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Privilege as Blindness: Why North American Christians Need Haiti

For North American Christians seeking to follow the way of the crucified Christ who brought good news to the poor, this situation should be especially terrifying. It is not just that we participate in and benefit from the oppression of the Haitian people—itself an impediment to discipleship—but also that our social location makes it almost impossible for us to know that we are oppressors. I will use the United States Catholic bishops’ conference’s inadequate understanding of the U.S.’s relationship to Haiti to demonstrate this connection.

Bartolomé de Las Casas, the sixteenth-century Spanish Franciscan, offers us the way out of this pernicious moral blindness. Writing at the inception of Spain’s presence in the New World, Las Casas mounted one of the most complete critiques of imperialism to date. Because he recognized that theultimate purpose of Spain’s presence in the Indies was the acquisition of wealth and power by any means necessary, he was able to denounce not just Spain’s mistakes, but also Spain’s very presence in the New World. Las Casas remains relevant even today as, in terms of the racial distribution of wealth and power, the world of the twenty-first century is little changed from that of the sixteenth century.

Las Casas was able to see in his day what the North American church is unable to see in our own day in large part because, unlike the North American church, he chose to live in solidarity with the poor and oppressed. In other words, Las Casas saw differently because he lived differently. This way of life enabled him to overcome the epistemological limitations inherent to his membership in a social class that was privileged by his country’s imperial achievements. Without the epistemological corrective of the experience of solidarity, Christians living in the United States are defenseless against the distortions of their social location. Quite simply, Las Casas offers North American Christians and all people of privilege, the “only way” to truth and discipleship.1

Las Casas’s method is driven by the notion that the truth can be most fully perceived from below.2 Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes this as learning “to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled—in short, from the perspective of those who suffer.”3 Las Casas also demonstrates that, due to the epistemological impediments of social privilege, we cannot see rightly unless we see from the perspective of the marginalized, and we cannot see from this perspective unless we commit to live in solidarity with such persons, which is impossible without a corresponding commitment to poverty. In this way, seeing from below is not just an intellectual style, but first and foremost, it is a lived commitment, which in turn produces a distinctive intellectual style. In this way, sincerity and intelligence are insufficient for generating knowledge and understanding of such oppression and domination as occurred in the Indies and is ongoing in Haiti. As the contrasting examples of both Las Casas and the United States’s Catholic bishops’ conference will show, when persons benefit from or are privileged by a certain exploitative relationship, they are particularly incapable of judging the true nature of this relationship rightly—this occurs even when such persons are unaware or undesirous of their privilege.

Las Casas did not always see from the perspective of the Indians and did not always recognize the Indians as being victims of Spanish oppression. Las Casas was born seven years before Christopher Columbus arrived on the island of Hispaniola, which is today home to the nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Caught up in “the fever of discovery,” his father and uncle accompanied Columbus back to the island for a period lasting five years.4 With the money his father earned during this expedition, Las Casas was able to attend the prestigious college at Salamanca in order to begin studying for the priesthood.

When Las Casas turned nineteen, he voyaged to the island of Hispaniola for the first time in order to become an encomendero on land given to his father by Columbus. During his time on the island, Las Casas witnessed outbreaks of Spanish brutality towards the Indians and acquired his first awareness of Spanish misconduct in the Indies. Although he strongly denounced such violence, he did not see it as evidence that there was anything inherently wrong with the encomendero system. Las Casas thought that, because he was “good and kind” to the Indians he owned, he was guiltless.5

With time and experience, however, it became increasingly difficult for Las Casas to morally justify the encomienda system. Las Casas recalls how, in a mere eighteen months, Cuba, “once a tropical paradise, became before his eyes a hell on earth.”6 Had these effects been somehow invisible to Las Casas, either because he was relying upon the reports of other Spaniards or because he was not present in the Indies, it seems unlikely that he would have ever undergone such a radical transformation. Central to Las Casas’s ideological conversion was his experience of the Indians’ suffering. While searching for a scriptural passage on which to preach to his fellow encomenderos on Pentecost Sunday 1514, he encountered the following passage from Ecclesiasticus 34, which reads:

Unclean is the offering sacrificed by an oppressor. [Such] mockeries of the unjust are not pleasing [to God]. The Lord is pleased only by those who keep to the way of truth and justice. The Most High does not accept the gifts of unjust people. He does not look well upon their offerings. Their sins will not be expiated by repeat sacrifices. The one whose sacrifice comes from the goods of the poor is like one who kills his neighbor. The one who sheds blood and the one who defrauds the laborer are kin and kind.7

Upon reading this, Las Casas recognized that “everything the Spaniards had done in the Indies from the beginning [. . .] was completely wrong and mortal sin besides,” including his own actions.8 From this point on, he not only preached differently, but he also lived differently, renouncing the ownership of his slaves and property and turning them both over to the Spanish government.

This renunciation of privilege was also a renunciation of identity. In order to adopt the perspective of the victims, Las Casas had not only to inundate himself with their suffering but also to commit himself to poverty aimed at true solidarity with the Indians. As the liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez reminds us, “the ultimate goal of poverty as solidarity [. . .] is to take the side of the poor, even to the point of martyrdom.”9 Las Casas could not fully make sense of the suffering he had witnessed as long as he remained enmeshed in the encomendero system. The forfeiting of his position as encomendero sparked the liberation of his conscience.

Despite his denunciation of the encomendero system, Las Casas had yet to realize that Spain’s very presence in the New World was irreparably unjust. He thus devoted the next six years of his life to a doomed attempt at convincing Kings Ferdinand and Charles I to abolish the encomendero system and install a more just (but no less profitable) economic system in its place. Through this failure, Las Casas realized that it was not ignorance but greed that ultimately motivated the encomendero system. If it were merely ignorance, Las Casas reasoned, then surely the Spanish political elite would willingly embrace reform once they were told of the horrible effect this system had upon the Indians. Relieved of his naïveté, Las Casas finally realized that Spain would never abolish the slave trade as long as their activity in the New World was motivated primarily “by hopes of gain.”10 For the first time, Las Casas was able to see what was really at the heart of Spain’s presence in the New World—profit.

Defeated and ashamed, in 1522, Las Casas sought admission into the Dominican Order. This marks what has been called his “second conversion” in which he was transformed from “the priest-reformer who proposed to reconcile Spanish private interest and Indian welfare” to a person who “subordinated all Spanish interests, including those of the Crown, to Indian interests, material and spiritual.”11 During this time, he submitted to a strict aesthetic discipline, eating native foods, and fasting for seven months of the year instead of only during the seven weeks of Lent. Through this heightened commitment to poverty, Las Casas moved even further away from his identity as plantation-owning Spaniard and into closer solidarity with the Indians. And this shift in identity led him to not only call for the abolition of the encomendero system, but to also demand “freedom for the Indians and restoration of native rulers and native rule.”12 Las Casas demanded not only exit, but also reparation since “everything that the Spaniards held in the Indies had been stolen, everything that the Spaniard’s held in the Indies must be given back.”13

Once Las Casas recognized that Spain’s presence in the Indies was utterly illegitimate, motivated primarily by greed rather than benevolence, he was able to see through Spanish attempts to depict their conduct in the New World as being morally justified. Recognizing the human aptitude for self-delusion, Las Casas approached arguments in support of Spain’s actions in the New World with what is now called a hermeneutic of suspicion.

As bishop of Chiapa, Mexico, Las Casas “forbade absolution of any Spaniard [in his diocese] who did not restore everything he, or his family before him, had stolen from the Indians.” Arguing that “it is not right for [a colonist] to live with pomp and circumstance off what belongs to someone else, to live off the sweat of fellow human beings who owe him nothing,”14 Las Casas decreed that a penitent could not receive absolution for the sins he committed against the Indian people unless he first agreed not only to abandon these sins but also to give back the profits he had incurred by means of these sins.15

That these insights were the fruit of his method of poverty as solidarity becomes even clearer when comparing Las Casas’s treatment of the conquest to that of Francisco de Vitoria. Though both Las Casas and Vitoria were Spaniards who received similar theological training and lived in the same era, only Las Casas was able to mount an adequate critique to the Spanish conquest because only Las Casas saw the conquest “from below.” Unlike Las Casas who lived in the Indies and saw the effects of the conquest on the Indians first hand, Vitoria never lived there.16 Due to his personal experience of the effects of the conquest on the bodies of the Indian people, Las Casas grew to distrust Spanish justification for and accounts of their actions in the New World. Conversely, Vitoria was necessarily dependent upon Spanish people to learn of the realities in the New World, and he therefore never developed the suspicion requisite to right reason. Without the benefit of experience, Vitoria was unable to see that Spain’s presence in the Indies was motivated by profit and self-interest and could therefore never be conducted in a way that respected the rights of the Indians. Thus, while Vitoria developed a theory of justice, Las Casas was primarily concerned with the achievement of justice in the particular, real-world case of the Indies. As Roger Ruston argues, Las Casas was “not motivated by an interest in political theory but by a practical effort to counteract and eventually abolish a particular, historical form of oppression practices in the New World by the Spanish conquistadors and colonists.” In other words, he was not “interested in theoretical speculation or political theory for its own sake.”17 For this reason, Las Casas first “understood that he had been wrong” about the nature of the conquest, and then “in the days that followed proceeded to verify it in his books,”18 using the universal to support his experientially derived judgment about a particular. Las Casas was not unconcerned with the formulation of universally applicable principles of justice, but he realized that these principles are an unreliable means of understanding the truth of a particular situation.

Las Casas therefore concluded that “those that arrived at these Islands from the remotest parts of Spain [. . .] arrived for two primary reasons, to excommunicate and exterminate inhabitants of the Islands from the face of the earth” through “unjust, gory, and cruel war.” The ultimate motivation of this campaign of brutality was not benevolent trade, evangelization, or the defense of the Indian innocent, but “gold,” fueled by a “need to grow opulent in a short manner of time.”19 Vitoria judged the situation somewhat differently. While condemning unjustly conducted war against the Indians, Vitoria nonetheless believed that it was possible for the Spanish presence in the New World to be “for the benefit and good of the barbarians, and not merely for the profit of the Spaniards.” In this, Vitoria resembles pre-conversion Las Casas, who, under the self-deceptive power of his position as slave-owner, wrongly, albeit sincerely, believed that the encomienda could be good for both Indians and Spaniards. Quite simply, Vitoria’s inability to see from below led him to believe that Spain could be both good and rich at the same time, whereas Las Casas recognized that in the particular case of the Indies, this was impossible.

North Americans, like Las Casas prior to his second conversion, tend to have an overinflated sense of the United States’s benevolence. For example, in his recent Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, President Obama argued that although the United States military has made some mistakes in the past, overall, it has done more good than harm.21 Echoing this, conservative columnist Thomas Friedman recently wrote, “many big bad things happen in the world without America, but not a lot of big good things.”22 Similarly, in a 1994 New York Times article historian David Fromkin depicted the United States’s intentions with regard to Haiti as being “humanitarian” rather than “selfish” or imperialistic. For this reason, he argued that we must not let our desire to “rescue victims of terrible suffering” obscure the fact that “there are limits to what outsiders can do,” and “the armies we dispatch to foreign soil for humanitarian reasons may not be able to save the people from others or from themselves.’”23

The United States’s Catholic bishops’ conference is similarly affected by the epistemological disadvantages of their privileged social location. They, like Fromkin, believe that the United States truly desires Haitian prosperity. For example, in a letter to Warren Christopher, President Bush’s Secretary of State, the bishops describe the United States’s “desired goals [. . .] toward Haiti” as preventing a “worsening of the human, political, economic, and ecological disaster that already confronts that tragic land.”24

This belief in the fundamental benevolence of the United States, which is shared by President Obama, Friedman, and the Catholic bishops, differs dramatically from the view of Paul Farmer. In his book The Uses of Haiti, Farmer “privileges a ‘Haitian version’ of the country’s history,”25 much in the way Las Casas privileged an Indian version of history in A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies. Just as Las Casas wrote in order to correct the distortions present in histories told from Spain’s perspective, so too Farmer writes to correct the distortions present in histories told from a North American perspective. In this way, both Farmer and Las Casas wish to subvert an unjust status quo. Like Las Casas, Farmer is able to write in this way because he has lived in solidarity with the Haitian poor for most of his adult life.

As Farmer shows us, the United States has been an enemy of the Haitian people since the beginning. Despite the fact that after its revolutionary defeat of Napoleonic France, Haiti was the only other Republic in the Western hemisphere (and to this day, the only successful slave revolt in the history of the world), the United States fought with France against Haitian freedom. The independence of Haiti was the United States’s worst nightmare—the mere fact of Haitian self-rule threatened to disprove the natural inferiority of black to white that gave the institution of slavery its moral legitimacy. Moreover, many North Americans feared that the Haitian revolution would inspire a similar insurrection on U.S. soil. It is for this reason that Virginia Senator Eppes, Thomas Jefferson’s son-in-law, pledged, “to venture the treasury of the United States that the Negro government should be destroyed.”26 The United States would not even recognize the existence of the Haitian Republic until 1862, and would only do so in response to the newly acquired attractiveness of the “black country . . . as a place to dump freed slaves.”27

France would agree to recognize Haiti’s independence and to withdraw the threat of reconquest only on the condition that Haiti repay the former French slave owners for their losses.28 In 1900, nearly one hundred years later, Haiti would still be suffering mightily under the weight of this unjustly imposed debt, as “80 percent of total national revenue—most of it derived directly from peasant labor—was going to repay foreign debts.” Clearly, white supremacy was even more central to the founding ideals of both the United States and France than the so-called rights of man.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Haiti would prove to be incredibly important to the American economy, as by 1851, the United States sold more to Haiti than it did even to Mexico, in spite of the fact that the United States had yet to recognize Haiti’s independence. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Haiti would increasingly become a victim of U.S. and European “gunboat diplomacy” as the U.S. navy sent warships into Haiti waters to “protect the lives and property of American citizens” twenty-five times between 1849 and 1915.29

The culmination of this increasingly violent economic relationship came in 1915 when the U.S. Marines invaded and conquered Haiti. After disbanding Haiti’s parliament, the U.S. Senate imposed upon Haiti the Convention Haitiano-Americaine, which gave the United States complete political, administrative, and economic control over Haiti. To exercise this control to its advantage, the United States then wrote a new constitution for Haiti, and with this constitution, the the United States overturned the law that forbade foreign ownership of land—this law was one of the most famous and significant products of the Haitian Revolution. As a result, North American corporations were granted 266,000 acres of land for new plantations of rubber, bananas, sugar, sisal, and mahogany. It is estimated that 50,000 Haitian peasants in the north alone lost land.30 It was not enough for the North American business elite to have land from which to profit, they also needed laborers to work it. Invoking a law ratified by the U.S. Senate, the U.S. Marine occupiers were given the power to involuntarily conscript Haitians into labor crews.31 In other words, the United States re-instituted slavery in Haiti. The American people were largely supportive of the occupation; for example, the New York daily Financial America reported, “The run-of-the-mill Haitian is handy, easily directed, and gives a hard day’s labor for 20 cents, while in Panama the same day’s work costs $3.”32 It is estimated that during their occupation, the Marines killed over 15,000 Haitians. When the U.S. Marines left Haiti in 1934, Haiti not only was 40 million dollars in debt to the United States, but also, with its ability to grow its own food destroyed, it was almost entirely dependent upon the importation of food from the United States.33

The occupation, which enriched American business interests and nearly destroyed Haiti’s political infrastructure, paved the way for the brutal dictatorships of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. The fourteen-year dictatorship of Papa Doc, which began in 1957, was marked by repression, brutality, and the murder of around 50,000 Haitians, yet the United States did not attempt to depose him. In fact, the Doc dictatorships were quite good for American business interests because they suppressed and oppressed the poor by any means possible. In other words, in keeping Haitian land out of the hands of the Haitian poor, the Duvaliers maximized the profit of Americans who owned land in Haiti.

As a result, Haiti became “a darling of the American business community,” as “U.S. taxpayers funded major efforts to establish assembly plants for U.S. manufacturers, who were able to benefit from such advantages as enormous unemployment (thanks in part to USAID policies emphasizing agro export), no unions, ample terror, [and] workers at wages of 14 cents an hour.”34This economic exploitation of the Haitian poor, who constitute the overwhelming majority of the Haitian population, was underwritten by American military might as “it was standard operating procedure for employers to call in armed forces, either uniformed troops or groups of thugs, to frighten workers who have begun an organizing effort or to terrorize workers who sought to bargain or go on strike.” Although Haiti’s position as the “ninth largest assembly of goods for U.S. consumption” was economically lucrative to American business, it was devastating to the people of Haiti, who saw a fifty-six percent decline in their wages during the 1980s.35 An already poor nation was sunk into an even deeper and more desperate impoverishment36 as the United States continued to grow rich off the suffering of the Haitian poor.

In 1990, after decades of dictatorship, democratic elections finally came to Haiti. In a fair and free election, the Haitian people elected Jean Bertrand Aristide, a Catholic priest who had risked his life speaking out on behalf of the poor.37 Upon his inauguration, Aristide pledged to lift the poorest of the poor “from misery to poverty with dignity” and would ask the Haitian elite to pay significant taxes for the first time in history. The sincerity of this spoken commitment was evidenced in his actions as president. He declined his $10,000 per month salary on the grounds that it was “scandalous in a country where most people go to bed hungry.”38 He launched a major adult literacy program and committed himself to passing agrarian reform in order to give publicly held lands to the landless poor. He also increased the minimum wage from fifteen to twenty-five gourdes per day—the equivalent of three dollars a day. Prior to his presidency, Haiti had two categories of citizenship: one for the predominantly white or mulatto upper classes, who enjoyed full citizenship rights, and one for the black, mostly rural, majority. In 1991, Aristide signed a decree abolishing this distinction.39 During his presidency, the Haitian treasury achieved a positive balance for the first time. As a result of this multifaceted improvement of the Haitian quality of life, the number of people attempting to flee the country by boat was at its lowest point in recent memory.

If the United States were truly concerned with the well-being of the Haitian people, then it seems as though we would have lent wholehearted support to the presidency of Aristide. However, rather than rejoicing in the election, the United States denounced it because it was bad for business. The United States looked the other way while CIA-trained Haitian military personnel orchestrated a particularly violent coup against Aristide, removing him from office merely eight months after his inauguration. Although the Bush administration initially enacted a punitive embargo against the executors of the coup, it not only lifted this embargo relatively quickly, but it also launched a public relations campaign against Aristide, arguing, “If Aristide had been overthrown, it was his own fault.”40 Incredibly, the Duvaliers, dictators committed to repression and brutality, were deemed more worthy of office than Aristide, a democratically elected president dedicated to lifting the poorest of the poor from “misery to poverty with dignity.”

After the repeal of this short-lived embargo, the United States would continue to profit mightily off of the Haitian people. Unconscionably, in 1993, “exports from Haiti to the United States included food from the starving country, which increase by thirty-five thousand percent from January-July 1992 to January-July 1993.”41 Certainly, the fact that a country of starving people grows food to feed a country of excessively well-fed gluttons, without even receiving wages sufficient to replace the food they have exported, is a situation of gross injustice. Despite this, the United States refused to let Haitian refugees enter their country.

Aristide was restored to power in 1994 by President Bill Clinton’s administration, with only a few months left in his term of office. Elected to a second term in 2000, Aristide’s attempts to bring justice to the poor would again be opposed both by the United States and by Haiti’s wealthy elite. In 2001, the second Bush administration blocked four loans of $146 million that had been fully approved by the Inter-American Development Bank for projects aimed at bringing clean water, health, education, and roads to the rural poor of Haiti. Recognizing that Aristide’s efforts to lift his country’s poor from “misery to poverty with dignity,”—for example, by raising the minimum wage from thirty-five to seventy gourdes (US$2) a day—would cut back on the profits and privilege of the Haitian and North American elite, the International Republican Institute (IRI) began organizing Aristide’s coup as early as the beginning of 2002.42 The IRI, an international offshoot of the Republican Party, spent 3 million dollars a year funding so-called “opposition organizing” in Haiti. Similarly, in January 2003, Denis Paradis, Canada’s secretary of state, convened a meeting in Ottawa to draw up plans to overthrow the Aristide government before the 2004 bicentennial of Haiti’s independence from France.43

It was Aristide’s actions on April 7, 2003, the bicentennial of the death of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian revolution, however, that most enraged his North American and French enemies. Announcing the findings of a restitution commission formed by his government, Aristide reported that France owed Haiti $21 billion, the value in current dollars extorted from Haiti by France following its successful slave rebellion.44 In response, French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin sent his sister to Port-au-Prince to persuade Aristide to resign from office.45

The February 2004 coup was a carefully coordinated effort among the United States, France, the Haitian elite, and disaffected former members of Baby Doc’s military police force. In February 2004, three hundred American-armed rebels entered Haiti, announcing their intention to enter Port-au-Prince and murder Aristide. Later it would be clear that their violent pillage of the Haitian countryside was a diversionary tactic intended to scare Aristide into resigning.46 When Aristide refused to resign, he was kidnapped. At 3:45 AM on February 29, 2004, American Special Forcers Soldiers entered Aristide’s home in Port-au-Prince, kidnapped Aristide and his wife, placed them in a helicopter, and dropped them off in the Central African Republic. Despite North American claims that Aristide voluntarily resigned, the fact that the Central African Republic is a military dictatorship that has strong ties of dependency to France and with which Aristide had no connections makes it unlikely that Aristide would have sought exile there.47Furthermore, a few days after the coup, French President Jacques Chirac called President Bush to praise “the excellent French-American cooperation in Haiti” and “to thank the United States for its action”; he also said he was “delighted by the quality of the cooperation”48 between the two countries in their handling of the Haitian situation. On March 29, 2004, a study issued by the Investigation Commission on Haiti, a group created in 1991 by Attorney General Ramsey Clark and composed of religious persons and lawyers of several nations, concluded that the United States armed and trained the groups that rose against former President Aristide.49

As this narration of the history of Haiti as told from the underside shows, the desired goals of U.S. policy toward Haiti have contributed greatly to the human, political, economic, and ecological disaster that confronts that nation. The United States’ Catholic bishops’ conference, however, has tended to perceive the United States as a benevolent protector of Haitian well-being.50 The fact that the United States bishops look to Haiti’s oppressor to be its protector reveals just how oblivious they are to the truth in this particular situation.

According to the bishops, the historical causes of Haiti’s misery are “grinding poverty, denial of human rights, predatory government, indiscriminate violence and the indifference of outsiders.”51 However, as Paul Farmer shows us, the bishops’ belief that “outsiders” are “indifferent” to events within Haiti could not be further from the truth. The bishops’ understanding of Haitian history resembles a softer, more charitably worded version of that articulated by Friedman—in other words, it seems as though the bishops believe the Haitians are largely to blame for their own situation. The bishops do not think it strange that the first republic in the western hemisphere would enjoy such abundance while the second would be subject to “grinding poverty,” nor do they find it worthy of explanation how the only nation in the history of the world to successfully wage a slave rebellion lacked the skills requisite for self-governance. Underlying this worldview is the unconsciously operative assumption that the prosperity of the United States and the destitution of Haiti are the results not of history but of national character and identity. This premise is the apparent starting point from which all conclusions are drawn.

Moreover, in response to the 1991 overthrow of President Aristide, the bishops pressured the United States government to take a “tougher stance toward the military junta that has thwarted Haiti’s democratically elected government.”52 They responded similarly to the 2004 coup. In a statement issued by Bishop John J. Ricard, the bishops “call on [their] government and the international community urgently to increase the provision and deployment of armed peace-keeping forces throughout the country.”53However, in neither situation do the bishops mention the United States’s involvement in the coups—seemingly, they are either ignorant or disbelieving of evidence suggesting the United States was directly involved in the execution of both coups. The bishops nowhere mention the fact that Aristide’s presidencies were in conflict with the interests of the American business community. Also, while the bishops released statements following each coup, they failed to release statements in support of the economic and social programs implemented by Aristide during his presidencies.

If the bishops recognized that the United States is in no small part responsible for Haiti’s misery, perhaps they would devote themselves to denouncing America’s militarily underwritten economic exploitation of Haiti, which would in turn require them to denounce the American way of life, which is sustained by such exploitation. Rather than encouraging the United States to be more generous and giving, the bishops would exhort the United States to be less selfish and exploitative.

Rather than seeing from above, the American bishops, like all North American Christians, need to see from the below of the lived experience of the Haitian poor. When we see from below, we will see both Haiti and the United States differently. As Las Casas demonstrates, this epistemological conversion is impossible without a corresponding commitment to poverty as solidarity with Haitians living in poverty. Until we commit ourselves to such solidarity, our efforts on behalf of the Haitian people will not only continue to be ineffective, but will also justify an imperialist status quo, which locates the problem in the incompetence and weakness of the Haitian people rather than in the self-interested avarice of the United States.

In the wake of this terrible earthquake, the Haitian people need what they have always needed: justice. Our charity, though necessary, is not enough. For too long, the United States has been a rich country that has believed itself also to be a good country. But as our historical involvement in Haiti suggests, the United States has not been a good country. Embracing the truth of Las Casas, we must realize that we cannot be both good and rich. Let us therefore choose to be disciples.

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1.  Reference to Las Casas’s work on evangelization entitled, Bartolome de las Casas: The Only Way, ed. Helen Rand Parish, trans. Francis Patrick Sullivan (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1992).

2. Jon Sobrino develops this method in Jesus the Liberator: A Historical Theological Reading of Jesus of Nazareth (Harrisburg, PA: Continuum International Publishing, 1994) and Christ the Liberator: A View from the Victims (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001).

3. Paul Farmer, The Uses of Haiti (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 2005), 259.

4. Las Casas, Bartolome de las Casas,12.

5. Ibid., 13.

6. Ibid., 19.

7. Ibid., 20.

8. Ibid.

9. Gustavo Gutierrez, Class Notes, University of Notre Dame, October 2, 2007.

10. Las Casas, Bartolome de las Casas, 28.

11. Roger Ruston, Human Rights and the Image of God (London, UK: SCM Press, 2004), 124.

12. Ibid., 52

13. Las Casas, Bartolome de las Casas, 35.

14. Ruston, Human Rights, 138 and 285.

15. Francis Patrick Sullivan, Indian Freedom: The Cause of Bartolome de las Casas: A Reader (Lanham, MD: Sheed and Ward, 1995), 269.

16. Francisco de Vitoria, Political Writings, ed. Anthony Pagden and Jeremy Lawrance (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

17. Ruston, Human Rights, 120.

18. Las Casas, Bartolome de las Casas, 20.

19. Ibid., A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies (Scotts Valley, CA: CreateSpace, 2009), 13 and 14.

20. de Vitoria, Political Writings, 291.

21. In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, President Obama said, “Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: the United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms [. . .] We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest—because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe their lives will be better if other peoples’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.”

22. Thomas Friedman, “This I Believe,” New York Times, Opinion, December 2, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/02/opinion/02friedman.html.

23. As quoted by Noam Chomsky in his introduction to Paul Farmer, Uses of Haiti, 14. The original column appeared as David Fromkin, “Don’t Send in the Marines,” New York Times, Magazine, February 27, 1994,http://www.nytimes.com/1994/02/27/magazine/don-t-send-in-the-marines.html.

24. Daniel P. Reilly, “Letter to Secretary Warren Christopher,” Justice, Peace and Human Development, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington DC, http://www.usccb.org/sdwp/international/rilydos.shtml.

25. Farmer, The Uses of Haiti, 56.

26. Randall Robinson, An Unbroken Agony: Haiti, From Revolution to the Kidnapping of a President (New York, NY: Basic Civitas Books, 2007), 69.

27. Farmer, The Uses of Haiti, 16.

28. Paul Farmer, Aids and Accusation: Haiti and the Geography of Blame(Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993), 167.

29. Ibid., 174-176.

30. Ibid., 174.

31. Farmer, The Uses of Haiti, 83.

32. As quoted by Farmer, Ibid.

33. Ibid., 182-183.

34. Ibid., 20.

35. Ibid., 20 and 20-21.

36. Farmer, Aids and Accusation, 167.

37. Robinson, An Unbroken Agony, 29.

38. Farmer, The Uses of Haiti, 24-25, 133, 133-134, and 165.

39. Robinson, An Unbroken Agony, 39.

40. Farmer, The Uses of Haiti, 168.

41. Ibid., 91.

42. Robinson, An Unbroken Agony, 153-155.

43. Ibid., 42. Paradis gave an interview about the so-called “Ottawa Initiative” with a daily weblog called The Dominion:http://www.dominionpaper.ca/weblog/2004/09/interview_with_denis_paradis_on_haiti_regime_change.html.

44. Ibid., 57.

45. Ibid., 59.

46. Ibid., 196.

47. Ibid., 198-203.

48. See “Aristide’s kidnapping claims upset Central African hosts,” Associated Press, March 2, 2004, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/4244322/ and Christine Ollivier, “Bush, Chirac Find Common Ground in Haiti,” Associated Press, March 3, 2004, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A25196-2004Mar3.html.

49. Interview with General Ramsey Clark, “A Clear Demonstration of U.S. Regime Change By Armed Aggression,” Democracy Now, March 2004,http://www.democracynow.org/2004/3/2/ramsey_clark_on_haiti_a_clear.

50. Reilly, “Letter.”

51. Ibid.

52. “Churches keep pressure on U.S. Haiti policy,” Christian Century, May 18-25, 1994.

53. John H. Ricard, “Statement on Haiti” Justice, Peace and Human Development, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, March 2, 2004,http://www.usccb.org/sdwp/international/haiti04.shtml.

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Katie Grimes :
Katie Grimes is currently in the first year of her doctoral program in theological ethics at Boston College. She is originally from Marion, Ohio.