As I travel in the US and speak about my work and life in Haiti there are always a number of questions that people ask me and a few that get asked much more than others in one form or another. The questions usually come from a place of earnest interest from someone who wants to ask something a bit deeper than, “So how are things in Haiti?” And a few of these questions have responses that are more complicated than what I can give in the brief moments that I have in person with people after a presentation or at an event. So I’ve decided to take a few of these more popular questions and break them down in a new series of posts called “Questions from the Road”. In the next few weeks I am going to try to answer six particular questions that I get a lot during my travels. 1) Is the government there really corrupt? 2) Are they starting to recover/rebuild from the earthquake? 3) Is voodoo really a big thing down there? 4) Is anyone investing in tourism at all? 5) So what’s the deal with the Dominican Republic? and, 6) Is it safe? Some of these questions are very difficult for me to answer adequately when people ask them in person because my initial reaction to some of them is to blurt out something that would end up being very offensive. So I’m hoping that by taking the time to write out my responses instead, I can more effectively address some of the messy issues that will more completely explain the situation better than I could do face-to-face.
So today, the first one: Is the government really corrupt there?
I’m starting with this one because last week Haiti actually had elections to select a new president for the country as well as new representatives at all levels down to the most local of leaders. And as I follow the international news coverage of the election, I usually get very frustrated at the way I find the media describing the situation so this current question comes with a lot of feelings for me right now. But that’s not where I need to start because the truth is, even in the last 2 months that I’ve been Stateside, most people that ask me this question have absolutely no clue that an election was even taking place nor do they have any clue about the current administration or what the last 5 years of their leadership has been like. Most people asking this question are doing so out of some minuscule tidbit of information that is lingering in their cross cultural consciousness from Haiti’s tumultuous political past. Most of the people asking this question remember that sometime back in the 70’s, 80’s, or maybe 90’s they heard something about some tyrannical dictators ruling the population like monsters and they’ve clung on to that small unspecified nugget of information to define their understanding of the country until this day. They remember something about a doctor or a priest or a general or something once upon a time violently taking power and then killing a bunch of people that disagreed with him and then gobbling up all of the money while exploiting the poor. And while there may be a small sliver of truth somewhere in there, a lot has changed since those times.
I’m not saying that the current Haitian government is perfect, not by a long shot, but we cannot assume something about today’s Haiti based on the problems of it’s past. Now if someone started their question by saying, “So I read this thing about Martelly the other day that said… so is their government really corrupt there?” Then we can have a real conversation. But the problem is that I feel most people assume that the last 30 years have just been a string of Baby Docs and Baby Baby Docs in power and apparently that is going to continue forever without taking the time to try to understand anything substantial about the current situation.
But what’s even worse than this assumption based on a vague notion of history is when people ask this question out of no notion of history whatsoever but just out of an implicit ethnocentricity and white supremacism. And unfortunately, I often feel that this is lingering under the question somewhere. The belief that has been perpetuated subliminally that any country that is poor and black must have a corrupt government. That’s just how it goes. So clearly, Haiti’s government must be corrupt too. We don’t apply this formula to poor countries that have lighter skinned populations (unless, of course, they’re Muslim). But we’ve all watched The Last King of Scotland and Hotel Rwanda and assume that that’s how all economically poorer countries with black populations must be ruled. Which is an absurd assumption even if you were looking at the specific countries that those movies were set in.
So, now, if we can get past all of those things, and really take a look at what really is going on in Haiti right now politically, let’s see if there’s any way that we can even answer this question about corruption. As I said, we are right in the middle of an election season right now with results of the first round of votes being revealed earlier this week. And during the time that votes were being cast and then counted afterwords, there were lots of media outlets that were throwing around the word “corrupt” as if there were no consequences of using that word. Most of them cited random people on the street who were unhappy with the government as their reasoning for calling it corrupt. This is not journalism, people. I am not defending the administration here, but I am defending the right of the people to be accurately portrayed in foreign media. There are plenty of places where criticism can be brought upon the current administration for the way they have governed, but let’s use real facts when placing that criticism and not just the angry people in the street who would be perfectly happy to burn tires and throw rocks based on gossip. Those angry people do not necessarily represent the entire population.
This is why the current president was elected in the first place. Yes, there were plenty of people who were against Michel Martelly gaining the office and they’re the ones causing the protests and screaming “corruption”. But there are also plenty of Haitians who were in favor of him becoming president and have even been satisfied with his leadership the last five years. So, what I’m saying, is, let’s look at the whole picture and not assume corruption just because there are a number of people angry and willing to go to extremes to express their anger. But also, before we place too heavy of blame upon the current president for the mistakes that he has made during his tenure, let’s also be very realistic about how he got to where he is.
Michel Martelly was elected in 2010 shortly after the earthquake when Haitian voters were not at all concerned about electing someone with any political acumen. They were coming out of a very traumatic experience and during the campaign and election season most were still dealing with very serious emotional difficulties and so they gravitated towards a candidate not because he could rebuild effectively or stimulate economic growth, or improve foreign policy, but because he had proven that he could entertain. (Americans take note what happens when you elect someone without any experience in governance like, oh I don’t know, a real estate mogul or brain surgeon.) People voted for Martelly because they knew that he could help them forget the trauma, bring a smile back to their faces, and celebrate the good things in life that remained. Martelly was famous as the great president of compa music where people loved his performances because they usually came with him dressing in drag, telling dirty jokes, and even being blatantly lewd on stage. When a good percentage of the population has seen your plantain and passion fruit because you’re always pulling down your pants or flipping up your skirt, then the population can assume that you’re not someone who’s going to hide anything. Nudity = transparency is a pretty safe assumption and transparency is the exact quality that voters want in a leader who is not corrupt.
Whether or not he lived up to that expectation is certainly debatable, however, I think the reason he was elected was pretty clear, for his name recognition and fame as an entertainer. The majority of Haitians that I know were wanting him elected back in 2010 and despite all of his flaws, still are not tremendously disappointed in him because he has lived up to their expectations of being a great entertainer. He has also done enough good things along the way as president like building roads and bridges and making education more accessible, that they are willing to overlook the blatant policy bumbles. People who are disappointed in him and slinging accusation of corruption, clearly had the wrong expectations to start with. But I think that the truth is, the majority of Haitians knew exactly what they were getting into by electing this guy. So we can’t really be surprised when, for example, he neglects to hold legislative elections and the congress dissolves by default because he can always claim, “Hey, I didn’t know I was supposed to do that, I’m just a singer!” And then the majority of Haitians will respond with, “That’s right! Who cares about Congress? Sing a song! I wanna dance!” This is not to paint the Haitian population as naive but rather to express the real amount of importance that music carries in their culture and daily lives, which I actually believe proves a great depth to their social conscious. It does not, however, guarantee the best decisions when it comes to governance.
This is a very complex issue, which could be expanded much more, but for the sake of economy on my blog, I’m going to leave it at this. Let’s just be honest in our own prejudices towards what government is supposed to look like when we are judging someone else’s alleged corruptions and let’s also be sure to look at the facts on the ground as they represent the general population. Let’s not project our own cultural definitions of what corruption is or isn’t when we’re not the ones voting and let’s not negate the very real life issues that are currently affecting the people who are voting. Is the government really corrupt there? As should be expected from the Green Mango, my answer is that it is never black and white. The truth lies in the grey areas.