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ROME – In terms of engaging public interest in the United States, Haiti long has had a timing problem. When the Americans invaded Haiti in 1915, the U.S. was engulfed in a debate about how to stay out of the First World War, meaning few Americans really were paying attention; when we withdrew from Haiti in 1934, the storm clouds that would lead to WWII were already on the horizon, so once again its fate seemed secondary.
Now, public debate in the U.S. is caught between the war in Ukraine and the mass shootings in Buffalo and Texas, with precious little room left over for anything else – including a recent New York Times series recounting how the American banking colossus Citibank effectively ran Haiti for a stretch of time, helping to sow the seeds of the crippling poverty that still afflicts the island nation of 11.5 million.
I confess to a personal interest, since it was thanks to the Times series that I learned a Citibank manager named John Allen – John “H.” Allen, not “L.,” which is my middle initial – once served as a primary advisor on Haitian affairs to the American government, including Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, named to the post by President Woodrow Wilson. (To bring the personal connection full circle, it was Bryan who gave St. Fidelis Catholic Church in Victoria, Kansas, just a few miles from my hometown, its nickname of the “Cathedral of the Plains” when he visited in 1912 while campaigning on Wilson’s behalf.)
For sure, the U.S. was hardly alone in setting the stage for disaster in Haiti. To this day, it remains the only country in the world where former slaves actually paid their former masters, in transfers of wealth to France made under duress that some estimate in excess of $20 billion in today’s money.
How bad are things in Haiti today?
Well, even if we could somehow overlook the fact that it’s the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, with at least a quarter of the population living in what the UN considers “abject poverty;” even if we could somehow get past the political chaos which culminated, let us recall, with the country’s elected president, Jovenel Moïse, being assassinated in his private residence last July; and even if we could somehow overlook the endemic corruption, with Haiti conventionally ranked among the most corrupt nations in the world by Transparency International – there’s still the scourge of gang violence, which recently has reached a new apogee.
According to the Haiti-based National Human Rights Defense Network, in the area around the capital city of Port-au-Prince alone, there have been at least 148 deaths in the period between April 24 and the first week of May, related to battles among various criminal gangs vying for control of the territory. The toll also includes 81 buildings and 60 vehicles burned and at least partially destroyed in the violence, which features many of the victims being either burned alive or decapitated.
One of the gangs implicated in the carnage, called 400 Mawozo, was also responsible for kidnapping 17 American Christian missionaries, who were eventually freed. Though there’s been no public confirmation, it’s widely believed their liberation came after payment of a ransom, since kidnapping-for-profit has become one of the more lucrative revenue streams for Haiti’s criminal bands.
On May 24, Philip Jenkins, among the most astute observers of the contemporary Christian scene, published a piece in The Christian Century noting that for better or worse, basically the only social institution keeping Haiti afloat these days is the Catholic Church.
Though Haiti is traditionally Catholic, Protestant Evangelicals and Pentecostals have made great inroads in recent decades and, according to Jenkins, now account for roughly 30 percent of the population. Nevertheless, because of its history and also its infrastructure, the Catholic Church delivers the lion’s share of private humanitarian and development aid in Haiti.
For one measure of how deep those Catholic roots run, consider that a former Catholic priest and member of the Salesian order, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, served as the country’s president three different times, having been ousted twice in military coups, and still remains, according to some measures, the most popular political figure in Haiti.
The Catholic Church in the U.S. has a special interest in Haiti dating back decades, partly related to large numbers of Haitian immigrants, and recently, the first Haitian-born bishop was ordained for an American diocese in the person of Bishop Jacques Eric Fabre-Jeune in Charleston, South Carolina.
As generous as American Catholics have been and continue to be, however, it still amounts to trying to plug a crumbling dam with one’s finger relative to the actual need. It sometimes seems that Haiti is a society which both history and nature – recall the devastating earthquake of 2010, for example, that left somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 people dead – seem to have cursed.
In terms of trying to shake off that curse, as Jenkins put it, “The church is crucial for the nation’s well-being, and perhaps its survival. If not the church, who?”
Certainly, there are many reasons why American Catholics may feel distracted and overwhelmed these days, with both the church’s own internal crises and also those of the culture. Nevertheless, they may also want to spare a thought for a country whose pathology is not only compelling on purely humanitarian grounds, but also inextricably tied up with our own national history.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr