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An Open Letter to David Brooks on Haiti

Dear Mr. Brooks,

Dear Mr. Brooks,

In your January 15, 2010, opinion piece in The New York Times, “The Underlying Tragedy,” you present what you seem to believe is a bold assessment of the situation in Haiti and what you certainly know is a provocative recommendation for Haiti’s future. You also offer some advice to President Obama. In order to successfully keep his promise to the people of Haiti that they “will not be forsaken” nor “forgotten” the president, you say, has to “acknowledge a few difficult truths.” What follows, however, is so shockingly ignorant of Haitian history and culture and so saturated with the language and ideology of cultural imperialism that no valuable “truths” remain. Please allow us, therefore, to present you with some more accurate truths.

First, Haiti is not a clear-cut case of the failure of international aid to achieve poverty reduction. For almost its entire existence, Haiti has been shouldered with a load of immense international debt. The Haitian people had the audacity to break their chains and declare independence in 1804, but were later forced by France to repurchase their freedom for 150 million francs, a burden that the country has had to carry throughout the 20th century.

What’s more, the “aid” Haiti has received from its powerful neighbor to the North has never been the sort that would help the country reduce poverty or achieve meaningful development. In the early 20th century, the principle aid Haiti received from the United States came in the form of a brutal military occupation that lasted from 1915 to 1934. After “Papa Doc” Duvalier ascended to power, “aid” meant assistance to a ruthless (but conveniently anti-communist) dictator. The US gave Duvalier $40.4 million in his first four years in power, briefly suspended military and economic assistance to the dictator in 1963, but resumed shortly thereafter, restoring full military and economic aid to Duvalier by 1969. In the early 1970s and 1980s, when “Baby Doc” Duvalier was at the helm, the “aid” the United States and other international agencies contributed failed to reduce poverty, but did enrich foreign investors in the newly constructed assembly industry. Economic policies that the US forced upon Haiti decimated its agriculture for the benefit of American farming while driving Haiti’s peasants into Port-au-Prince and other cities where they found few jobs and scarce housing. Four years after Baby Doc’s departure, the Haitian people decided to help themselves by democratically electing a new leader, but the United States aided Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s domestic opponents in the coup of 1991 and did so again in 2004. It is no wonder then that that such aid from the United States has failed to lift Haiti out of poverty.

Equally unconvincing is your argument about “progress-resistant cultural influences,” which brings us to important truth number two: Haitian culture is not “progress-resistant” as anyone familiar with the examples you yourself provide can attest to. If Vodou or “the voodoo religion” as you put it, “spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile,” how do the majority of Haitians manage to survive on scant resources and less than two dollars a day? How do so many Haitians manage to travel abroad, find and maintain difficult jobs and send money back home if not through careful planning and a fierce defense of precious life? How do the nationwide customers of Fonkoze, the Haitian banking operation that teaches literacy and business practices to curbside marketers to whom it makes small loans, achieve such strong records of loan repayment? In fact, it might be Haitian culture itself (and even Vodou) which allows Haitians to persist. After all, the Vodou spirit Ogou (St. Jacques) is honored as a clever planner and master of skills. So was the champion of Haiti’s war of independence, Gen. Toussaint L’Ouverture, a onetime slave who entered history as a military and diplomatic genius.

The third important truth we have to offer (and we hope President Obama is listening as well) is the opposite of your call for “intrusive paternalism” as the solution to Haiti’s woes: Haiti does not need nor does it want the paternalism of the United States. Haiti is literally dying of cultural imperialism.

Whenever America’s leaders and pundits speak of subordinate peoples, the ideology of imperialism shines through. As it does in your words, Mr. Brooks, so it has done for far too many earlier Americans. President William McKinley, for example, facing the difficult question of how he was to govern the newly-conquered Filipinos worried that:

left “to themselves they are unfit for self-government-and they would soon have anarchy and misrule … [So] there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them.”

Closer to home, those who worried about an earlier form of “progress-resistant cultural influences” decided it was better to remove the children of Native-American families than to let them absorb the backwardness of their pagan and uncivilized parents and community. A common refrain by these “reformers” was, “kill the Indian, save the man.” And now, Mr. Brooks, you propose to save the Haitians from themselves by replacing Haitian cultural values and institutions with “middle-class assumptions, an achievement ethos and tough, measurable demands.” Imperialism, whether economic or military, is the primary reason for the conditions that so worsened the impact of the earthquake on January 12. Haitians need less imperialism, not more.

During the Vietnam War, an American officer famously stated that “it became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.” Today, Haiti is virtually destroyed. The earthquake having done the hard part, Mr. Brooks, you think “intrusive paternalism” will save it. Lacking a foundational understanding of Haitian history and culture, and bearing the familiar colors of American imperialism, you and your ilk will do vastly more harm than good.

Tom F. Driver
Paul Tillich professor emeritus of theology and culture, Union Theological Seminary

Carl Lindskoog
doctoral candidate, Department of History, The Graduate Center, City University of New York

In solidarity (affiliation for identification only):

1. Jeff Abbott, Seattle, Washington
2. Amy Ace Lance, Woodbury, Minnesota
3. Nadine Adrien, student, Azusa Community Church, Simmons College, Harvard University
4. Margaret Alt, Buffalo, New York
5. Wayne Alt, Buffalo, New York, Latin American Solidarity Comm., Western New York Peace Center
6. Melissa Anderson, Hillsboro, Oregon
7. Guy S. Antoine, web director, Windows on Haiti
8. Karen Ashmore, executive director, Lambi Fund of Haiti
9. Ramona Atanacio, attorney, San Francisco, California
10. Renee Barron, student, Roseville, Minnesota
11. Phil Ballman, co-president, Mondo Mundo Agency
12. Sarah Barnes
13. Leslie Bauman, law student, Northeastern University, School of Law
14. Nancy Bennett, librarian, Santa Fe, New Mexico
15. Matthew Blaisdell, student, Pace Law School Center for Environmental Legal Studies
16. Ben Blevins, Highland Support Project, Richmond, Virginia
17. Brennan Bollman, medical student, Harvard Medical School; U Notre Dame Haiti Program
18. Blase Bonpane, Ph.D., director, Office of the America
19. Blaine Bookey, staff attorney, Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti
20. James Bowdren, restaurant manager/student, Drexel University
21. Eloise Brière, professor, The University of Albany – SUNY
22. Jean-Francois Briere, professor of French studies; chair, Department of Languages, Literatures & Cultures; University at Albany – SUNY
23. Nadene Brunk, Midwives for Haiti, Richmond, Virginia
24. Laura Carlsen, director, CIP Americas Program, Mexico City
25. Hannah Carr, student
26. Peg Case, director, TRAC – Disaster Recovery-LA
27. Manolia Charlotin, co-founder, Haiti 2015; Operations, Neighbors For Neighbors
28. Morgan Chessia, medical student, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts
29. Noam Chomsky, institute professor (retired), Massachusetts Institute of Technology
30. Kay Coll, director, Sisters of St. Joseph ESL
31. Brian Concannon, director, Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti
32. Kate Concannon Pimentel
33. Linda Condon, law student, Winchester, Connecticut
34. Wit Davis, student, Tufts University, School of Medicine
35. Colin Dayan, professor, Vanderbilt University
36. Deborah Dimmett
37. Alison Dingley, episcopal priest, Klamath Falls, Oregon
38. Adriana Dingman, Department of Anthropology, University of Texas, Austin
39. Robert Dorsch, retiree, Sanbornton, New Hampshire
40. Joan W. Drake, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom
41. Connie Drapeau Kennedy, photographer and librarian, The Welcome Gallery
42. Myles Duffy, Brooklyn, New York
43. Jack Dunn, Activist, Omaha, Nebraska
44. Troy Elder, assistant clinical professor, Florida International University, School of Law
45. Joe Emersberger, Windsor, Ontario, Canada
46. Anthony Fenton, Pitt Meadows, BC, researcher/journalist,
47. Leslie Fleming, Professor of Anthropology, Merritt College
48. Simeon Floyd, Ph.D. student, University of Texas, Austin
49. Mary B. Fort, Executive Administrator, Joseph, Oregon
50. James Fortune
51. Dana Frank, professor of history, University of California Santa Cruz
52. Elisabeth Frost, MD, radiologist, assistant professor, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts
53. Allison Garren, JD/MPH student, Northeastern University School of Law, Tufts University School of Medicine
54. Steven Goldberg, attorney, National Lawyers Guild
55. Jennifer Gordon, rehabilitation therapist, Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute, UCSF
56. Silvia Gosnell, JD, PhD, clinical psychologist, clinical instructor, Harvard Medical School, Cambridge Hospital
57. Jimmy Granthier, student, Brooklyn, New York
58. Phalan Granthier, venture capitalist
59. Mike Gullion, student/activist, Boston, Massachusetts
60. Fritz Gutwein, co-director, The Quixote Center
61. Nadezhda Habinek, attorney, Los Angeles, California
62. Steven Hall, graduate student, Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, University of California Berkeley
63. Marika Handakas, Psy.D., M.Div. Union Theological Seminary; faculty, Department of Psychology, Bloomsburg University
64. Akili Jamal Haynes, MIT, New England Conservatory, Boston Conservatory
65. Art Heitzer, attorney and chair, National Lawyers Guild’s Cuba Subcommittee
66. Peter Henry, teacher, South Lake High School, Seattle, Washington
67. Francis Herrmann, S.J., associate professor of law, Boston College Law School
68. Robert Hirsch, attorney, Berkeley, California
69. Peter Hudson, assistant professor, Vanderbilt University
70. Todd Jailer, Peoples Health Movement, Berkeley, California
71. Ollie Jefferson, attorney at law, Arlington, Texas
72. Celeste Johansson, attorney, San Leandro, California
73. Ema Kabrovas
74. Kaitlin Kalna Darwal, attorney, Washington, DC
75. Kristin Kaul, organizer, Sustainable Michigan
76. Stephen Vincent Kobasa, New Haven, Connecticut
77. Deborah Kopacz
78. Joel R. Kupferman, attorney, National Lawyers Guild
79. Teddy Ky-Nam Miller, attorney, National Community Reinvestment Coalition
80. Peter Lackowski, Burlington, Vermont
81. Johanna Lake, former employee, Partners in Health
82. Tom Lance, Woodbury, Minnesota
83. Rachel Lang, student, New York University
84. Marilyn Langlois, Mayor’s Aide, City of Richmond, California
85. Erin Le
86. Christine Lee, JD/reporter, Westwood One/Boston
87. Curtis Lehmkuhl, photojournalist, Chicago, Illinois
88. Jordan Levy, MA student in anthropology, University of Western Ontario
89. Susan Liebold, chief operating officer, SAE & Associates
90. Sarah Loper Sengupta, psychotherapist 91. Tom Luce, advocate for human rights, Berkeley, California
92. Julie Marti
93. Egla Martinez, Carleton University, Canada
94. David Mason, attorney, DLA Piper LLP (US)
95. Cherina Mastrantones, arts educator, New York, New York
96. Tom May, professor, Clemson University
97. Bridget Melien, coordinator, Mountains of Hope for Haiti
98. Sarah Mi Ra Dougherty, JD/MPH candidate, Northeastern University School of Law, Tufts University School of Medicine
99. Tom Miller, general counsel, Global Exchange
100. Robyn Mizelle, Utsunomiya, Japan
101. Mojustice, Thomas Merton Center for Peace & Justice, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
102. Jennifer Moore, professor of law, University of New Mexico School of Law
103. Karen Musalo, clinical professor, University of California, Hastings College of the Law
104. Liane Nelson, clinical psychologist
105. Linnea Nelson, student, New York University School of Law
106. Phil Nerestan, concerned citizen
107. Ken Neubeck, emeritus professor of sociology, University of Connecticut
108. Annette Newman, JD/MBA, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida
109. Lili Nguyen, JD, LLM, San Francisco, California
110. Ivan Olsen, artist, activist, San Francisco Bay Area
111. Veerle Opgenhaffen, senior program director, Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, New York University
112. Ted Oswald, law student, Drexel University, Earle Mack School of Law
113. Zoe Overbeck, student, University of California, Hastings College of the Law
114. Emilie Parry, Sustainable Development/DRR/humanitarian response consultant
115. Purvi Patel, graduate 2010, JD/MPH, Chicago, Illinois
116. Elisabeth Pellegrin, attorney, San Francisco, California
117. D’Ann Penner, scholar in residence, Tulane University
118. John Perry, Leicester-Masaya Link Group
119. Meg Petersen, professor of English 120. Hervay Petion
121. Paul Philippe Anglade
122. Nicole Phillips, attorney, Weinberg, Roger & Rosenfeld, Alameda, California
123. Catherine Podojil, writer
124. Anandi Premlall, project manager, New York, New York
125. Vivian Quiles, Rio Grande, Puerto Rico 126. Catherine Quistgard, retired paralegal, San Francisco, California
127. Joan F. Rae
128. Laura Raymond, Education & Outreach, Center for Constitutional Rights
129. Nancy Reimer, attorney 130. Augustine Rho, Jackson Heights, New York
131. Michael Ricciardelli, legal media officer, Seton Hall University School of Law
132. Neil Rivas, photographer, Los Angeles, California
133. Linda Robinson, retired librarian, Senegal
134. Ivette Romero-Cesareo, Marist College, Poughkeepsie, New York
135. Margaret Rosenthal, kindergarten worker
136. Kathleen Ruff, founder, RightOnCanada
137. Grahame Russell, co-director, Rights Action
138. Cinthya Saavedra, assistant professor, USU, Logan
139. Margaret Satterthwaite, associate professor, New York University School of Law
140. Camilla Schneider, retired educator, MITF, San Francisco, California
141. Keith Schneider, stone sculptor
142. Jennifer Schongalla, teacher, Sant Bani School
143. Todd Schongalla, teacher, Sant Bani School
144. Mark Schuller, assistant professor, African American Studies and Anthropology, Department of Social Sciences, York College, City University of New York
145. Susan Severin, health educator, Task Force on the Americas
146. Okhee Shim, attorney, National Lawyers Guild
147. Judy Somberg, attorney, National Lawyers Guild
148. Maria Elizabeth Soriano DPA, director, XU Governance and Leadership Institute, Philippines
149. Gerhard Spari, Vienna, Austria
150. Mahalia Stines, New York, New York
151. Talia Stoessel, law student, Northeastern University, School of Law
152. Caitlin Szymanski, activist, Berkeley, California
153. Ben Terrall, freelance writer, San Francisco, California
154. Ariel Test, staff attorney, Orleans Public Defenders Office
155. Bridget Thayer Melien
156. Bret Thiele
157. Adrainne Thomas, teacher, Hawaii Department of Education
158. Kerline Tofuri, program director, Jou Nouvo
159. Cynthia Tschampl, Ph.D. student, Brandeis University
160. Anamaria Turlea
161. Karen Ulmer Dorsch, teacher, Sant Bani School
162. Gina Ulysse, professor, Wesleyan University
163. Akinyele Umoja
164. Anne Victory, RN
165. David Watson, La Guardia Community College
166. Marlys Weber, retired 167. Forrest Wells, student, The University of Oregon Clark Honors College
168. Melissa Wender, Boston, Massachusetts
169. Stephen Wensman, planner 170. Charlotte Wiener
171. Lois Wilcken, executive director, La Troupe Makandal
172. Martha Willi, MD, physician, Haiti Mission Connection, Inc
173. Elliot Williams, Madison, Wisconsin, employee Dane County
174. George Williamson, Baptist Peace Fellowship
175. Joe Wilson, president, Qwaves Productions, Former Program Officer for Human Rights, Public Welfare Foundation
176. Jackson Wong, student, University of Oregon
177. Jennifer R. Wyatt, attorney, Office of Jennifer Wyatt
178. Jackie Zahn, Department of History, University of Texas, Austin
179. Charles Zrike, teacher, Boston, Massachusetts

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