Did Haiti Eliminate Constitutional Protections for Vodou?

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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.