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    Understanding Haiti and the Current Crisis

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    Jean PeetersBy Jan Hanssens, cicm
    Missionary in Haiti


    February 7 each year has become a symbolic date in the country: February 7, 1986, signified the departure of Jean Claude Duvalier in 1986, and since the 1987 Constitution, the date has become the date for the installation of new presidents. But this year, 2024, no new president was installed. On the contrary, a large majority of the population is calling for the resignation of the de facto Prime minister, who took all power into his own hands after the assassination of the last president in function, Jovenel Moise, almost two years ago.

    Since the assassination, things have gone from bad to worse at an accelerating pace. Power struggles have become a daily occurrence. Armed gangs and violence have increased dramatically, as has police repression of popular mobilization. Fear and indifference reign. Everyone seems to be waiting "his turn" to fall victim to the bandits. Armed groups are in control. These gangs are young people in the service of powerful political and economic invisible groups, so-called "white-collar gangs."

    These are the results of two years of gang activity and a laissez-faire attitude on the part of the government: entire popular neighborhoods no longer exist; they have become places given over to gangs and violence; almost 200,000 people have been internally displaced; over 100,000 people most of them professionals, have left the country1; 5,000 murders across the country, according to UN figures for 2023 alone; inflation is running at 40%. Armed groups replace the State: they install local chiefs and community leaders; they ensure popular support with money because the State provides no public services. Under these conditions, if the population loses its vigilance, the next elections announced by the authorities and organized with the support of the international community could well bring a gang leader to the head of the country.

    How did the country end up in this situation?

    The departure of Duvalier did not mark the end of the Duvalier mindset of authoritarianism and the insatiable thirst for power by any means. The new authorities, even those who were democratically elected, failed to establish or refused to establish institutions that upheld the rule of law.

    Haiti has a long-standing problem with gangs that have their origins in various groups such as "macoutism " or the Duvalier militias, the paramilitaries during the coup d'état in 1990-1993, the "chimeras " employed by President Aristide during a time when the country had no army; they have grown dramatically under the Martelly presidency, and so on.

    Looking at deeper causes

    The current crisis is rooted in the underlying structures of the country, which were inherited from the colonial era and have been carefully maintained by those in power. The wealth of the country is distributed unevenly, with extremely poor people living alongside extremely wealthy people. The commercial and economic bourgeoisie, often foreign to the country, consider the country an easy way to enrich themselves.

    Analyses often fail to consider the deep mentalities that are rooted in a painful history of slavery and oppression. Admittedly, the Haitian people have enormous qualities of friendship, hospitality, endurance, courage, generosity, and resilience (which is by no means resignation). They are deeply religious and even syncretistic. But there are those who easily give in to the abuse of power (the things they have suffered at the hands of their masters and of which they have been the victims are unconsciously passed on to the mind of the next generation), lies, marronage, and deception (where one hides one's intentions as the ancestors did towards the colonists and which one teaches his children not to betray oneself); a lack of self-esteem and self-worth that can become a source of hypocrisy. Favoritism and interpersonal relations above competency also come into play. Psychiatrist Dr. Bijoux also speaks of an "independence complex" or "every man for himself," which explains the difficulty of dialogue and getting together.2

    In the recent past, evangelization has focused on the Gospel as a motivation for development and as a source of working for liberation. Deep-rooted mentalities have been somehow overlooked. We must also keep in mind that selfishness, the desire for power, and the pursuit of self-interest can dwell in the heart of every person, regardless of his culture. Hence, control systems and supervision are essential in organizing political society and the economy.

    It is also necessary to consider the rich history of the Haitian people, who have carried the torch of freedom and independence in Latin America and the world through suffering and struggle. The artistic creativity of its artisans is legendary.

    Nor should we forget the damaging role played by foreign powers in the country's history. Independence (1804) of "negroes" was badly digested or accepted by the colonial powers. At that time, the division of Africa (the Berlin Conference, 1864) had yet to occur. So, Haiti was treated as a bad pupil, not following the rules of the international "order." Today, Haiti is a small country under surveillance in the heart of the Caribbean, situated on the vital maritime passage for the United States between Florida and the Panama Canal - next door to rebellious Cuba; for France, it is the guardian of the French-speaking world in the region. The constant interference of the so-called Friends of Haiti (United States, France, Canada, European Union, a.o.) is disastrous for the country.

    The Church, pastors, and missionaries must help this martyred but generous and courageous person to better understand themselves. Training must certainly continue, with greater conviction and new emphases.



    How to get out of the doldrums?

    Yes, the country needs to get out of the current situation. Acting in the short term is needed, knowing that real solutions will take time. So, the Church should encourage grassroots citizens' gatherings to continue nurturing hope and trust as an antidote to the mistrust and fear that inhabit hearts. We can rely on young people and work to awaken them. The country of tomorrow must interest them first and foremost. It is urgent to join forces with other organizations to set up a massive, critical, real civic education that helps citizens strengthen their self-esteem and take their destiny into their own hands. Why has civic education (even traditional civics) been banned from school education?

    In a relatively short time, the issue of an accepted leadership needs to be regularized. Elections will soon be needed because the country can't stay where it is. Still, elections can't be held under just any conditions, considering the high level of insecurity and violence. A challenge is to amend the 1987 Constitution while maintaining its spirit and achievements: respect for human rights, decentralization, participation, power-sharing, and the separation and independence of the State powers that need to be guaranteed.

    The Church's contribution

    Many people in Haiti consider the Church to be the Haitian Episcopal Conference (CEH) and are looking for words of comfort from it. Currently, the Church seems prudent and is not speaking up enough. The Haitian Conference of Religious Men and Women (CHR) remains silent. More than half of religious men and women are involved in education, which is perceived as elitist and inaccessible to all. The Church is suffering the consequences of this situation, and a dozen parishes in the Port-au-Prince archdiocese are either not functioning or functioning with extreme difficulty. There have been circumstances where religious communities had to abandon their homes or workplaces because of the violence of gangs.

    On the other hand, some religious communities with a strong presence in popular neighborhoods continue their presence. Some parishes continue to provide a presence in the downtown area. They are courageous and real examples.

    In the current climate, the country's moral voices should be heard more loudly, perhaps less through declarations than concrete action. Churches, religious communities, and organizations from different denominations, traditions, and social movements should unite and network. The country can no longer rely only on politicians who engage in demagoguery to secure power. It is up to the moral forces to make themselves heard and their presence felt. But let's face it: the people who represent these forces are also sons and daughters of this society in crisis.

    CICM in this context

    CICM is cautious and present in four parishes in the northeast of the country and two parishes on the outskirts of the capital not (yet) occupied by gangs. The confreres share people's concerns. In the past, CICM was known for its commitment to popular culture and language, as evidenced by the "Bon Nouvèl" newspaper, its commitment to young people through the "Kiwo-Ayiti" movement, and its work for justice through its collaboration with Justice et Paix and others. Today, the temptation is great to retreat into the liturgical and sacramental. Defending human rights is becoming almost synonymous with helping to satisfy primary needs through charity.

    A foreign missionary has to question himself. To be a missionary is to be prophetic, and since one is a foreigner, the foreign missionary has his own (cultural) way of seeing things; he can question and accompany respectfully and without imposing. It requires going beyond one's origins, but he will always remain a foreigner. It is tempting to make comparisons: back home, things are not like that, and we do not have all these problems. True, but we are no longer at home, and back home, too, there are difficulties. Several certainties need to fall away.

    The integration of new missionaries is very delicate. I talk about the internship for our students, which requires a program adapted to the demands of the time. It is not a question of the general plan but of its concrete application and real insertion into Haitian culture and its mentality, which are complex and demanding. Living in a multicultural community does not make things any easier because sometimes, the community itself leads to a withdrawal into itself due to the demands of multiculturalism. The reference to the people is lost.3 The missionaries we prepare to send ad extra are sons of this same context. Discernment and motivation are key.

    Within the CICM Province of LAC, five countries have different issues, and the Provincial Council must demonstrate its ability to identify the particularities of the Haitian situation. I would call for a specific priority to be given to Haiti in the name of the option for the poor, which must take the form of an investment of personnel and resources in projects and activities adapted to a particular situation.

    painting in casa generalizia

    (A painting in the Casa Generalizia CICM)

    The Province's priorities are undoubtedly relevant:

    1. Internal migrants and displaced people and outward migration; Haitian-Dominican relations would require new and better attention because we are a single CICM Province;

    2. Commitment to young people: over 50% of the population are young people who are a target of instrumentalization by political and economic forces;

    3. Lay formation, which is no longer a priority outside the strict ecclesial context;

    4. Commitment to justice, social change, and integral ecology. As an international congregation, possibly within the framework of regional cooperation (if it wants to make sense), advocacy on behalf of countries that are pushed to the margins and exposed to the power of the consumerist economy and arms trafficking could make sense.

    In the Province, Haiti is sometimes perceived as the weaker partner who is always in need of assistance. In a unified and very diversified province, CICM, as a missionary congregation, must show itself capable of practicing real and active international solidarity between entities equal in rights and dignity despite being unequal in their history, traditions, cultures, and possibilities for action.            §

    1  More than 100,000 citizens, mostly professionals and many police officers, left under US President Biden's plan, which facilitated migration for a limited time for nationals of four countries, including Haiti. Was it because the country no longer needed these young professionals that the authorities let them go so easily?

    2  This mentality is described by Legrand BIJOUX, Etudes de Psychologie Haïtienne. Le complexe d'indépendance, September 2010, which follows on from : Des mœurs qui blessent un pays: Haïti.

    3  See CICM Constitutions, art. 13 and Directory.