Prof. Allen Wells: Haiti's Past Marked by Uncommon Resilience in the Face of Centuries of Setbacks

Historians in the News

In spite of the devastating earthquake that left Port-au-Prince in ruins, noted Caribbean historian Allen Wells believes the resiliency of the Haitian people will make all the difference in how the country recovers.

"We need only look to the past to find hope for the future," says Wells.

Wells' book, Tropical Zion: General Trujillo, FDR and the Jews of Sosúa (Duke University Press, 2009), tells the story of 750 Jewish refugees from central Europe who were offered an unlikely sanctuary in the Dominican Republic by the brutal dictator General Trujillo. One of those refugees was Wells' father, a native of Vienna, who was one of only a few members of his family to survive Hitler's scourge.

CNN's coverage of the earthquake in Haiti includes insight from Wells. In the Web article, "Before Quake, Signs of Hope for Haiti Tourism," Wells speaks of the how Haiti's deteriorating political situation over the years has destroyed the tourist industry once vibrant in the 1950s and '60s.

"Their regimes have lasted very briefly, there have been coups, military governments have come in, there's been repression. This isn't an inviting environment for tourism," says Wells in the piece. Read the article.

"The freedom the slaves achieved in Haiti signaled the birth of the modern world. The Haitian people should not be underestimated. They are amazingly resilient. They have overcome so much and they will, with the help of the international community, overcome this.

"It's too easy to cast Haitians as hapless victims," adds Wells. "Rather than blaming them for their inability to help themselves at such a catastrophic moment, we ought to understand something about where they've come from and how they've overcome past hardship."

The earthquake is only the latest in centuries of setbacks, many of them the result of European and American powers, notes Wells.

"Under French rule, Haiti was the richest sugar colony in the Caribbean," Wells says.

"Treatment of the slaves, however, was horrendous. The slaves responded by organizing the only successful slave rebellion in history and Haiti became an independent black nation in 1804. The Haitian Revolution was a transcendent moment signaling the end for the institution of slavery.

"But for the European powers that still had slave colonies in the Caribbean, as well as the U.S., the Haitian Revolution was something to be feared, like a contagion. Europe and the U.S. wanted to see Haiti fail and they treated it like a pariah. In the case of its mother country, France demanded the newly independent nation pay back its 'debts,' an economic burden that consumed a majority of Haiti's resources."

Neither have Haitians been well served by their politicians, past and present, who all too often have ruled repressively and for their own self-interest. "Today, democratic institutions are in their infancy and Haiti will need much more than immediate humanitarian assistance to bring about the substantive change that Haitians deserve," notes Wells.
Read entire article at Bowdoin Campus News

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