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Letter sent on Nov 20, 2016

A taxi driver explains hurricanes

When I got back from Haiti on Thursday, a taxi picked me up at the bus station. The Dominican driver asked me how it was over there. I told him the truth. It’s dirty and chaotic, I said, but the people are kind. I told him about how, when I didn’t have a ride to my hotel in Port-au-Price, two perfect strangers went out of their way to drive me. I should’ve told him about the beautiful mountains and the smart Haitians I met who are working to improve their country. I should’ve lied about the dirt and chaos. But for this guy, and for many Dominicans, it wouldn’t have made a difference. His mind is already made up about Haiti.

He started off by saying that Haitians and Dominicans are fundamentally different. He said “Clinton wants unification,” which I think (someone correct me) is an anti-American, fear-mongering exaggeration of a 2009 State Department idea for joint business projects. The Dominican Republic won its independence from Haiti in 1844; no one seriously wants to re-unify Hispaniola. Least of all my taxi driver, who emphasized, “We fought a war.”

My Spanish isn’t great, so I nodded along. This is all pretty typical nationalist stuff. But then, as too often happens, he veered into bigot territory: “We’re Christians, and they have too much witchcraft. That’s why the hurricane stayed south of us and hit them.”

First of all, voodoo is a religion. It is a system of beliefs and rituals. It is not witchcraft. Haitians are no more superstitious than many Christians. Second, most Haitians are Christian, mainly Catholic. My interpreter is Adventist, and I attended a Saturday service in which more than 100 people prayed to Jesus for three hours. To say more than 1,000 Haitians died in a hurricane because of witchcraft isn’t just ridiculous, it’s part of a 500-year project to dehumanize black people as savages. Even after they won their independence, at every turn the Republic of Haiti has been sabotaged by majority white nations. The stigmatization of voodoo is just another way for the world to escape its share of the blame for Haiti’s poverty by casting them as backward and inferior. (For a brief history of why Haiti is so poor, Amy Wilentz explains in The Nation.)

I’ve visited Haiti three times, and my impression is it’s a place of enormous ambition with nowhere to go. I’ve met a whip smart kid living in a slum who wants to be a diplomat. I’ve met doctors, engineers and agronomists working to create more stability in people’s quality of life. When I first met my interpreter, I tried to negotiate a price for his work. He told me he didn’t care what I paid him. “I don’t have money to help my country. This is something I can do.”

Today was election day in Haiti. They picked their president and a bunch of parliamentary seats. Despite having just suffered a devastating natural disaster and having to pay for the election themselves (the U.S. and others refused), the first news reports suggest it went off with relatively minor setbacks.

Calixte Edme, 52, arrived at his polling place at 5:30 a.m. and spoke to the Miami Herald. “If I don’t vote, it’s like I don’t hope for anything serious for my country,” he said. “We’re living in a country where we don’t have a serious government. It doesn’t make sense. For almost two years, we’ve been trying to elect a president and we can’t. We have to give this country another image.”

Here’s a roundup of our latest:

  • With schools being used as hurricane relief shelters, students marched in the streets to demand their education. (After I wrote this article, they blocked a major highway two more days. It worked. On Monday, they should be back in school.)
  • Here’s what it looks like when your country has no safety net.
  • Incredibly, instead of fixing climate change, world leaders are still reassuring each other it’s actually real. That’s the Trump effect.
  • Speaking of Trump, here’s how you can help refugees in his America.
  • Finally, an interesting read about how Daniel Ortega stripped away the democratic institutions of Nicaragua and became an autocrat.

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Till next time,

Ben