Why is Haiti the way it is?


Have you ever wondered why Haiti seems to be on the receiving end of one catastrophe after another? Well, I may have an answer...


Over twenty years ago, before I moved to big jets, I used to fly turboprops in the Caribbean, puddle jumping from island to island for two different operators... One of those jobs brought me to the beautiful northern coast of Haiti, where the city of Cap-Haïtien is, near the historic town of Milot, and the formidable fortress of Citadelle Laferrière...


On a hot Summer day, as we flew into a bay from the north and followed its natural turn to the northeast where the airport was located seventeen miles away, we passed on our left the imposing fortress sitting on Mount Bonnet a L’Eveque... Inside I could see torches burning within the walled grounds...


When we arrived over the airport, Hugo Chavez International—I don't know why they named the airport after the Venezuelan socialist—we flew the customary low pass over the dilapidated runway to disperse the goats, cows and kids playing (no perimeter fence nor security) on the runway and turned around to land into the wind after announcing our intention over the common traffic frequency (no tower)... You want to touchdown on the asphalt part of runway 5 rather than the white concrete section of the runway...


Apparently, a few years back they attempted to extend the runway for big airliners but ran out of money and cement. The point where the two meet, has the concrete sitting two feet lower than the asphalt . To the left and right of the runway, were the stripped carcasses of aircraft who lost the landing gear at that boundary when they landed on the concrete part...


After we landed, and greased the hands of the necessary officials, I asked about the Fortress and the torches... I was told that in the Summer months, Voodoo rituals are performed in the fortress and that the ceremonies are conducted under torch light... We concluded our business and we flew back to Miami.


The Haitian people are friendly and courteous, but there something unsettling deep below the surface in Haiti... A sort of shadow over everything... I got that feeling again years later flying an MD83 into the capital, Port-au-Prince for another airline... I spoke to a Haitian friend during one of those trips about the history of his country and this is what I learned...


He told me that, the Citadel I had seen, is central to Haitian history but with dark overtones. It was built between 1805 and 1820 by the newly freed Haitians to protect themselves from their former colonial masters, the French. The fortress was built on top of a 3000 foot mountain, and a concoction of quick lime, molasses, and the blood of sacrificed animals and hooves were cooked to form a glue used to enhance the strength and the bonding power between the stones. He also told me about the legend...


As the story goes, in 1791, one of the leader of the revolt against the French masters in Saint-Domingue, as the country was known, was a Jamaican voodoo priest named Boukman who was also a maroon, or a slave that had escaped from his masters in Jamaica. In mid-August, Boukman led a massive voodoo ceremony referred to as the Bais Caiman. During the ceremony, Boukman and other leaders performed ritualistic sacrifices to call up various spirits to help their cause, one in particular shall remain nameless...


The priests asked the dark spirit to help them defeat the French and as payment, they pledged their souls and that of the coming generations. Then the rebels moved from plantation to plantation burning, pillaging, and killing as they went. As Boukman and his followers moved through the colony, thousands more joined. Just a few months after starting the revolution, Boukman met a very untimely fate. He was killed. Unfortunately, losing Boukman created a small setback for the rebels. They needed a strong leader to take over. Enter, Toussant Louverture, who became the Haitian Revolution's most powerful leader.


The revolt began on 22 August 1791 and ended in 1804 with the former colony's independence. Because only mountains separated Haiti from Santo Domingo, the border between the two regions was fluid at best. Spaniards next door sent weapons and supplies to the Haitians, who in turn fought against the French in the name of the Spanish King.


The revolt was to involve black, biracial, French, Spanish, British, and Polish participants—with the ex-slave Louverture emerging as Haiti's most charismatic hero. But the real hero was another slave named Jorge Biassou, who was responsible for Spain's help, and whose critical role in the Haitian Revolution, is unfairly minimized.


Soon thereafter, the new country was named Haiti and the rest is history, except for one thing. The standard of living in Haiti today is the same it was back in the early 19th century with poverty, violence, and disease running rampant. The country has suffered also from one corrupt and despotic government after another. It has experienced earthquakes to hurricanes to landslides to floods to draughts repeatedly, while its next door neighbor, the Dominican Republic, seems to evade the calamities that befall Haiti with alarming frequency... Maybe there is something to the legend.


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