Living La Vida Loca

This following piece was adapted from Julian Vigo’s book, Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development.


Great news for Ricky Martin! If only all closets could be opened. What is refreshing about “coming out” a closet is the affirmation that some new consciousness might be revealed. Of course, there are always those who will say, “I knew since the day you were born,” and others who simply shrug their shoulders, finding this no news at all. Yet, opening up closets may very well produce friction, denial and anger.

My dear friends, let me tell you a very nasty story about denial—a story that begins and ends with capital, desire, and colonialism. The paradigm is here, Port-au-Prince, but the examples are numerous as “third world”i children serve as the proxies of first-world “salvation.” Far away are the crusades or the missionaries of the twentieth century to save your souls. Indeed, there are now atheists and Democrats, liberals of all shades and sizes, coming to save you—or rather, your children. “Jesus loves you” might be the theme of the day on most every tap tap, but the colonial drive of adoptions in this country is the meta-narrative of salvation, and it is the western Dollar and Euro that will do the saving. Adoption is a business in the west and its ugly anus is here in Port-au-Prince. Allow me to share with you the bowels of neoliberalism that has most every adopting parent—who has or has not cried on Sally Jessie Raphael about their desire to have a child as if this were a Maslovian first-tier necessity—couching their desire to adopt as an act of “charity.”

To begin, there are many moral issues with any approach to adoption that portends charity, aside from being utterly condescending and orientalizing. There is also a central psychological problematic that must be posited here: Is it at all healthy that people adopt to “save” children? This assumption that has long been part of the personal politics of adoption in the sociological and psychological fields needs to be critiqued. After all, since when should having a child be anything other than a selfish desire on the part of the parent(s) to have a child? Ethical issues surrounding the emotions of charity by those who wish to adopt need to be seriously critiqued. But this is not yet my point. I am dancing around the shit of what I have found myself in the middle.

One week ago, I discovered that the home where I rented a room was actually an elaborate operation of child trafficking. The alleged NGO run by these three young Haitian women, all in the their mid twenties, was a front for an elaborate child trafficking ring from Haiti to the Dominican Republic. Of course, when I found out, my brain exploded. I was quite aware—as everyone reminded me constantly—that my life was in danger. Here in Haiti, knowing things one should not know ends badly for many. Speaking out about things ends even worse. Yet in just two weeks I had found two very different forms of child trafficking in this city—one under the auspices of a an international charity/orphanage/children’s hospital, the other a local NGO comprised of women who themselves were products of this “fake adoption” industry as they had been symbolically in Germany.

So, there I was listening to this director of a school here in Port-au-Prince admit one evening that the school’s director had smuggled several children over the border from her “orphanage” to Santo Domingo without passports. The next day, I was given confirmation by several teachers at the school, all hesitant to speak out for fear of losing their jobs, that there were thirty children taken over the border that day. I was not entirely shocked by this revelation because I had discovered in my brief time in Haiti that this kind of practice was not uncommon—that many orphanages are “cover operations” for child trafficking wherein the “orphanage” would claim not to conduct any adoptions, but occasionally would allow adoptions for a fee. When I found out about this trafficking operation, it was a head-spinning moment for me as I had just ten days before discovered that a children’s hospital was more interested in taking in perfectly healthy abandoned children to stock their orphanage than in accepting sick children. I had been coming to learn about the epidemic increase of “orphanages” each year in this country all whilst living under the roof of three child traffickers. Interestingly, what I witnessed at the children’s hospital was upsetting mostly because it allowed me to see how a child who is considered parentless is co-opted in an incredibly perverse way: as both an object of adoptive fetishism made to “complete” the western infertile couple and as the symbol of this couple’s stated claim to save a child from poverty and misery while conterminously the servicing hospital/orphanage basks in the media glory of “saving children.” There are serious moral questions to be raised when an institution’s participation in reducing child abandonment actually increases and promotes this phenomena and when an institution fails to encourage political and judicial action concerning child abandonment. That is, if we are really to believe the narrative they spin.51unp2rqlzl-_sx331_bo1204203200_

But there is an equally grave problem in the cultural construction of how adoption is spun in the west with the potential parents sweeping into disaster sites to “save” children from misery, posturing themselves as heroes and the child’s life preordained as part of a larger neocolonial structure of “betterment” a the hands of people who hide their personal greed behind the veil of “charity.” Most of us have all heard the stories and the bleeding-heart reasons from prospective parents about the reasons to adopt which frequently spin on the notion of “benevolence”. However I have yet to read cogent discussions in the fields of psychology or human rights which demand an investigation of such social practices where the desire of the individual to create a family hinges upon this extremely perverse, colonial narrative which conflates personal desire with political machinations that claim to be “helping” a child. I have rarely seen governmental agencies discuss if such attitudes might be unhealthy: children need love, not pity. And it seems that this fetishization of the adopted child precludes love in favor of the posturing of charity, pity and a very colonial—if not mentally unhealthy—attitude towards these children.

Since the earthquake two months ago, there has been a flurry of North Americans showing up at Haitian orphanages and hospitals looking for a child to take home. There has also been growing critique of this practice by agencies such as UNICEF in New Zealand which posit that adoption is likely not the best solution when these children who have simply not been identified, nor their families located. After all, It is common knowledge that when any object, say a crumpled piece of paper, is given a value and people desire to have this object, the value of this product will constantly shift. We have seen people throughout history go to all lengths in order to possess objects and even to reproduce the means to attaining said objects (ie. counterfeiting). Indeed, having that object of one’s desire is a most important “task” for the western subject who today seems to think she can do anything (or that she ought to be able to do so). In the west we no longer die from consumption and polio, our houses do not fall down so easily in earthquakes, and when a tragedy hits our beloved New York, it does not even come close to the daily loss of human life to famine worldwide. When we suffer it is special because we are special. Or so we assume ourselves to be.

And so the story goes that when the western subject wants a baby, it is no holds barred: fertility clinics are on the rise throughout North America as infertility is becoming a major money-making, treatable health concern. Big bucks are being made and even people in their twenties are having to get help in order to acquire their dream family. But many fertility stories do not have picture-perfect endings and this is where transnational adoption fits neatly into the neoliberal subconscious where materiality of the “third world subject” is excluded, where freedom is yet another unlimited consumer choice. When this foray into the “family that must be” becomes a colonial conquest wherein we turn our sights to “developing” countries which our governments have historically helped to impoverish, there is another series of questions that we must ask—both as citizens of rich nations which no longer have access to children to adopt within their own borders and as individuals. We must ask ourselves if it is moral to adopt a child whose mother and father are simply too poor to feed it. We need to hold both the state and the individual to a higher standard and we need to ask these questions and debate these dilemmas in open forums.

I long for the days when I will never have to hear as I did last summer at a picnic in Woodstock: “That is my adopted daughter over there…We got her in China.” Gee, thanks, but I sort of figured some of this out give that you are blonde and she is Asian. But does this “fact” even need to be stated? We need to question if this form of parenting is at all acceptable given that adoption is a private issue which, once granted, is a narrative for the child to share (or not). Lofty interpretations of parents who see themselves as “saviors” of needy children or as good samaritans need to be critiqued and scrutinized by those specialists who confer the right to adopt upon hopeful parents to be. Announcements of “origin” need to fall into the history books along with notions of miscegenation, race and colonial occupations.

Back to the commodity fetishism of small, dark-skinned Haitians. Indeed the facts are cruel as both Canadian and United States adoption agencies charge on the average $30,000 per private adoption. Today I asked the director of the Institut du Bien Etre Social et de Recherches (IBESR, the Institute of Social Welfare and Research), Madame Jeanne Bernard Pierre, what her office planned to do regarding private adoptions which in Montreal look wonderful, but from here smell of child slavery, prostitution, organ harvesting and child selling. It is easy to idealize your family and prepare that family-photo, annual Christmas card when you don’t have to think about the woman who couldn’t afford to feed her child or who was in fact robbed of her child. These are not uncommon occurrences in Haiti as any Haitian will tell you. All except for Madame Jeanne Bernard Pierre, who at first yelled at me in the huge makeshift office sprawling across the courtyard of the earthquake-damaged building behind her claiming, “I have never heard of any child selling!” I turned to Madame Pierre and without thinking I exclaimed sarcastically, “Wow! That is amazing, you must be the most naïve person in this government…or the most corrupt.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, every single person in the makeshift office in the courtyard was silent and they looked at me as if to say, “No she didn’t.” After many minutes of discussion, Madame Pierre calmed down and changed her tune, suddenly claiming she understood quite well the dangers posited by private adoptions. Indeed, people might have been upset about Ricky Martin not telling Barbara Walters that he was gay, but in the big scheme of things, that was Ricky’s business. Child trafficking and paying $30,000 for a child through private adoption is ours. Well, ours and Madame Pierre’s of IBESR.

Certain closets need to be opened and as the police from the DCPJ, Direction Centrale de la Police Judiciaire (Central Directorate of the Haitian Police) told me yesterday, child trafficking is all but uncommon in Haiti. The other day a teacher at a school where I have been working in Croix-Desprez, from the balcony upon which I was standing told me to look left, “You see over that orange rooftop to the metal one…There used to be an orphanage there. That woman just disappeared with the children.” Then I was told to look over towards another area of Port-au-Prince on the right, “That building is another orphanage and everyone knows that children are sold there.” Why is this the open secret and yet our governments continue to allow—even encourage via tax breaks and monetary incentives—private adoptions with Haiti?

UNICEF, an organization with which I do not always agree has come to see the inherent dangers posed by inter-country adoption:

Over the past 30 years, the number of families from wealthy countries wanting to adopt children from other countries has grown substantially. At the same time, lack of regulation and oversight, particularly in the countries of origin, coupled with the potential for financial gain, has spurred the growth of an industry around adoption, where profit, rather than the best interests of children, takes centre stage. Abuses include the sale and abduction of children, coercion of parents, and bribery.

The dangers have been demonstrated as this and numerous other reports indicate and as Inspector Myrthil, second in command to Haiti’s Direction Centrale de la Police Judiciaire Brigade de Protection des Mineurs (also known at the BPM, the Brigade for the Protection of Minors) related to me earlier this week recounting the countless cases of child abductions and trafficking. In effect, Inspector Myrthil tells me, his hands are tied and his office can only investigate certain cases but that the head of operations is untouchable and quite protected. He said that I ought to be careful to whom I pose questions and suggested I go to UNICEF to make a report there. Two women police officers also told me to be careful of going to any other police prefecture due to police corruption and police officers’ involvement in child trafficking. So from the offices of the DCPJ and UNICEF on Monday, I went to the ministries who make and administer Haiti’s laws on adoption. Clearly this problem has many dimensions and both sides of the adoption process share the blame.


When I reached UNICEF I found Caroline Bakker in an air-conditioned room hunched over a computer. I began to tell her about the cases of child trafficking I had discovered, but she just shrugged her shoulders, told me to go to the police and spun around in her chair to return to the computer screen. When I told her I had already gone to the police, she stated, “I am not responsible for child trafficking.” Dazed by this interaction, in time I found the name of a child protection officer from UNICEF, Myriam, who was interested in working on this problem. A few days later Myriam contacted me and thus began my journey into the bowels of UNICEF.

But this sort of apathy and deflection of ethics can be found anywhere uncomfortable questions are asked. In 2007 while looking to adopt a child, a Montreal adoption agency told me that they charge $30,000 for an adoption. When I asked why the prices were so exorbitant, I was told, “Those are our costs.” After reading more about international adoption it became quite clear that the “costs” of such agencies are about keeping people employed and nothing to do with the welfare of children. How have we come to this era when children’s lives are still bought and sold?

So today I sat in a special parliamentary session wherein an “avant projet” is being constituted to reform adoption laws in Haiti. Deputy Gerandal Télusma from Artibonite, the president of this committee, is attempting to update the 1974 law and I am hoping to convince her and other politicians to deny all adoptions which are not public and free in the country of the adopting parent/s. She recognizes the problems of both the unsecured nature of the thousands of orphanages in this country (of which nobody seems to hold a precise number) and the fact that these orphanages contain few—if any—orphans. The deeper ethical issues in any sort of adoption pre or post-earthquake must be addressed from both our political representatives and those who work in sociology and psychology.

Haitian children are being abandoned, left at the doorsteps of NGOs and embassies, and confided to the good doctors at the children’s hospital. From all that I have learned there is no investigation undertaken to attempt to find any parents or relatives. Children “found” or abandoned are like stock shares that bring in extra revenue for the many orphanages in this country. The fewer questions asked only means—just as in the case of the wallet you find on the street—that what you find is yours.

This is a newer, crueler colonialism that engages the subject, driven to the throes of desperation, starvation and the unholy alliances of bandits that will do anything to have a piece of $30,000. Even $100 goes very far in Port-au-Prince. I have spent the entire day traveling between the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Justice, the Institut du Bien Etre Social et de Recherches, and the Parliament. I didn’t spend more than a dollar for all my tap tap travels.

We are spared the grotesque reality of child selling and slavery that dominates much of the developing world as the adoption agency serves as the pimp between the child we claim to love and the family that has been, in one way or another, robbed of their child. This is not a family photo Christmas I ever hope to receive.

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: