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Opinion: On Valentine's Day, Prisoners and Haitian Debt


February 11, 2010 | bpfna

by Ken Sehested
February 11, 2010

(ABP) -- As with many modern cultural traditions, Valentine's Day draws from a jumble of historical memories. However, the observance's namesake comes directly from Christian history. The Roman Catholic Church's official list of saints actually has three entries for "Saint Valentine."

While the existence of a St. Valentine is not in doubt -- archeologists have unearthed a chapel built in his honor -- reliable accounts are scarce.

One of the stories about St. Valentine is especially gripping. While in a Roman prison awaiting his execution, Valentine was befriended by the jailor's daughter. Shortly before his death, he wrote a note of thanks for her generosity, signing it, "Your Valentine."

This is the story we celebrate in each mid-February, which for several years has inspired children in our congregation to make Valentine's Day cards for prisoners. For many, this is about the only card they receive all year.

In our day, prisoners -- the U.S. incarcerates more than any other country -- are out of sight and are rarely anyone's object of affection.

For this year's Valentine's Day card-making ritual, our children will make an additional card, extra-large, which we'll send to the people of Haiti via one of our friends there. And in an accompanying note we will celebrate with them a very special gift that's just been given, one that, in the long run, will be significantly more valuable than the boat-loads of aid now pouring in.

Just a few days ago U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geitner announced that Haiti's debt to international financial institutions would be forgiven. Then, the following day, finance ministers for the Group of Seven nations (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the U.S.) announced their countries' decision to do the same. To my knowledge, never has the urgent petition of "forgive us our debts" been so dramatically answered.

Moreover, the debt cancellation will have a much longer effect. As one worried doctor there recently said, "We're so afraid that once it gets unsexy [to provide aid], Haiti will be forgotten." The boundaries of "We Are the World" tend to snap back into their contracted shape once the major media's sweet tooth develops another craving.

Home of the first successful slave revolt (1804) in the New World, Haiti's succession from French rule was not celebrated in our own newly-minted nation. U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, principal lyricist of our nation's hymn to freedom, refused to recognize Haiti's similar quest for Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. (Back then, "all men" meant "all white, property-owning males," and the literalists controlled the text for a good while.)

The revolution's chief chaplain, Dutty Boukman, led a voodoo ceremony where he charged the gathered slaves "to throw away the image of the god ... who thirsts for our tears and listen to the voice of liberty that speaks in the hearts of all of us."

Meanwhile, backed by gunboats, France demanded reparations, an amount equal to $21 billion in current dollars. Not bad for a bunch of sugar, coffee and indigo plantations.

Fear of German influence in the early 20th century prompted President Woodrow Wilson to dispatch Marines in 1915, ostensibly to "re-establish peace and order" in Haiti. But that order included control of Haitian customs house, banks and even the national treasury. The Marines stayed for 19 years, though effective control of the country's finances lasted until 1947.

Continuing instability proved a ripe moment for control, starting in 1956, by the ruthless Duvalier dynasty, first "Papa Doc" then "Baby Doc." Initially elected president on a populist platform, Papa Doc took the title "president for life" in 1964. U.S. Cold War logic in the Caribbean trumped any anxiety over human rights -- or the Duvaliers' credit-card limit. It is a reality, now recognized in international law, known as "odious debt," which stipulates that the debt incurred by a nation ruled by loan shark accomplices should not be enforceable.

Like prisoners here, Haiti seems to remain just out of sight, except in times of earthquakes of tsunami magnitude. That may account for the wisdom of a Haitian proverb: "What the eye doesn't see doesn't move the heart."

Ken Sehested is co-pastor of Circle of Mercy Congregation in Asheville, NC and founding director of BPFNA. He is the author of In the Land of the Living: Prayers personal and public, a collection of prayers and litanies for worship, available in the BPFNA catalogue; and the editor of an upcoming online journal, prayer&politiks. For more information about international debt cancellation, visit

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