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Is Haiti Hopeless? Not if You Believe in Grace

Posted: 01/11/2012 5:13 pm

Inevitably, anyone who has lived or worked in Haiti for any length of time is bound to be asked if Haiti is hopeless. That will certainly be the case this week, when Haitians commemorate the second anniversary of the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake.

It is true that Haiti can look, well, difficult. As author Peter Hallward notes in "Damming the Flood: Haiti and the Politics of Containment," an extensive study of recent Haitian politics, Haiti is a place where "increased reliance on foreign aid, increased penetration of the economy by foreign NGOs, increased international supervision of the national police" has become the norm.
In such an environment, even the modest attempts, such as those by former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in his various times in office, to "move from abject misery to a semi-dignified poverty," as Hallward put it, have been impossible.

Does that mean change is impossible in Haiti? It certainly does no one any good to gloss over Haiti's problems, both internal and external, by simply reiterating the mantra of "hope." Haiti is a tough, complex, difficult place "where things don't happen quickly," said Melissa Crutchfield of the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

Similarly, Pix Mahler, a Presbyterian missionary with years of experience in Haiti, knows North Americans can express exasperation, impatience and frustration over Haiti -- its logistical challenges, its corruption, its seemingly overwhelming and intractable problems. At times, a country that is only 600 miles from the southern coast of the United States can seem "almost as if it's from a different cosmos."

During last year's Holy Week, people I met on previous assignments in Haiti said candidly that the chance to substantially change Haiti's course after the earthquake had probably been lost. Herode Guillomettre, president of the Christian Center for Integrated Development, a Haitian-based humanitarian agency, said, "It was a missed opportunity to empower Haitians."

And why was such an opening squandered? Because old patterns reemerged: outside NGOs gained power, leaving Haitians with little place at the table.

Polycarpe Joseph, a Jesuit-trained activist who heads the Ecumenical Center for Peace and Justice, an education and training institute, said while he was not yet 100 percent discouraged, he was disappointed. In the days and weeks immediately following the quake, he recalled, "The energy was extraordinary, and for the first three months, we needed that, we needed the help of the international NGOs."

However, soon after that, something could have been done "to launch something new. But we lost that opportunity because, by that point, we had lost our sovereignty. The Haitian authorities should have taken charge. But they didn't. When I saw that onslaught of NGOs, I knew that there would be no development."

By "development," Joseph meant what he and Guillomettre and others had long advocated: not top-heavy projects dictated from outside, but smaller-scale undertakings, developed by Haitians, that could ultimately spin off and become self-sustaining, so that Haitians could become self-sufficient.

Haitians must constantly remind friends of Haiti of what is at stake. Aid has poured into Haiti not only since 2010, but also during years before the catastrophe -- and yet, as Guillomettre argues, the issue of sustainability has still not been emphasized enough. "We need to support a vision of the Haitian people where they can be actors in their own development and stop the cycle of dependency," he said. "You can't have tent cities forever."

The election of a new president in 2011 was one sign of promise, though it is still early to say what effect that will have on Haitian politics. "I don't know what he can do," Saint Soit Joseph, 53, a Port-au-Prince laborer and mason, said of singer-turned-politician Michel Martelly when he and I spoke the day after this past Easter in the Cité Soleil area of Port-au-Prince. "But we can hope." Hope alone will not accomplish much, and not a few people take a dim view of Haiti's prospects -- not because of any lack of promise in Haitians but because of the current state of the world and Haiti's particular place in it.

Writer Junot Díaz argues that the Haitian earthquake revealed not only Haiti itself but something of our entire world and current global system -- and the view is damning.

"Look closely into the apocalypse of Haiti," Díaz wrote in an 2011 essay in the Boston Review, "and you will see that Haiti's problem is not that it is poor and vulnerable -- Haiti's problem is that it is poor and vulnerable at a time in our capitalist experiment when the gap between those who got grub and those who don't is not only vast but also rapidly increasing. Said another way, Haiti's nightmarish vulnerability has to be understood as part of a larger trend of global inequality."

In Haiti, we see possible portents of a future where some countries may never see any benefits from what Díaz calls the world's "new, rapacious stage of capitalism." This is a bleak view, and even Diaz tempers it by arguing that "apocalypses like the Haitian earthquake are not only catastrophes; they are also opportunities: chances for us to see ourselves, to take responsibility for what we see, to change."

They are also opportunities to take stock of the potential for Haiti's greatest gift -- its people. Louis Dorvilier, the representative of the Lutheran World Federation in Haiti, left a job with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in Chicago to return to his native country in late 2010. Like other Haitians, Dorvilier has felt the sting of frustration about the slow pace of overall reconstruction work and by often overlapping and uncoordinated humanitarian efforts.

But Dorvilier remains hopeful that if Haitians can yet be given the opportunity to drive and lead future rebuilding and reconstruction efforts, a new country can emerge. While the efforts of humanitarian groups can only "fill in gaps," he believes that Haiti must look toward building wealth and developing a middle class. "I don't think the Salvation Army, or the Lutherans or the Methodists can do that by themselves."

What religious bodies and institutions can do is see and affirm a larger picture -- a universal story of struggle and resistance, of pain and promise. Dorvilier finds particular resonance in the Gospel of Matthew's Christmas narrative of the Holy Family's flight to Egypt. Like Haitians after the earthquake, "Jesus and his family were on the move; they were tenting out, camping out."

In that sense, the view of the biblical stories from the perspective of Haitians today, he said, is "very incarnational. It's also a theology of grace: despite all of the challenges the people of this country face, the Haitian people believe that God is with them, that God is caring for them, that God is living with them."

In an office that overlooks the expanse of crowded, vibrant and chaotic Port-au-Prince, Dorvilier paused. "People have asked me, why I am going to a place where there is cholera, hurricanes, earthquakes," he said. "My answer is that Haiti remains one of the most incredible places on earth ... the potential for an expanded economy stirs in me a great sense of call. I'm here to work with the Haitian people."

"Hope is here," he said. "It's why we are all still alive. It's only because of God's grace. We need to celebrate that."

Chris Herlinger, a New York-based freelance journalist, is a writer with Church World Service who reports frequently on humanitarian issues. This essay is adapted from his book 'Rubble Nation: Haiti's Pain, Haiti's Promise,' co-authored with photographer Paul Jeffrey, just published by Seabury Books.