- Vodouyizan Protest an Amendment to the Constitution of Haiti
In June 2012, many practitioners of the Vodou religion in Haiti and the diaspora were dismayed to learn that a landmark law protecting religious and civil liberties had been abrogated as part of a series of far-reaching amendments to the 1987 Haitian Constitution. The reason for the abrogation of Article 297 was—and to a great extent remains—unclear, even as government officials sought to assure that the repeal in no way targeted or compromised the rights of Vodouyizan. Amidst the wider controversies surrounding the process of constitutional revision and its impact, Vodou advocacy groups led the protest against the elimination of this article. Their mobilization points both to the socio-political force of the “Vodou sector” in Haiti today and to the sense of participants that the long struggle for religious rights is ongoing in the wake of the January 2010 earthquake.
The 1987 Constitution of Haiti was promulgated a year after the overthrow of the regime of Jean-Claude Duvalier, and Article 297, its penultimate provision, pointedly addressed the legal legacy of dictatorship: “All the Laws, all the Decree-Laws, all the Decrees arbitrarily restricting the fundamental rights and liberties of citizens … are and remain abrogated.”1 Georges Michel, who was involved in writing the 1987 Constitution, noted recently that he and his fellow constituants inventoried at least forty laws then on the books that fell into this category, and of these four were singled out for special mention in the text of Article 297.2 Three of those four were notorious pieces of legislation from the Duvalier years, but the first law listed by Article 297 dated from an earlier era. This was the 1935 décret-loi (decree-law) prohibiting rituals of the Vodou religion as “pratiques superstitieuses” (superstitious practices). Supplanting earlier legislation that had criminalized “le vaudoux” as a form of “sortilège” or spell-making, the decree-law signed by Sténio Vincent a year after the end of the nineteen-year US military occupation banned “the ceremonies, rites, [End Page 272] dances, and meetings in the course of which are practiced, in offering to so-called divinities, sacrifices of cattle or fowl.” It also prohibited practices of divination and healing, glossed as “exploiting the public in making believe that, by occult means, it is possible either to change the fortune of an individual, or to heal him/her of any illness, by processes unknown to medical science.”3
François Duvalier attempted to instrumentalize Vodou after coming to power in 1957, but neither he nor his son ever lifted the technical criminalization of the religion in Haiti’s penal code. This did not stop Vodouyizan from being targeted for association with the dictatorship in the “dechoukaj” (uprooting) that immediately followed the February 1986 toppling of Jean-Claude Duvalier’s regime. One of the most violent episodes of a longer history of scapegoating, this wave of attacks became the impetus for further organizing on the part of the Vodouyizan community and the founding of advocacy organizations such as Zantray and the Bòde Nasyonal.4 The longtime struggle for religious rights had its first legal vindication with Article 297 of the 1987 Constitution highlighting the law against pratiques superstitieuses as one of those abrogated for “arbitrarily restricting the fundamental rights and liberties of citizens.” Article 30 [End Page 273] of the new Constitution further stated that, “All religions and forms of worship are free. Everyone has the right to profess her/his religion and form of worship, provided the exercise of this right does not disturb public order and peace.”5 Sixteen years later, in April 2003, then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide issued an Arrêté, or order, officially recognizing Vodou as a religion and authorizing manbo and oungan (female and male priests) who registered with the state to conduct civilly-recognized ceremonies including baptisms, marriages, and funerals.6