Voodoo, Development and the Culture of Haiti

by Martin Peretz | February 8, 2010

There are many factors which have determined and over-determined the miserable history of Haiti, to which almost everybody had become accustomed. The recent plague, however, provoked a moment of pity ... and also of self-pity, which manifested itself by Haitian anger against the aid providers who did not act fast enough or did not bring the right equipment or did not bring sufficient aid-workers. Or imported clothing when they should have brought water or food. This is the understandable petulance of people who usually expect nothing and then suddenly become the cause of the moment, the recipients of a largesse that will not last.

The very issues of development and underdevelopment are heavily laden with ideology. Not just prescriptive of ideologies of left and right. But utilitarian models, supposedly neutral. Like a United Nations administration of help and reconstruction, as if anything sponsored by the U.N. would be anything but corrupt, inefficient, confused, and racialist.

I myself proposed what would in effect be a mandate for Haiti overseen by the United States. The model could be the American occupation and reform of Japan. But, of course, Japan was already a very advanced country. So the analogy is at best flawed. To tell the truth, whether Japan or not, Haiti would be lucky to be a protectorate (against nature and against its own large-scale criminal elements) of America. No one in the U.S. is eager for such an encounter. It would be costly. It would induce resentment among the hemisphere's "progressives" like the buffoon Hugo Chavez, who is leading his oil-rich country into poverty and has already led it into despotism and worse. And the American left would denounce an American mandate for Haiti as imperialism, regardless of the processes or the outcomes. And what about the American imperialists, the Republicans? They would think it nothing less than insane.

And insane it may seem.

The Haitian narrative is interlaced with the spooky charms of voodoo: fright, inference, faith, mystery. These are not traits that are conducive to sound plans for economic development or rational political discourse. Lawrence Harrison, who once ran USAID in Haiti and now is professor at the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts, has written a short but challenging essay on the role of voodoo in Haiti's past and the dreadful mortgage it has carried over into Haiti's future. It is not a topic politicians and others who are charged with the good of Haiti are eager to touch.

But Harrison makes the point that voodoo is not a racialist explanation. But it is a cultural explanation. Cultural explanations may not explain all. But they always explain much.

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