Dr. Avalos on Pat Robertson's Haiti Comments

Written for Ames Iowa's The Tribune:
Haitians were just starting to be dug out from collapsed buildings, when Pat Robertson, the televangelist and former presidential candidate, told us he knew what had caused Haiti’s horrific earthquake.

Hint: It was not geology.

As Robertson phrased it on his show, The 700 Club (Jan. 13): “They (Haitians) were under the heel of the French ... And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said we will serve you if you get us free from the French.” Haiti’s earthquake and poverty are punishment for that pact.

Where do Robertson’s ideas come from? The earliest trace of any legend of a Haitian “pact to the Devil” is a book on the history of Haiti (titled, “Histoire de la Révolution de Saint-Domingue”) published in 1814 by a French inhabitant of Haiti named Antoine Dalmas.

According to Dalmas, on the first night of the Haitian revolution (Aug. 20 to 21, 1791), some slaves at a plantation drank the blood of a black pig sacrificed to an African deity. The ritual supposedly made participants invincible.

That’s pretty much it. Later writers added more dramatic and uncorroborated details, including an oath. Since the ceremony involved nothing beyond a few hundred slaves, it cannot be described as an entire nation making a pact.

Nonetheless, Dalmas describes a ceremony associated with Voodoo, the collective name for diverse African religious traditions, which were often combined with Christian elements, in Haiti.

Voodoo, now an officially recognized Haitian religion, was often denigrated as devil-worship by Christian slavemasters. Robertson simply continues this demonization of African religions.

And as for poverty being God’s punishment for Voodoo, a World Bank study, titled Social Resilience and State Fragility in Haiti (2007), calculates a poverty rate of 47 percent for Voodoo practitioners, 49 percent for Catholics and 51 percent for Baptists. Therefore, Haitian Christians actually are slightly poorer.

Furthermore, Haitian slaves did not see just the “French” as their oppressors. Haitians saw white Christians enslaving them. Since Christianity was not helping them, slaves appealed to their African gods. Slaves could argue the appeal worked because Haiti became the only nation established by a successful slave revolt.

However, Haitians paid a price for liberty. First, their revolution devastated the sugar industry, the heart of their economy. Revenues plummeted.

France also imposed a price of 150 million francs (perhaps tens of billions in today’s dollars) to recognize Haiti’s nationhood in 1825. Paying that debt with already limited resources proved difficult. It took Haiti until 1947 to pay it off.

Moreover, big slave-trading countries initially refused official recognition of Haiti’s nationhood in order to punish it for the sin of overthrowing slavery. The United States waited until 1862. This delay further distanced Haiti from all the benefits of trade that accompany recognized nationhood. Thus, much of Haiti’s poverty resulted from burdens imposed by outsiders.

And this brings me to Iowa pigs. The former president of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, wrote a book called “Eyes of the Heart: Seeking a Path for the Poor in the Age of Globalization” (2000), which claims Iowa pigs impoverished Haiti even more.

According to Aristide, prior to the 1980s, Haiti used very hardy local (Creole) pigs that could withstand tropical heat and eat almost anything.

But, in 1982, international agencies, many influenced by the United States, convinced Haitians to slaughter their pigs because of concerns about a swine flu epidemic. The United States promised that better pigs would be substituted, and these came mostly from Iowa.

However, Iowa pigs required clean water, which was unavailable to 80 percent of Haitians. Special roofed pens had to be built because Iowa pigs were susceptible to the sun. While Haitian pigs ate anything, feed for American pigs cost $90 per year in a country where the annual per capita income was $130.

If a pig sacrifice helped to liberate Haiti in 1791, Haitians were being sacrificed to American pigs in the 1980s. Aristide claims that Haitian peasants lost $600 million in this fiasco (“Eyes of the Heart,” page 14).

So, if Robertson had read Haitian history, he might have spotted a club of Christian slave-trading nations, and not God, shaking the foundation of Haiti’s society and economy to this day.

Hector Avalos, a professor of religious studies at Iowa State University, writes monthly for The Tribune. His columns appear the first Sunday of the month.