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Annoying the pig

I’m continuing to get up to speed on the full scope of Haitian history, reading today from Libète.

After three centuries of subjugation and brutal government, the resilience of the Haitian peasantry is extraordinary. After reading the third chapter in Libète, though, I wonder if the peasant population hasn’t been pulling the wool over our eyes all along. Amy Wilentze’s The Rainy Season suggests that the peasants have absolutely no care for national politics generally, but can become incredibly impassioned and active citizens when their way of life is threatened. She suggests that the major events in Haitian history – the Revolution, the end of American occupation, and the ouster of Duvalier – were possible only because of the peasant class’s “organization and unrest.”

It’s quite possible that Western sensibilities will never take root in Haiti, nor will oppressive regimes truly dominate. For a system of government to be effective, people have to participate. We all have to care about similar issues and buy generally into common solutions. The peasant class in Haiti considers most of the debates that go on in their parliament to be just a bunch of noise. The decisions that are made in the Haitian government will have little effect on a population that has adapted defensive strategies to keep their simple way of life intact.

Mats Lundahl in Underdevelopment in Haiti describes various tactics developed by the peasant society to maintain their way of life and avoid being affected by the state. These tactics include:

“’getting liked’ by outsiders, hiding facts (like the voodoo cult and the site of real power), as well as using multiple names for the same person. Moreover, structures that are built by intruders are eroded by peasant action… Development projects are left to decay as soon as the outside experts have left the project site. Dissuasion – persuading the outside aggressor that his intervention is in vain – and mockery complete the picture. Ultimately, resort is made to force. When all other mechanisms have been rendered ineffective, outbursts of violence are directed against the sources of disturbance of the peasant equilibrium.”

People writing in the Haiti listserv have noted how long it takes the Haitians to do projects that we might do much more rapidly in this country. I remember in particular a recent discussion about organizing medical records. The author despaired that the Haitians could not stick to the discipline of maintaining records that he had put so carefully in order. But I wonder if he had considered the reasons why Haitians might be averse to keeping records. Might they, for example, be worried that those records could be used against them at some point? Might not mistrust of the government – not laziness or ignorance – be at least a contributing factor?

At the risk of making an unflattering comparison, I am reminded of the farmer’s admonition to someone engaged in an act of futility. “Son,” says the farmer, “don’t try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig.” For all of the good intentions of those who would bring Haiti politically and economically into the 21st century, maybe Haiti just doesn’t want to go.

Another essay in Libète drives this point home for me. In Ideas and Action, The Low Voice of Saint-Jules Clocy, A Haitian Farmer, Gérald Belkin asks a peasant farmer why he and his countymen ignore the advice of the experts who teach them to plant in straight lines. The farmer replies with a splendid analysis of local economic and agricultural conditions which require him to plant the way he does, as well as a reasoned consideration of why planting in rows doesn’t work for his farm. Then he basically says that the outside experts insult the intelligence of the peasants by not taking their years of knowledge into account. He says, “If people found that planting in straight lines really worked, they wouldn’t be so stupid as to reject the method.”

The insistence of the UN, the OAS, the US, and others that Haiti become a properly functioning democracy may be a losing battle. Haitians seem determined to be exactly what they want to be; no more, no less. Ironically, the money that the Western powers are withholding might be the very thing that would move the democratic cause forward. When Haitians have their most basic needs taken care of, they’ll be much better able to pay attention to larger issues.

Obviously, of course, there are those in Haiti who do want to move that country forward soon, who long for a better life. But do they have the right to do it at the expense of the peasant classes? Are they wasting their time and annoying the pig?