I decided to stop over in Miami on my trip back to Australia from Haiti–after all, Miami is the gateway to the Promised Land for many Haitians and others in the Caribbean, especially Cubans.
My taxi driver from the airport, being from the lesser Antilles island of Guadalupe, spoke a Creole dialect similar to that in Haiti, so he was delighted to have a chat in his own language as we crawled through peak-hour traffic on the way to Belen College’s Jesuit residence, the home of several exiled Cuban Jesuits who re-established their school in Miami 50 years ago.
The cabbie knew about poverty and politics in the Caribbean, and he understood the lure of a better life in the United States. When I told him I was working for Jesuit Refugee Service on the Haitian border near the Dominican Republic he remarked, ‘You know life is really tough here for an immigrant as well. I work constantly–long hours, long hours–my life is not my own.’
The Jesuit community where I stayed was celebrating the 50th year since they’d set up Belen College Jesuit high school in Miami. President Fidel Castro–a former student there–had closed down the college following the revolution. On my tour of the college, one of the pre-revolution Jesuits said the original school in Havana was even bigger. He was proud of the new school, but his eyes evoked a sense of nostalgia as he showed me the photo of the original school, which covered an entire foyer wall.
The well-equipped and prosperous new school boasts a ‘who’s who’ list of wealthy exiled Cuban benefactors. It has state of the art facilities, including a meteorology lab that provides hurricane warnings to the local media and city council. Following the tradition of the old Havana college, they have re-created the student barber shop. As a reminder of the old days, sitting on a side bench was a glass display cabinet protecting a blade and scissors allegedly used to snip Castro’s locks.
Soon-to-be ordained Jesuit deacon Frank, whom I’d met in the Dominican Republic, offered to show me some of the sites of Miami. Frank was born in the United States to Cuban parents. While passing though some lush, leafy and well-off streets of Miami, he commented, ‘I tell people in Cuba and the Dominican Republic that these (nice streets) are the result of socialism! It’s all organised and controlled by the local government. In this area you can’t park commercial vehicles and trucks near your home–that’s to keep things looking tidy.’
He mentioned that the problem with Cuban socialism was Freudian. Although Castro had been Jesuit-educated, he had a difficult upbringing and bad relationship with his father which he was still bitter about.
We headed into downtown Miami to visit the Jesuit parish of Gesu where Frank was to serve as Deacon at the Sunday Mass. The activity in central Miami is impressive–there is a building boom. Cranes and building sites are everywhere. On the church’s front steps was a Haitian-looking man slumped against the door asleep, his tin of coins dangling from his hand ready to drop. At the back of the church as I waited for Mass to begin I noticed a railed-off section with statues of patron saints from all over Latin America. Each had their identifying name plate and national flags, with hand written petitions left by devotees, as well as cash notes, coins and candles. There were several devotees softly mouthing prayers and lighting candles. During the Mass a woman proclaimed the readings -from her accent I knew she was probably Haitian. Frank introduced me to her after Mass. She was caught by surprise when I started speaking in Creole. Her young daughter commented, ‘Oh, I thought he was a white man.’
After Mass I glanced at the front page of the Miami Herald which had an article asserting that Castro was becoming more popular, due to the rise of leftist governments in the region. It made particular mention of newly-elected Haitian President Rene Preval’s visit to Cuba. Preval is an ally and former government colleague of Jean Bertrand Aristide.
The ploy to divide the world into left and right, the so-called threat of communism, is still being used to manipulate, control and demonise any country or leader who aspires to help the have-nots and challenge the ‘new world order.’ The threat of ‘reds under the bed’ was the same ploy the United States and France used to polarise Haiti and rid it of Aristide, stigmatising him and thereby justifying his exile, even though he was popularly elected. Not only did he have a much-needed social reform agenda that threatened the oligarchy of Haiti’s wealthy elite, he also happened to be a meddling priest.
In Haiti people are fond of using proverbs, and there’s a particular one that aptly describes the situation of people in the dusty border town of Ouanaminthe where I worked -'Woch nan dlo pa konn doule woch nan soley’ -which is a Haitian creole expression meaning ‘The rock in the water doesn’t know the suffering of the rock in the sun.’
Haitian proverbs have the annoying knack of forcing us to confront things we don’t like to admit. In an egalitarian society like Australia we like to think life deals the same fate for us all -that we are all battlers, and that through sweat and willpower we can all overcome tough beginnings to eventually live a reasonable life. But through my work with Jesuit Refugee Service in this impoverished town on the remote northern border, I see that this is not the reality -that the new world order does not deal us all a level playing field. The rock in the sun cannot get ahead like the rock in the water.
Whether you’re the rock suffering in the sun or whether you're cooling off in the water depends on where you were born, what passport you hold, what education you have, whether you speak French, whether your parents are peasants or well-off, whether your parents are married or if you have a birth certificate. Chance can deal a very cruel or kind hand in Haiti.
Living conditions in Ouanaminthe, a ‘town’ of around 100,000 inhabitants amount to an undeclared war on the poor. There’s a lack of services, jobs, water, health, schooling, toilets, electricity, phones, garbage collection, legal system, and an unemployment rate of around 70 per cent. This makes Ouanaminthe a gathering place for human traffickers, smugglers and corrupt authorities ready to profit from people desperate to leave for the Dominican Republic.
Spend some time in Haiti and it becomes apparent what English author Graham Greene meant in The Comedians when he wrote of Haiti, ‘Violent deaths are natural here. He died of his environment.’
Part of my work with Jesuit Refugee Service involved giving communications workshops to members of a community organisation monitoring human rights abuses along the border. I started one seminar by talking about the concept of ‘objectivity’ in the context of reporting an incident or event. The idea that a journalist is ethically obliged to provide a balanced report, from as many perspectives as possible, caused laughter among workshop participants when we started to apply it to the mainstream media. It was humorous for them to think that a national newspaper would give a poor peasant’s perspective on any given issue, even though this population represents the overwhelming majority of Haitians.
Many politicians and thinkers attack any attempt to reflect what we Jesuits refer to as ‘the preferential option for the poor’, claiming that it’s not objective, it’s immature, it’s naïve. Many claim that former president Jean Bertrand Aristide was forcibly and illegally removed from office; he has been internationally defamed and vilified. Yet what is more important: representing the interests of a small elite, or the overwhelming poor majority, as Aristide sought to do? Aristide is a controversial figure, but many in Haiti still believe strongly in his message.
Christianity challenges us to be objective, to look at reality, to reflect on it, and to do something about it. In Haiti, hardship and suffering create desperation to migrate, even when it means suffering the deplorable living conditions of the Dominican labour camps. And these conditions are the result of politics and business, both national and international that leads to poverty, illness, violence, crime, corruption and premature death. Advocacy work in poor countries such as Haiti is really a struggle to provide dignity, and not dignity in an abstract moral sense, or mere spiritual solidarity, but a quest for tolerable living conditions.
There’s a popular Haitian gospel song that’s been ringing in my ears since I’ve arrived back in Australia. I used to hear it on the radio in Haiti almost every day. It goes, ‘Why all these things? Why this division? Why these politics? Why can’t we sit...eat…and pray together?’
It’s a simple but powerful mantra. Surprisingly, it’s not a mournful tune. You could get up and dance to it! It’s a song that reflects the Haitian attitude to life -aware of the hardships faced everyday, but hopeful, cheerful and getting on with life. It’s a song our world needs to listen to as we stop to ask the tough questions, even as we’re bopping and grooving along in our daily lives.