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Weekly Commentary — Orphaned Haiti

2010 February 8
by rahul

Ten good salt-of-the-earth American Christians from the New Life Church in Idaho who apparently went to Haiti to help children are now in prison, charged with child kidnapping.

They were stopped by Haitian authorities with a busload of 33 children they were trying to take to an orphanage run by New Life in the Dominican Republic. They had no papers with them. Their defense has been that they didn’t know any documentation was needed. Many of the children have living parents, and some have claimed that they were taken without their parents’ permission.

The emerging news story is that the leader of the group, Laura Silsby, is something of a shady character, while the other nine were just innocent dupes who were trying to do good.

That’s not how I see it. When Americans are forced to admit they have done anything wrong, they always fall back on stories of blundering attempts to do good, which founder because they didn’t understand the cultural peculiarities of Vietnamese or Iraqis or Haitians.

I do believe the other nine were stupid and ignorant; I also believe they were culpably stupid and ignorant. Who imagines that you can take 33 children that don’t belong to you across a national border without a scrap of paper attesting to your right to custody? Would any native Idahoan, no matter how blissfully protected from knowledge by the New Life Church, have imagined they could do that with American orphans?

Haitian children are not puppies (and no, I don’t approve of the way humans separate puppies from their families either).

You may concede the underlying racism that made this ignorance possible, but still believe they were trying to help the children and give them a better life. The truth, though, is that they were engaged in the despicable task of taking advantage of the poverty, desperation, and bereavement of Haitians to acquire tiny captives as subjects for the forced acquisition of their bizarre belief system (yes, New Life admits openly that the orphanages exist for the purpose of conversion).

Many parents claim that they gave up the children willingly; it’s unlikely they knew what kind of life they were condemning them to. But the actions of desperate people are understandable and forgivable.

This little episode is Haiti and its relations with the United States in microcosm. The media has been full of opinion pieces about how this is now Year Zero in Haiti and the United States should remake Haiti ab initio so that such things never happen again. The Washington Post even ran a story quoting numerous Haitians who basically expected the U.S. to take over, build things that work, and use some tiny fraction of its enormous wealth to make life better for them.

It is a forlorn hope. The United States government is not the New Life Church. It doesn’t want to organize life in Haiti; it didn’t even want to in Iraq and Afghanistan until it began to seem necessary to defeat a tenacious armed insurgency. Haitians have no weapons and no military capability to mount an insurgency that will bother American soldiers, so this just won’t happen.

But what will likely happen is an extended U.S. troop presence and an intensification of the effective U.S./UN trusteeship of the country.

You might say this makes sense. After all, Haiti is a miserable failure and national sovereignty notwithstanding, it makes little sense to repeat and perpetuate this failure.

This is true, but there is a real question about what exactly the failure is. Here’s a thought. Since Dessalines’ declaration of Haiti’s independence in 1804, Haiti has never really been allowed to govern its own affairs. Francois Duvalier was the first ruler to create a genuinely independent Haitian politics; unfortunately, it involved intense political terror.

It was not until Aristide and Lavalas that anyone presented the possibility of Haitian independence without mass killing. Between Aristide and Preval, the evolution and then collapse of Lavalas, there is a complicated story that others can tell better than I, but the most salient point is this; since 1990, the evolving popular movements and the leaders they have elected have never had a chance to govern untrammeled by the white powers.

Haiti has a highly politicized populace. In the past 20 years, it has undergone two periods of mass terror and attempts to destroy popular movements. After the second, which happened under the aegis of the United Nations, the population still overwhelmingly voted for Preval instead of the candidates of the oligarchy that was terrorizing them. Maybe if they had governments that represented them and their interests without being hobbled by the so-called “international community,” they would work out some form of good governance for themselves. It’s just a thought.

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