I “grew up” in Haiti, in the sense that I learned what it means to live in a police state. Before that, I lived in a cocoon of simplistic theory. My Ivy League education had taught me that America was the cause of all problems, so everything could be fixed by “changing the system.” After my internship in Haiti, I saw that life was more complicated.
My visceral memory of Haiti is reading a book with the cover ripped off, and hiding it under the bed before falling asleep at night. It was a book about Haiti’s secret police, the “Tontons Macoutes.”
Getting caught with the book could land everyone in the house in jail. I was not being paranoid—I was being a good guest. The person I rented the room from gave me the book along with the handling instructions. Marsha was a fellow foreign aid worker of more mature years, and she was trying to introduce me to the Haitian facts of life.
A more dramatic memory was getting mobbed by beggars.
When I say “beggars,” you won’t know what I mean unless you traveled to Third World countries in the 1970s. Many beggars had no legs and no wheelchair, so they’d sit on skateboards in the streets. One day, I gave a coin to one of them, and another rushed over.
You may be wondering how they could rush over, but this was their living and they were amazingly skilled at it. I pulled out another coin, and soon a whole crowd of beggars surrounded me.
Some had no arms, some had no eyes, and many had deformed, undeveloped legs, due to diseases that are mercifully less common today. I ran out of change quickly but the crowded kept pressing in on me. I ran into a nearby shop, and if the shop had been closed, I don’t know what would have happened.
The incident led me to question my simple theories about “giving.”
I had been taught that more “giving” was the solution to everything, but I started to see the limits of throwing money at problems.
I often heard academics condemn others for lacking compassion, and I saw how this helped them feel good, but I wondered what was really good for the presumed beneficiaries.
This dilemma was underscored by problems with my job. I was an intern for a foreign aid program, with a role in the monitoring of funds. The recipients of the funds didn’t want to be monitored, alas. They just wanted cash with no strings attached. So they ignored me, and I had no work to do.
This left me with copious free time. Marsha invited me to a Happy Hour at the American Embassy.
You may find it hard to imagine a U.S. embassy opening its doors to act as a cafe for visiting Americans, but I enjoyed that experienced in many countries in the 1970s.
What made this different was Marsha’s suggestion that we could hang out with off-duty Marine Guards—young men posted to Haiti guard the embassy.
I had only heard bad things about the U.S. military during my “good education,” so I couldn’t understand why anyone would socialize with Marines.
My teachers had effectively trained me to hate people I didn’t know—exactly what they claimed to oppose. But I respected Marsha, so I opened my mind a bit.
Another day, Marsha invited me to a picnic at a dam.
“Why would anyone want to hang out at a dam?” I said.
I had been trained to see dams as evil blights on the landscape. Marsha explained that people didn’t have electricity before the dam was built, so they saw it as something to admire. This gave me another lesson in appreciating things I had learned to condemn.
The biggest lesson of all was the realization that I could leave this police state at any time, unlike its unfortunate citizens.
I could go back to a place where I was not at risk of being imprisoned, tortured, or executed without due process. America was often referred to as a police state in my Ivy League world, but suddenly I realized that it was not.
Well, that’s not exactly honest—it took me decades to undo that mindset. But my experiences in Haiti set me on the road to questioning it.
When recent news of Haiti reminded me of these incidents, I searched the internet for information on the Haitian secret police.
A YouTube documentary on the Tonton Macoutes came right up. At first, I was grateful for today’s freedom of information, but I was soon disappointed when the video was all about blaming America.
Loretta G. Breuning, Ph.D., is founder of the Inner Mammal Institute and Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay. She is the author of many personal development books, including “Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin, & Endorphin Levels.” Dr. Breuning’s work has been translated into eight languages and is cited in major media. Before teaching, she worked for the United Nations in Africa. She is a graduate of Cornell University and Tufts. Her website is InnerMammalInstitute.org.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.