Here, in Léogâne, halfway between Port-au-Prince and the epicenter of the 2010 earthquake that unleashed Haiti’s latest round of devastation, death and hardship, Doug Taylor is building houses.
An Indiana native in his 25th year of working for Habitat for Humanity, Taylor is tanned, serious and unshaven, with sandy straight hair that hangs as though it has been weighted down with stones. On a sunny day in December 2011, Taylor greets a visitor before 155 brand-new homes, all arranged in orderly rows, all built to a uniform size and shape, and all painted bright colors of pink, blue or green – a Haitian Levittown.
By the end of 2012, Taylor and his colleagues – a mixture of fellow Habitat employees, local builders, and members of the families that will eventually be moving in – will have built 500 houses on a patch of land which, like much of the surrounding area, forms a flat basin ringed by rugged mountains.
Surveying the site, including one house bearing former president Jimmy Carter’s signature – just a month earlier, he and his wife Rosalynn were part of a volunteer force that erected more than 100 homes in a week – Taylor feels both satisfied and uncertain. “This project is unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of,” he explains. “Most of our work involves building single homes for families that are professionally employed – a way of anchoring those professions and communities. Here we’re building for families that live on less than 50 cents a day. And 500 homes is a small town. There are a lot of grand visions – a health clinic, a couple of schools, and supposedly Nike is committed to doing a recreational field. We’ve got parks space, green space, but at this point those are just suggestions from the community’s input. We don’t yet have the partners to do all of that. And anyway, the biggest problems in a project like this are the ones we don’t usually have to face – how will this community make decisions? How will safety be secured? Where will the jobs and the food and the transportation come from – and what will unite these families in common cause?”
As he speaks, a stout dark-skinned woman named Mari approaches from behind and envelops Taylor in a surprise hug. He turns to greet her, and she smiles widely from underneath the brim of her large black bonnet. “THIS is my house,” she says, before asking that a visitor take her photograph. She poses for the camera, leaning against the broom she was using to clean sawdust off her small porch.
“Mari is the president of the local organization representing the families,” Taylor says. “She’s the one making sure all decisions unfold in a participatory style. It’s really inspiring – and the level of experience most Haitians have with making decisions democratically is a story most people simply aren’t aware of. At the same time, there are so many different pieces of building a healthy community that need to be thought through, and that all influence each other.
“Five years from now,” he confessed over the din of hammers and saws, “we’re going to visit this site and feel one of two things: it’s either going to be our greatest success, or our biggest failure.”
* * *
Even before the earthquake that struck on January 12, 2010, killing tens of thousands and leaving millions homeless, Haiti was one of the poorest, least functional states in the world. Its unemployment rate tops 70%. The average income is between $600-$700 a year. The judicial system is corrupt and inefficient; as many as 80% of the country’s prisoners have never been formally charged with a crime. And for the bulk of its history, Haiti’s national leaders have been autocratic, self-serving, and, in time, both violent and violently overthrown.
The nature of Haiti’s challenges is apparent to any first-time traveler to the country. On the plane out of Miami are a mixture of aid workers, missionaries, and returning nationals. Even the plane itself is in need of modernization; there are still ashtrays in the armrests, and as it lands, a giant piece of the overhead compartment comes off and crashes in the aisle, exposing someone’s happenstance effort to re-affix it prior to departure with glue and tape.
Outside the airport, which has all been rebuilt since the earthquake, the extent of the devastation becomes clear. Just beyond the windows lining the long immigration corridor leading to customs are the remnants of the former airport – now condemned, its sides marked in red spray paint for “demolio”, a faded Air France sign peeking out from behind a heaping pile of rubble, 10 million cubic meters of which were left in the quake’s aftermath, and only half of which have been removed.
At the bottom of an escalator near the final stage of customs, a band plays festive Kompa music. The musicians wear red Digicel t-shirts (“Roam with the bigger, better network”), and point to a CD they’d like visitors to buy. Amidst the clamor, no one notices the accident that follows an abrupt stop of one of the escalators. An elderly white couple is sent tumbling. A Haitian woman yells for the people in front to pay attention – but the music is too loud.
The shuttle weaves through piles of wreckage that have yet to be cleared, past corrugated tin-roofed storage shelters on the right and patchy grass on the left where a single helicopter and a rusting airplane are parked, and past a long queue of passengers waiting to board a battered plane marked World Atlantic Air.
Inside the customs tent are scores of ceiling fans, spinning slowly as all arrivals are gradually herded into lines. Signs on the wall in Creole trump the importance of clean drinking water, and of breastfeeding.
Just outside the terminal, a swarm of frantic faces fill up the arrival space to jockey for position, pleas for bread replaced by a request to carry someone’s bags. Piles of cinderblocks make unintentional obstacle courses on the airport exit road. Shells of the former airport line the right side of the road, and everywhere the earth is a petrified sea of stone, rubble and concrete.
At one point, the car’s driver stops to get some water and snacks. The convenience store’s shelves are thinly stocked, its fryer long empty. The bottled water and snack bar are both locally made – a sign of real progress. Just outside, a dusty pregnant woman sits expressionless on the ground, her legs apart. A cardboard box sits between them, on top of which is a stack of Ramen noodle packages for sale. Waves of uniformed schoolchildren pass by the woman, neither taking notice of the other. As the driver heads back to the tinted-window SUV, he passes a young boy begging for money, wiping car windows with a dirty cloth. The doors close and the car speeds off.
* * *
It was also here, in Haiti, that the only successful slave rebellion in history occurred, leading to the birth of a newly independent nation that promised a full embodiment of the Enlightenment vision of a more just, equitable society. In this way Haiti’s story is not just its own, but also a story at the epicenter of all of Western civilization, still struggling to understand what it means to be free.
First, though, before there was ever a free nation of Haiti, there was the island of Hispaniola, a place that served as ground zero for European colonialism in the Americas. And fittingly, that era began with the arrival of Christopher Columbus, who, in 1492, left behind a small group of Spanish sailors and renamed the island La Española – the local Taino Indians had called it Ayiti, or land of mountains. Within twenty years, the island had become a highly lucrative source of sugarcane – and the indigenous population had been almost entirely wiped out by conquest, servitude and disease. By the mid-sixteenth century, any remnants of Taino culture had been permanently extinguished.
The Spaniards were soon distracted by bigger riches – the Aztec and Inca empires awaited – but in their stead other European powers laid their claims, and in 1697, the western portion of the island was officially ceded to France. Soon, the newly crowned colony of Saint-Domingue became France’s most profitable outpost – yielding sugarcane in the basins, and coffee in the mountains. Before long, it became the centerpiece of the Atlantic slave system, and before its slaves won their independence, Saint-Domingue received as many as one million of them from Africa – accounting for as much as 10% of the entire Atlantic slave trade.
As the eighteenth century neared its conclusion, revolution was in the air – from France to the nearby American colonies – and the spirit proved contagious. “People here are drunk with liberty,” wrote a deputy in Saint-Domingue at the time. “The peril is great; it is near.” Initially, that spirit of liberty was limited to free people of color on the island, but before long both free and enslaved inhabitants were referencing the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and its notion that “men are born and remain equal in rights.”
In August 1791, a series of nighttime meetings of slaves took place in the northern region of the colony. By month’s end, a makeshift army of 2,000 slaves traveled from plantation to plantation, killing the owners, burning the houses and cane fields, and spreading the promise of freedom. A few weeks after the uprising, an insurgent was captured by white soldiers. In his pocket was a pamphlet from France, filled with utopian visions of a more egalitarian future.
Two years later, France shocked the world by granting the slaves of their most profitable colony their freedom – and a charismatic ex-slave turned military leader named Touissant Louverture assumed the task of protecting, and defining, what this newly won liberty would look like.
It was a long, slow birth. Louverture felt the only way a new nation of former slaves could survive in the eighteenth-century global economy was by maintaining the plantation hierarchy that had proved so lucrative for France. He imposed martial order, demanding that people “blindly obey the laws.” And he kept a close watch abroad, where the egalitarian fervor of the French Revolution was subsiding, where exiled plantation owners were lobbying their government for a return to the previous order, and where an ambitious general named Napoleon eventually set his sights on recapturing his country’s Caribbean outpost.
Louverture’s response, in 1801, was to draft Haiti’s first Constitution, and decree both that Saint-Domingue was still a “part of the French empire,” and that it must also be governed by a set of “particular laws” – chief among them that “servitude is permanently abolished.”
Napoleon responded by sending fifty warships and 80,000 French soldiers. Over the next three years, the ex-slaves and their former masters fought a gruesome, vengeful war. Eventually, however, the will of the insurgents, coupled with the devastating effects of disease on the French soldiers, led France to formally surrender.
On January 1, 1804, the free nation of Haiti celebrated its formal birth by vowing to negate not just the era of French colonialism, but also the entire legacy of European aggression in the Americas. Louverture was not present for the celebration – he had died a year earlier in captivity – but his final words reflected the spirit of the new nation he had fought to secure. “In overthrowing me, you have cut down in Saint-Domingue only the trunk of the tree of liberty of the blacks,” he vowed. “It will grow back from the roots, because they are deep and numerous.” A Frenchwoman present during the years of war agreed. “We kill many of them,” she wrote to a family member back in France, “and they seem to reproduce themselves out of their ashes.”
* * *
On the aging French veranda of the Hotel Oloffson, a place where, as the British author Graham Greene once wrote, “you expected a witch to open the door to you or a maniac butler, with a bat dangling from the chandelier behind him,” Benaja Antoine wants to talk about public education in Haiti.
Antoine is fresh from the ferry that shuttles people between Port-au-Prince and La Gonâve, the island on which he grew up. A young father of twin girls, Antoine is working with members of the local community who are creating collaborative social businesses, the profits from which will fund their schools. “For many, this is the first time they’re going to try something like this,” he explained in a soft, confident voice. “People feel a lot of hesitation, so we’re going to work on that and do what we can to get them in a position where they feel more confident.”
To build this confidence, Antoine is working with the Grameen Creative Lab (GCL), an organization that was founded just a year before the earthquake. GCL is led in Haiti by Claudine Francois. “The difference between rich and poor here is not wealth but opportunity,” she suggested one day in Grameen’s conference room, a Spartan setup with a long rectangular table and chairs, a water cooler in the corner, and a single framed oil painting of pumpkins on the wall — each Independence Day, Haitians serve themselves pumpkin soup, a local delicacy they were formerly required to serve their French masters. “The poor are the world’s greatest entrepreneurs, but it’s a type of entrepreneurship that’s more concerned with survival than innovation. We need to change that by giving them resources, showing them how to leverage those resources, and getting out of the way. People talk a lot in this country of the old proverb, ‘Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day; teach a man to fish, and he’ll never be hungry.’ I’m sick of that saying here in Haiti. We have thousands of fish, and it’s still not enough. Now what?”
Francois returned to her native country from work in Africa because she believed GCL was committed to answering that question – and that the answer was social business. “We’ve all been taught to believe that any sort of economic growth will eventually trickle down to benefit the poor as well. We believe in economic growth, and we want to make it work for everyone by creating a different business model that is not just about private interest but also collective benefit. This type of social business is not supposed to replace traditional business, merely to coexist with it – and to expand our idea of what it can mean to ‘do business’.”
Francois knows of what she speaks. Tall, strong, and sharply dressed in a pink blouse and gold jewelry, Francois’s career began in the private sector, and her experiences are what led her back not just to development, but to a deeper understanding of what people need to become more effective. “When I was younger, I think I made the mistake of letting arrogance dictate my behavior; I was convinced I had all the answers, and so I didn’t listen well to what other people were saying. Our work at GCL and in communities like La Gonâve is the opposite – and what I’ve learned is that when you start a relationship by asking questions and listening – not fixing problems and talking – your business efforts improve. But this is not how things are generally done in Haiti. This country is a catalog of unfinished projects and failures. We need to start working together in a different way, and we need our main decision-makers to do the same.”
Antoine agrees. Like many Haitians, his own education was limited to high school – 90% of Haiti’s schools are privately run, a reflection of the country’s almost complete lack of infrastructure – but in the years since he’s developed a deep understanding of democratic decision-making practices, as well as strategies for how to help people experience them. Today, he works for Haiti Partners, a faith-based organization that helps schools and non-profits use democratic processes to create healthier learning environments. A former teacher himself, Antoine had spent several years working at a “really progressive school” on La Gonâve. “Every single decision at that school needed to have the approval of the staff,” he recalls proudly. “And so everyone had a voice to say what they think. I was happy, but four years ago that started to change, and our leaders started to make more decisions by themselves. That cut our feelings, and I left. Now I get to work with lots of teachers, and help them get things right. But there’s a lot of work to do, because there’s still a lot of corporal punishment in the system here, and a lot of memorization. If you don’t memorize something, you get beat.”
It’s fitting that Antoine would describe his challenges at the Hotel Oloffson, which has been at the center of so much of Haiti’s modern history, and which reflects the country’s particular mixture of local and foreign cultural influences. The main courtyard is filled with voodoo sculptures in which pieces of wood, metal and glass are mixed with personal items like eyeglasses and clothing to form a bizarre cadre of creatures, babies and monsters. The paint is slightly chipped on the walls and ceiling, and the floors provide a colorful checkerboard under the mixture of foreigners and well-to-do Haitians there for a leisurely midweek lunch.
The hotel was constructed in the late 19th century as a private home for a wealthy Haitian family. The father of that family, Tiresias Sam, was president from 1896 to 1902 – a time when U.S. economic and military interests in Haiti were intensifying. In 1915, Sam’s son followed in his footsteps, but it was a period of massive unrest, and after just five months on the job, the son was literally torn apart by an angry mob.
Haiti’s period of instability provided space for America’s period of opportunity, and on July 28, 1915, the USS Washington delivered the first U.S. Marines into the harbor of Port-au-Prince. The American soliders would stay for another twenty years, ostensibly to ensure order and usher in a more democratic era, but in reality the main objective was to make Haiti safe for corporate investment, and to establish it as a strategic military outpost.
For the duration of the occupation, the Oloffson was used as a U.S. military hospital, and Haitians were left to confront the realization of their biggest fear – that a foreign power would return and deny them their hard-fought prize of self-determination. As one Haitian politician put it at the time, “The white soldiers had come to defile our independence: where were the ancestors? Finally the ancestors were no more.”
In truth, Haiti was an easy target. Deeply saddled by an indemnity it agreed to pay France as recompense for the lost profits of exiled plantation owners, Haiti was paying as much as 80% of its total budget to its former colonial masters by the time the Americans arrived. For all of the nineteenth century, Haiti struggled through an ever-weakening cycle of civil wars and forceful usurpations of power. And within a few years of the U.S. occupation, young Haitian men found themselves back in shackles, working forcibly on the construction of new roads, enduring the scorn of racist American soldiers, and watching Haiti’s founding laws get revised to make the country more hospitable for foreign investment.
In the end, however, a trend that began during the days of Louverture proved equally resilient throughout the American occupation: a locally governed counter-plantation economy in which Haitians farmed small plots of land, pooled resources and responsibilities, and weathered the inefficiencies of the central state. As historian Laurent Dubois writes, this system of local governance “developed largely in the absence of – indeed, in opposition to – the Haitian government. Unable to transform the national political system, rural residents found another solution: they created an egalitarian system without a state.”
Today, more than seventy years after the last American soldiers left in 1935, Benaja Antoine’s work at Haiti Partners continues to build on this legacy of local decision-making. His organization’s newest project is a new school that will open in September 2012. “We want it to be a motor of development for the whole community,” he said. “The idea is to have the school serve as a residency for training, and a learning hub for other schools. I believe education is the absolute key – it’s the only way to change things over the long-term. And there’s great creative potential here – but it needs to start doing something other than figuring out how to survive. Most teachers here still don’t have any real formal training – many never finished high school themselves – and half our young people aren’t even attending school. So how do you take an underfunded system and end up having enough schools to meet the needs of the people?”
After lunch, Antoine hops into a car to visit the school’s construction site, a mile up the hill from the home of Haiti Partners’ co-founder, an American expat named John Engle. The road leads slowly out of the city, past a giant intersection piled high with discarded wicker furniture, past gas stations and women with baskets on their heads filled with bananas, carrots and avocadoes, and past half-built cinderblock structures and piles of rubble alongside new buildings under construction. Rebar wires shoot up and out of the cinderblocks – a sign of what’s to come, like frozen fountains.
Gradually the car makes its way out of the central city and up into the hills, past tent cities and an iron bridge stretching across a barren river of trash and debris. “The UN presence here is still very controversial,” Antoine explained. “There are many people who feel that it feeds the previous dysfunctional system, and keeps Haiti stuck in the past. So many people are so desperate here. In the end, is the UN helping us address those issues and become more independent – or is it keeping us stuck in the wrong worldview?”
Along the way Antoine stops briefly at the Big Star Market, one of Haiti’s more upscale grocery stores. Inside, well-dressed women complete their daily grocery shopping amidst well-stacked shelves, cool air-conditioning and quiet. A man outside guards the parking lot with a shotgun slung over his shoulder. Antoine pushes a cart of beer and soda to the checkout aisle, past holiday displays of Ferrero Rocher chocolate, copies of L’Express magazine, and large bags of Pedigree dog food.
The last half-mile of the drive is extremely rough, like climbing a mountain of stones. As the car nears the top, the landscape of white and pink gravel – all generated by hand-swung pickaxes that made the roadway real – gives way to a denser tropical feel; tree roots stick out from the starkly-cut sides of the roadway, and lemon trees mix with large ferns. The temperature drops as well.
The car pulls past a large red gate and John hops into the car for the final drive to the school, where workmen are digging a trench around its main building. It’s a beautiful patch of land, overlooking all of downtown Port-au-Prince and the bay, and pointed west, toward Léogâne, and toward the quake’s epicenter.
John Engle first moved to Haiti in 1991, after making a two-year commitment to join the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education. He is clean-shaven with thin eyeglasses and a black Casio watch. Always neatly dressed, on the day of Antoine’s visit he wears blue jeans, sneakers, and a white short-sleeved shirt covered with hand-sewn patterns of local farmers. “I first heard the organization’s founder, Tony Campolo, speak when I was 19, and I immediately liked his philosophy,” John said. “It was a vision of evangelicalism that was about empowerment, that was about collaborative inquiry, and that was highly culturally sensitive. I grew up working for my dad, selling electric typewriters and other forms of office equipment. I had gotten married at 20 – and divorced at 25. So as I look back, I think what happened is that I quickly had a comfortable life, but it was hollow. Those years before I moved to Haiti and got divorced, I was increasingly ready to do something radically different.”
The end of Engle’s prior professional and personal life coincided. “I left my dad’s company to try my own entrepreneurial venture – importing low-tech products in Taiwan. I was struggling to get the business off the ground, I was mired in debt – and then I found out my wife was having another affair.”
Within months, Engle was living alone. He worked briefly as a district sales manager for Panasonic to pay off his debts. Two years later, debts paid, he boarded a plane to Haiti. That was 1991.
Engle remembers the day of the 2010 earthquake well. “We were packing to leave the country, and we had just added the second floor of our house, all of which was done in the traditional way – with lots of concrete. The first tremor lasted for 40 seconds, and I remember thinking I didn’t realize a concrete house could shake that badly.
When the first tremor stopped, John and his family were fine; the house had stood. They wondered how bad the devastation had been elsewhere. Then they looked down from their veranda, toward the city below. “All we could see was dust rising out of the valley. Then, wave upon wave of people rose out, too, covered in dust and blood, and we realized this was a nation-changing event.”
* * *
The next day, in a different part of the city, on the campus of the L’ecole Supérieure Infotronique D’Haiti – or ESIH – John Engle and Benaja Antoine join an eclectic mix of Haitians and foreigners for OpenHaiti, a meeting that had been billed as an open-source exploration of “things worth doing.”
Considered one of Haiti’s best universities, ESIH greets its visitors with a giant message hanging on the school’s dreamsicle-colored walls: “Embody the inconceivable is what makes the world change. WE, Haitians, can do it when WE start making hard choices.”
The meeting takes place in a computer lab on the top floor of a building that overlooks both the central Bay of Port-au-Prince and a labyrinth of neighboring shelters and homes that stretch all the way to the nearest mountain. The shelters and school are separated by a single ten-foot wall. On the other side, women hang drying laundry as children arrive home from school to help out.
The room is arranged to house two concentric circles of chairs. A screen is at the front, and a young Finnish man named Jaakko is working feverishly to secure a livestream of the event. Jaakko is a passionate believer in the “power of organizing out in the open, and of organizing without organizations. The open-source paradigm has already revolutionized software programming,” he explains to a new arrival, “yet it does not exist as widely in international development efforts. Why?” As he speaks, one of the event’s organizers, a graduate student in computer science named Alain, works on the final bits of technological troubleshooting as people start to find seats or stand a few more moments just outside the room on the narrow railway overlooking the city below.
One of the early arrivals is Steven Werlin, an American who has lived in Haiti off and on for more than a decade, and who currently serves as the regional manager of an extreme poverty program for an organization called Fonkoze. He has the body of a long-distance runner, and on this day he wears a tan shirt, pants and flip-flops. His eyes are intelligent, focused and calm, and he wears oval-shaped glasses. “The economy here looks entirely different from other places because the largest piece of it is entirely informal. Most of my days are spent seeing stunningly poor families working their way to near-poverty. We help them get to a space where they can manage their own path forward. What I’ve found is that people need assets, first and foremost, they need training in how to use those assets, and they need ongoing coaching as they learn to think of their lives in new, more promising ways.”
Seated nearby is another American, a young woman named Loralei. Until yesterday, Loralei was an employee of one of the many organizations doing relief work in Haiti since the earthquake. The day before was her last day, however; her job is now filled by a young Haitian man. “I think it’s really important when doing development work to be aware of your position,” she says. “My organization has been really careful to build in a process that will make it sustainable.”
A native of Vermont, Loralei has long wavy black hair, a silver nose ring, large cobalt blue eyes, and big silver earrings with a single turquoise stone. She hugs her teeth with her lips when she speaks, and her voice is both husky and soft. You must lean in to hear her, and you want to; intense and thoughtful, in the past eighteen months she has seen things most of us have not.
“I arrived shortly after the earthquake,” she began. “Before I’d been working for the Vermont Medical Response Team, and although I’d lived around the world growing up, I’d never experienced life in a post-emergency zone. There was rubble everywhere, and in the main camp I worked at, there were over 60,000 people, all living on a former golf course.”
Initially, Loralei joined the displaced by erecting her own tent; she lived in it for ten months before getting an apartment nearby. “I realized it was probably a good idea to get out of relief mode and more into development mode,” she explained. As part of her work, Loralei and others focused on camp management, education programs, and successfully relocating people back into their communities. “Some of the education and training work is a challenge because there’s a mindset here that ‘free’ means there is no quality. Being accustomed to scarcity makes people feel things like these training programs – on issues like microcredit and small-business skills – are too good to be true. But now there are just 26,000 people living in that camp, and several of the public squares in Port-au-Prince that had been tent cities since the earthquake are now gone.
“I’ve learned that the best and worst feature of Haiti is that there is no “normal” here,” she continued. “There are so many deep-rooted injustices in Haitian society that it’s going to be a long haul. Now that we’re two years removed from the quake, it’s really interesting to see the new types of investments that are coming here – but at the same time, as money is being released, I keep wondering, ‘What is the model of investment going forward?’ Is it the right model, or merely the one that is available? So this moment in Haitian history is one of great opportunity – and great vulnerability.”
The meeting begins with an official welcome in French from Marlene Sam, ESIH’s director of external relationships, and herself a member of a same prominent family whose misfortunes sparked the start of the U.S. occupation. Engle follows by explaining the basic principles of open space technology, and invites people to propose discussion groups that relate to things worth doing in Haiti. People propose workshops in Creole and French, and volunteers provide real-time translations. Then the groups disperse to dive into issues as varied as addressing agricultural sustainability – Haiti has experienced an almost total level of deforestation – to identifying ways to take advantage of the fact that, despite such high unemployment, over 80% of the Haitian population owns a mobile phone.
After the meeting wraps up, Alain leans against the railway outside the meeting room; it’s now dusk, and the lights of the city are slowly coming on in specks underneath him, while below the railing fellow students mill about in the school’s central courtyard. “I believe this sort of gathering is what we need most in Haiti,” he says. “Everyone needs to come together to build something together – to build a better Haiti. And the first step is getting together.”
* * *
The next morning, Engle and Antoine are back on the hill where their school is being built, preparing to facilitate a community meeting; for all aspects of the school’s construction and development, local residents are directly involved. As Antoine assembles a circle of chairs in the shade of a nearby tree, Engle talks about the challenges – and the opportunities – of modern Haiti.
“There’s some cautious hope about the new government,” he begins, “and about the idea that Haiti may be entering a more stable period of its history. But our present is still in many ways a product of our past, and the types of things people have experienced here don’t get shaken off easily.”
In particular, Engle references the decades-long dictatorship of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son, “Baby Doc” – a reign of terror that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Haitians, that led to as many as a million more fleeing the country, and that didn’t end until 1986. A relative unknown when he first assumed power in 1957, Duvalier quickly proved himself to be an astute scholar of Haitian history – tapping into the historic tensions between lighter- and darker-skinned Haitians, and feeding a cult of personality that eschewed individual freedoms in favor of an all-knowing police state. “As President I have no enemies and can have none,” he announced. “There are only the enemies of the nation. And these the nation must judge.”
Before long, Duvalier had done away with everything from Haiti’s bicameral legislature and methods of dissent to the Lord’s Prayer itself. In its place, Haitians would spend their Sundays paying homage to “Our Doc, who art in the Palais National for life, hallowed be Thy name by present and future generations. Thy will be done, in Port-au-Prince as it is in the provinces. Give us this day our new Haiti and forgive not the trespasses of those antipatriots who daily spit upon our country; lead them into temptation and, poisoned by their own venom, deliver them from no evil.”
In addition to creating a climate of fear, Duvalier assured that Haiti would spend decades with little more than a shell of a national state – almost all taxes and foreign aid went directly into the bank accounts of his fortunate few, once again leaving Haitians to create their own forms of order and agency at the local level.
To an observer like Engle, this is Haiti’s double-edged sword – the destructive legacy of autocratic national rule and corruption, juxtaposed with the generative legacy of democratic local rule and equity. “A constant question here is when and where to push for excellence – no matter what it is – amidst a larger societal context in which people’s whole lives have been about survival for so long. Thanks to the legacy of its dysfunctional central governments, there are a lot of Creole phrases that carry the message, ‘If you try too hard, you’ll just get discouraged.’ To survive and not go crazy, people have become conditioned to take it, and to endure it. And yet it’s also true that since the days of Independence, there is this deep tradition of democratic decision-making at the local level. When do you push for deeper reflection and deeper performance, and when do you make sure you work within what people are most used to so you don’t push too far too fast? I’m still struggling with that.”
* * *
Under the late afternoon sun, twenty community members – old and young, male and female – fill the seats of Antoine’s circle to talk together about what their community’s new school should look like. The sounds of roosters and pigs float up from further down the hill, while construction work continues nearby – a constant reminder of how much remains to be done before opening day arrives.
Like most democratically led conversations, the topics veer in a number of directions, and towards the end of the meeting, it’s unclear what specific next steps have been identified.
Then, during closing comments, an elderly man speaks up for the first time. “I was born here,” he said. “I’ve grown up here. And I never thought I would see anything like this. I give thanks to God for keeping me here long enough to see it.”