Lawrence Harrison's disturbing article in the Wall Street Journal, Haiti and the Vodou Curse, is filled with ethnocentrism, religious intolerance, and ignorance of the subject addressed, namely Haiti's underdevelopment. Haiti's poverty is an economic issue. To understand how it arose, one need only review how economic decisions taken inside and outside of Haiti have affected the country.
Harrison's article mentions the indemnity extracted by France but conveniently overlooks its impact. In 1821, France demanded that Haiti pays it 150 million francs for loss of revenue from the island. This indemnity is estimated to be equivalent to 21 billion dollars in today's currency. Paul Farmer said it well, when he said that Haiti paid with money what it had already paid in blood. The payments to France further crippled Haiti's economy by preventing necessary investments in education and infrastructure.
Beyond these manmade difficulties, Haiti also experienced numerous natural disasters like the earthquake of 1842 that killed half of the inhabitants of its second largest city, Cape Haitian. In 2008, four hurricanes caused millions of dollars of damages. Repeated natural disasters further contributed to Haiti's economic woes.
To explain Haiti's poverty, Harrison puts forward a genetic and a religious explanation and gets both wrong. He says that Haitians are mostly of Benin ancestry when indeed according to the database from Harvard and Cambridge University that compiled records from the Trans-Atlantic Trade, Haitians are predominantly of Central African descent.
He misleads the reader to attack Vodou rather than provide a tactile accounting of the history that led to Haiti's underdevelopment. Harrison, the former head of USAID in Haiti, offered no accountability for his use of US resources during his tenure. He makes no mention of his role in distributing US AID during the brutal Duvalier dictatorship. Jean Claude Duvalier's regime deposited funds in foreign accounts rather than invest in building the necessary infrastructure for development. It is such corruption and not how Haitian people worship that best explains Haiti's underdevelopment.
In an attempt to make Vodou seem bizarre, Harrison wrote: Voodoo is one of numerous spirit-based religions common to Africa. It is without ethical content. He says this as though his own religion, presumably a brand of Christianity, is not a spirit based religion. Should we then conclude that beliefs in spirits and in angels are not present in Non-African Religions? If so, is Christ, commonly presented as God or as the Holy Ghost, devoid of spiritual content?
The truth is Vodou is the belief that there is one God and many African Ancestral spirits analogous to European saints. Harrison's allegation that Vodou is without ethical content is a vicious attack on a religious tradition that teaches one to do good on to others so that one may also experience good things. An old Nigerian proverb, from Haiti's Nago Vodou tradition makes this clear: Before pricking a bird, prick yourself so that you may know how it feels.
Like all other religions, Haitian religious beliefs are not a hindrance to development. China, Japan, India, and Israel are all non-Christian countries who share the Haitian belief in reverence for Ancestors and they are far more developed than many Christian countries in this hemisphere. Would Harrison have us believe that the poverty found in many Latin American countries is the result of this region's Christianity?
In the past, Haiti was a victim of human cruelty from the likes of Napoleon and Duvalier. Today, Haiti is experiencing unprecedented support from the world community. How Haiti moves forward will be influenced far more by how aid is spent than by how Haitian people worship. Fortunately, the UN has named former President Bill Clinton to oversee some of that expenditure. Bill Clinton has argued for accountability, for better disaster planning, for coordinating the activities of relief agencies, non- profit organizations, and Haitian Government agencies. Clinton is able to point to these things because unlike Harrison, he can separate a crusade from a development plan.
Jerry M. Gilles, M.D, FACOG
Associate Professor Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology
University of Miami, Miller School of Medicine
Yvrose S. Gilles, MA
Author of Remembrance: Roots, Rituals, and Reverence in Vodou