"Haiti Needs a New Narrative" | On the Media – WNYC Studios

August 4, 2021
Brandy Zadrozny: This is the On The Media mid-week podcast. I’m Brandy Zadrozny sitting in for Brooke Gladstone.
Brandy: On July 7, Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated in his home.
Speaker 1: The horror in Haiti, the first lady also shot.
Speaker 2: Authorities in Haiti said the assassins were foreign mercenaries who had posed as US Drug Enforcement Administration agents in the raid on his home.
Brandy: The question of who was behind the assassination is still an open one, but Moïse had his share of enemies.
Speaker 2: For the last 18 months, the 53-year-old had been ruling the country by decree without parliament. The opposition accused him of corruption and ties to organized crime.
Brandy: In the wake of Moïse’s assassination, international media coverage followed a timeworn template to describe events in the island nation emphasizing instability-
Speaker 3: Haiti has been in more than its usual share of chaos recently.
Speaker 4: Haiti is a country in chaos where acts of everyday life have come to pose a mortal risk.
Brandy: -and violence.
Speaker 5: Life in Haiti seems to have returned to normal, but the normal Haitians are used to is violence.
Brandy: It’s a pattern with old roots.
Speaker 6: Here’s Port-au-Prince, Haiti in 1915, chief city of an island nation torn by internal troubles. The United States Marines land in Haiti to battle Haitian bandits, threatening destruction of American properties and native bandits quickly [unintelligible 00:01:28].
Brandy: Time and again, after a coup, an earthquake, an assassination, the world’s first Black republic has flattened into a narrative of perpetual chaos. Haitians turned into desperate victims in need of generous international aid.
Speaker 7: We’re their largest donor in terms of assistance of all kinds. Spare a thought for our brothers and sisters in Haiti tonight. They are really staring into the abyss right now. Haiti, of course, an absolutely beleaguered country.
Brandy: Nathalie Cerin, co-founder and lead editor of Woy Magazine, a Haitian online media project, says this trend removes essential context.
Nathalie Cerin: Haitians have been sounding the alarm about the culture of violence that has been allowed to reign under this current regime and how dispensable life has become and how unacceptable people’s quality of life have become that massacres have become commonplace.
Brandy: Cerin is referring to the anti-corruption pro-democracy movements that had been mobilizing against Moïse since shortly after he came to power. Among other things, calling for accountability after a $2 billion fund earmarked to build Haitian infrastructure and social programs disappeared into thin air under Moïse’s watch. Protests peaked this February when Moïse refused to step down at the end of his term, but Cerin says, this pro-democracy protest didn’t make international headlines in the way that similar protests in Hong Kong or Cuba did. They didn’t get the political attention either.
Nathalie: It’s not politically convenient for the United States to make a story of these movements because the United States government has bipartisan support of this current regime. These guys were basically handpicked by the US government.
Brandy: In fact, Haiti’s history is marked by US invasion, occupation, and election meddling. As of last month, the meddling continues.
Speaker 8: In the wake of Moïse’s assassination on July the 7th, a core group of foreign nations backed Ariel on route to take the reigns as Haiti’s new prime minister.
Brandy: A cycle. Whenever a Haitian crisis pops up on our radar, TV pundits rush to play catch up. Here’s Conan O’Brien mocking the practice on his show in 2018.
Conan O’Brien: To understand today’s Haiti, you need to know its history. This should only take a minute and 23 seconds.
Brandy: Indeed, it’s much easier to reduce Haiti to a soundbite. You’ve no doubt heard it before as a phrase so ubiquitous. The poet Jean-Claude Martineau calls it Haiti’s famous last name.
Speaker 9: Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
Speaker 10: Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
Speaker 11: It is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
Gina Athena Ulysse: It means it’s Black, it is incapable of self-governance.
Brandy: Gina Athena Ulysse is a Professor of Feminist Studies at UC Santa Cruz and the author of Why Haiti Needs New Narratives.
Gina: It takes Haiti and places it in its own category. What is happening in Haiti isn’t like anything that’s happening anywhere else in the world. When we hear Haiti is the “poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere”, it tells us absolutely nothing. It doesn’t tell us, for example, that there’s extreme wealth there. It doesn’t tell us that there’s a class system, a very entrenched class system there. It doesn’t tell us there are forces that have developed to render what was once the most profitable colony in the Caribbean to become the “poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere”.
Brandy: What are the things that should be well-known about Haiti before we seek to tell the recent story of tragedy or unrest?
Gina: Haiti paid a big price in the aftermath of the Haitian revolution. Haiti conquered three major European armies, declared itself a sovereign country. One of the first things that was written in the Haitian constitution is that any person that lands in Haiti who is Black will be free, at a time when the rest of the world was engaged in slavery, was benefitting from slavery, so Haiti was isolated as a result of that.
Part of that history is understanding the impact that the American occupation, for example, has had on Haiti from 1915 to 1934. It was the American government that actually instituted the Haitian police. In the late ’60s and ’70s, the United States supported the dictatorship. I actually want to stay away from thinking about these big historical moments because I think there’s a way, when we talk about Haiti, we focus on what has become a brief timeline of Haiti and here are the key moments we need to pay attention to. They tend to be moments of “upheaval”.
Brandy: You’re saying that we cherry-pick or maybe, I suppose, tragedy-pick the news out of Haiti. We only turn our lens to the country when there is violence or suffering or a crisis going on. That in turn distorts how we view those events. You’re a writer, and I was really interested in the appetite for Haiti’s stories.
Gina: I pitched a story and somebody said to me, “Oh, no, no, no. We don’t have time for this right now. Why don’t you just come back the next time there’s a crisis? We can get you to do something else.” I was like, “Wow.” Clearly, this person is not going to be interested in a non-crisis story. It erases the humans who are living with this. They are seen as super resilient or the fact that, “Oh well, they’re Haitians. They’re used to violence.” Actually, no, they’re not.
Brandy: In your book, you referred to a particularly salient moment, an Haitian earthquake coverage that happened on CNN. Can you describe that?
Gina: That was a painful moment when Anderson Cooper was interviewing Ben Hall.
Ben Hall: One of the ladies that I met today, she said her five-year-old and one and a half-year-old were crushed by the building when she was away. When I asked her, “Well, did you have time to bury her before your leaving?” She simply said, “[foreign language] I threw them away.”
Anderson Cooper: She said she threw her kids away?
Ben: She just tossed her kids away. I said, “Why don’t you Haitians cry?” She said, “There’s no point. They’re dead already. That’s over and done with.”
Anderson: I think there’s been generations of suffering on this island. We know they’ve had from dictatorships and killings at night and people who have no power really have absolutely no power. There’s this resignation almost at times of people just throw up their shoulders and say, “You know what, this is the way it’s always been.”
Ben: I think that’s part of this, is the explanation. I can’t believe that is the whole part of the situation. Can you imagine a mother say, in any culture, “I threw them away”?
Gina: How could you not recognize something this unbelievable, this shocking? It was a few seconds and the entire world changed. Someone is traumatized, but you described them as them as non-human. Then if you’re Black, you know your humanity is always in question.
Brandy: Well, you’ve written really beautifully that Haitians are, and I’m quoting you, “portrayed historically as fractures, as fragments, bodies without minds, heads without bodies or roving spirits”. When the media needs quotes or analysis, who is speaking for them?
Gina: The experts are usually white men or it’s white woman here and there, and then the voice of experience is the Haitian as though Haitians themselves are not capable of analysis. Guess what? They can speak for themselves. Haiti has new narratives, but no one is actually listening to what people in Haiti are saying because the voices in Haiti that have always mattered are the voices of the rich, are the voices of the people who are able to pay lobbyists, and the people considered to be the more capable ones. No one wants to hear from a “peasant” or grassroots organization.
Brandy: In American media, the US is sometimes portrayed as a benevolent and concerned neighbor who is trying to find ways to help in Haiti, often through political or military intervention.
Speaker: The US military are being greeted by shouts of joy. The people there thought the US government had come to take over, and they were really happy about it. Martha Raddatz described it as a “please occupy us” atmosphere.
Speaker: President Biden answers Haiti’s call for help, sending in a team to assess the political instability that is on the brink of humanitarian crisis.
Brandy: What do you make of that framing?
Gina: The perception is Haiti always needs intervention. It’s almost like Haiti’s a US protectorate. Under President Obama, Haiti’s [unintelligible 00:09:56] was continually undermined. The same way the United States government and core group is pushing for elections. Now, they are pushed for and assured elections were held in Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake. When Haitians were saying, “It’s absolutely impossible.” What ended up happening back then is what Haitians call not an election, a selection because the infamous Michel Martelly was selected to become president of Haiti.
Speaker 12: All the main opposition candidates denouncing fraud during Sunday’s vote.
Speaker 13: International election monitors in Haiti say that Sunday’s general election was valid despite what they called serious irregularities.
Speaker 14: It is a great pleasure and an honor for me to welcome the president-elect to the state department.
Gina: The fact that there’s been this kleptocratic corruptive government in place who actually go by “legal bandits” that’s what they call themselves. Why I give the Biden administration of big F is that they upheld Moïse. Who gets to decide what Haitians should live with? Why is that decision outside of the hands of the actual masses of people? Why is it it’s international communities that are making these decisions?
Brandy: The assassination was followed by several outlets, including The Washington Post calling for US intervention. I think “Was boots on the ground” claiming that they’ve historically brought some stability to Haiti, but you’re saying that’s not true.
Gina: No, it’s not. There’s an economics to interventions. When people say, for example, that Haitians squandered $13 billion in aid, well, your average Haitian did not get a check. The money did not go to people. It went to organizations, it went to the NGOs, mostly foreign-led. Did we forget that that was a complete disaster, Haitian people at the grassroots level and we’re saying, absolutely not? We do not need the boots on the ground.
Brandy: What are the Haiti stories that we’re not hearing?
Gina: There are people in Haiti who are committed to Haiti, despite how harsh things have been. There’s love in Haiti, people’s commitment to one another. People get together and debate and try to think through and figure out what are the possible ways of engaging? We tend to not think about that. When we see people protests, for example, we see the opposition, but we don’t see, what is the inspiration?
Brandy: Is there a path for the American media to actually cover Haitian news well and not just the tragedy and the violence?
Gina: We are living in a moment and in a world where class struggle is everywhere. When we’re thinking about the gap between the rich and the poor in the entire world there’s been upheaval. The ordinariness of the act, I think is something that we need to keep more in mind so that we don’t continue to demonize Haiti and this narrative of #turmoil. Just coming back to Haiti every time there’s a moment it’s not the way to cover Haiti. Who’s talking to the civil society groups right now after this dies down? What are they doing? That would be a fascinating story.
Brandy: Professor Ulysse, thank you so much.
Gina: Well, thank you so much, Brandy.
Brandy: Gina Athena Ulysse is a professor of feminist studies at UC Santa Cruz and author of Why Haiti Needs New Narratives.
Brandy: Join us for the big show this weekend, where we’re going to look at the history of the vaccine regret trope we’ve been seeing all over the media lately. Also, an interview with Julie K. Brown, the intrepid reporter who’s reporting help to put Jeffrey Epstein behind bars. See you then.
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