of the world’s sugar and coffee. When the Haitian slaves revolted in 1791 and succeeded, slave owners such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson recoiled.
The former Haitian slaves fought off several attempts to re-enslave them (including one by Napoleon) and declared independence in 1804. U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, however, refused to recognize Haiti as an independent nation, as did every American president until Lincoln in 1862.
Some of the teenage Haitian students we encountered questioned modern U.S. motives toward Haiti, as well as our interpretation of Haitian history. We spoke harshly of the reigns of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc,” who ruled Haiti through terror from 1956 to 1986. At least 20,000 Haitians were killed during those three decades because they were viewed as enemies of the nation, according to the Dubois book.
A student asked if we were being too harsh on the Duvaliers. No, we said. Johnson, the Raleigh lawyer, pointed out that if the Duvaliers were still in power, we would not have been able to have the conversation we were having – the Duvaliers would have had our classroom group, or our family members, tortured, imprisoned or killed.
The Duvalier legacy is not an academic debate. Jean-Claude Duvalier, after 25 years of exile, stunned Haitians two years ago when he returned. Now Haiti is trying to figure out whether he should face trial for embezzlement and human-rights violations.
The Haitian fight for freedom more than 200 years ago was inspiring. Several thousand free African-Americans even moved to Haiti in the early 1800s to be part of the new nation.
But for two centuries the country has had a tortured history as it has struggled to become a functioning democracy. The earthquake three years ago was another devastating setback. Promises from outsiders to build a new Haiti have not materialized. We can and should help. But if a new and better Haiti is to emerge, it must be built from within.
Drescher: 919-829-4515 or email@example.com. On Twitter @john_drescher