Photo: AFP/Getty Images, retrieved

The WhatsApp message is terrifying. It warns that the Venezuelan government made a bloody covenant with a family of voodoo spirits worshipped in Haiti, to issue a new cryptocurrency, the Petro. It darkly claims the new crypto isn’t really named after oil, but for a clan of evil “loas” — voodoo spirits.

It’s easy to laugh but, to pious Venezuelans, the message provokes terror and anxiety. To me, a Haitian sociologist (que vivió varios años en la Tierra de Gracia), it was notable more for the way it shifted stereotypical representations of Haitians as poor people in need of rescue to a discourse in which Haitians are voodoo devils out to destroy the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

People have long turned to magic to make sense of the unfortunate situations they face, and Venezuelans have been doing it for years. Santería, another form of magic (which has some roots in common with our voodoo) is now as Venezuelan as a papelón con limón. Yet the association of Haiti with the Petro can profoundly impact the perception of Haitians residing in Venezuela, as well as the friendly relations Venezuela has had with my country for the last two decades.

Honestly, I smiled when I read the prayer chain in which some Venezuelans implore Jesus-Christ, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to destroy any evil associated with that perfidious Haitian voodoo spirit. Digging around a little, I found no one currently living in Haiti has heard of any voodoo priest or spirit named Petro. He is, at best, a secondary spirit, far less recognized than the big voodoo spirits such as Erzulie, Papa Legba, Freda or Damballa. He may be an outright fake.

The Petro dance celebrates the union of the slaves in their fight for independence against imperialist France. How Bolivarian is that?

We do have a “petro” in Haiti, but it has nothing to do with the common representation of voodoo, much less with cryptocurrencies; it’s a drum used for traditional music and dance. The Petro dance was created in Haiti around the time of the War of Independence, to unite the slaves in a fierce and clandestine fight that lasted 13 years, a fire dance often practised during our Carnival, which doubles as the biggest music and dance festival in Haiti. The Petro dance celebrates the union of the slaves in their fight for independence against imperialist France. How Bolivarian is that?

During the French colonization of Haiti, slaves didn’t have the right to meet or organize themselves as a community. The only way they could do so was through clandestine voodoo ceremonies in which they reunited to invoke African spirits — called “loas” — to ask them to free them from the brutal treatment of their French masters.

It was at one of these ceremonies, at Bois Caïman, where the first major slave insurrection of the Haitian Revolution was planned. On the night of August 14, 1791, representative slaves from nearby plantations gathered to participate in a secret ceremony conducted in the woods by Le Cap in the French colony of Saint Domingue. Presided over by Dutty Boukman, a prominent slave leader and voodoo priest, the ceremony served as both a religious ritual and strategic meeting as conspirators met and planned a revolt. It was the opening salvo in the long and bloody struggle that brought us independence in 1804.

I was born and raised in Cap-Haitien, which is near Bois Caïman in the North of Haïti. Later, I studied at the Central University of Venezuela and worked at l’Alliance Française de Caracas in Venezuela from 2009 to 2013. I know first hand the deep fear that the invocation of voodoo evils can provoke and especially I empathize with the fear a battered and traumatized Venezuelan must feel reading about these evil spirits behind the new crypto.

Growing up in Haiti, I’d hear people talking negatively about voodoo in their everyday conversations all the time. I was raised in a Protestant family where I accompanied my parents and siblings to church every Sunday. The very invocation of the word “voodoo” could cause terror in me. It’s not that I believed in its power to hurt people, or the supposed violent energy associated with it. In my mind, voodoo meant darkness and terrifying villains — the monster under your bed keeping you up at night.

Voodoo provided the one place where some of the world’s most viciously brutalized people could gather together in community

But then, every culture has a thing like that, doesn’t it?

As I became a teenager, and was better educated, the fear abated. The more I learned about the War of Independence of Haiti, the more I understood the role of voodoo in our history as the first independent black republic that fought and won the war against French.

Voodoo provided the one place where some of the world’s most viciously brutalized people could gather together in community. There’s beauty in that.

Voodoo ceremonies were also a site to pray and cultivate the faith that a better future was possible. This faith strengthened their conviction to plan the war against the French. This is the version of the history of voodoo that Haitian children have learned in school for more than two centuries.

But, the coming of Christian missionaries sapped Haiti’s proud voodoo heritage, recasting it as an evil practice against God. That’s the version making the rounds in those WhatsApp chain messages: voodoo as a form of devil worship that good Christians must keep away from. This is where voodoo’s association with darkness comes from: it’s black magic. An extraordinary coincidence, that choice of words, isn’t it? What’s the other “black” thing you think of when you think about Haiti?

Whenever I introduced myself as a Haitian to Venezuelans, there were always questions about voodoo. I could never really answer properly: I was a Christian kid, I had never been to a voodoo ceremony. Some persistent friends thought I was hiding something, that I didn’t want to spill my secrets and it took them a while to realize I really was clueless. Yes, voodoo is a real practice in Haiti and a core element of Haitian national identity. But no, we don’t all do it. And yet, it’s also faked by some charlatan practitioners to earn money out of people’s problems and anxiety.

It is relatively easy for other nations like Venezuela to believe that anything related to voodoo is evil, which explains also their fear of the new cryptocurrency.

Yes, voodoo, seen as black magic. It can terrify anyone including Venezuelans who might think about evil spirits while using the new cryptocurrency. However, the fear associated with P’tit Jean Petro behind the new crypto in Venezuela is more the fear of the unknown than the certainty that this evil spirit will actually destroy Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

Since voodoo is portrayed as terrifying black magic practiced by Haitians, people tend to automatically associate voodoo with any negative thing that happens to Haiti such as the 2010 earthquake or the last hurricanes. Religious people commonly say that negative things happen to Haiti because of voodoo, which is irrational, untrue and somehow racist. In this sense, it is relatively easy for other nations like Venezuela to believe that anything related to voodoo is evil, which explains also their fear of the new cryptocurrency.

So you should pay special attention to the origin of these messages, try to understand the intention behind them by wondering: is the intention of this thread about Haitian voodoo Petro to scare Venezuelans and/or to portray all Haitians as black devils? Who does this representation of Haitians as evil black people benefit the most? Is it true that the name “Petro” is purposely given to the new cryptocurrency as a confirmation of the alliance made by the Maduro government in Venezuela with evil spirits?

To what extent does the belief in those unchecked facts distract the Venezuela people from focusing on the severe socio-economic and political problems that Venezuela and its people are currently facing?

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