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By Karen Herland
Over the last two weeks, the global community has been galvanized into action after witnessing the scope of the devastation caused by Haiti’s Jan. 12 earthquake. All of us recognize the seemingly insurmountable difficulties involved in rebuilding a country with a shattered infrastructure and government and with almost no resources.
Some of us, however, have all-too-personal connections to the tragedy and its aftermath.
History professor Carolyn Fick first travelled to Haiti while doing her PhD research under the supervision of George Rudé in the 70s. Over the years she has returned several times, most recently last summer. “I have had the opportunity to meet, and come to know quite well numerous Haitian scholars, some here in Montreal, some in Haiti,” says Fick.
Like Rudé, Fick was interested in history from the bottom up. She researched the Haitian Revolution (1791-1803) from the perspective of slave and peasant classes. She published a book on the subject, The Making of Haiti.
Fick is also one of the founding members of the Centre International de Documentation et d’Information Haïtienne, Caribéenne et Afro-Canadienne. She was relieved to finally learn that two colleagues from that group just happened to be on the last flight leaving Haiti only an hour before the earthquake struck.
She had also been trying to trace information about a PhD student, still in Haiti. He is safe but is concerned about a potential epidemic and the welfare of his mother.
Currently Fick is interviewing Haitians who arrived in Montreal after the Duvalier regime ended in 86 as part of the Montreal Life Stories Project. She sees her recent scholarship on the concept of citizenship in the Haitian revolutionary and independence periods as relevant to the current situation: “The past and present have a way of converging.”
When the former slaves of Saint Domingue defeated the French troops, they declared their independence and established Haiti as the first free and independent black state. Yet it owed France a crushing indemnity, equivalent to over 20 billion dollars in today’s terms for diplomatic recognition of independence.
Fick points out that Haiti’s economy has remained dependent on export crops to more affluent nations. As each economic structure became unsustainable, it was replaced by other structures that all tended to allow an urban elite to exploit the rural economy.
She stresses similar short-sightedness during the rebuilding period could have devastating results. “If the international community bungles it, history could repeat itself.”
While Fick waits for reports along with the rest of us, she is looking forward to the long, slow process of reconstruction, one that will not sustain itself if the top-down model is used as it has been in the past.
“The reinvigoration of the country’s agriculture is fundamental to that process and will require the active participation of the peasant producers. They have to be the ones to tell those in charge what they need and how to do it.” And she adds those decisions have to be made in an environment where Haiti does not incur further debt as it rebuilds its foundations.
“Right now, pledges of money are extremely important.”