Haiti: A Poor Country With A Rich Culture Tuesday's massive earthquake in Haiti has devastated the country. As aid pours in from around the world, guests take a look at the country's rich cultural history. Also, reporters provide updated information about the relief and rescue efforts.
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Haiti: A Poor Country With A Rich Culture

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Haiti: A Poor Country With A Rich Culture

Haiti: A Poor Country With A Rich Culture

Haiti: A Poor Country With A Rich Culture

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/122573600/122573597" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Tuesday's massive earthquake in Haiti has devastated the country. As aid pours in from around the world, guests take a look at the country's rich cultural history. Also, reporters provide updated information about the relief and rescue efforts.


Carrie Kahn, NPR correspondent
Frantz-Antoine Leconte, Haitian-American writer and professor at City University of New York
Madison Smartt Bell, English professor at Goucher College
Amelia Shaw, UN staff worker


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

Tuesday's massive earthquake in Haiti has left the country devastated and fearful. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton estimates three million people, about a third of the country's population have been affected. Thousands are feared dead, and thousands more are homeless, injured, without food and water.

Humanitarian aid is arriving in the country today as rescue teams and doctors and relief workers fly in from around the world. This hour, we're going to bring you the latest news from Haiti, and we're also going to spend some time talking about a country rich in history, culture, music art, a country many of us know little about beyond its political instability and grinding poverty.

We want to hear from Haitians and Haitian-Americans today. Tell us what we need to know about your country. Tell us your story. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We begin in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, where NPR reporter Carrie Kahn joins us. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN: Hi, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: What have you been seeing today?

KAHN: It's unimaginable. I can tell you lots of stories. Let me see where I should even begin. We're at a hotel where the roof has collapsed, and two floors are collapsed in, and there's just rubble everywhere. You can probably hear people. A lot of reporters have showed up here, and people are yelling and talking into their cell phones just like I am. So hopefully you can hear me over all that.

But just outside the gates of this hotel, there are streams and streams of people have been coming here seeking help because there is a small group. Three people are here, no doctors, but three people attending to wounds, lacerations, anything they can to help people.

All the way down the road from this hotel, it is just filled with people, sleeping there, waiting for any sort of attention they can get. You go farther down the road - we went to a small medical clinic today that people were lying on mattresses, bloody mattresses stacked right next to each other, and there was no doctor in sight.

Somebody told me that the Red Cross came there once and just sort of looked around and then had to leave, but there is no medical attention for people, and people are suffering.

ROBERTS: Why that hotel? Why has that become a focal point?

KAHN: This hotel - I think it's because it's in a safe neighborhood. There's a long road that you get up to it. I think the word has gotten out that there are doctors here. There's four people that are here, three or four, are not doctors. One man told me he was a pharmacist, but they are tending to people's wounds as best as they can, and there is nowhere else to go.

So the word gets out, and people come up this road. Some of them come up in wheelbarrows. Some of them come up in trucks, any way they can to get what little help there is here.

ROBERTS: And what about food and water?

KAHN: That's a difficult situation. I would - this is the first time I saw people on the street with gallon jugs. And I kept saying where are you going? Where are you getting the water? There is very, very little water that people can buy at very high prices. There is no water.

Everybody I talked to, those that can speak a little English, say three days, no water, no food, no help from the government. Where is the government? There's no help at all. And people are getting desperate, as you can imagine.

ROBERTS: In the absence of the government, are you seeing relief workers?

KAHN: Today was the first time I saw a team from Fairfax County, Virginia, a search and rescue team with rescue dogs, and they were searching in a - it was a rehabilitation center for developmentally-challenged orphans, and they were searching as best as they could for one American that they heard was still buried under the pile. That's the only people, search and rescue, I've seen.

There are aid coming into the country through the airport, but I heard a small brief, report, that traffic tower is very crowded, and so it is trickling in. But to get out to the streets and to all these neighborhoods is a monumental task, and it is very slow, and this is - we're almost 72 hours since the earthquake, and people need food, they need water, they need shelter. It's just a dire situation. And they need help still removing bodies.

Everywhere you go on the street, there are bodies. People cover them up as best as they can with some paper on the ground, a sheet if they have it, anything to cover their faces and to try and give them some sort of dignity. But everywhere you go, there are bodies all over the streets.

ROBERTS: We've been hearing that the traffic infrastructure, the streets, which were never wonderful to begin with, are buckled. They are full of people because people are wary of going back into buildings, and so even when relief work arrives, it's going to be hard to move it around.

KAHN: Well, we walked - I think it was a couple hours we walked around the hillside neighborhoods here in Port-au-Prince, and I just kept thinking: How are they ever going to get in any machinery to clear this rubble? Hillsides - the hills are filled with shoddy construction, concrete homes, one on top of the other, and they all just came crashing down on each other.

And these hillsides didn't really have roads to begin with. They were just dirt paths. So how are they going to get in heavy machinery to clean up that rubble? It's just beyond comprehension. And also, the roads that we've had were buckled, as you said, in the middle. There are large cracks. People told us not even to walk and, you know, we're just a few reporters walking along. Can you imagine heavy machinery rolling over that buckled street? It's just incomprehensible how they are going to clean up this nation.

ROBERTS: Carrie Kahn, thank you so much.

KAHN: You're welcome, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: Carrie Kahn is an NPR correspondent, joining us from Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

This morning, President Obama pledged $100 million in U.S. aid for Haiti, and then he spoke directly to the Haitian people.

President BARACK OBAMA: Few in the world have endured the hardships that you have known. Long before this tragedy, daily life itself was often a bitter struggle. And after suffering so much for so long, to face this new horror must cause some to look up and ask: Have we somehow been forsaken?

ROBERTS: We want to spend some time now talking about Haiti's long and storied history, which yes, does include the suffering and hardship it's endured over the centuries. But we also want to talk about its art and its literature and its music and religion, and we want to hear from Haitians and Haitian-Americans in our audience.

What don't we know about your country? Help us understand your culture and traditions. 800-989-8255 is the phone number. You can email talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site, npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us on the line from Brooklyn is Frantz-Antoine Leconte. He's a Haitian-American writer and professor at City University of New York in Brooklyn. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Professor FRANTZ-ANTOINE LECONTE (Writer; Professor, City University of New York): Thank you. Thank you. It's very good to be here despite this catastrophic situation that we have in Haiti.

ROBERTS: Have you been able to reach family and friends?

Prof. LECONTE: Well, most of the - I had a few relatives in Haiti, and they all are accounted for. The only problem that we have, I did try to contact a few friends of mine, and you know, it depends on the state of the communication there.

We lack communication there, and we were not able to speak to them, and we just - our prayers are with those people. They are good people, and everyone is concerned about this general situation. This is really the greatest catastrophe that we ever had in Haiti. And as we were saying earlier - I heard - Haiti was always in very bad shape in terms of communication, in terms of ecology, and this - what happened really is really catastrophic.

It's a catastrophe, and I think when we are thinking about Haiti, not too many people know that when it comes to the geographical position of Haiti, where Haiti is, Haiti is prone to have this type of thing: flooding, storms and hurricanes and all those things and now earthquake. So it's - the geography is really against Haiti.

It is true that some part of the catastrophe has been brought upon us because of the mismanagement of the country politically, economically and any other way, but nevertheless, nature hasn't really been very kind to Haiti.

The way that Haiti is, it is prone to flooding. It is prone to a lot, a lot of problems like the one that we have had since two days - since the last three days.

ROBERTS: Well also, you know, something we keep hearing over and over again in the coverage is the phrase the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. It's now become part of almost every sentence about Haiti as a nation. What - for some, you know, for some Americans, that might be their first introduction to Haiti, poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. What does that leave out?

Prof. LECONTE: Well, I think that it's too easy to just say that Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. It is true that Haiti has been qualified as a poor country, and it is indeed a poor country, but I think that there is more to it than that. Haiti has had so many difficulties in history since the first day that Columbus sighted the harbor of Mole Saint-Nicolas the evening of December, 1492. And possibly before the physical fact of Haiti ruggedness has influenced its history. We had the buccaneers. A century and more, later found the mountain a good place to retire after the sweep of the men.

Then, Spain was influence. They ceded Haiti France in 1697. So that means that Haiti has endured about three different - three centuries of slavery before they could become a nation-state. And even then, even to achieve that independence, they had to undergo a war, a terrible war, during I would say - or close to 15 years, like, 13 long years where everything was almost destroyed in this nation and this land.

So they had a very, very rough start, and remember that no matter what Haiti has done for other countries, even the first day after independence having helped so many different countries achieving their independence themselves, having helped Simon Bolivar, Miranda and all of those liberators of countries in the Americas, and Haiti was always considered as a pariah.

It has always been neglected, and Haiti has spent about a century where they were imposing so many things upon Haiti that this is a country that has a very, very rough start.

And to begin with, politically when you are thinking about political system that Haiti has had, it's - a political system exists to organize, to manage a nation's people, resources and territory. So to do this effectively, a government needs to have the capability to make binding decision in the interests of state, maintaining a monopoly of the forces�

ROBERTS: We are going to talk more about Haiti before the earthquake in just a minute. Madison Smartt Bell will join us. I'm Rebecca Roberts. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. We're talking about Haiti this hour. You've probably been watching the images of devastation since Tuesday evening: buildings in ruins and men and women carrying the injured through the rubble. We'll have more from Port-au-Prince later in the hour, but right now, we're learning about Haiti before the earthquake.

My guest is Frantz-Antoine Leconte. He's a professor at City University of New York. He's also a Haitian-American writer. And we want to hear from you. If you're Haitian or Haitian-American, tell us what we need to know about your country. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Let's take a call from Albert in Orlando, Florida. Albert, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ALBERT (Caller): Hi, yes. I just want to let you - I'm happy to be on. I'm glad that you guys are taking out the time to actually learn about the country prior to the disaster that's happened now.

I just want to let people know about, like, the contributions that Haiti has made. You know, it was stated before, you know, after our war for independence, Haiti was involved in the war of independence in Latin America with Simon Bolivar in Venezuela and Colombia and Bolivia, and also, Haiti prior to even our own revolution, Haiti contributed troops to the American Revolution. About 6,000 soldiers were sent from Haiti to fight in Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia. These were soldiers who were told that they'd be granted freedom if they went and assisted the French effort for the American Revolution.

And also, the city of Chicago was founded by a Haitian. I forgot his first name, but the last name was Du Sable. He settled there. He set up a trade post there, which formed the colony around it. And as a French colony, Haiti also produced over 60 percent of the world's sugar and coffee, and for me, that just goes to show the potential that the country could have had economically speaking if efforts are taken to reverse the deforestation that was done in the mountains. The climate and the setting there could really - I mean, that's what they should be working towards. You know, agriculturally, there's a lot of potential in the country.

ROBERTS: Albert, thank you so much for your call. Joining us now is Madison Smartt Bell. He's written three historical novels about Haiti and a biography of Toussaint L'Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian slave rebellion in the 1790s. He's a professor of English at Goucher College and joins us from member station WYPR in Baltimore. Welcome.

Mr. MADISON SMARTT BELL (English Professor, Goucher College): Thank you. I wish I could say I was happy to be here under these circumstances.

ROBERTS: We just heard from Albert about some of the prouder, less-known moments in Haitian history. Often when we hear people talk about how poor and desperate Haiti is today, they refer to its difficult and violent history. What are they talking about?

Prof. BELL: Well, I'd like to go back to something you said before and complain about it, actually. I apologize for doing that.

ROBERTS: Fair enough.

Prof. BELL: But we have a reflex of calling the Haitian Revolution a rebellion, as if slave masters had a right to keep those people in subjugation. It wasn't a rebellion. It was a revolution that created an independent state from what had formerly been a body of slaves.

And in listening to what has been said already on this program, I was reminded of the fact of - that I believe two things, and I still believe them even today. But particularly in the early '90s, when I first started going to Haiti, I looked at the situation then and felt like you know, history went wrong after 1804, when the Haitian Revolution had - 200 years before the election of President Obama, for example - given us an opportunity to go into a post-racial world, and we didn't take that opportunity. But now we can, and we can do it in this place. In spite of all its difficulties and disasters, Haiti could've been and could still be a kind of utopia.

ROBERTS: So you think that it is a history that can be overcome rather than a legacy that will continue to haunt the nation?

Prof. BELL: I think a great deal of its history is actually triumphant. There's been a lot of adversity and a lot of disaster, which nations have overcome in order to survive with a very few resources, the dwindling resources they have had.

ROBERTS: And Frantz-Antoine Leconte, with the ability to withstand both manmade and natural disasters, it certainly points to a certain Haitian resilience. What do you attribute that to?

Prof. LECONTE: Well, it is true that the Haitians have shown through history a great deal of resilience because they have had so many different adversities they had to face. So many other countries, so many - first of all, inequalities, and they had to fight the French at a certain time. They had to fight the British at a certain time. They had to fight the Spanish at a certain time. They had an American occupation from 1915 to 1934.

It seems to me that the country always had the capacity to bounce back. And it's just too bad that right now that everyone is saying that well, after the fall of dictatorship that the country is moving towards democracy, and this is - something like that has to happen.

So with the earthquake, with such a catastrophic effects in Haiti, one has the feeling that it's going to send Haiti 25 years back, but those people are very resilient. They are fighters. They have been always doing this, even though their country has been always been considered as a pariah, and they didn't get the right help. They really have suffered throughout history.

But I do believe now the international world may be seeing Haiti differently. I think that everyone is trying to help now, and it seems to me that their efforts are genuine. So we have the United States of America. We have France. We have Canada. We have Venezuela, and we have Brazil. We have so many other countries who are pulling together to help Haiti. I think that no matter how abysmal the situation may be looking right now, there is always a possibility for Haiti to come back.

ROBERTS: On the other hand, this notion of Haiti being cursed by its violent past has come up again and again in analysis. In fact, there's sort of an unusual observation about the Haitian earthquake from TV evangelist Pat Robertson on his CBN newscast. On Wednesday, he first said perhaps the quake was a blessing because it destroyed buildings that were poorly made, and then he said the Haitian people are cursed.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The 700 Club")

Mr. PAT ROBERTSON (TV Evangelist): Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and the people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French, you know, Napoleon III or whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said: We will serve you if you'll get us free from the French. It's a true story. And so the devil said okay, it's a deal, and they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free, but ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other, desperately poor.

ROBERTS: That's TV evangelist Pat Robertson on his CBN newscast on Wednesday. Madison Smartt Bell, I wanted to get your reaction to that clip.

Prof. BELL: Yes, ma'am. I'm very grateful for this opportunity. I'd like to begin by saying that that is one of the most contemptible things in the eyes of God and the eyes of humanity that I have ever heard. And I was thinking, you know, on the way down here, the same about this sort of thing is it's just static, but the problem is that it's not.

There are going to be people who take that attitude into Haiti now and call it help, and that is terrible. I think there are a lot of Protestant missionaries in Haiti who do good work and who are actually Christians, but there are others who have been doing cultural damage there that rivals the Taliban blowing up the Buddha statues. And it's shameful.

The truth of the story that Robertson tells, it's not true in the sense that he tells it. It is well understood that the Haitian Revolution began, as many wars do, with a religious ceremony in which the Haitian people prayed to their gods, as they had every right to do. And it's also believed that their gods gave them victory.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call from Philip(ph) in Miami. Philip, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

PHILIP (Caller): Hi, thank you for the opportunity. Two things I'd like to say. First of all, this notion that people were slaves is repugnant because they were not born slaves, they were enslaved by people. It's like when you railroad somebody, they get convicted, they become a criminal, but there you criminalize them. But the facts you need to know about Haiti, after Haiti's independence, the United States government imposed a 60-year embargo against Haiti. There was no trade. Then the French government demanded, basically extorted, a war debt against a country in its infancy.

And (unintelligible) was forced to pay that money. So you had at the beginning, your industry was working to pay you former (unintelligible). Then the American government occupied under the guise of installing law and order. But what it also created was the Haitian army, which was created for nothing but repression, killing and coup d'etats. And then there's also rumors that gold was taken from the Haitian National Bank to bring to the United States. (Unintelligible) to say, that Haiti was not always a (unintelligible) the richest possession France ever had in its history as colonizer.

ROBERTS: Philip, thank you so much for your call. We also, Madison Smartt Bell, I want to give you a chance to respond but I want to add to you an email from Chick(ph), who says, does France still hold Haiti in crushing debt that was part of the deal to leave the island and grant them their independence? If so, what is the current reasoning behind their stance and what help has been given by the French government to their former colony?

Prof. BELL: Let's see, what did you want me to respond to?

ROBERTS: Well, I want you to respond to what Philip was saying about the, well - first, why don't you take the answer about the French payment first and then the U.S. embargo.

Prof. BELL: The French debt payment have not been made for a long time but it really was, it was a huge amount of money where it began; I think Haiti had to pay the sum, they had to agree to pay an indemnity for property loss when France lost the colony in order to be recognized as an independent nation, which they had to have. It was the beginning of their finding their way out of being not simply a pariah state but a state, in international terms, didn't exist. So that was very, very costly for them.

What was talked about in the second Aristide administration - Aristide actually called for restitution, reparatory restitution of that money from the French. The French, I think, did not take that very kindly. I don't know what they're doing now, I have no idea. They did at the time that Aristide - Aristide's government fell the second time, they did send some support troops to help keep order and so forth, but I don't think they're were there very long. There remains I think some strain, despite 200 years of separation between France and Haiti, all though I think this level of disaster is sure to overcome that.

ROBERTS: I actually have in front of me a Reuter's report that says French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Thursday that Haiti's devastating earthquake was symptomatic of, quote, �a curse on the island state,� and proposed an international conference to provide reconstruction, help, and aid. He says: From this catastrophe, which follows on so many others, we should make sure that it is a chance to get Haiti once and for all out of the curse it seems to have been stuck with for such a long time.

Prof. LECONTE: Once again, it seems to me that even presidents of certain countries, even leaders of certain countries, cannot really understand what is really happening there. I don't think that there is any curse there, I don't think that there is a fatality for curse. I don't think there's any fatality when it comes to the history of Haiti except that Haiti has had, you know, a lot of ups and down and it is true that Haiti has been mismanaged, that I think that everyone should really recognize that, because earlier we were talking about what a good political system would do to a country.

A good political system would provide internal order. They would articulate -that would articulate citizens' demand, that would formulate the policy that would adjudicate disputes, that would choose leaders, operate governmental institution, conduct international relations, et cetera, et cetera. So, I think that we have had a traditionally bad governments in Haiti - that is true. We have also part of the international that has been imposing their will, you know, on Haiti. We've been having a lot.

From the internal side, we have people who are against Haiti. From the outside also we have people who are against Haiti. So, I think that Haiti really has been having a very bad deal, traditionally. And I think that we all should recognize that, but I don't feel that there is any fatality that whatever is happening in Haiti is going to happen, is going to continue to happen, I doubt that. We have leaders, religious leaders, who have been making very irrational statement about Haiti in reference to Haiti's doom. Haiti has made a pact with the devil. I think that those things are the most irrational things that I ever heard.

ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I think we have time for another call here before the break. This is Linsen(ph) in Havelock, Maryland. Welcome to the program.

LINSEN (Caller): Hello.

ROBERTS: Hi, you need to turn down your radio, you're on the air.

LINSEN: Okay, well, I want to say that I am very, very happy for what you guys are doing on this station. But the other thing that I wanted to say, that the international community needs right now to help Haiti because I think that's the only way we (unintelligible) from what we have just seen.

ROBERTS: Thank you very much, Linsen. Thank you for your call. We are talking about Haiti and we want to hear your stories of what you think is missing from the coverage as we hear about the nation and how it is going to dig out from under this devastating earthquake.

Give us a call. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. You can also send us email, talk@npr.org, or go to the Web site, npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. More with Madison Smartt Bell. He is a professor of English at Goucher College of Baltimore. And Frantz-Antoine Leconte, a professor at the City University of New York at the Kingsborough campus after this quick break.

I am Rebecca Roberts. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: We're talking about Haiti this hour following the devastating earthquake on Tuesday and we return now to the ground. With us from Port-au-Prince is Amelia Shaw, United Nations staff worker who has been living in Haiti for most of the past six years. She's also a former intern from TALK OF THE NATION. Amelia Shaw, welcome to the program.

Ms. AMELIA SHAW (United Nation Staff Worker): Hi Rebecca, good to hear you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Were you actually at your office in the U.N. when the earthquake struck?

Ms. SHAW: I was. I was in my office. I work for the U.N. television and I was sitting at my desk, looking at my computer and I heard this rumbling and I thought that it was a very large truck that was driving by my window. So I stood up to look out of the window to see what kind of a truck is making a noise like that and the entire building started shaking. And I was able to get out into the corridor but I kept falling on the ground. And my cameraman who was behind me fell on top of me and covered me as things started to fall on us. And some of our colleagues behind us were screaming: get out, get out.

And we're able to, you know, pull ourselves through the door and climb over our car, which had crashed into our building in the quake. And when we got outside, it was dusk at that time, so it was still light and we couldn't see anything because there was so much dust all around us and people started to murmur, you know, oh my God, I think that we lost our headquarters. And it took us how 20 minutes to verify that indeed our six-story building had been leveled.

ROBERTS: And have you been to see it since?

Ms. SHAW: Yes, I was there this morning, because we're trying to set up, we're desperately struggling to get everything organized and set up our communications lines and our television feeds. And so I went back to my office this morning. It's still standing, and I was able to pick through some of the debris and, you know, and get out some of our equipment. I saw that the Chinese - the specialized Chinese team is there on the ground with heavy equipment now and they are starting, they're continuing rescue operations, of course, and starting recovery operations.

ROBERTS: And what's next for you, are you planning to stay in Haiti?

Ms. SHAW: Yes. I plan to stay here. I'm not sure what the U.N. plans for us, but I'm planning to stay here as long as possible and continue doing what we're doing. I mean, I imagine that our mission is changing quite considerably and there are just a lot of people that need help. And I want to be here to be one of those people that's giving help.

ROBERTS: Amelia Shaw works for the United Nations in Haiti. She also spent a summer with us here six years ago at TALK OF THE NATION as an intern. Thank you so much, Amelia.

Ms. SHAW: Thank you.

ROBERTS: Spoke to us from Port-au-Prince. We are talking about Haiti this hour and what the nation is and was before the earthquake and what it could be after we saw it through the devastation. My guest include Madison Smartt Bell. He has written three historical fiction books about Haiti and a biography of the leader of the Haitian slave rebellion in the 1790s. As well as Frantz-Antoine Leconte, a Haitian-American writer, joining us from the City University of New York.

And lets hear from Alfred in Norman, Oklahoma. Alfred, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ALFRED (Caller): Hello.

ROBERTS: Hi Norman, you're on the air.

ALFRED: Yes, thank you for taking my call. I just wanted to mention something about Haiti. Of course, it's unfortunate that, you know, we - the Haitians are talked about quite a bit, you know, when we have the disasters and the hurricanes and the political troubles, but you know, I think we are like any other country and within Haiti there's a pretty good education system which most people are not aware of. And that I think - I attribute that to me listening(ph) to NPR, by the way, because I enjoy classical music and the good talks and...

ROBERTS: But Alfred, aren't literally rights, you know, over half the population?

ALFRED: Pardon me?

ROBERTS: Isn't over half the population illiterate?

ALFRED: Well, the majority of the population is illiterate. But there is a minority, I would venture to say it's 15 to 20 percent, who get a decent education, which is very well-regulated because it's based on the French education system, and the discipline is very, very high as far as in the school system. And so I was able to get a pretty decent education, and I was fortunate to have aunts and uncles who were all teachers in public and private schools.

ROBERTS: Alfred, thank you for your call.

And certainly, Frantz-Antoine Leconte, Haiti has produced a lot of writers and artists. What writers do you read?

Prof. LECONTE: Well, first of all, Haiti was responsible for a particular movement in literature and philosophy. It's called negritude, and it has emerged as a significant movement among black writers in the 1920s and 1930s. So certainly there were political events and tendencies, which contributed to a fresh determination on the part of black people to resist European pretensions.

But the defeat of Russia by the non-European nation of Japan in 1905, the growing tide of Pan-Africanism determined to oppose the more brutal aspects of European colonialism. And the picture of European nations tearing each other apart during the First World War, all these things played a part in the development of black awareness. But these occurrences do not account for the adoption by black of specific racialist theory, surrealism, existentialism, and a new awareness of Africa among European anthropologists. And creative writers certainly contributed to the development of negritude.

But the birth of negritude, as I said, must be seen as a rupture in black thinking in the following work that people have read, "Ainsi parla l'Oncle," thus spoke the uncle. This is a work attributed to Price-Mars and who was somewhat responsible for the rebirth of Haitian literature and who has created new tendency.

The Haitian literature since Price-Mars has become - were turned inward. In other words, they were not going into other territories. So we had a lot of writers. We started having people like Jacques Roumain who has produced a universal masterpiece, a book that has been recognized throughout the world, "Gouverneurs de la Rosee." And this is - we have had a lot of other writers.

We have Jacques Stephen Alexis. And these days, we have Lyonel Trouillot. We had Rene Depestre. We have a lot. We have a lot of brilliant writers. We have Yanick Lahens. We have Georges Castera, all of those people. We have Josaphat Large. All of those people that we are talking about, they have received - they have been awarded prizes in the international word for their masterpieces in literature. So...

ROBERTS: Let's take another call in here. Let's get Jerry(ph) from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Hi, Jerry. Welcome to the show.

JERRY (Caller): Hello. Hey, how are you all? Great show, by the way. First thing, I'm just curious, who told Pat Roberts that - did God told Pat Roberts about the pact between devil and the Haitians?

Anyway, things that I think people need to know about Haiti is what the French did with the slaves. They created a mentality of conquer and divide where none of them trusted each other and they were infighting, and you could see that infighting until this day.

And the other thing that I want to say, the economic problems like the gentleman mentioned earlier about the embargo that was imposed into Haiti, 1915s where they had to pay tons of money. On top of paying those fees, the Haitians selling their goods to the international market, they can sell them at the regular price they would get - they were supposed to be selling those things. They were getting lower prices than other country were selling the goods. I'm talking about the coffee and indigo and everything else.

So for them to say that Haiti is cursed, to me, it's just - is was - were the Kennedy cursed as well? No. That's just part of life. I think there has been so much things put on this country. I think that's the problem.

ROBERTS: Jerry, thank...

JERRY: I don't think Haiti is no more cursed than the other countries.

ROBERTS: Yeah, thank you for your call.

Madison Smartt Bell, he referred to the fighting within Haitians, and that's certainly part of the violent legacy this Byzantine system of skin color and socioeconomic pecking order.

Prof. BELL: Well, it's true. I mean, this is kind of a difficult moment to accentuate the positive, and nevertheless I feel like I'd like to do that. I mean, Haiti does have some internal race problems, but they're so much further along than we are. It's just ridiculous to even to talk about them. They are 200 years ahead of us in getting rid of the concept of race. That's one of the things that they have to offer.

To go back to the caller from Oklahoma, I'd just like to corroborate what he says. The Haitian educational system is excellent for the 20 percent or so, for - who have access to it. I mean, most people doubt that's a fact. But still, Haitian intellectuals are the smartest people in the world that I've ever met.

And, finally, for the living writers that Monsieur Leconte was mentioning, I can say for those who may be interested that Lyonel Trouillot is still alive in Port-au-Prince and doing all right. Also, Yanick Lahens, for Georges Castera I don't know.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Diane(ph) in New Orleans, Louisiana. Diane, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

DIANE (Caller): Okay. The point I'd like for folks to look at now is that what's being said about Haiti is the same thing that was said about us here in New Orleans: They're poor, they've been poor a long time and all this has happened to them as if, oh, they have been poor, they have been devastated so what's happened to them is not too far outside their norm, and they have: it's devastating, but.

The thing that's getting me now is there are groups that are getting ready to go to Haiti, but they're saying, well, there's a threat of violence. Newscasters is asking people down there is that things are chaotic, I understand, is there a threat of violence, as if we can't go in and help these people because there's a threat of violence. And that's exactly what they did to New Orleans. They said there was a threat of violence, so people didn't come in to help.

Now, the thing I want to say about all these folks that's talking about the devil, it's strange to me that when somebody worships a god other than a Christian god, it's called the devil. The other thing I got to say is when those people rose up against slavery and overthrew the French and it devastated them to the point that France had to sell Louisiana to the United States for pennies, the European nations were terrified that their slaves would rise up and overthrow them. So they had to do everything they could to keep Haiti down, and they have been doing it ever since. Thank you.

ROBERTS: Diane, thank you for call. Madison Smartt Bell, there are a lot parallels with Katrina coming up in the coverage of the Haitian earthquake.

Prof. BELL: I just want to say that what Diane said was beautiful. I don't think I can possibly follow that, but I will because it's radio.

ROBERTS: Thank you.

Prof. BELL: But thank you for that, Diane. Wow. Yeah, I mean, it's - one of the things that we're sort of missing here is an earthquake on this scale would have been an enormous catastrophe as - if it happened in San Francisco or Los Angeles, if it probably will. In Haiti, the consequences are worse because their infrastructure is bad. Their infrastructure is bad, yes, in part, because of internal mismanagement, as Monsieur Leconte said, but also very much because of systematic kind of oppression from the international community, particularly in recent years by the forces of globalization who have an interest in keeping Haitian workers at the very bottom, on the floor of the weight scale in the Western Hemisphere. And that's something we have to kind of get away from somehow. And I hope maybe this will be an opportunity to do it at the end of the day.

ROBERTS: We have an email from Arch(ph) in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, that I hope you can answer, Frantz-Antoine Leconte.

Prof. LECONTE: Yes.

ROBERTS: He says, is there any information if the national art museum or if any libraries or government or historical archives survived the earthquake? A disaster always places a nation's cultural patrimony at risk.

Prof. LECONTE: There are so many informations that we really haven't received yet from Haiti. It seems to me that all - a lot of government structures crumble, went down, so there is always a possibility that the archives may have well crumbled, too. So we need - we would need to confirm this. For the time being, we cannot confirm this. We haven't received any information pertaining to the archives, which are in the center of Port-au-Prince, which actually, not too far from the presidential palace. So right now I am not in a position to either dispute this or confirm that, I'm not so sure. We would have to wait for more info.

ROBERTS: Do you have anything to add to that, Madison Bell?

Prof. BELL: Yeah. Just a prayer in favor of Saint Martial Petite College which houses a wonderful collection of materials on Haitian history and the revolution and which has also been a headquarters of liberation theology and a force for good for many years in Haiti under oppressive regimes and - which is also very, very perilously near - I say is. I hope it is still near the presidential palace.

Prof. LECONTE: (unintelligible) information concerning a lot of schools like Lycee Petion, Saint Louis Gonzage, I think that they have a lot of information in reference to schools being schools, art schools with very large structures who went down - which went down. So we really, at this point, we - there is certain info that we didn't receive yet, but the national archives, we never - no one ever really spoken about them, so we really don't know what is happening there.

ROBERTS: Well, we will certainly continue to try to get answers like that and continue to stay with NPR News for updates on the earthquake situation in Haiti. Thank you so much, Madison Smartt Bell and Frantz-Antoine Leconte for joining me this hour. I really appreciate it.

Prof. BELL: It's my pleasure.

Prof. LECONTE: Thank you.

ROBERTS: We have an email from Mike(ph) in Ashland, Oregon, who says as a drummer I've always been amazed by Haitian music, in particularly Haitian drumming, as well-known artists like The Fugees and Wyclef Jean, bands such as (unintelligible) performing credibly powerful hypnotic music that's uniquely arresting even among the many great musical traditions in the Afro-Caribbean diaspora. My thoughts and prayers go out to all the musicians that had been affected by this disaster.

So we will also go out this hour with some Haitian music and remember to join TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY tomorrow, which will be a celebration of the invention of the laser. I'll be back on Monday. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington.

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