The right-wing evangelical defamation of Voodoo does not end with the misrepresentation of the Bois Caïman gathering as a Satanic pact: it includes the accusation of the ritual sacrifice of human beings, and the propagators of the libel include Haiti’s ambassador to the United States.
In doing the research for my blog entry “The Right-Wing Evangelical Libel against Haiti,” I was reminded at times of the infamous blood libels against my own people, the Jews. For the enlightenment of any reader not familiar with this quaint and venerable practice (do I have to explain that I am speaking ironically? I suppose I must, to prevent stupid misinterpretation. All right, then: I am, or rather was just now, speaking ironically), I will explain how it works. A gentile, usually a Christian boy, is found dead, or disappears, or is believed to have disappeared. (An actual human disappearance, or even a specific identity for the one supposedly missing, is not necessary for the proceeding.) The story is then spread that the victim was abducted by Jews who used him for a ritual sacrifice—insert here details of crucifixion or whatever else excites violent indignation—and drank his blood or used it in making matzah. Attacks on Jews, ranging from harrassment to mass killing and expulsion, usually follow. The great age of blood libels was in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but they continue to this day. Forebears of mine suffered under them (though as far as I know they were not physically attacked or killed) in Rhodes and Damascus in the year 1840. Needless to say, the practice reflects more on its Christian inventors, who celebrate the onetime sacrifice of a human being by (at least in some denominations) ritually drinking his blood, than on the victims, whose law expressly forbids them to consume even the blood of animals (and no, human blood, even one’s own, does not get a pass).
The lie spread by right-wing evangelical Christians that Haiti was born of a pact with the devil, and more generally that Haitian Voodoo is a form of Satanism, struck me as similar to the anti-Jewish blood libel in that both are cases in which people of strongly held but narrow, ill-founded, and ill-informed opinions project their superstitious fears upon others. In the end, though, I did not include this comparison in the piece, as it seemed to me a bit of a stretch. For one thing, it does not seem to be a libel against Haitians or vodouisants to say that the fabled meeting at Bois Caïman involved the ritual sacrifice of a pig and the drinking of its blood: there is historical evidence of such an event, and besides that, so far as I know, Haitians by and large find nothing offensive in the idea. (This Haitian writer deems the ritual as recounted in the historical sources “a traditional Dahomean blood oath,” Dahomean religion being one of the African sources of Haitian Voodoo.) For another thing, what evangelicals impose on the story to defame Voodoo is not the sacrifice of an animal but the idea of a pact with the devil—hardly as inflammatory a charge as attributing to someone the ritual murder of a child and the drinking of its blood. (Some Haitians have been reported to believe the meeting at Bois Caïman to have involved the sacrifice of a human being: a black slave in some versions, a French colonial soldier in others. See Markel Thylefors, “‘Our Government is in Bwa Kayiman’: A Vodou Ceremony in 1791 and its Contemporary Significations,” Stockholm Review of Latin American Studies, No. 4, March 2009 (PDF), p. 79. But even the evangelicals have not, so far as I know, stooped so low as to try to get people to believe this.)
I was disconcerted, however, when I happened on an article published in the New York Sun on August 19, 2003 under the title “Disturbing Disclosures of Human Sacrifice” (for the moment I withhold the identity of the writer; the article can be found on line, but, apart from the version available through the Lexis service, which I quote here, only in an unreliable altered version). The article begins:
In the wake of several defections from the embattled Haitian regime, some disturbing disclosures about alleged human sacrifice have thrown a new light on the ruling authorities in Haiti.A baby stolen from the hospital and crushed to death in a mortar under the supervision of a Voodoo sorcerer! And this in a report in The New York Sun—not exactly a publication of the first rank, but still a newspaper with some professional standards, one would think. Initially, my search for confirmation or disconfirmation of the report turned up nothing decisive. I found reports that confirmed that the newborn child of a woman named Nanoune Myrthil had indeed been abducted from the General Hospital of Port-au-Prince around that date. But the only materials that I could find bearing on the alleged ritual sacrifice of the baby were reports of the accusations of Occilius and Mercier that added nothing pertinent. (Note, by the way, that verifying that a baby was stolen from the hospital and never found, however shocking that fact is by itself, does not license the conclusion that the baby was sacrificed in a Voodoo ritual. Babies do get stolen, usually either by people who want to raise them as their own or by people who want to sell them to others to raise.)
Executions early in the year 2000, prior to the fraudulent elections of that summer and fall, were intended to ensure the return of Jean-Bertrand Aristide to the presidency he had reluctantly relinquished in February 1996. So said Johnny Occilius, a member of the mayoralty of Cite Soleil, who defected last month.
Among the most scandalous of his disclosures was the gruesome sacrifice of the first baby of a young mother, Nanoune Myrthil. The date was important, Mr. Occilius said, in an interview. It was February 29, the last day in a month that will recur in four years. And “the lamb” must have been a first-born baby. Thus, the Myrthil baby was “at the right place at the wrong time,” Mr. Occilius said. The administrator of the State University Hospital in Port-au-Prince, also known as General Hospital, Marie-Antoinette Gauthier, made possible the snatching of the baby only 72 hours after birth.
Somewhere in the countryside north of the capital, the sacrifice took place that same night. The live baby was crushed in a mortar with a heavy pestle. Officiating was Voodoo sorcerer Henri Antoine from St. Marc, the same thug who founded the pro-Aristide so-called popular organization “Bale Wouze,” or “Clean Sweep” in English. . . .
Meanwhile, Jean Michel Mercier, former assistant mayor of Port-au-Prince, confirmed the disclosures of Mr. Occilius and added that the execution last year of a powerful leader of a “popular organization” was connected to the baby crime.
Several features of the article raise suspicions. The article appeared, not in the “Opinion” section, but in the “Foreign” section of the newspaper; yet it hardly reads like a piece of reportage. Take the first sentence: how can a mere allegation of human sacrifice constitute a revelation that throws a new light on something? By what right does the writer, in the third paragraph (and in the title, though that may be an editor’s contribution), identify Mr. Occilius’s charges as a “disclosure,” a term that implies veracity? Why, in the fourth paragraph, does the writer report the events of the alleged sacrifice in direct speech, as if reporting facts, rather than attribute the assertions to Occilius? The sentence that immediately follows it (which I omitted from the quotation above), far from calming these suspicions, only exacerbates them:
The bestial crime boggles the mind, and some people question the veracity of Mr. Occilius’s disclosures. But who would have thought that men infected with the AIDS virus in South Africa believe that they can be healed by having intercourse with a young virgin!Who would have thought that the writer of a news report, rather than simply stating the facts of what a certain person said, would overtly take that person’s side? And who would have thought that a news reporter would make use of emotional language, strained analogy, and rhetorical question?
Plainly the article is not the work of a competent professional reporter. But why would the writer, whoever he was (his name was on the page, but at this point I made nothing of it), take so partisan a position in a news article? Further, the fact that my Web searches turned up no other reportage of so monstrous an act, other than a few other mentions of Occilius’s allegations, intensified doubt about those allegations, though it did not constitute a refutation of them. Why would someone make up such a story, anyway?
Then I found this: a transcript and translation of an interview conducted in Haitian Creole with Sonia Desrosiers Lozan, a former employee of the National Port Authority of Haiti who claims to have been present at the ritual killing of the child of Nanoune Myrthil. (The Web page on which I found the transcript is dated October 30, 2009, but the interview was certainly conducted well before that date, as I found the same transcript reproduced on a page dated March 5, 2007. The latter page contains a narrative, written by Stanley Lucas, of the night’s events, apparently reconstructed from the interview, but adding many details, as if the writer had himself been present.) Ms. Desrosiers reports that the sacrifice took place at the home of then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. She gives the names of several persons supposedly present: President Aristide; Grandra, the houngan (Voodoo priest; the embellished version by Lucas, who seems to have been misled by the word “priest,” has him initially appearing in the robes of a Catholic priest); Marie Antoinette Gauthier, the director of the General Hospital, who, according to Desrosiers, brought in the baby (Desrosiers says that it was this that led her to conclude that the baby was the one taken from the hospital); General Wiltan Lherrisson, the head of the Haitian army; Jocerlerme Privert, the minister of the interior; Jean-Marie Chérestal, prime minister of Haiti during 2001 and 2002; Annette Auguste, popularly known as “So Anne,” a Haitian singer and political activist for Lavalas, Aristide’s party; and others. (The Lucas version adds Aristide’s wife Mildred to the company and describes the sweat on her upper lip.)
According to Desrosiers, all the participants took turns working the mortar to crush the baby, all the while “singing mystical songs and crying that Aristide’s five-year term was non-negotiable. . . . Mystical songs, throwing water, lighting candles, something totally diabolic.” After the ceremony was completed, she says, the houngan gave the president the heart of the baby in a bottle which he placed in his private room, and the baby’s remains were interred in the cemetery of Port-au-Prince, in “a sector where they put the remains of the ceremonies. . . . When they do these ceremonies they always bury the remains of the dead so when they want to light a candle and call the spirit back . . . they often do that.”
Is it possible that this woman believes in the truth of her account of events? Certainly. Indeed, it is likely that she does so: even without hearing the original broadcast, one gets the impression from the translation of her words that she is entirely sincere. Is it possible that her account of events is true? Certainly; in the same respect that it is possible that President Aristide and his associates are all humanoid aliens from another planet or gaseous entities made to appear fleshly by telepathic mind control, namely that there is no logical contradiction involved in entertaining such bizarre and fantastic hypotheses. But is there any reason to give this account of events any credence?
On the “yes” side, there is the fact that Desrosiers seems sincere in her testimony, that she held an official position in Port-au-Prince at the time of the reported event, that her narrative is coherent and detailed, and that two other persons, Occilius and Mercier, make similar assertions. On the “no” side is the lack of hard evidence that Satanic ritual sacrifice has ever occurred anywhere, and the extravagant improbability of such elements of her tale as that there could be a sector of the Port-au-Prince cemetery, known only to the malefactors, where the remains of sacrificial victims are regularly interred; that several highly placed government officials including the president of the country and the director of its largest hospital would conspire and participate in such an act; and that, such a thing being done, no evidence of its occurrence would come to light besides the testimony of one self-declared witness and two other persons. That Mercier was not a witness, even purportedly, is evident from the transcript and translation of a broadcast of Radio Vision 2000 in Port-au-Prince on August 13, 2003 in which the reporter, after relaying Mercier’s claims about the abduction and ritual murder of the Myrthil child, adds:
With this, Mercier confirms what Johnny Occilius said about that issue. He says that he got that information from current Lavalas Deputy André Jeune Joseph, who apparently took part in that meeting.I have not been able to discover any relevant further information about this Mr. Joseph.
It is worth noting, by the way, that while Occilius is reported to have said that it was “important” to the perpetrators that the baby be snatched on February 29, a date that occurs only once in four years, a news report from February of 2001—two years before Occilius made his allegations of ritual sacrifice and even longer before Desrosiers gave her interview—gives the date of the theft as the night of February 26, 2000. Desrosier gives it as February 27. Also, Desrosiers identifies the presiding houngan as a man named Grandra, while Occilius identifies him as Henri Antoine. Such divergences are hardly the weakest features of their stories, but they do add weight to the “no” side of the balance.
Another way to look at the matter is to consider the testimony of Desrosiers as a given fact and to consider what is the most credible explanation of it. There are three principal candidates: (1) that she really did experience the events that she recounts, or events much like them; (2) that she is lying; and (3) that she is confabulating. It is obvious that, for the reasons given earlier, (2) and (3) have vastly greater probability than (1). Between the two of them, I consider (3) more probable than (2). Desrosiers’s story, with its lurid detail, has much in common with the “recovered memories” of Satanic ritual abuse that flourished in the 1980s in this country and elsewhere, initiated by a fraudulent memoir called Michelle Remembers and spread by quacks whose trade consisted in “helping” people to “remember” similar events. Of course, the case of Desrosiers does not involve any claim of a memory repressed and recovered, and in any case, it concerns events from only a few years before her recital of them. But her case exhibits the same conformity of apparent memories to a widely used, pre-existent template.
Of course, to discredit the testimony of Desrosiers is not to prove that no such event occurred. As I said before, it is possible that such an event did occur. But all probability is against it, no strong evidence is for it, and to believe in its occurrence on the strength of the facts that have come to light would be preposterous and irresponsible.
So how did this tale arise? An interesting document to look at in this connection is this item, a page dated January 21, 2001 written by Yves A. Isidor, a Haitian-American professor of economics and spokesman of an anti-Aristide organization. Isidor asserts, citing “a senior member of Aristide’s Lavalas Family Party, also known as the party of Satan, the party of death, who pleaded with us for anonymity,” that Aristide “reportedly was bathed in November [of 2000, presumably] in the blood of a dead Haitian by voodoo priestess . . . Marie-Anne Auguste, commonly known as So An.” This could be a sketchy and garbled version of the Desrosier-Occilius-Mercier story or an independently developed rumor, but in view of the order of the reports, it is most likely the original story from which the more detailed version was subsequently derived by combination with the actual event of the disappearance of the Myrthil baby. The unnamed senior member of the “party of Satan” who was Isidor’s source may be Mercier. Note that in Isidor’s version, the blood sacrifice took place in November rather than February of 2000. This is because, according to Isidor, the ritual was designed to influence the American presidential election to secure that the presidency go to Gore, who was likely to be friendly to Aristide, rather than to Bush, who was likely to be hostile. (Clearly, the spirits of Voodoo were no match for the Florida voting system or the justices of the US Supreme Court. —I kid, I kid.)
Finally, I return to the question of the motives of the people spreading these tales. Obviously, they were actuated by animosity toward then-President Aristide. One element of that animosity that is of particular interest to me is the religious one. Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ordained as a Catholic priest of the Salesian order in 1983, though he was expelled from that order in 1988 on account of his involvement in leftist politics and left the priesthood in 1994 (source: Wikipedia). I do not know what position he may have taken in public regarding Voodoo early in his career, but the piece by Isidor from 2001 makes clear that at least some of his political enemies imputed Voodoo practices to him long before he gave legal recognition to Voodoo as a religion in April of 2003.
Aristide’s recognition of Voodoo, according to this contemporary news report from the BBC, “means that voodoo ceremonies such as marriages now have equal standing with Catholic ones.” The meaning given to the event by evangelical Christians was quite another matter, as the following passage from an article published in Christianity Today on October 1, 2003 indicates:
“The government said they are going to turn the country entirely to voodoo. The Christians say we are going to turn the country totally to the Lord Jesus Christ,” said Jean Berthony Paul, founder of Mission Evangelique du Nord D’Haiti. . . .The “voodoo holiday” of August 14 is the commemoration of the gathering of rebel slaves at Bois Caïman in 1791. The content of the “unconfirmed reports” is, obviously, the blood libel against Aristide. And, as I reported in a previous post, evangelicals have identified Aristide’s official recognition of Voodoo as a religion as itself a renewal of Haiti’s supposed pact with the devil. The interesting fact here is that “missionaries,” meaning, of course, evangelical missionaries, are identified as the ones spreading the blood libel.
Pastors and missionaries in St. Marc organized a rally on August 14, a key voodoo holiday, to counter the witchcraft they say voodoo involves. Missionaries have also circulated unconfirmed reports that a child was abducted from the town hospital to be made a voodoo sacrifice.
They fear Aristide is planning to renew a 200-year-old national “pact with the devil” on January 1, 2004. Many Haitians credit the country’s independence to voodoo.
I have one final piece to add to the puzzle that I have been assembling here. In a previous entry, I quoted the puzzling reply of the Haitian ambassador to the remarks of Pat Robertson about the pact with the devil supposedly formed by Haiti’s founders. Instead of dismissing Robertson’s tale as superstitious nonsense, the ambassador, after describing the ways in which the revolt of the Haitian slaves against their French masters has benefited the United States, said ambiguously: “So what pact the Haitian made with the devil has helped the United States become what it is.” I was a long way into the researches that I have presented in this entry before I realized why the name of the author of the article from 2003 on the “disturbing disclosures of human sacrifice” seemed familiar to me: it was the same as the name of the Haitian ambassador, Raymond A. Joseph. The biographical page on Ambassador Joseph in the Web site of the Embassy of Haiti in Washington, DC states that he is “mostly known as a journalist.” The page states also that he translated the first New Testament and Psalms in Haitian Creole for the American Bible Society, an evangelical Christian organization, and that he is a graduate of Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College (Illinois), both evangelical Christian institutions.
It is plain why the ambassador did not repudiate Robertson’s tale of the pact with Satan as the nonsense that it is: he believes in it himself. He is an evangelical Christian, and he is himself part of the effort to demonize Voodoo as Satanism, as well as the effort to demonize former President Aristide and his associates as practitioners of blood sacrifice. The evangelical libel campaign against Haiti and the religion of many of its citizens may have originated outside the country, but it now has exponents among Haitians, including the one who represents his country to the United States.
I do not defend the political record of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, nor do I hold any brief for the practice or the beliefs of Voodoo. But those who use demonic fantasies to defame either the man or the religion by that action alone set themselves in an even less credible, indeed a despicable, position. If they have legitimate objections to make, either in politics or in religion, let them make them without lies, hysterical fantasies, and demagoguery. We have suffered enough from blood libels.
Added 26 January 2010, 22.30 EST:
After writing and posting this entry I discovered a Web page that expounds in a concise and linear fashion most of the matters that I had so laboriously worked out by hours and hours of research, as well as much else concerning the preceding political developments: Richard Sanders, “Demonizing Democracy: Christianity vs. Vodoun and the Politics of Religion in Haiti,” from the magazine Press for Conversion, November 2008, published by the Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade (COAT), a Canadian organization. I quote the most pertinent part, in which I have replaced the references that originally appeared in endnotes with links in brackets:
When Aristide and thousands in Haiti’s popular government were then illegally removed from power, the elite’s outrageous propaganda was actually taken seriously by the coup-empowered regime. The de facto government’s CIDA-funded “Department of Justice” even used these outrageous rumours to arrest and illegally imprison prominent supporters of Aristide’s Lavalas government. In mid-2004, a U.S. human rights delegation to Haiti reported that:Yves Isidor, Raymond Joseph, Stanley Lucas—the very same sources to which I traced the story, though I like to think that I have added a bit of further substantiation to the case by combing through Sonia Desrosier’s testimony and the rest of it.
Members of Fanmi Lavalas have been using the word witch-hunt to describe the ongoing repression of Lavalas. . . . We were shocked to find that this term can be taken literally. While we were in Haiti, a wild story was being circulated by the media and Haitian authorities. It claimed that a baby was sacrificed during a ceremony attended by many members of Lavalas in the year 2000. While we initially took this to be at the level of tabloid sensationalism, it became clear that this ludicrous charge is being pursued by the current de facto authorities.Two particularly virulent enemies of Haitian democracy who have pushed these absurd, religious smear campaigns are Yves A.Isidor, a professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, and Raymond Joseph, a former Wall Street Journal financial reporter who became the 2004 coup-regime’s ambassador in Washington. Isidor, who accused Ms. Auguste of being Aristide’s “voodoo medium,” said she bathed him in human blood to place a curse George W. Bush and to ensure the election of Al Gore in 2000. Isidor’s grotesque story was later embellished by Joseph who said that as part of their Vodoun ritual, a newborn baby was crushed with a heavy pestle in a giant mortar. [Ref.]
On three occasions individuals have gone on National Television, reportedly at the behest of the Minister of Justice, to describe their participation at this so-called ceremony. Despite the fact that the stories told by these individuals are not even consistent. . . . Haitian authorities are using these out of court, unverified statements as the basis for issuing arrest warrants for Lavalas officials. These charges are also the justification for continuing to hold [prominent Lavalas activist and community leader] Annette Auguste. [Ref.]
The most well-connected figure who aided and abetted this particular psychological warfare campaign is Stanley Lucas, director of the right-wing Washington Democracy Project’s program on Latin America and the Caribbean. In 2007, this long-time Haitian representative of the U.S. government-funded International Republican Institute, disseminated extravagantly detailed slander regarding the alleged Vodoun infanticide that was supposedly engaged in by President Aristide and his closest political allies. [Ref.]
To establish his credentials and lend credibility to these outrageous lies, Lucas’ website displayed dozens of photographs of himself posing with business executives, Premier Jean Charest, U.S.-backed heads of state, Afghan “tribal leaders,” U.S. senators, congressmen, ambassadors, three former U.S. Secretaries of State, a former National Security Advisor, a former CIA director, and other such so-called “friends” of Haiti.
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