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Born in the US, raised on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, lived in Italy, the US, and Canada. Lover of language, travel, colour, and the natural world.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Envisioning unity

"...political life everywhere has continued to deteriorate at an alarming rate...the very conception of statesmanship has been drained of meaning, policies have come to serve the economic interests of the few in the name of progress...hypocrisy has been allowed to undermine the operation of social and economic structures...in a world that rewards dishonesty, that encourages corruption, and that treats truth as a negotiable commodity." -Universal House of Justice, Letter to the Conference of the Continental Boards of Counsellors dated 28th December, 2010. 

We should manifest "complete freedom from prejudice in [our] dealings with peoples of a different race, class, creed, or colour." -Shoghi Effendi, quoted by the Universal House of Justice in its Letter to the Conference of the Continental Boards of Counsellors dated 28th December, 2010.

"The corrosion of [racial prejudice] has bitten into the fibre, and attacked the whole social structure of...society...Racial prejudice should be regarded as constituting the most vital and challenging issue confronting the...community at the present state of its evolution." Shoghi Effendi, quoted by the Universal House of Justice in its Letter to the Conference of the Continental Boards of Counsellors dated 28th December, 2010. 

"While it is true that, at the level of public discourse, great strides have been taken in refuting the falsehoods that give rise prejudice in whatever form, it still permeates the structures of society and is systematically impressed on the individual consciousness."  -Universal House of Justice, Letter to the Conference of the Continental Boards of Counsellors dated 28th December, 2010.

I have been reading a book about Haiti and the Dominican Republic over the last week, trying to better educate myself about a country that I will be spending two weeks in this spring. As many of you already know, the history of both of these countries is characterized by violence, prejudice, corruption, hatred, greed, abuse, and fear. I had a general idea about the history of Hispaniola, but not the finer details of the island's history and peoples.

I still have a great deal I hope to learn about the island. While I am usually a very fast reader, I am only on page 150 of my book, and I still have 150 to go. I am finding that I have to put it down more regularly than I ordinarily would, because I am overwhelmed by the descriptions of the scale of human suffering that the people who inhabit this island have endured. Prejudice has been a constant part of my reality for most of my life, but I have never lived in a country where I was conscious of facial structures, hair colour and texture, and skin colour actually having been given names and corresponding social classes. According to Michele Wucker in Why the Cocks Fight: Dominicans, Haitians, and the Struggle for Hispaniola, the "sociologist Micheline Labelle has counted twenty-two main racial categories and ninety-eight subcategories used among Haiti's middle class in the 1970s." Some of the words used to describe these categories are "cafe au lait, bonbon siro (candy syrup), ti canel (little cinnamon), ravet blanch (white cockroach), soley levan (rising sun), banane mure (ripe-banana), brun pistache (peanut brown), and mulatre dix-huit carats (18 carat mulatto)" (p.34). That people can be divided up into separate groups based on such debasing names is truly disturbing to me. Hispaniola's history has been characterized by a steady effort to "whiten" the population by encouraging the immigration of light-skinned peoples, and abusing, degrading, and all-out massacre of those who happen to have been born with darker complexions. Ever since the arrival of the first colonizers from Spain and France, the island's Native peoples have been systematically and brutally all but eliminated, African slaves brought to the island to work in the island's plantations have been abused, tortured, and killed, and anyone attempting to improve conditions for ordinary citizens in either country has been overthrown, and expelled or killed.

The main crop grown on the island has traditionally been sugar cane, and generation after generation of Haitians and poor Dominicans sacrificed their lives and their freedom to line the pockets of exploitative plantation owners and government officials. Thousands of Haitians migrated across the border into the Dominican Republic to try to make a living in the sugar plantations only to find themselves working in extremely harsh conditions that often resulted in severe injuries, for extremely low pay. Since the United States has a quota for how much sugar it buys from the world market, and it consumes most of the island's sugar, it dictates the amount needed, and the price that will be paid for sugar from the Dominican Republic. This meant that sugar prices rose and fell according to local and international political upheaval, changes and shifts in national interests, and consumer demand. The result has been an economic activity that is extremely volatile. When demand is high, workers are brought or come by choice into the Dominican Republic to work on the plantations. When demand for sugar drops, excess immigrants are deported back to Haiti with little consideration for the impact on their family or community. In the past deportation was the most mild form of solving the "Haitian problem". Many plantation workers were simply killed. Those who remained on the plantations had no rights, and uprising and demonstrating on the plantations was repressed with the constant threat of violence and death. 

In addition to the instability in the sugar industry, the political climate in both Haiti and the Dominican Republic has been non-stop upheaval since the first settler set his foot on the island's shore. Many of the political leaders from both countries have led corrupt governments, draining the island's economic resources for personal benefit, and leaving the majority of the population to live in abject poverty.

Reading the story of the lower and working class Dominicans and Haitians -- of the experience of Haitians who had been living in the Dominican Republic for years and years without having any legal status; of their children who were born with no legal papers and therefore were considered people with no place; of Haitians being rounded up and killed when it was deemed that they were becoming a strain on the economic structure of the Dominican Republic; and on the other side, of the poverty and struggle to survive of so many Dominicans themselves; of the blame and the fear and the never-ending violence and desperation -- I find myself amazed that people have survived on the island at all. Is it possible to survive so much physical, verbal and emotional abuse, and still have the capacity to build a happy, successful country? I wonder. I also wonder how much of an impact the diversification of agricultural crops being grown today is having on the lives of islanders. How many lives are improved by the free-trade cocoa farming business, for example? Is this a model that is being replicated for coffee and other crops? Is there a movement to grow organic and free-trade sugar cane in a sustainable way on the island? Obviously, I have a lot more reading to do.

I also find myself reflecting on having been born white. My great-grandparents came to North America as poor immigrants also. Immigrants from Italy. But they did not remain poor. Would my ancestors have struggled more if they had been born with a different skin colour? 

I am finding that the process of learning about how much the people of Hispaniola have suffered is a hard one. The more I learn, the greater sense of responsibility I feel I have been given to stand up for justice. To work towards the elimination of all forms of prejudice. To root out my own prejudices, many of which I am not even conscious of, but which I am sure exist simply by virtue of having been raised surrounded by people who are very much like me. To educate myself and others.

The Universal House of Justice, the international administrative body of the global Baha'i community, sends letters out to the Baha'i community on a regular basis. These letters help to focus our service efforts in our respective communities so that they all work together to build a global community that is cohesive and characterized by unity of vision. The quotations at the beginning of this blog entry are from one such letter, which we received this past December. Reading about Haiti and the Dominican Republic, I find myself reflecting on the tumultuous history of this island within the context of the Baha'i vision for unity, justice and honesty. Much has changed over the past one hundred years on Hispaniola, but from what I read in the newspapers every day, a great deal of change still needs to occur if Hispaniola and her peoples are to manifest their true capacity in the world.

As I sit here thinking about everything I have read, and all the questions that I have yet to answer about the future for the people of Hispaniola, what comes to mind is a quote from Abdu'l-Baha, son of Baha'u'llah, the founder of the Baha'i faith. He said: "Just now the soil of the human heart seems like black earth, but in the innermost substance of this dark soil there are thousands of fragrant flowers latent. We must endeavour to cultivate and awaken these potentialities, discover the secret treasure in this very mine and depository of God, bring forth these resplendent powers long hidden in human hearts. Then will the glories of both worlds be blended and increased and the quintessence of human existence be made manifest." (from The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 294). 

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