Did Haiti Eliminate Constitutional Protections for Vodou?

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  July 16, 2012 — 7 Comments

Two years after the disastrous earthquake that left large areas of Haiti in ruins, most stories focus on the homeless camps slowly clearing outpositive signs of new construction, and the sometimes-contentious presidency of Michel Martelly. In June, President Michel Martelly signed an amended version of the Haiti’s constitution. This new version of their constitution grants voting rights to Haitians with dual citizenship, something long desired by the large Haitian diaspora which provides Haiti with around 20% of its GDP. It also reforms how elections are run, though some say the changes are “unworkable from the start.” But does this amended constitution also eliminate constitutional protections to the religion of Vodou?

A 1935 Haitian law effectively outlawed the practice of Vodou as superstitious, noting that  “ceremonies, rituals, dances and meetings during which it is practiced as an offering to the alleged deities, of sacrifices of livestock or poultry” could land a Haitian in prison, and fined (here’s an interesting article on the tensions from which that law arose). This law was explicitly abrogated in Haiti’s 1987 constitution, and in 2003 Vodou was recognized as an official religion in Haiti, meaning it enjoyed the same rights and legal protections as the politically dominant Catholic Church. Now, according to Euvonie Auguste, Head of the National Confederation of Haitian Vodou (KNVA), this newly amended constitution explicitly removes the 1987 abrogation of the 1935 anti-Vodou law, leaving Vodouisants open to possible legal persecution once more (also reported by Religion Clause).

“Voodoo would be no longer protected by the Constitution amended. The Priestess Euvonie Auguste, Head of the National Confederation of voodoo in Haiti, deplores the abrogation of Article 297 of the Constitution which, accrding to her protected the sector voodoo against all forms of discrimination. Recall that Article 297 abrogated amongst other things the Decree-Law of 5 September 1935 on superstitious beliefs that restricted arbitrarily the fundamental rights and freedoms of citizens. Given this new constitutional situation, the priestess Euvonie Augustus, stated that now, the vodoo practitioners will have to use their own means to protect themselves from any attacks against them.

Any immediate government crack-down on Vodou seems unlikely. We know that Haitian President Michel Martelly wants to build a tourism industry around Vodou, with Martelly telling the United Nations:  “Do you know how many people would like to come to Haiti and try to understand what Voodoo is?” Haiti’s tourism minister, Stéphanie Balmir Villedrouin, is already utilizing the allure of Vodou to boost ambitious plans for a new tourism industry for the island nation. So arresting people for engaging in a faith you’re hoping curious tourists will come and investigate seems counterproductive. That said, Haiti can be a politically volatile place, and Vodou has often been an convenient scapegoat for the nation’s problems. This was in full evidence right after the earthquake, when a number of political commentators decided it was Vodou that mired Haiti in poverty.

“As Lawrence E. Harrison explained in his book “The Central Liberal Truth,” Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile. There are high levels of social mistrust. Responsibility is often not internalized. Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10. We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures. But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.” – David Brooks, The New York Times

In addition, there is a long history of Christian missionaries working to eliminate the faith, using coercive conversion tactics, along with serious accusations that missionaries have stirred up anti-Vodou violence. So it is important that the nation have protections for Vodou, lest it fall victim to the capricious whims of any of the groups that would prefer to see it go extinct.

At this point there are several unanswered questions: does the amended 2011 constitution protect religious freedom for all Haitians? Does the 1935 anti-Vodou law now stand, or is it no longer applicable? Why was article 297 struck down in the new constitution? I have yet to find a copy of the amended constitution on the Internet, which might help answer some of these questions. Right now, some Haitian commentators do indeed see these changes as a repressive move by the current government. Once I have more information, I’ll post an update.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Ecstaticlght

    I’m going to check with some of my friends that are working in Haiti now. I’m also curious, since there was a wonderful interfaith alliance document (which I had the good fortune to read a copy of) written in 2011 and signed by all of the religious leaders. In this document they agreed to work together and respect each other in order to facilitate the growth of their people.

    This move also makes no sense since it would legally end Ra Ra and many aspects of Carnival. There are still drums along the mountain trails above Kenscoff  and Port au Prince on Sundays after church. The jails would be packed full all over Haiti, since Voudou is an every day aspect of most of their lives. The more the missionaries mess with the balance, the more fearful the people are getting again. The strongest neighborhoods in the cities, that are cleaning up, learning, and cooperating are those that have incorporated all aspects of their faith practices.  Isn’t that always the way it should be no matter where we are?

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    I don’t think David Brooks is much of a threat to religious freedom, but the other forces form a grim constellation. I shall look forward to more information online about the new constitution.

  • LadyCrossroad

    Great, so he wants to turn Vodou into a tourist gimmick. I’m not sure what’s worse. 

    • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

      If it is done right it’s not so bad.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mambo-Racine/531080598 Mambo Racine

    Folks, as a Mambo with decades of experience in Haiti, I think I can shed a little light on this.

    Everyone take a deep breath! This is false, Vodou has not been “banned”. The Haitian Constitution mandates freedom of religion.

    The definition of Vodou as a “superstitious practice” has gone out the window, that’s why the amendment regarding the prohibition of “superstitious practices” promoted during the long-ago regime of Haitian President Stenio Vincent is no longer needed. In fact even at that time, Vodou service never stopped. Of course we can not tolerate any legal impediments to the practice of our religion. But it is erroneous to suppose that during Vincent’s administration Vodou ceremonies ceased.

    Vodou will never die, Vodou is the majority religion of Haiti and there are thousands and thousands of non-Haitian Vodouisants in the USA and Europe.

    We must, however, remain vigilant. Although freedom of religion is guaranteed in Haiti, there are constant efforts by American-funded, right-wing evangelical Christians to attack, even physically, our temples, clergy, membership and ceremonies. It is vitally important that we enforce the Constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion. And as international Vodouisants, on these Facebook forums, we must increase our efforts to find ways to support our Haitian brothers and sisters, politically, materially, and in every other way.

    Sincerely,

    Mambo Racine

    • http://www.facebook.com/jacquiemg Jacquie Minerva Georges

      I agree with Mambo Racine. However we’re neglecting one element. What is religion for individuals who are not Haitian or Haitian-Americans who go to Haiti has an adult (btw-I am Haitian-American) can be confusing due to CULTURE. It’s no different than non-theist out of culture having Sunday dinner which was once religious. So Ra-Ra will stay due to culture and many more aspect. My mother is a Catholic and doesn’t believe in Vodou (she is Haitian) my father is pagan (blends other religion in his practice). However, there are things my mother does that I do see practice in vodou due to culture.

      Therefore No, Vodou is not banned in the sense that American ethnocentrisms will claim. There are ways for individual Haitians to distinguish the difference between what is Vodou, what is culture, and what is outside the realms of both. In addition, due to the history of Vodou in Haiti it isn’t the same as Voodoo of the states or Vodun of Benin due to history and culture.

  • kittylu

     Pat Robertson tried to blame the quake on Voodoo (like he tried to blame 9-11 on pagans and gays) and I am concerned that evangelicals are now pushing a weird demon hunting version of Christianity in Haitian communities.  The Rudy Eugene cannibal attack was blamed on voodoo and then it came out that he was preoccupied with demon slaying, his last facebook post was about it and he took a bible out with him when he went after the homeless man.  A friend of his from church said “Rudy was fighting a demon that day and he lost.”  Some people take it literally.

    When Haiti broke free from France’s tyranny they embraced Voodoun as a source of strength and a part of their national culture and it would be a shame to see that lost. Pat Robertson’s ilk have put a lot of money into the recovery effort and hopefully Haitian politicians can resist all that cash.