Amy Wilentz has been reporting on Haiti for 30 years, most recently in her award-winning book Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti. She was also Jerusalem correspondent for The New Yorker, and is a long-time contributing editor at The Nation. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jon Wiener: Paris isn’t the only place where a cathedral of Notre Dame is in ruins and awaiting rebuilding. There’s another Notre Dame—in Haiti, destroyed in the earthquake of 2010. Remind us first of all why we care about Haiti, including those of us who’ve never been there.
Amy Wilentz: We should all care about Haiti, because it was the first black republic ever established on the globe. It had the only successful slave revolution, which began in 1791, and eventually created the Republic of Haiti.
JW: After 1804, when Haiti declared its independence, France required that Haiti pay an indemnity, reparations. For what?
AW: Usually the victor in a war, which was Haiti, demands reparations or indemnities or tribute from the loser nation. But in this case, France, the loser nation, demanded money from Haiti—for its loss of property during the revolution, the property being Haitian slaves, i.e., the people who won the revolution. And also for the plantations. As I wrote in a recent piece for TheAtlantic.com, the Haitians were willing to pay because they had just come through a very long war of attrition, and they didn’t feel at the time that they were capable of waging another one. France was then threatening to re-enslave the Haitians. To also make Haiti a pariah nation in terms of trade and the world economy.
JW: France required that Haiti pay—how much?
AW: Over more than a century Haiti paid what would be in today’s dollars about $21 billion.
JW: France is rich, Haiti is poor. Is there a relationship between these two facts?
AW: It’s not just the indemnity. A lot of French wealth was originally based on this incredibly productive sugar planation that was Haiti—on this slave economy, where they worked their slaves to death and took incredible profits.
JW: Let’s talk about the ruined cathedral of Notre Dame in Haiti. What did it look like, what does it look like now?
AW: Of course I thought about it when I watched Notre Dame de Paris burning recently. The Haitian cathedral looked like it was made out of confectioner’s sugar. The way it looks now, in ruins, you think it might actually have been made of that. In fact, it was made out of reinforced concrete, but you would never have thought something that sounds so brutalist would have been turned into this lacy, beautiful, soaring building, very European with a slightly Caribbean touch. It was the highest building in Port-au-Prince for a long time. Now only a skeleton remains. You can still see where the the rosette windows were. But the walls, the roof, the apse, everything fell to the ground, except for the bases of a couple of walls, which are still standing, to a degree.
JW: Do Haitians really want a cathedral? Isn’t this building more about the power of French-ness and the power of the Catholic church? What does it mean to them?
AW: It was a very French kind church, but it was inhabited by the Haitian people of Port-au-Prince, and it was an important place for them. They always say about Haitians that they’re 100% Vodouisant and 99% Catholic. There’s still a lot of belief in the Vodou pantheon there, but still people go to Catholic church—for baptism and first communion, and often for mass. It’s still a fairly religious community. Today, though, the Catholic church in Haiti is besieged by Protestant missionaries, most of them from the United States, and by the Mormons, who also have made great inroads. They all build churches like crazy. There are new churches dotting the Haitian countryside, little tiny things, built by these missionaries. I think the Catholic church feels that one of the things it can do is to restore this giant monument to itself.
JW: But this Notre Dame in Port-au-Prince is not just a place where the Catholic church celebrates its own power. It’s played a different kind of political role at times.
AW: In the 1980s, when liberation theology was so important, it was a place where people who believed in that kind of church would go to protest the role of Haiti’s existing Catholic hierarchy in supporting the government and the elite. In the mid 1980s, when the Duvalier regime had just fallen and everything was very confused, and Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide was rising up as a popular, radical political figure, the Catholic church decided it had had enough of him. They decided to move him from his inner-city parish to an outlying place. The young people who supported him said, “no, we’re not having this.” They occupied the cathedral. They marched in and they sat down right in front of the altar, and they said, “We’re having a hunger strike.” That’s unheard of in Haiti, because hunger in Haiti is the biggest enemy. Any time you can eat, you eat; you don’t say, “No, I’m forgoing food for a cause.” So this was an incredible thing, and the cathedral began to fill up with supporters. I was there. Eventually the hierarchy, the bishops, caved in. At the end Aristide appeared, this tiny little person with big glasses and white robes, and he escorted the young people out—and he got to stay in his parish for a while. All was not bliss after that, to put it mildly, but it was still a very big moment.
JW: Doesn’t Haiti have bigger problems than rebuilding this French faux-gothic cathedral?
AW: Yes. For instance basic nutrition, healthcare, energy infrastructure, infrastructure itself, sanitation, personal security in the street, law and order administered in a decent way. The Haitian street right now is dangerous. The narco gangs and other little gangs have walked into a power vacuum, and there’s a lot of killing going on in the streets. Also, there’s no gas in Haiti anymore, for a complicated set of reasons having to do in part with corruption, and so Haitians have been coming out to protest in the streets against the government, and the police and others sometimes fire on the people who are protesting. Human Rights Watch is asking the Haitian government to explain the 30 some deaths in the crowds of protestors in recent months. In addition, when there’s no gas you can’t get to a hospital. You can’t get to a job, if you’re lucky enough to have a job. You can’t get to the market to buy food. The price of everything goes up. Everything has come to a grinding halt there. So yes, Haiti has bigger problems than rebuilding the cathedral.
JW: Tell us about the proposals for a new Notre Dame in Haiti.
AW: In 2012 a Miami entrepreneur got together with the archbishop of Port-au-Prince and organized a competition for a design for a new cathedral. That competition was won by a Puerto Rican group run by an architect named Segundo Cardona. He and his team made a beautiful design that incorporates the old parts of the church that are still standing, and the idea of the old church, while serving more broadly as a kind of meeting place. But now both the archbishop who wanted the new cathedral and the Miami entrepreneur who was pushing for it have died.
JW: How is the fund-raising going for this new cathedral in Port-au-Prince?
AW: Not a single penny has been raised since the monies were dispersed for the design award.
JW: So how could this new cathedral of Notre Dame in Haiti be paid for? You have a modest proposal.
AW: From the 19th to the 20th century, France demanded that Haiti pay that huge indemnity of $21 billion. In the recent past, Haiti has put out feelers about repayment, only to be rebuffed by the French government. The modest proposal I made in the Atlantic piece is for France to return some of that money to Haiti to rebuild the cathedral—among other things. Also, some of France’s biggest industrialists have ponied up millions to rebuild Notre Dame de Paris, which many consider to be a symbol of France. Some of that could go to Haiti as reparations—since so much French wealth has its origins in the sugar plantations of the colony. France owes Haiti a lot more than a new cathedral—but that could be a beginning.