Why Haiti Remains Poor

A revolt of young Haitian intellectuals 65 years ago inadvertently opened the door for a black nationalist ideology that continues to dominate -- and hold back -- Haiti.

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This photograph from early 1946 is a rare record of a gathering of the intellectual vanguard of Haiti's postwar generation. Fiercely idealistic, they had weeks earlier incited five days of massive street protests that caused Haitian President Elie Lescot to resign and flee into exile. They had overthrown, they believed, the cabal of mulattoes and U.S. bureaucrats who had been denying them their rightful share of power, and put on notice the small commercial-and-industrial sector dominated by Arabs, Europeans and a few U.S. immigrants.

But instead of the leftist democracy they hoped for, their moment of change ushered in a doctrinaire black nationalist political force that has ruled Haiti for more than six decades -- including 30 years of Duvalier dictatorship. An important reason that Haiti remains poor is the stranglehold of a pernicious ethnic provincialism that now permeates all sectors of society. It is a mentality allergic to talent and merit and, today especially, fearful of the vast, wealthy and well-educated Haitian diaspora.

Nearly all the men at the banquet would go on to intellectually rewarding literary, academic and professional careers. All came from modest homes, in the second tier of Port-au-Prince's highly stratified social order. Their households had few luxuries, but all were educated at the nation's best schools.

René Dépestre is No. 4 in the photograph; he gained lasting fame in 1945 with his collection of poems and the prescient title Etincelles, or "Sparks." Me voici -- "Here I am" -- he declares in a characteristic poem: Je sens vibrer en moi la rage des exploités ("I feel stirring inside me the rage of the exploited"). These words made Dépestre, 19 years old and barely out of high school, a celebrity. His poems were recited to the largely disenfranchised, impoverished and illiterate majority in Port-au-Prince. He was speaking for an entire generation when he wrote:

Me voici
poète
adolescent

poursuivant un rêve immense d'amour et de liberté.

("Here I am, poet, adolescent, chasing an immense dream of love and liberty.")

Dépestre recalls in Le métier à métisser (1998) that to make ends meet, his widowed mother, a seamstress, never wandered far from her Singer sewing machine. But there would be servants to do household chores, and mothers like that of French Guyanese poet Léon Damas, who settled for nothing less than "le français du français, le français français … " ("the French of the French, French French").

Those at the banquet leaned left politically, but most of them were not ideologues and had little regard for skin color. Several around the table -- Ghislain Gouraige (No. 10), Laurore St. Juste (No. 11), Gérard Chenet (No. 5), Roger Gaillard (No. 9) and my father, Roger Savain (No. 8) -- would at some point be associated with La ruche, a journal Dépestre and friends created in late 1945 to antagonize the authorities. Present as well were Odnel David (No. 2) and Edris St. Amand (No. 13), leaders in the Communist youth movement.

All were drawn to risky agitation and to the proposition that the country's resources and the fruits of its prosperity should be broadly distributed to the nation's poorest. They had no specific blueprint or precise economic program to implement.

In 1928 Jean Price Mars, scion of a prominent black Haitian family, affirmed the legitimacy of Haiti's African cultural traditions in his seminal treatise, Ainsi parla l'oncle ("Thus Spake the Uncle"). It was a timely and compelling argument that resonated throughout a world on the brink of decolonization. In Haiti, at first it inspired a positive celebration of indigenous culture. It also hardened loyalties based foremost on family, color and clan that, across all social and economic groups, degenerated into administrative dysfunction.

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