Sees education as key to rebuilding

Rev. MacDonald Jean discusses Haiti's political realities, hopes
April 30, 2004

THE REV. MacDONALD JEAN, senior priest in the Episcopal Church of Haiti and a member of the Conseil des Sages (Council of Wise Ones) that selected the new interim government of Haiti, spoke of politics, hope and gratitude during an interview with Nan Cobbey in Port-au-Prince. The full text of that interview will appear on Episcopal Life’s website Excerpts follow.

Jean, 62, priest, author, professor and self-described “political activist,” was educated in Haiti, Puerto Rico and Paris. He holds a Ph.D. from the Sorbonne. Ordained in 1968, he taught at the diocesan theology seminary and now teaches at its university. For years, he served a congregation in Gonaives, the northern city where the turmoil began this year and that’s known as the birthplace of Haitian independence. In 1995, Jean was elected to the Haitian Senate. He served as vice-president of that body until 1999. He is the author of a number of works, including Protestantism and Development in Haiti and Christian Initiation and Voodoo Initiation in Haiti.

Cobbey: Why does Haiti find itself again in a situation of coup and chaos, of “koupé tet, brulé kay?” [the angry slogan of Jean Jacques Dessalines, a general at the time of Haiti’s revolution for independence, which is heard again in the streets. It means, “chop the heads, burn the houses.”]

Jean: It is very hard for all of us, difficult to explain, but one thing is that, in my life, I know for myself, the Haitian nation is not built up yet. We have not gotten together, all of us, in our communities. We live side by side, but not as a large community, not as what I would call a nation. What I mean is, a nation is a community which has common goals, common objectives. What we have in Haiti is small communities, and each community has its own preoccupations [concerns], regardless of the preoccupations [concerns ] of the other communities. A lack of common goals. That is what leads us into this kind of chaos. Each group would like to have the power for itself, but not for the well-being of the entire population. I think this is the main question.

Cobbey: It is difficult for North Americans observing what happens when the leadership changes here. We do not understand why violence accompanies changes in government, and not just politicians but so many others within the population. Does this date from Dessalines?

Jean: Yes. Well, you know, from Dessalines up to today there was not a role, a real vision of having one country. The African society is a tribal society. Each tribe … When they bring our ancestors from Africa, I think those ancestors tried to build up their own tribal mentality. And after the independence, by education, our forefathers did not see the necessity to put down this tribal mentality, to develop a new kind of Haitian, a new Haitian person. So then the politicians play on this. Each politician has his own group. And when this man is in power, his group tends to oppress the others. But when the others take over power, they do the same.

So what is going on now in Haiti is not a matter of … Politics is a way to get rich . So when you are in power, all your friends -- you come into government with your friends -- so your friends, they get rich and the others get poor. With a vengeance.

Cobbey: And this was true with Aristide as well? He and his Lavalas Party seemed, at the beginning, to be the party of and for the poor … and of the vast majority. Elected with 67 percent of the vote … in a field of 12. What happened?

Jean: You know, when Aristide went in, with the aspiration [hopes] of everybody, including myself, he said he was a theologian of liberation. It is not true. He knew nothing about the theology of liberation. And everybody sees it. Nobody wanted Communism in Haiti at that time. Neither [did they want] the extreme right wing.

The theology of liberation was a kind of centrist, left of center perhaps, but not extreme left. Centrist, Aristide was. This is what we thought. So we thought this was a man with whom we could work to build up Haiti. When he got to power, seven months later, there was the coup. So everybody mobilized against the coup. Then, when he got back, he was a completely different person!

Cobbey: Really?

Jean: Completely different person.

Cobbey: What happened?

Jean: I don’t know … I think he learned from the former politicians.

Cobbey: And what did he do for the people? Did he simply betray them?

Jean: I don’t see what he did for the people myself. What he did for the people is to have them be what we call today “chimères” [armed street gangs, usually described as Aristide supporters]. It is very difficult for me to explain, to understand what happened to that man. We trusted him so much. What happened?

Can you understand that after Aristide left, this time, he is still giving orders to his men, to destroy the country as much as they can? That’s horrible. That’s just horrible.

Cobbey: What must happen for this kind of instability to finally end?

Jean: Myself, I believe what is happening now, it will take a long time to get rid of it. Why? Because it is a kind of mentality … when you deal with this mentality, you get rid of it only by education … and education takes a lot of time.

Cobbey: Will there be motivation in the government to do that? Without educating the population, those in power can control people more easily.

Jean: Exactly. And they can have those little groups everywhere, and they keep them powerless … and they depend on you for everything, and whatever you say, they say, “Amen.” So, education is the primary necessity for this country.

Cobbey: And the church’s role in this?

Jean: The church’s role is to empower, to go with this. And the Episcopal Church [has always] understood that.

We had a bishop – Charles Alfred Voegeli, one of the greatest men I ever met, who understood. I am what I am, thanks to Charles Voegeli. [A native of New Jersey, Voegeli was bishop of Haiti from 1943-1971. He commissioned the controversial, now-famous, murals that adorn the cathedral in Port-au-Prince.] He was great, just great. He understood that. He said, “Because more than 80 percent of the Episcopalians are in the countryside, we must put education first for the peasant.” And everywhere you have an Episcopal Church, there is a little school that goes with it.

But now, we need to implement this. We need to equip those schools. We need to have more and more schools, with adequate equipment and adequate teachers and adequate program also, with a curricula adapted for this situation. A curricula that teaches not only to read and to write, but also to learn what it is to be a citizen in a society, what is the role of being a citizen, what is the common good of the country. To teach what democracy means.

Cobbey: In New York, Richard Parkins, director of Episcopal Migration Ministries, is very concerned about Haitian refugees being turned back or repatriated from the United States. He wants to know if there is any ministry focused on resettling those people once they are returned here. Either through the church or through the government or any NGOs?

Jean: The government has a program, Office National de la Migration. Yes. They only give them a little money to pay their transportation to their home [region of the country].

Cobbey: There’s no protection from those who might want to harm them?

Jean: No, no protection. And for the resettlement, as far as I know, there is no specific program for this. I do know there are some nongovernmental organizations working on that, but I don’t think they already have a program to resettle.

Cobbey: So these people, who have spent every penny they could gather to leave on those boats, are brought back here with no help?

Jean: Yes. Yes. It is very painful. I think this is somewhere that churches, especially the Episcopal Church, could work. I said especially the Episcopal Church because the Episcopal Church is everywhere in the country. [The church ] has a chapel, or mission or parish almost everywhere in this country. The Episcopal Church could work on this, together with, I would say, other churches. But the Episcopal Church should be the leader.

Cobbey: Is there something else that you want to tell me that I haven’t asked, that you think the American church ought to hear?

Jean: I would thank the Episcopal Church of America … for several things. On my personal behalf because … I am what I am because of the Episcopal Church. I am from the Island of La Tortue. My father and mother, they did not even know how to write. And I did my post-graduate studies at the Sorbonne in Paris thanks to the Episcopal Church.

I would thank the Episcopal Church because the Episcopal Church has always sustained the work of the Episcopal Church in Haiti. We are very, very grateful. And, also, the Episcopal Church, I hope, is ready to journey with us. We are thankful.

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