Originally: Haitians and the “Citadel Syndrome”

It is rare these days to hear anyone say something positive about Haiti or about Haitians. The terms that were once applied to our people — courageous, honest, hard-working — seem to no longer come to mind. This negative perception started with the mistreatment that our people, of whatever class, have suffered in their own country for more than half a century, and that has driven many of them to seek refuge abroad. While they may be better-off there, their success is mixed with frustration.

That perception continued with our elite, who chose to keep quiet when they were treated with contempt. Foreigners called them loathsome and disgusting, something we even hear from time to time in Haiti itself. It has been reinforced by the unfailing tendency among some Haitians to drag our country through the mud and to spread the most preposterous rumors, especially when they are seeking some political position or when they think it will advance their interests.

We have been, and still are, much too ready to make deals with those who boast of having the capacity to do damage, real or imaginary, instead of trying to encourage and support those who want to follow the rules of the game and obey the law.

We will move heaven and earth to be a member of a government, whatever its stripe, and we will fight tooth and nail to hang on to the privileges of our position. But as soon as the wind shifts, instead of keeping quiet we try to pass ourselves off as virtuous types who were working all along to undermine the régime from within. No one is fooled, but that doesn’t matter. We salve our consciences by saying we acted for the good of our country.

We spend so much time plotting, perpetrating and preventing dirty tricks that we come to forget or completely push aside the interests of the country in whose name we pretend to justify our political involvement. I wonder what will be left when the last Haitian has been discredited.

No doubt we will continue to be surprised that no one takes us seriously. Who knows — will we finally see that we must come to our senses?

Catholics search their conscience before they go to confession. Protestants make public avowals that amount to admitting their bad past behavior, and promise not to repeat it. Voodooists have to go through purification before they can take part in ceremonies. Our politicians are the only ones who never engage in self-criticism of any kind. They won’t confess to even the slightest error of analysis, of judgment or of direction. In this electoral year, why won’t they admit to voters the mistakes or shortcomings they may have been guilty of over the last 5, 10 or 15 years? If they aren’t guilty, they should say so. This would be a very edifying experience.

I recently took part in an informal discussion about the many reasons why Fidel Castro has enjoyed such great political longevity. Among the proffered reasons I was surprised to hear one participant mention, in all seriousness, that Castro had once confessed to his people that he had governed them badly. He said it only once, and that was long ago. But according to our panelist he still reaps tremendous prestige from the admission. That is something to think about.

In any case, we have to get hold of ourselves, for we have a social debt to our fellow Haitians that we must repay. And it’s not true, after all, that we have become a people with no good qualities left, or that our elite is loathsome, or that our middle class no longer feels any patriotism, or that our poor have all become bandits. But we have to recognize that in a sense we have lost our innocence—and perhaps much more than that.

So it is that today no one would think of saying, as did Uncle in 1928,  that “the Haitians are people who laugh, who sing and who dance.”* And yet Uncle was right in his time, and for our time too. The difference is that in the past we could laugh because we had the feeling that we were happy and that we had prospects for the future, whereas today we have learned, on battlefields at home and abroad, that “you have to laugh before you are happy, for fear you’ll die without ever laughing.” We still laugh, but it’s laughing through our tears.

Why are we the way we are? An impossible question, yet some have attempted to answer it. And of all the explanations I have heard the one that rings truest is what has come to be called “the Citadel syndrome.”

(This isn’t my phrase. It seems it was used for the first time by an eminent Haitian professor and man of politics. I won’t cite his name, because I’m not sure what context he used it in, and I have never read the piece where he mentioned it. So I don’t want to associate him with the provocative things I’m going to say. Indeed, I would be enormously grateful if this eminent professor, who is still alive, would claim paternity for the expression and agree to share with his countrymen the circumstances in which he used it.)

Meanwhile, it seems that Haitians as a people carry within them the Citadel syndrome. You can see this for yourselves. This is the syndrome that prevents us from making the first concession in a negotiation, or from taking the first steps toward meeting our opponent on middle ground. It is the syndrome that stops us from admitting that we have committed mistakes, or even that we have in all good faith made some wrong choices. It is the syndrome that makes us believe it is up to the other person to change, and not us.

The Citadel syndrome is an inflated ego, an exaggerated self-esteem, and a tendency to take our notion of ourselves very seriously. It trivializes the things we do, and even the work we live by. It is a frantic desire to “become someone instead of trying to do something,” at whatever cost.

The Citadel syndrome has killed off any idea of compromise or concession in Haiti. It will soon smother the national dialogue, of which so much has been said, yet which seems to have been stillborn. It leads us to overestimate our strengths and to throw ourselves into interminable conflicts where, in the end, we lose everything because we have underestimated other people’s capacity to put up a fight. Ultimately it translates into terrible insecurity and a failure of intelligence that makes it impossible to persuade, to compromise or to win. Most of the tragedies of Haiti’s history can be blamed on the Citadel syndrome.

Like defenders in a besieged fortress, once we have taken a position we won’t budge. And we seem to say to others, in the words of Haitian writer Frankétienne, si-w kapab, vin-n pran-m , men kwa manman-w, men kwa papa-w (“Come take me if you can; here is the cross of your mother, the cross of your father.) And so we persist in our mistakes. That’s why we are the way we are today.

Of course we have every reason to be proud of our Citadel.  It’s an amazing monument, regarded as one of the wonders of the world. But what have we done with it? We have simply abandoned it to its fate. The Citadel has brought us nothing, apart from flattering our ego and our pride. It has merely inflicted on Haiti a terrible syndrome that spares no one.

It was built to repel a French attempt at reconquest, which never took place. So it has never really protected us from the threats for which it was built at such great sacrifice. Some Haitians speak of it the way people used to talk about Oceania, in other words without ever having visited it. Yet it acts upon our subconscious in a way that does us no good.

I suggest, then, that the Citadel should be leased to some international tourist chain that could look after its upkeep and put it to profitable use. Such an initiative would also be quite in keeping with the United Nations’ decision to declare the Citadel a world heritage site.

I would invite the National Heritage Protection Institute (ISPAN), the Ministry of Tourism and the Public Enterprise Modernization Council (CEMEP) to draw up some proposals for the government and for the Haitian people on how do put the Citadel to uses that will pay a social and economic return: a long-term lease, a management contract, or something similar. Everybody will gain, and we will have killed several birds with one stone.

Let’s free ourselves from the Citadel syndrome.


*Ainsi parla l’oncle (“Thus spake Uncle”), a collection of essays by Jean Price-Mars, published in 1928.