I have chosen to go to Haiti to find the caption for this week’s column. Haiti, an island in the Caribbean, is the first black nation to attain independence from European colonizers, having declared her independence from France after a slave revolt in 1805. Haiti is a beautiful country with a beautiful language— Haitian Creole. Haiti also has beautiful music. Haitian liturgical music makes one pray. But Haiti has a chequered history. Once one of the richest colonies in the world, today, Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, probably the poorest black nation in the world. Originally inhabited by the indigenous Taino people of South America, Europeans arrived in Haiti on December 5, 1492, thanks to the first voyage of Christopher Columbus. Haiti has been passing from one foreign power to another, and from one tyrant to another. First claimed by Spain as part of the Spanish Empire until the early 17th century, a portion of the island to the west was ceded to France in 1697. The French established sugarcane plantations into which they brought slaves from Africa.
That was how Haiti became one of the richest colonies in the world. During the French Revolution (1789- 99), the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), led by Toussaint Louverture, a former slave and the first black general of the French army, culminated in the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte’s army. The independence of Haiti was declared by Louverture’s successor, Jean-Jacques Dessalines on January 1, 1804 thus making Haiti the first independent nation of Latin America and the Caribbean. Haiti also bears the distinctions of being the second republic in the America, the first country to abolish slavery, and the only state in history to have been brought to birth by a slave revolt. But Haiti’s history has not always been glorious. Poverty, political instability, brutal repression of political opponents by successive presidents sustained by foreign powers have ensured that the first independent black nation in the post-colonial era remains undeveloped today. In what was thought to be an end to political instability, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier became President of Haiti in 1956.
He was autocratic and corrupt to the core. His infamous militia, the Tonton Macoutes, visited state sponsored violence, untold repression on real and perceived political opponents of Papa Doc. He did not spare his friends. Living in Canada from 1989-91, I had the privilege of interacting with some Haitian students and exiles. A Haitian woman in exile spoke to me about her father. He was one of those who assisted Papa Doc Duvalier to become President. He was also one of the first to be on the receiving end of Duvalier dictatorship. He was said to have been assassinated by Duvalier’s Tonton Macoutes. That led to his family fleeing into exile in Canada. According to this woman, when Duvalier was asked why he was killing those who helped him to become President, he replied: “Gratitude is a quality of cowards.” Before Duvalier died in 1971, he anointed his 18-year-old son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, as successor. With Baby Doc, poverty, corruption and repression of dissenting opinions gathered momentum.
The Tonton Macoutes became more sophisticated in acts of torture and assassination. Things were so bad that when Pope John Paul II visited Haiti in 1983, he publicly rebuked Baby Doc and his collaborators in oppression and corruption. “Fok sa chanje,” famously and publicly declared the prophetic and saintly Pope in Haitian Creole. It was on March 9, 1983, in a memorable homily at the conclusion of a Eucharistic Congress. Using Eucharistic catechesis, Pope John Paul II said to Haitians: “You have chosen as the theme of your Congress: ‘Something must change here’. Well, you find in the Eucharist the inspiration, the strength and the perseverance to engage in this process of change.” “Things really need to change” (Fok sa chanje). In preparing the Congress, the Church had the courage to face the harsh realities of today, and I am sure that the same happens for all men of good will, for all those who deeply love their homeland. Yours is a beautiful country, rich in human resources.
And one can speak among you of an innate and generous religious sentiment, of the vitality and popular character of the Church. But Christians have also had to note the division, injustice, excessive inequality, the degradation of the quality of life, misery, hunger, fear of so many people. They thought of the peasants unable to live off the fruits of their land, of the crowds that flock to the cities without work, of the displaced families, of the victims of various frustrations. And yet they are convinced that there are solutions in solidarity. It is necessary that the ‘poor’ of all kinds resume hope.
The Church maintains a prophetic mission in this field, inseparable from her religious mission, and asks for the freedom to fulfill it, not to accuse and not only to make people aware of evil, but to contribute positively to correcting situations, engaging all consciences and in particular the conscience of those who have a responsibility, in villages, cities or at the national level, to act according to the Gospel and the social doctrine of the Church.
” Pope John Paul II continued by painting the picture of scandalous degradation of quality of life for which Haiti was and is still famous. He said: “Indeed, there is certainly a profound need for justice, for a better distribution of goods, for a more equitable organization of society, with greater participation, a more disinterested conception of service on the part of all those who have responsibilities; there is a legitimate desire, for the mass media and politics, for free expression that respects the opinions of others and the common good; there is a need for freer and easier access to goods and services that cannot remain the prerogative of someone: for example, the possibility of eating enough and being treated, housing, secularization, the victory over illiteracy, honest and dignified work, social security, respect for family responsibilities and fundamental human rights.
In short, everything that causes man and woman, children and the elderly lead a truly human life. It is not a question of dreaming of wealth or a consumer society, but it is a question, for everyone, of a level of life worthy of the human person, of the sons and daughters of God. And all this is not impossible if all the living forces of the country unite in the same effort, also counting on international solidarity which is always desirable. Christians want to be people of hope, love, and responsible action.” Pope John Paul II reminded Haitians that, faced with massive injustice, participation in the Eucharist obliges members of the body of Christ. In his prophetic words, “The fact that you are members of the body of Christ and participate in his Eucharistic banquet commits you to promote these changes. It will be your way of washing each other’s feet, according to the example of Christ.
You will do it without violence, without killing, without infighting, which often leads to nothing but new oppression. You will do it with respect and in the love of freedom.” The saintly Pope acknowledged that there were Haitian Christians already assuming this obligation. “I am delighted,” he said, “with all those who work in this line, who defend the rights of the poor, often with poor means, I would dare to say ‘with bare hands.’” Then he made a passionate appeal: “I appeal to all those who hold power, wealth, culture, to understand their grave and urgent responsibility in front of all brothers and sisters. It is the honour of their office; I also tell them that I trust and for them.” Three years after those prophetic words were spoken by Pope Saint John Paul II, Baby Doc was chased out of power.
He had fallen out of favour with the foreign powers that kept him in power. So it was easy for a popular uprising to depose him and force him into exile. He was succeeded by army officers of greater tyrannical credentials. With them, corruption rose to new heights. Haiti has had one flawed election after another, and one flawed ruler after another. Things have not changed. As a Haitian saying goes: “Dèyè mòn gen mòn.” (Behind a mountain lies a mountain). The saying summarises the history of Haiti. In the ugly procession of tyrants who have ruled Haiti, every tyrant is a mountain followed by a mountain. Haiti is the first black nation to attain independence. Nigeria is the country with the largest population of black people on earth. Nigeria, like Haiti, has a chequered history. Today, Nigerians are being abducted and or killed in their homes and on the streets, on their farms and in their Churches and Mosques. Our young ones are being abducted from schools and universities by terrorists.
While some are being buried, the corpses of others are being discovered. Security agents are either unable or unwilling to protect but are adept at brutalizing the citizen. The political class is wining, dining and dancing. Reading the history of Haiti, reading the description of Haiti in Pope John Paul II’s homily of 1983, and given what we have experienced and continue to experience in Nigeria, is there any difference between the first independent black nation and the most populous black country on earth? In Nigeria, as in Haiti, fok sa chanje.
• Rev. Prof. Anthony Akinwale, O.P. is the Vice Chancellor of Dominican University, Ibadan.