Love in the Time of the Haitian Cholera

The Haitian people's will to survive, and thrive, is mighty. It's time for black Americans to spread some love to our Caribbean cousins -- love that can be felt in tangible ways.


I've always admired the haunting beauty and sad grace of Gabriel García Márquez's novel Love in the Time of Cholera. But I never imagined that his title would conjure the force we'll need to fight Haiti's freshest suffering: an outbreak of cholera that threatens the loss of thousands of lives.

It's fitting that the novel in which Márquez temporarily loosens the hold of magical realism is the one that symbolizes Haiti's plight today. There's little state magic to speak of, and the economic realities that this country faces are tragic and legion. But my God, the will and spirit of the people remains indescribably, well, magical, to say the least. I've gotten to know Haiti and its people a lot better over the last two years as I've served and traveled throughout the complicated outlines of this besieged geography.

Haiti's present troubles may yet prove faithful to a script that seems passed down from on high: A small but mighty colony of oppressed black subjects will resist and rise just when nobody gives them a chance in hell to survive. That was certainly true of Haiti at its birth.

In 1804 the nation roared into existence after a decade-long slave revolt fomented by Toussaint Louverture, which ultimately resulted in Napoleon getting beaten at his own game -- and the world's first republic winning independence from France.

Haiti's will to rise was certainly challenged during U.S. military occupation of the country from 1915 to 1934, and its national urge to strength was surely suppressed as the U.S. exerted direct or indirect control of the Haitian economy from 1905 to 1947.

And through a string of tyrants, incompetents and soiled idealists at the helm of the nation (some with American support, or at least with our willingness to look the other way while the country was lost and looted), Haiti's people have managed to keep faith, even though that faith has been unjustly savaged and satirized as "Voodoo" -- with the scare quotes in tow -- little more than a hodgepodge of hocus pocus and superstition.

But that's the retail version of Vodou, pushed in the marketplace of ignorance and bigotry. In Haitian Vodou, practiced widely by much of the population, the spirits of the departed -- sa nou pa we yo, those we don't see -- don't fly away but remain near to those left behind, permitting the suffering living the triumphant advantage of laughing in the face of death.

That's not a fatalistic position but a supremely hopeful one; after all, the living have had so much death to defy. Is Vodou any more unrealistic a remedy than, say, colonial exploitation and schemes of duplicitous rationality deployed by would-be saviors in military or ministerial garb?

This doesn't mean that it's a pie-in-the-sky piety that isn't vexed by the mortal wounds of poverty and catastrophe. On the contrary: It's a source of spiritual resilience in the face of tragedy. The bipolar opposition between science and soul doesn't exist in Haiti, at least not in any reasonably concrete fashion. (For that matter, there isn't even a neat division between, say, Catholicism and the catechism of indigenous spirituality that flows effortlessly through the syncretic religious experience that is a noted strength of the African Diaspora.)

Even as we respect the homegrown spirituality of Haitian residents, we've got to ramp up the material resources they so desperately need. After the January earthquake left the nation in shambles and rubble, and 300,000 souls lingering near the living, you'd think God, or at least nature, might leave the Haitian folk alone long enough to recover. Until that theological dispute can be resolved, the political and ecological elements, and the moral ones too, must be engaged.