Haiti’s Missed Opportunity: From a Maladaptive Coping Perspective

Wednesday 17 March 2021 ((rezonodwes.com))-- 

Last month marked the 35th anniversary of the end of the Duvaliers’ autocratic rule of Haiti and the beginning of the country’s failed attempts at democracy. A sizable portion of Haiti’s adults has no or little recollection of the Duvaliers’ brutal ruling of the country; yet its familiarity with political stability, economic development, and democratic principles is still rudimentary. Between the triumphant wave of February 7, 1986 and the flurry of protests surrounding February 7, 2021, the framework from which politics conduct business in the country has barely changed.

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The ousting of Baby Doc did bring about a few changes to the political landscape: the 1987 Constitution, the return of the red and blue flag, and the irregular cycle of elections punctuated by senseless coups and/or interim governments. Nonetheless, the fundamentals of a nascent democracy were never mapped out. As it turns out, a viable democracy requires—among other things— an institutional architecture, a system of checks and balance, and guaranteed individual rights. This is a tedious process that is sustained through a slow but steady socialization into the notions of rights, duties, civil liberties, and equality.

While the concept of democracy appeared palatable and even attainable to Haitians in the wake of Baby Doc’s departure from the country, Haitians have not been able to turn the tide towards a more equitable and democratic country. Left reeling from the traumas of colonization and decades of man-made and natural disasters, their battles for mere survival in the short-term are fought at the expense of long-term development. Haiti’s persistent downward spiral can be attributed to several factors—some internal and some external. There have been a plethora of books and opinion pieces on the external factors that are associated with the country’s shortcomings, but few have looked at the intrinsic factors that have—directly or indirectly— played a role in the process. With these series of pieces, we intend to examine some of those intrinsic factors.

Indeed, 35 years ago, Haitians found themselves on the threshold of a new era. Having lived through 28 years of dictatorship, they woke up one fine morning and found themselves “free.” After months of demonstrations against the dire conditions in which the majority of poor Haitians lived and the oppression to which they were subjected from the regime’s zealots, they woke up to celebrate their “second independence.”

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As a matter of fact, there was a song of Konpa royalty, Septentrional, that called it so. This is how a middle-aged Haitian who left the country in the early 1990s remembered it: “as the fading night of February 5, 1986 turned into a delicious hue of pink, a din of chants and dances deflated the dreams that were still lingering upon the precocious dawn. Port-au-Prince’s streets would soon be swept up by blaring horns dotted with tree branches and riotous cheers that would coalesce into an ad-hoc celebration of hope and freedom.” And Septentrional narrated it with gusto:

7 Fevrye avan solèy leve/ Ayiti Libere / Dezyem endependans
You dat ekstraòdinè / Ayisyen pap janm bliye
Nou domi anchene/ Nou leve an libètè
February 7 just before sunrise/Ayiti was freed/ Our second independence
An exceptional day/ Haitians will never forget
We went to bed enslaved/ We woke up freed

Some of the martyrs mentioned in the song included Mackenson Michel, Daniel Israel, Christophe Janel, and Jean-Robert Cius who were killed while demonstrating in the months preceding Duvalier’s exit. The song goes on to designate February 7th as a Memorial Day when Haitians would pause to reminisce, think of those whose lives were lost for the cause, and contemplate the way forward. But 35 years later, are Haitians better off? What went wrong? Could the coping strategies on which Haitians have always relied be maladaptive or erosive? This piece will explore the coping mechanisms that are commonly used in Haiti in relation to the well-known ‘Haitian resilience.”

Coping with the traumas of the past

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Every culture has its ways of responding to and recovering from trauma and disaster. A community’s coping strategies are the armada of actions that are employed by individuals in that community to deal with and survive overpowering threats. Coping strategies are informed by personal, socio-economical, environmental, and geopolitical factors (WHO). Positive coping strategies can be drawn from a community’s spiritual or religious practices, support networks, risk management infrastructure, disaster insurance, and that community’s mores and attitudes. Non-erosive coping mechanisms foster resilience, which enables people to not only survive major catastrophes, but also “bounce back” (Derivois et al., 2018; Vaillant, 2002). A community’s coping strategies get more robust as the community deals constructively with stressors and plans for potential threats.

This leads to ‘meaning making’ which per Theron, Theron, and Malindi (2013) pertains to “making meaningful sense of hardship.” By using personal and social capital to come up with solutions, people learn to problem solve and develop agency and mastery experiences. Indeed, the community can bounce back because it has learned to successfully steer itself in a goal-directed manner (2013). For example, after the 1994 genocide, the Rwandan government put in place the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission (NURC) to facilitate healing and reconciliation. They also came up with measures that criminalized genocidal ideologies and substituted ethnic identities labels with a national Rwandan identity (Colomba, 2013).

Constructive vs erosive coping: the Ubuntu and Haiti

Recently some resiliency studies have looked at resilience from an ecological and cultural perspective. Several cultures in Africa have their specific ways of coping, but the Ubuntu is a generally shared African way of being (Theron, Theron, & Malindi, 2013). This philosophy is primarily community centric. The individual is a member of a community; s/he self realizes through and per the community, the individual has inherent dignity, and his or her survival is linked to that of other members of the community (2013).

Looking at the way Rural Haitians organize themselves, many similarities can be drawn from their sociocentric philosophy (or way of life) and the Ubuntu. Indeed, rural Haitians have in place multiple positive coping strategies to deal with floods, precarious means of production, and food insecurity. Some of these strategies include cooperation (Konbitvwasinaj se fanmi), loans, livestock leasing, and a relentless sense of optimism (toutan tèt pa koupe, nou espere mete chapo; bite m bite men m pa tonbe). 

Moreover, they have a deep sense of spirituality, respect their ancestors and elders in the community, and share a set of values that keep these communities from collapse. However, as migration depletes these communities, and they get exposed to more frequent stressors, they began to resort to maladaptive coping strategies, which have, over time, eroded the social fabric and generated an overall sense of loss and hopelessness. This has turned the resilience that has always been an imbedded trait of Haiti’s culture into something “pathological” (Derivois et al., 2018). They do survive the grand threats which they face on a regular basis, but they are left so diminished and weaken that they are unable to problem solve and bounce back. Derivois notes that in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew—a category 4 hurricane— in 2017, Haitians took to streets to overindulge in their rara as the damages were being assessed and the deaths were being counted.

Erosive coping strategies can be detrimental to an individual or a community. Strategies such as violence, (koupe tèt, boule kay), theft, human bondage (restavèk), and prostitution hinder social bonding and lead to post traumatic stress disorder, emotional deregulation, social mistrust (mistrust in the systems in place and in fellow community members), and powerlessness.

This is more impactful in the aftermath of collective trauma when perpetrators of hardships are not held accountable (Dreyer, 1994). As a result, people may internalize the external forces of control that might have been harmful to them and their livelihood (Dreyer, 2015; Saul, 2014). In fact, the jubilation that broke after the fall of the dictator 35 years ago was marred by violence against former Duvalier ministers and members of the infamous Tonton Macoutes corps. Pè Lebrun or mob lynching was used over and over as a mean of self-administered or mob-administered revenge; it has since become a validated social practice in Haiti.

As a matter of fact, former President Aristide elevated it to the rank of social justice tools/channels when he referred to it as a ‘bel zouti, bel enstriman » with which one could level the playing field. But as we will learn the hard way, violence is a cancer which—when left untreated—tends to metastasize into generalized lawlessness that can imperil a community. Saul (2014) posits that the recovery of an individual or a community from a loss cycle requires a turnaround of the cycle and the “setting in motion” of an upward spiral. In post-apartheid South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Afrikaans churches’ declarations against apartheid were intended for this purpose. Saul (2014) insists that change agents—perpetrators and victims—must remain a part of the community and go through the readjustment and adaptation process in ‘critical solidarity’.

Could the Duvalier enablers and Macoutes have been prosecuted and served their sentences? Could JCD have been tried in Haiti? Could the funds stolen from Haiti’s treasury have been returned to Haitians? With Justice served, could former Macoutes and aspiring republicans found their place in the new Haiti? What happened to one’s sanity after lynching a Macoute? How about the rule of law?

Killing people off does not mean that we have dealt with the traumas of the past and are ready moved on, whole, with our wounds tended to and our sanity intact.


Colomba, V. (2013). Post conflict peace building in Rwanda, the effect on youth and the development of Bright Future Generation, NGO. https://www.uml.edu/docs/Post-Conflict%20Peacebuilding%20in%20Rwanda%20_tcm18-145706.pdf

Derivois et al. (2018). Resilience in Haiti: is it culturally pathological? BJPsych international15(4), 79–80. https://doi.org/10.1192/bji.2017.25

Dreyer, Y. (2015). Community Resilience and Spirituality: Keys to Hope for a Post-Apartheid South Africa. Pastoral Psychol 64, 651–662. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11089-014-0632-2

Saul, J. (2014). Collective trauma, collective healing. New York: Routledge.

Frounfelker RL, Tahir S, Abdirahman A, Betancourt TS. Stronger together: Community resilience and Somali Bantu refugees. Cultur Divers Ethnic Minor Psychol. 2020 Jan;26(1):22-31. doi: 10.1037/cdp0000286. Epub 2019 Mar 28. PMID: 30920250; PMCID: PMC6765444.

Galea S, Nandi A, Vlahov D. The epidemiology of post-traumatic stress disorder after disasters. Epidemiol Rev. 2005;27:78-91. doi: 10.1093/epirev/mxi003. PMID: 15958429.

Theron LC, Theron AMC, Malindi MJ. Toward an African definition of resilience: A rural South African community’s view of Resilient Basotho Youth. Journal of Black Psychology. 2013;39(1):63-87. doi:10.1177/0095798412454675

Vaillant, G. E. (2002). Aging well: surprising guideposts to a happier life from the landmark. Harvard study of adult development. New York: Little, Brown & Co.

WHO/EHA. (1998). Emergency health training programme for Africa.

Pascale Doresca

March 7, 2021


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