Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Straight Dope: Haiti's pact with the Devil

Here's Pat Robertson's account of how the diabolical deal went down, on the Christian Broadcasting Network's "The 700 Club":

Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French, you know, Napoleon III and whatever, and they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, 'We will serve you if you'll get us free from the French.' True story. And so the devil said, 'OK, it's a deal,' and … the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since they have been cursed by one thing after the other.

One detail we need to clear up right away. Haiti's bargain with the devil was supposedly struck in 1791. Napoleon III wasn't elected ruler of France until 1848, and Napoleon I didn't become France's leader until 1799. The Haitians were were ruled by the Constituent Assembly in 1791.

Robertson's "pact with the Devil" in Haiti refers to the ceremony of Bois Caïman, which took place in August, 1791. This event launched the Haitian revolution that brought independence and freed the slaves in that country.  The higher power holding the franchise in the U.S. let slavery persist for another seventy years.

A houngan (Voodou or voodoo priest) named Dutty Boukman held a meeting of black slaves and runaways at Bois Caïman in the mountains of the north to prepare to rise up against their oppressors.

With the aid of an African-born priestess, they conducted a religious ceremony in which the group swore on the blood of a sacrificial pig, invoking the spirits of the forest and their ancestors, that they would live free or die.

According to tradition, this was the catalyst for the Haitian revolution. Though Boukman was captured and beheaded, the revolt continued.

After much strife Haiti became an independent republic in 1804. the Haitian Revolution was the only successful slave uprising in the new world and it shook the foundations of the slave states in the US. the US, in fact, launched an economic boycott of Haiti that did not stop until the end of the US Civil War.

Although the Bois Caïman ceremony is well known in Haiti, separating fact from legend is difficult. The first historical account wasn't published until 1814. Some historians claim the ceremony didn't happen at all, while others contend there were two meetings in August 1791, with the voodoo ritual occurring at one while the revolt was planned at the other.

Legend has it that Boukman offered a prayer at Bois Caïman in which he drew a distinction between the wicked god of the whites and the benevolent god of the blacks. Whether the prayer was actually uttered is debatable; nonetheless, it can be taken as a fair indication of the rebels' sentiments, namely, that they were aligning themselves with the forces of good.

Clearly the idea that the Haitian slaves were bargaining with Satan was an interpretation by certain Christians and slave owners. These religious fanatics thought the so-called Christian god was righteous and everybody else's was evil. In short, the "pact with the devil" is bigoted nonsense.

In his CBN broadcast Pat Robertson used the "devil pact" to explain why Haiti is in worse shape environmentally and economically than its neighbor, the Dominican Republic:

That island of Hispaniola is one island. It's cut down the middle. On the one side is Haiti; on the other is the Dominican Republic. Dominican Republic is prosperous, healthy, full of resorts, etc. Haiti is in desperate poverty.

The histories of Haiti and the Dominican Republic are complicated. Jared Diamond's book Collapse (2005), chapter 11: "One Island, Two Peoples, Two Histories: The Dominican Republic and Haiti explain some of the issues."

In addition, US interference in Haiti has frequently made things worse for the Haitian poeple. the US insisted that Haitians slaughter all of their pigs during a swine flu epidemic and also demanded that the Haitians remove tariffs on rice that had been locally grown. Today the Haitians have to import most of their rice.

Some points made by Diamond: The Spanish settled on the naturally greener (rainier) side of the island, with higher mountains and rivers flowing in their direction. The French took the drier lower side, but despite the fragile environment exploited the hell out of the land and its people for as long as possible.

France imported enormous numbers of slaves, giving Haiti a much larger and blacker population than the Dominican Republic, so later European investors preferred the DR over Haiti.

The Dominican Republic developed multiple cash crops and also focused on industrial development. While the DR had its share of tyrants, at least a couple of them fortunately were tree huggers. The two countries thus took different paths. While the DR remains quite poor, it's in better shape than Haiti.

Haiti has endured extraordinarily tough times since independence, including 32 coups and many brutal dictators, a cruel post-colonial racial caste system with inequitable distribution of wealth and resources, desperate poverty, environmental ruin, health problems, lack of infrastructure, and continued political instability.

In recent times many of the blows to Haiti were dealt by "Papa Doc" Duvalier, succeeded by his only slightly less despicable son. The downward spiral continued, with Haiti's poor having no choice but to rely on charcoal from wood for fuel, decimating the remaining forests. And now this earthquake.

Let's say you believe in the Devil; is there evidence he's to blame? According to some versions of the legend of Bois Caïman, the pact with Satan was supposed to last for 200 years. This was probably another lurid invention by outsiders, but even if you buy it, the pact should have expired in 1991, making the current disaster a late hit.

The scientific explanation for the earthquake in Haiti is that the Caribbean and North American tectonic plates have been grinding against each other under Hispaniola and Jamaica for eons. The stress builds up over time, causing earthquakes big and small.

An earlier, magnitude 7.5 earthquake along the same fault line leveled Port-au-Prince in 1770, two decades before the supposed "pact with the Devil" at Bois Caïman.

Still, as David Brooks notes in a recent New York Times column, "This is not a natural disaster story. This is a poverty story." An earthquake of comparable intensity in northern California in 1989 killed 63 people, compared to more than 150,000 in Haiti.

Much of the difference is due to flimsy construction and a general lack of preparedness on Haiti's part. Brooks cites Lawrence E. Harrison's 2006 book The Central Liberal Truth, which attributes Haiti's problems to among other things "the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile."

What voodoo has to do with liberal truth? However, if the claim is that superstition and ignorance impede progress, you won't get an argument from the Straight Dope. Haiti possibly is one example. Pat Robertson is another.



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