Haiti: Not just a natural disaster

By Mike Fox

The recent tragedy in Haiti was analyzed from a historical and academic viewpoint on Friday afternoon by students, faculty, and members of the community. The conference, titled “Haiti: Not (just) a Natural Disaster/ Solidarity with Haiti,” was organized by the Center for Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino Studies.

During the conference, several experts on Haiti from the Five College community discussed the historical forces that amplified the scale of the earthquake that struck the country. Andres Fabian Henao Castro, a member of the Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino Open Forum, started the conference speaking to the necessity to understand the human needs involved in reconstruction.

He emphasized that “basic human needs should not take the place of dignity,” and that in addition to financial aid, a “construction and reconstruction of human capital and dignity is necessary.”

Roberto Márquez, a professor of Caribbean and Latin American studies at Mount Holyoke, spoke about Haiti’s place in history, making the argument that Haiti should be placed at the center of the way history of the Americas is taught. He stated the belief that Haiti’s revolution in 1804 contains the roots of all following social revolutions. Due to the revolution being led by the nation’s former slaves, Márquez stated that the colonial powers proceeded to punish Haiti. His argument was summarized in his belief that “we owe Haiti an enormous historical debt.”

UMass Afro-American studies professor Bill Strickland, touched on Haiti’s historical connection to the world, including UMass’s own connections through W.E.B. Dubois’ relationship with the nation. Strickland was followed by Agustin Lao-Montes, a UMass sociology professor who continued telling the history of Haiti’s demarginalization, the degree that societal forces magnified the disaster, and a plan to help the country.

Professor Lao-Montes stated on the value of the conference that, “it is important to educate ourselves first about the importance and significance of Haiti in the struggle for independence,” and that, “we have a lot to offer the people of Haiti in our solidarity.”

Carolyn Shread, a French teacher at UMass and Mount Holyoke, spoke about the cultural connections between France and Haiti and that the nation’s cultural heritage derives recognition.

The conference ended with a screening of the Jonathan Demme directed documentary, “The Agronomist.” The film related the story of famed Haitian political activist and radio journalist Jean Léopold Dominique. The story stretches from the early days of the Francois Duvalier dictatorship up until the nation’s recent political turmoil.

Sonia Alvarez, a political science professor and the director of the Center for Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino Studies said that she hopes students will take from the event “an understanding that the best and most effective way to help Haiti is to understand that recovery will be a long term process.”

“It is important to understand the history and culture in context in order to truly be in solidarity,” she added.

Sophomore philosophy major Caryne Fernandez recognized the impact of the conference saying that she was able to learn “not only should I try to help out, but also understand the history and need of Haiti to earn dignity and respect.”

Jessica Theophile, the Vice-President of the Haitian-American Student Alliance, one of the event’s co-sponsors, agreed with Fernandez’s view.

“I got a different perspective than usual from a few of the speakers here,” she said. “It was good to see the academic side of the issue and the wide range of people who showed up for the event.”

“I also hope that events like this continue so that people don’t become desensitized to the issue,” she added. “The people affected by the earthquake are still suffering and it is important to always keep them in mind.”

Michael Fox can be reached at [email protected]