The ever slightly oafish Pat Robertson (you remember him: that fine Christian gentleman who just a few years ago defended China’s infanticidal one-child policy, lest he imperil his own lucrative business relations with the PRC by publically criticizing the regime) has opined that the earthquake in Haiti is only the most recent result of a curse that the nation contracted back in the days of Toussaint Louverture, when “they” (that is, apparently, all the Haitians and their posterity) conducted a ceremony in which “they” made a deal with the devil, promising him their allegiance in exchange for liberation from the French. (And here I had been thinking the problem was all those damned zombies.) I suppose, speaking anthropologically, it is interesting to know that, in the damaged imaginations of some Christians, God might really operate in that way: handing over an entire nation of souls, from the kindliest old crone to the smallest babe in arms, to relentless misery, generation after generation, as a result of a magical pact made at the end of the eighteenth century; O quam inscrutabilia sunt iudicia Dei, as the Augustinians of old were fond of saying. Not that I would be so bold as to suggest that our adversary the Devil does not go about as a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour, and so on, but one does expect Christians to take seriously Paul’s claim that all the malign or incompetent cosmic powers have been made subject to Christ, which would seem to imply that Old Scratch simply has no independent discretion in such matters. Failing that, one would hope at least that Christians are on the whole disposed to believe that God is just and merciful and—you know—good.
Setting his Manichean theology aside, however, the Rev. Robertson is a bit confused on the historical details. I imagine that the episode he has in mind is a fabled—which may be precisely the right word—Vodoun ritual of August 1791, in which a large gathering of slaves, under the leadership of a Jamaican houngan named Dutty Boukman, sacrificed a pig to the female loa Ezili Danto and pledged themselves to the overthrow of their masters. It was not a diabolist ritual as far as anyone knows, and it seems unlikely any deals were explicitly struck with the infernal polity. At least, there is no record of Satan being present at the event, either in person or by embassy, and one would think that so prominent a figure would have been noted. But, whatever the case, even though the first slave rebellion is said to have begun the day after the ceremony, it was not ultimately that band of choiroctonous animists that led the actual Haitian revolution. Toussaint Louverture—a cautious man, who took considerable time arriving at his revolutionary principles—was inspired principally by the French Revolution and the new doctrine of the “Rights of Man,” and the forces he led against the French, the British, and the Spaniards were a mixed lot, comprising not a few rationalist idealists.
But even if I find it highly doubtful that the Prince of Darkness can legitimately claim Haiti as his bonded fief, I think it fair to say that, in many other ways, the nation has been bedeviled throughout its history—by colonial masters who relinquished their possessions with only the most brutal reluctance, by all the other colonial and regional powers with interests in the Caribbean (which include, I regret to say, the strategic and corporate interests of the United States), by a succession of corrupt indigenous governments, by profligate abuse of the native ecology, and by one of the most spitefully destructive and unjust foreign debts ever imposed upon a poor people by a wealthy power. It is the last of these that principally concerns me here.
Any good satellite image of the island of Hispaniola is a fairly sobering picture of stark chromatic asymmetry. The eastern side of the island and the low western slopes of the central highland range, which fall within the borders of the Dominican Republic, are still green, arborescent, fertile; the western, Haitian side of the island, by contrast, is hemmed with a few emerald patches, but is otherwise dun and gray. This is not the work of nature; at one time, all of Hispaniola was verdant and fructiferous. And the difference in physical environment between the two nations reflects an equally dramatic difference in political and social fortunes.
The Dominican Republic is by no means a rich country, but it is a fairly stable one, which provides as best it can for its people, and which manages such resources as it has fairly prudently. Haiti, however, has never known a day as an independent nation when it was not sunk in abysmal poverty and beleaguered by enemies foreign and domestic. Why is this? The two peoples share much the same history: They are Catholics, descended from slaves of West African extraction, whose nations’ economies are largely agrarian. They speak different languages, admittedly, but that is not a great barrier between them; culturally, they are in most respects indistinguishable.
There is, however, one enormous feature of Haiti’s postcolonial history that sets it apart from its contiguous neighbor, and that in very large measure predetermined the nation’s economic fortunes from the beginning: that is, its debt to France, acquired in the early nineteenth century, which France—empire, monarchy, and republic alike—was absolutely punctilious in seeing discharged down to the last sou.
It is, of course, an extraordinarily difficult thing for any small nation—or for most large nations, for that matter—to rise out of an indurated culture of poverty. Haiti, I think, was never given a fighting chance. As soon as the small republic had won its independence, in 1804, France began to blockade its ports and embargo its goods, and continued doing so for more than twenty years. It relented at last only in 1825, when Haiti had no choice but to consent to indemnify the French government for France’s lost possessions—plantations, slaves, and so forth—on Hispaniola. The sum agreed upon was 150 gold francs, which in modern terms would be more than 21 billion dollars. This was so far in excess of Haiti’s actual wealth, however, that the small republic had to borrow the money; and the only creditor willing to advance the money was France itself, at an obscene rate of interest. The last payment on the debt was not made until 1947, by which time Haiti had been confirmed in its position in the world as a perpetual debtor state, never able to produce in any year more than a pitiable fraction of what it owes.
There are obviously a host of reasons why Haiti is so very poor. Many nations are at least partially culpable for its sufferings (the story, for instance, of American sugar and fruit interests on the island, and of the 1916 occupation, and of our covert support for the Duvalier dictatorship, and so forth is quite tragic and embarrassing). And the Haitians have been betrayed by their ruling class so often and so monstrously that it is difficult to isolate many historical intervals of just governance. And an earthquake as massive as the one that just struck Haiti would have done immense damage to any nation.
But, in assessing why it is that Haiti remains year after year the poorest nation in an impoverished region of the world, and why its infrastructure is built to no standard safety code whatsoever—let alone one capable of withstanding the effects of an earthquake of 7.0 on the Richter scale—one must conclude that France bears a singularly large portion of the responsibility. Of all of Haiti’s oppressors, France was for most of the nation’s history the most pitiless, the most truly diabolical. And I certainly hope—bearing as I do a great affection towards the French—that France will take this opportunity to restore to Haiti the wealth it exacted from her over the course of 143 years.
It will require some care, obviously, to make sure that such money goes to the people of Haiti and actually does something to improve their lot; and it will be years yet before anything like a habitable order will be raised out of a ruin so general. But, apart from such restitution, it is hard to imagine how France can ever properly exorcise the devils of its past dealings with Haiti.
David B. Hart’s most recent book is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies.