Haitian Lessons in Liberation: The Legacies of Louis Mars and Foreign Aid

Dec 27, 2019
10:36 AM

Entrepreneur and youth leader Pascéus Juvensky St. Fleur, 26, holds up his copy of the Haitian constitution during an interview with the AP, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Tuesday, October 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

Earlier this month, the U.S.’s House of Foreign Affairs Committee held its first hearing on Haiti in six years to discuss the current anti-corruption movement against President Jovenel Moïse. The invited witnesses spoke at length about the Haitian government’s continued resistance to accountability and how foreign arms wielded by gangs have added to the danger and instability. However, rather than merely asking for continued American aid, the leaders condemned U.S. support for Moïse, who many consider to be an illegitimate president, and demanded a shift towards a more collaborative and civilian-centered relationship between the two nations. This frustration, embedded even in the very emergence of the country, implores us to ask: What has it meant to help Haiti?

We need not look back far for examples. During the two-decade long U.S. occupation of the island in the early 20th century, the Catholic Church made a particularly strong effort to do just that. In accordance with international pressure from the Church, the Haitian government began several “anti-superstition” campaigns that ultimately terrorized anyone practicing or leading Vodou ceremonies. Temples were burned and practitioners were maimed and often killed. Peaking under U.S.-backed Haitian President Élie Lescot, these campaigns sought to drive the nation’s most prevalent religion away from the public eye. Even amidst this brutality, U.S. support emphasized short-term stability over systematic change and support of the people.

So when Dr. Louis Mars, Haiti’s first psychiatrist, returned from his trainings in Paris and New York City, he found a population that had been forced to distance themselves from their primary source of mental and spiritual health. These conditions inspired his book, “Temoignanges I: Essai ethnopsychologique,” which explored the role Vodou played in treating mental illnesses affecting many Haitians. In this way, Mars endeavored to remove the stigma from the inherent strength of his people and undermine the influence of outsiders who mistook their interference for salvation. While the bulk of U.S. aid has historically gone towards health-based endeavors, Mars’ work revealed how political corruption can actually contribute to health crises despite a façade of governmental stability.

Haiti has long needed the type of help that would amplify, rather than distort the voice of the people. Haitians have long nurtured a liberatory fire within them that only requires the right spark to do its work. From the Island’s early slave rebellions inspired by Francois Mackandal, to the legendary revolution launched by Cécile Fatiman and Dutty Boukman, this fire has endured. It lit up (in under 40 characters) on August 14, 2018 when Gilbert Mirambeau Jr. tweeted: “Kot Kòb Petwo Karibe a?” or “Where is the Petrocaribe money?”

Over a year later, Haitian people throughout the diaspora have again proven themselves tireless in their demand for justice. Protesters have taken to the streets holding symbolic funerals for government corruption, domestic elitism, and foreign imperialism.

Unfortunately, we find similar endurance among international efforts to mute the voice of Haitian people. Indeed, it took months before U.S. outlets began to seriously analyze the political situation in Haiti and then just weeks before many started to use Haiti’s anti-corruption protests as further evidence of the nation’s inability to self-govern. While the vociferous bigotry of those that would call Haiti a “shithole” is easy to condemn, the infantilizing of those that think themselves saviors is truly insidious.

Running parallel to Haiti’s history of resilience is one of “parachuting” aid. This term references foreign aid workers that have flown into “developing” countries with ill-fitting medical concepts, cultural ignorance, and general inexperience only to pathologize the people when interventions failed. While the term was coined in reference to health work, it also appropriately characterizes the emphasis on short-term solutions that have plagued many international efforts in Haiti. After the 2010 earthquake, this looked like the Red Cross burning away millions of donated funds outside of the country and Nepalese U.N. workers infecting the local water supply with cholera, which ultimately claimed tens of thousands of lives. During the U.S. occupation, it looked like supporting a president while he tried to destroy the faith of his people.

The historical trauma of foreign interlopers re-shuffling the cultural context of the island, even under the best of intentions, has played a role in Haiti’s political instability. Foreign aid workers can often perpetuate trauma by leading efforts that diminish the resilience, health, and self-determination of those they are serving. However, as Mars did in the mid-20th century, there are those on the Island today who allow its extant fire to guide their work. For example, Zanmi Lasante, a mental health organization in the northern plateau of Haiti, has made concerted efforts to include Haitian Vodou and Catholicism in their mental health work within the current political landscape. In a recent interview, the head of Zanmi Lasante, Dr. Eddie Eustache, affirmed the necessity of collaboration between practitioners of healthcare, Christianity, and Vodou in order to truly focus on healing amidst this period of political contention.

It is essential that we recognize the creativity and agency that guides the Haitian anti-corruption movement. While Haiti does not need saviors, those on the ground could use collaborators. They could use the help of allies throughout the international community that heed the expertise of local leaders contributing to mental health care, physical health care, and political resistance. If anyone is truly concerned with supporting Haitians, they can learn from the recent and distant past—true salvation is birthed from within, not given from the outside.


Evan Auguste is a doctoral candidate in Clinical Psychology at Fordham University. He recently published an academic piece overviewing how Haitian Vodou has been key in Haitian mental health interventions. He tweets from @SonDessalines.