04 July 2004

In Defence of the Disinherited

Common Sense
John Maxwell

There is a rape in progress next door. We know; we saw the rapist enter the house, we heard the shouts of alarm, the calls for help, the screams of the tormented victim echo through the neighbourhood. Our neighbours go about their business as usual. What do they care if, like Kitty Genovese so many years ago, the victim is slaughtered in full sight and sound of her neighbours. It is not our business, they say. We don't want to get involved.

And we are closing our windows and drawing the curtains, because the rapist's brother is coming to tea with us. We don't want him to be unduly discountenanced, to be upset although he is one of those who set up the attack.

At this moment eight million Haitians are languishing under the rule of killers, torturers and 'face-choppers'. Many are in hiding, as was the prime minister, Yvon Neptune, who last Sunday gave himself up rather than be murdered as a "fleeing felon". Some are in exile, as are the president of Haiti, his wife and children, with their human and political rights torn from them by gangsters and terrorists.

And we, Caribbean people, are preparing to entertain Gerard LaTortue, an absentee businessman/bureaucrat, who now claims to be the prime minister of Haiti.

This is the 200th anniversary year of Haitian independence, and once again the Haitians are voiceless, bereft of their rights, disinherited of their history and their dignity and abandoned by their neighbours, their soi-disant friends - some of the very people they help rescue from miserable bondage.

As UNESCO says: "The uprising in Saint-Domingue. which began on the night of August 22 to 23, 1791, played a decisive role in the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. August 23 is celebrated each year as the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition."

A Gothic Obscenity

This year is the International Year to Commemorate the Struggle Against Slavery, declared so by the United Nations on January 10, 2004. Haiti's slaves abolished slavery in 1793, the only slaves ever to achieve that distinction. In this international year commemorating the struggle against slavery, the fact that Haiti is in a cage should put all Earth in a rage. It is an obscenity.

The so-called civilised world, like the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan, is about to delicately draw up its skirts and pass by on the other side, leaving eight million human beings to languish and die, all because their ancestors 200 years ago decided to make concrete the idea that every human being should have the same rights as every other.

The Haitian revolution was the only one of the three great revolutions of the 18th century which implemented all of The Rights of Man. They have been paying the price ever since. As the cynics say - No good deed ever goes unpunished.

It is our duty to come to the aid of Haiti. As the Cubans have said: "We Cannot Abandon Haiti!"

Haiti has suffered for 200 years from the lies, obfuscation and deliberate misrepresentation of people, organisations and states motivated by an atavistic racism, by a deep-seated fear of real human freedom and a profound inability to appreciate the real genius of a people driven by the urge to bring freedom to all.

The Haitians have managed to survive in the face of the most long-lasting and purposeful genocidal campaign in history. They suffered because they helped Bolivar, because they were bold enough to offer soldiers to help Lincoln free the American slaves, because they understood the indivisibility of freedom and liberty.

They suffer because they defeated and repudiated slavery. Had they been Europeans, their valour and nobility would be celebrated in song and story, in legend and myth.

One of my e-mail correspondents recently described Haiti as an international crime scene, and he is correct. The United Nations secretary-general, Kofi Annan, and the UN Security Council are attempting to licence the latest attempt to return Haiti to unfreedom. We, who claim to be democrats, to love freedom and liberty, will be accomplices in this latest crime if we do not do everything in our power to set Haiti free once and for all.

Is freedom really Indivisible?

If Haiti is not free, none of us is free.

When Haiti helped Bolivar - alone and friendless - she gave him all the arms, money and support that she could. She asked only one thing of him - that in freeing Latin America he should also free its slaves.
I suggest that this gesture bequeaths to us an inescapable duty - to free Haiti from its bondage, to allow Haitians to decide their future for themselves, to give Haiti back its freedom.

We have no arms and we do not need arms. What we have is more potent than arms.

We have the power to move the conscience of the world, of humanity. We have the power to make a big difference to the lives of the Haitian people and of the oppressed all over the world.

What we need to do is to bring to bear the pressure of world public opinion, to relight the fire that the Jamaican Bouckman lit in 1793, to make it impossible for Haiti to be subjugated once again by stealth, by deceit and double dealing and treachery in the service of racism and greed.

We don't have to do anything spectacular. All we need to do is to try to keep the attention of our neighbours focused, on the reality of Haiti. And we need to keep on doing it.

We can start by circulating factual information on Haiti to our friends, to people of influence in whatever society we live, to journalists, commentators, columnists and editors, most of them prating grandly about democracy and freedom but doing nothing either to advance or defend them.

I have long been stirred by the history of the Haitians, particularly since I read C L R James' Black Jacobins nearly half-a-century ago. Since then, I have had many Haitian friends, most of them refugees from the persecutions of the Duvaliers. I went to Haiti in 1964 in an unsuccessful attempt to interview Papa Doc. I returned in 1996 when the Caribbean Institute for Media and Communication and the PANOS Institute began a programme to train journalists after the first restoration of President Aristide.

I have met President Aristide twice and I have read two of his books - his autobiography and In the Parish of the Poor. I have a tremendous respect for this man and for his country and the movement which he leads, all unmercifully libelled by the so-called Free Press of the Free World.

Paul Farmer

In one of my earliest columns about Haiti this year, I quoted a report by David Gonzalez about on an American doctor named Paul Farmer who founded a clinic in Haiti in 1980 and had been there ever since.

"One of the world's most powerful countries is taking on one of the most impoverished," Farmer was quoted as saying about the United States' decision to withhold aid. "I object to that on moral grounds. Anybody who presides over this blockade needs to know the impact here already."

I was fascinated by the sound of Dr Farmer and I quoted him again the following week:
". . .there's no topsoil left in a lot of the country, there are no jobs, people are dying of AIDS and coughing their lungs out with TB, and the poor don't have enough to eat. These are problems in the here and now. Something has to be done. Haiti is flat broke." This quotation came from an American writer named Tracy Kidder whose piece on Haiti I read in The Nation.

A few weeks later, Tracy Kidder sent me by airmail, his book on Paul Farmer - Mountains Beyond Mountains - which won a Pulitzer Prize a year ago. As Kidder says, Farmer is not only out to heal Haiti, but the world. Now that I am in touch with both men by e-mail I can say that my life has been immeasurably enriched by my contact with them, even though we have never met, physically.

Farmer's clinic is not in Port-au-Prince, the capital, but out in the bush - in a place that seemed to Tracy Kidder like "the end of the earth, in what was in fact one of the poorest parts of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. I felt I'd encountered a miracle". Indeed he had, as became clear to him over days and months and years in which he and Paul Farmer have become close friends and allies.

"In Haiti, I knew, per capita incomes came to a little more than one American dollar a day, less than that in the central plateau [site of the clinic] .And here, in one of the most impoverished, diseased, eroded and famished regions of Haiti, there was this lovely walled citadel, Zanmi Lasante. I wouldn't have thought it much less improbable if I'd been told it had been brought by spaceship." Kidder described the policies of the clinic: "Everyone had to pay, that is, except for almost everyone. And no one - Farmer's rule - could be turned away."

It would be insane to attempt to try to condense Kidder's wonderful book, or the facts of Paul Farmer's life and work. But you may gauge some of Farmer's effect. Zanmi Lasante built schools, houses, communal sanitation and water systems throughout its catchment area. It vaccinated all the children, greatly reduced malnutrition and infant mortality, launched programmes for women's literacy and the prevention of HIV/AIDS, reduced the rate for HIV transmission from mother to child to four per cent - about half the current rate in the US. "In Haiti, tuberculosis killed more adults than any other disease, but no one in Zanmi Lasante's catchment area had died from it since 1988."

I am moved by the story of this man - a white American - who set out to help a few poor, black villagers and started an unstoppable movement. Because, not content with his work in Haiti, Farmer is on a more or less successful campaign to reduce the cost of drugs for the treatment of intractable diseases in the Third World. He has this revolutionary belief that every human being, no matter how poor, is entitled to adequate medical treatment.

And with all the time he spends walking up hills and down gullies in Haiti and travelling the world to influence drug companies and governments, Farmer still has time to be a very effective professor of medical anthropology at Harvard. Most of his salary, plus money he begs from people and foundations, goes into his work. He was thrown out of Haiti when President Aristide was first deposed a decade ago, and despite the attentions of the army, his clinic survived, though most of its programmes, literacy, vaccination, etc were seriously interrupted.

They were again interrupted by the latest usurpation of power. But Farmer and his Haitian and Cuban doctors and staff believe that they can overcome even that, even after the recent killer floods.

In Peru, where Farmer has had a great deal of influence, his students and others have gone a long way to obliterating multi-drug resistant TB.

With all this, Farmer finds time to write learned articles helping to revolutionise the treatment of dangerous diseases all over the world, and also to be an unabashed partisan of justice for Haiti. He is the author of many books, including The Uses of Haiti and most recently, Pathologies of Power. He was awarded the American Medical Association's 'Outstanding International Physician Award' in 2002.
I believe that his story, and his writings about Haiti, demonstrate one incontrovertible fact: one person, one man or woman, armed with a true sense of duty can change the world.

Margaret Mead said it well: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world, Indeed it's the only thing that ever has."