Haitian Education

December 12, 2010

Joegodson and Paul

On Saturday, Joegodson strolled around the streets of Port-au-Prince, listening carefully to how his co-citizens understand the current situation. The Place de l’Aéroport was teeming with people, so he decided to spend his time there.

The Place de l’Aéroport is a reminder of the Aristide moment in Haiti’s recent past. It is one of a number of public spaces built by the Lavalas government to accommodate the penchant of ordinary Haitians to gather together. Before the earthquake, people would congregate in Champs de Mars to debate current issues. Now, since that space has been transformed into a big tent camp, the Place de l’Aéroport has taken over the role. It is similar, but not equivalent, to Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park in London. In Canadian history, you would need to revisit the nineteenth century to witness a similar phenomenon.

Many people congregate in the Place de l’Aéroport to meet with friends, play games, and participate in open-air debates. The only Haitians excluded from the discussions are those who exclude themselves. And so, the bourgeoisie and politicians, who cultivate a sense of superiority over the masses, will not show themselves. Otherwise, it is a cross-section of the remaining ninety-five percent of the population.

Thousands of kilometres to the north of Place de l’Aéroport, the media offers Canadians images of violent protests in Port-au-Prince. Why? It may be because Canadians want to see those images. It may be because the media like to show them. Maybe both. Violence may result in higher ratings. Most importantly, it demonstrates the refusal of the Canadian establishment to allow Haitians to define themselves in the debate concerning their country’s governance. This problematic is not unique to Canada or to Haiti. However, if Canadians want to build a more rational world, they would need to turn off their violent television sets and to listen carefully to the people they claim to support. Place de l’Aéroport could not be captured on film, because part of its charm is the fact that the conversations that take place there are spontaneous and intimate. A camera would obliterate the dynamics that the crowds produce and reproduce. So, this story must be told in print.

As an aside for the Canadian audience: as long as journalists who report on Haiti do not speak Creole or probe Haitian culture, the calm and rational aspects of Haitian society are hidden from them. So, when ‘consumers’ of Canadian media judge that Haitians are a hopelessly violent and ignorant people, they are in fact describing their journalists who are incapable of recognizing the profound native intelligence of that country. Canadians arrive at that conclusion because their media lead them to it. This is one case where it is correct to blame the messenger. At the same time, those ungenerous conclusions need to be propped up on a foundation of racism or chauvinism that the viewer supplies: Haitians are innately violent, ignorant, and incapable of controlling their own country.

Upon surveying the Place, Joegodson was first drawn to a man who was discussing the cholera epidemic. He had attracted a modest but engaged crowd. As he shifted his focus from cholera to the state of the global political economy, one of the listeners gradually took his place as the moderator of the discussion. Then the numbers began to swell well beyond the thirty participants that the initial discussion had attracted.

Each discussion creates a circle around the speaker. As the circle’s perimeter expands, it also draws more tightly to the speaker who is focal point. It is as if the participants were being attracted to the nucleus of the debate. As that dynamic proceeds, the speaker often finds himself, as in the present case, only centimetres apart from the closest participants. 

There are many forms of discussion. Some are debates among all members of the crowd. Others tend towards a speech whereby one person is allowed to develop his or her argument. Sometimes, as in the case of both of the speakers under consideration, certain participants engage the listeners in a Socratic debate, leading them along to a final destination by asking questions that everyone is invited to answer. With each answer, the argument moves to the next logical step towards the conclusion.

How did the second speaker captivate the crowd? What was the result of his intervention?

The first speaker was having difficulty defending a tough thesis. However, in keeping with the accepted etiquette, the crowd allowed him the right to marshal his evidence. They would judge his propos only after hearing him out. (The vitriol and ad hominem attacks that have come to structure North American debate have no place at the Place de l’Aéroport.) He was arguing that the deaths ravaging the country were not a result of the cholera microbe. He suggested that they were the result of a poison that foreigners had implanted in Haiti. This was a difficult proposition for his listeners to accept. They questioned him; he questioned them back. In order for us to appreciate the exchange, it would be better for us to enter it in the spirit of the participants. That requires that, whatever your actual position, you listen and probe. (Again, this may be difficult for people schooled in North American parti pris.)

He put forward a number of observations: the microbe was said to have started in the Artibonite and yet it is everywhere in Haiti, whereas the Artibonite remains confined to the central plateau. His interlocutors explained that the microbe was transported in human feces and urine to other areas. He replied that if contact with human feces was deadly, there should be no Haitians anywhere in the world. There is no sanitation in the entire country – never has been. The companies that profit from collecting human waste have always just dumped it in another neighbourhood. Then, the fecal matter dries, turns to powder, and is airborn. Everywhere! Everyone should have cholera. As he had put some time into this, the circle decided to let him expound upon his thesis.

Since the earthquake, he has been working for a foreign NGO. Even in the early days, the blan (singular form: blan means both ‘white’ and ‘foreigner,’ a word that obviously can’t have the same significance outside of Haiti, even when spoken by native Haitians) told him repeatedly that a deadly disease called cholera could appear and kill Haitians. Everyone must be careful of personal hygiene. The speaker claimed that those blan knew in advance that something was coming. He argued that they knew that there would be deaths because the deaths were intentional. He claimed that the cholera microbe may not be in Haiti at all, but that a poison might be killing Haitians – a poison planted by foreigners. (Here, we remind readers that our purpose is to understanding this man and his worldview. If you refuse to do that at this point, you would be as ineffective as the NGOs have proven themselves to be in Haiti. Why? Because this man’s point of view is as much a part of the reality of Haiti as the cholera bacteria. ‘Science’ that stops short of including the human experience is dangerous and habitually ineffective.)

He said that, up until that point, he had been laying the foundation for his real topic of debate: Haiti’s place in the global order. He said that those who found his proposition far-fetched should consider the meaning of the elections. He said that everything that is happening shows that the United States consistently creates chaos in Haiti in pursuance of its interests. They kill people with guns, he said, to get their way. Why should it surprise anyone that they would do the same thing with poison? His evidence?

The United States has been happy with Préval for the last five years. Unlike Aristide, he has been a pushover, implementing America’s will. Préval is the front man for the United States. But the Americans made a big mistake. They thought that, through the CEP, they had got rid of all the candidates that might conceivably cause trouble by inspiring the Haitian people. Before the elections, Martelly had such a reputation as a vakabon that the Americans took him as inconsequential; few Haitians would ever cast their votes for him. However, when he started to connect with the Haitian poor, the Americans were hoisted with their own petard. Now, in order to keep him out of the presidential palace, they are working with their man, Célestin, to incite violence as their last line of defence against the Haitian people. Killing Haitians to keep them from controlling their country is old hat for the Americans. So, why would anyone doubt the possibility that they might implant poison to create chaos and force their choice upon Haitians?

This largely concluded his argument. A listened took over the reigns of the conversation. In contrast to the first speaker, he did not cloud his lucid argument with theories about the cholera epidemic. He led a Socratic discussion, asking the growing crowd questions that led them to a seemingly inevitable conclusion.

The crowd identified the three powers that have always controlled Haiti: the United States, France, and Canada. Conclusion: Haiti does not belong to Haitians. The Haitian people have always been sold out by whatever government they vote in. The Americans crash the inauguration ceremony and present their own plan that the government is required to implement. Washington forces Haiti to remain an infant. It is not allowed to grow up to be independent of its step-parent.

Both times that Aristide was elected, Washington came, with the support of the United Nations, to tell him how he must govern the country. Aristide refused. Since he would not accept orders, the order was given to remove Aristide. (The pubic space where the discussion was proceeding is a symbol of Aristide’s defiance in the face of American bullying.) Préval, on the other hand, ignominiously submitted to American pressure.

And so, the gentleman described the simple and eternal tension that has, and will, structure all Haitian elections. The United States requires that the president and government govern in its interest. The people insist that the government serve them. When the people get their way, the United States, in cooperation with Canada and France, puts pressure on international and multilateral organizations to force the government out of office. If the United States gets its way, the people do everything that they can to undermine and refuse the legitimacy of the puppet government. That government serves at the displeasure of the people. It garners only contempt from them. Préval is the latest example.

He further led the people to see that the United States is in a bind this time. The crowd established that there were three candidates in contestation: Manigat, Martelly, and Célestin. The United States is not happy with Manigat because she is too close to France and has spoken respectfully of Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. No friend of Chavez can be a friend of Washington. She has shown herself to be an unreliable ally by that sole utterance.

Martelly is far too popular. He has made common cause with the people. How far would he go in representing the people who are voting for him? He’s a wild card. The United States cannot take the chance. A Haitian president representing the people of Haiti is Washington’s greatest nightmare.

Jude Célestin is the only viable option for the United States. He represents continuity with Preval. He can be relied upon to allow the United States to ravage Haiti in exchange for a free hand to profit personally.

Finally, the speaker asked the people, “Who will win the election?”

Everyone came to the same conclusion, having accepted his argumentation, “The United States will win.”

”Then what are we doing?”

Everyone, again, agreed with the reluctant response of one in the crowd, “We are participating in a deadly spectacle with only one outcome allowed.”

The very large crowd then broke up in a pensive mood. People milled around thinking it over. Had the gentleman correctly outlined the situation? If so, are there options that they can’t yet see?


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