By Patrick Sylvain
Special to CSMS Magazine
Finding aimless complaints is not rare within the Haitian society. It is in fact the unspoken consensus among educated Haitians—petty bourgeois and others—that the Haitian dilemma is an unsolvable trivia. Henceforth, one needs to do nothing, for as long as one lives change will never occur. In reality, this carefree or careless attitude is nothing but an implicit acknowledgment of their shallow patriotism for a country they claim to love so much.
This sentiment is manifested at its rawest form among the petite bourgeoisie, the thin layer of society that systematically refuses to relinquish its social aspirations in order to do what is right: accompanying the masses in their daily struggle to break free from outright misery. They offer lip service when it’s necessary, but generally remain muted and tightlipped with an awkward, nonchalant sense of demeanor when no one seems to pay attention. That’s what happens when love is skin-deep. In the article that follows, writer Patrick Sylvain takes a philosophical approach to this problem in his effort to help others understand the root cause behind what he calls “Complaining Haitians and Haitian Complaints.”
To complain is to speak out against a particular occurrence when an expected outcome is vastly different and therefore one voices dissatisfaction. The manner in which an individual or group complains can and has established a particular pattern or a culture of complaints, where one is stuck repeating a set of behaviors due to a certain position of power or lack thereof. “Ayisyen toujou ap plenyen,” Haitians are always complaining, one would often hear. It’s as if to say, in the positive sense, complaining was a form of prayer, or in the negative sense, a ready insult at the tip of one’s tongue.
Complaining is the opposite of complacency, and therefore to complain is to bring about potential social change. The complaints of African slaves resulted in an entire subjected population to topple the dehumanizing institutions of slavery. One could argue that social changes in human history occurred when complaints were leveled against an established power that wanted to maintain its status quo. Each protest, uprising, rebellion and revolution is the result of unmet fundamental needs. The relation between complaining and action is, thus, quintessential. However, complaining because one is in the habit of doing so could be futile and become culturally pathological. Who wants to be a nag or to live in a constant protest mode?
Despite my philosophical distancing from George W. Bush’s policies, I concur with one of his recent claims that “in democracy, the purpose of public office is not to fulfill personal ambition;” rather, “elected officials must serve a cause greater than themselves.” It is the failure to serve the people for the greater good of a country, such as Haiti, that has brought about complaints. While, the notion of the greater good can be problematic if a minority wrongfully suffers for the benefit of the majority [student protesters who are beaten and arrested], a democratic national leader is an interface between all groups and must lead in a way to reconcile or narrow differences that may lead or have led to the suffering of a portion of the population.
As a democratic republic, Haiti is far from being governed by the rule of law that would assure fairness, and is certainly lacking the democratic leadership that would ensure an established governance of equity. It is the absence of fairness, in lieu of mediation when injustice occurs, that causes complaints and even protests. In Haiti, the culture of protest or complaint is due to the absence of a leadership that cares about the people and instead prioritizes personal ambitions.
Since its colonial rules to independence, Haiti has been a sharply unequal society and therefore one may encounter what can be described as a form of permanent pessimisms stemmed from the kind of Haitians who, at a point of their diasporic existence, lived through years of euphoria, fears, and let downs. Those fellow countrymen have come to develop a quipping (tuipe) reflects when Haiti is mentioned, taking on a dismissive attitude: “Ayiti p’ap janm chanje”, Haiti will never change.
Those permanent pessimists will eventually become de-facto complacent citizens and may even morph into liturgical citizens who are absolutely careless about the outcome of the country because their disenfranchisement was rooted in their personalities, and they became the “ki mele m,’” “I don’t care” group.
A healthy democracy requires having a large and productive middle-class, concerned citizens and responsible leaders engaged in rigorous debates, thus ensuring a constructive culture of complaints. To be sure, theatrical elements and democratic showmanship exist in a democracy, and the United States is a prime example of such democracy as evidenced by certain public hearings or Town Halls. Such performances are essential for a democracy because they are partially participatory. Unhealthy democracies shoot down public debates, and complaints take on the form of violent protests and clashes of demands. Trust is absent because a majority of “citizens’ rights” are violated by authoritarian-leaning governments, including Dictators.
In societies like Haiti, class differences are also vast to the point where the gulf between the gradations of the haves and the have-nots is canyon-sized. Because of enormous popular dissatisfaction with the government, as well as the ever widening structural vulnerability of the population due to scarcity of necessary goods and services including security, complaints become routine and complaining becomes cultural. So, the complaints leveled by Haitians since February 1986 have increased due to the depth of the population’s unmet needs while the lies and empty promises by politicians have expanded, turning Haiti into a place where everyone has something about which to complain. This is especially true because the state seems to organize itself like a mafia instead of like a democratic institution that is responsible for the welfare of its citizens.
As the people grow hungrier, angrier and more pessimistic, the streets, especially of Port-au-Prince where the seats of power and from which the empty promises are uttered, become a theater of complaints.
The complaints launched against the Martelly administration, for instance, are a part of a continuum that started many years ago and have amplified due to the constant assault on the human dignity of Haitians. After many years of neglect, the poor, the moun andeyò, are not considered humans by the self-serving and narrow minded political and financial elite who are cyphering the country instead of creating, as best as possible, a coherent and stable nation where needs are met and security is structurally incorporated in the daily affairs of the nation. Instead, illegitimate “servants of the people,” who seem unable and unwilling to serve the needs of the nation while making out excessively well for themselves and their families, continue to exert power. Hence, for ordinary Haitians, complaints become avenues through which to voice desires and dreams. Given the sizable number of Haitians who have been left to fend for themselves since 1804, it is no wonder that Haitians’ complaints seem loud and constant.
Note: Patrick Sylvain is a poet, writer, translator, scholar, and a faculty at Brown University’s Center for Laguage Studies. Sylvain is also a 2014 Robert Pinsky Global Fellow at Boston University Creative Writing Department. He is published in several anthologies, academic journals, books, magazines and reviews including: Agni, Callaloo, Caribbean Writers, SX Salon, Haiti Noir, Human Architecture: A Sociology Journal, Poets for Haiti, Fixing Haiti and Beyond, The Butterfly’s Way, Tectonic Shifts, The Best of Beacon Press, The Oxford Book of Caribbean Verse. Recently featured in: PBS NewsHour, NPR’s «Here and Now» and «The Story», he was also a contributing editor to the Boston Haitian Reporter. Sylvain’s academic essays are anthologized in several edited collections, including: “The Idea of Haiti: Rethinking Crisis and Development,” Edited by Millery Polyné; “Politics and Power in Haiti,” Edited by Paul Sutton and Kate Quinn.