Haiti is a country that can be many things depending on where you choose to look. You can look only where the news cameras look and you can see isolated groups of people rioting in the streets, protesting injustices that they’ve lived and felt. The images of flames rising high above the pavement and the sounds of rocks being hurled and landing on rusty tin roofs as the crowds scatter. These images can all be scary. That picture of what Haiti is, is indeed a true one. It’s one that the cameras wouldn’t be able to capture if it didn’t truly happen. I’m not here to tell you that the streets never pose any risks in this country. But that picture presented is a very limited one.
Another picture of Haiti is the one that tourism brochures choose to present. It’s one of pristine white sand beaches populated with towering coconut trees. It’s one of cascading waterfalls spilling through lush, forested valleys. It’s a picture of bustling local markets filled with colorful tropical fruits of all varieties and bright patterned fabrics adorning the vendors’ tables and their heads. It’s one of costumed dancers celebrating traditional festivals and creative artists producing all sorts of one-of-kind works that you won’t find anywhere else on the globe. All of that is also a picture of Haiti that is true, and worth consuming. But it remains a picture of Haiti that you are not likely to see unless you choose to look at it.
Both of these can be true. Both of these are true, as are many others. There’s the picture of Haiti that comes out of the ever-so-frequent natural disasters, whether it’s an earthquake, a hurricane, or a flood, one of damage and devastation. There’s the picture that the NGO’s use to produce pity and raise funds, one of poverty, disease, and suffering. There’s the picture of the successful results of local grassroots organizing in communities throughout the country of children being educated, trees being planted, water being filtered, and businesses being started. There’s the picture that shows the rich and inspiring history of the country, the spirit of which continues to run through the veins of every Haitian, a spirit which can be seen providing meaning and substance to every single other picture of the country that one might choose to see.
These are all true pictures of Haiti. Sometimes it may be hard for some people to believe that all of these truths can exist in one small island country such as this, but that, my friends, is actually the best argument why you should actually travel to this country. Because it is complicated and it is full of contradictions. That means that it is also full of discovery and full of life for one to experience in new and unexpected ways. If you travel to Haiti and you only experience one of any of those pictures that I mentioned, then you are not actually experiencing Haiti. You are experiencing propaganda, whether positive or negative, you are not experiencing the fullness, the depth.
As someone who works in the arts sector, I can confidently say that if you come to Haiti and leave only understanding that Haiti houses some of the world’s most talented and creative artists, then you’re completely missing what Haiti is. I hope that you do see the breadth and the beauty of the art here, but it’s pointless if you don’t understand the painful and difficult realities of life in Haiti that is often the source of those artists’ expression. You can’t celebrate the work of an artist who paints out of political protest, but then not defend that artist’s neighbor when they take to the streets to burn tires or throw rocks in the same spirit. And you can’t refute those two different responses without also understanding the historical, educational, economic, and social systems that have been built to leave both of them to feel like they have no other options. You also have to realize that the artist that you praise today might be the protestor throwing rocks in the street tomorrow and they might have justified reasons for doing so.
In places where peaceful protest has a history of getting positive results, peaceful protest continues to be elevated as the more righteous form of public political action. But in a place like Haiti where the only thing that has ever historically gotten results is violent revolution, you have to leave space for contemporary protest to take a different shape in that context. When you hear about “violence” in Haiti you also have to educate yourself on what that really means and what the true context of the violence is. What the news usually means when they say there is violence in Haitian streets is that there are large crowds of people protesting something. For the most part those protests are usually peaceful despite the fires that they set and the rocks that they throw to get the attention of the people in power. Very seldom is the violence ever targeted, and if it is targeted, it is very unlikely that it will be targeted at you as someone visiting the country (unless you are somehow responsible for all of the political and social ills that the people are suffering).
This is not to diminish the trauma that does occur when violence is targeted at foreigners. I personally have multiple friends who have been robbed at gunpoint on multiple occasions in this country, and I wouldn’t wish that situation on anyone. Yet, all of those friends still visit this country even after those experiences. Why? Because they understood the contexts surrounding their experiences and knew that those experiences did not define Haiti but just represented one limited part of its identity as a country. I’ve lived in Haiti for 12 years now (I know, 12!) and I’ve never been the target of any violence and even in the situations where I’ve gotten caught up in protests in the streets, I’ve never felt unsafe. Those protests that they like to show on the news under the headlines about “violence erupting in Haiti,” I’ve seen them up close and personal, felt the heat from the burning tires on my skin, had to negotiate directly with the lead protesters to get around roadblocks, yet I’ve never felt like I was actually in danger.
Although accurate statistics on crime in Haiti are hard to nail down, some sources put the levels of violent crime in the country much lower than other Caribbean locations considered popular tourist destinations, including Jamaica, Costa Rica, and our island neighbor of Dominican Republic. But that’s not how it’s ever reported. In those other countries more frequent smaller, targeted instances of violence occur, but Haiti always has to be the drama queen of the Caribbean and make a big show of it when they do decide to stir things up, so it makes the news more and is reported with a much more exaggerated sense of danger. It paints an inaccurate picture, even if it comes from a grain of truth.
So come and discover the truth for yourself. Discover the truth, then discover the truths behind the truth and all of the other truths around that truth. Peel back the layers of this wild, wonderful, weird, complicated, colorful, cultured country. When you come, leave a little flexibility in your agenda for the unexpected. Expect some disruptions, some delays, some disasters, and maybe even a little bit of danger. But also expect that no matter what happens you’re going to come away from it all with eyes opened to new truths about what you thought this country was, and because of it you will probably also discover new truths about who you are as well. I can’t guarantee what you will or won’t see or experience when you do get to Haiti. I can guarantee that Haiti will change you. So come and let it.
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