Jesse Helms' Political Voodoo

The senator from North Carolina finds a way to attack Planned Parenthood while hiding his well-known penchant for pro-life politics.

| Tue Mar. 23, 1999 3:00 AM EST

Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) got his panties in a wad yet again last week. It seems that the good senator was incensed to discover that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is funding what Helms strongly suspects to be voodoo in Haiti. Since we have our own voodoo connection of sorts, the MoJo Wire decided to take a closer look at his suspicions.

Helms' alarm bells apparently started going off when, while perusing the 1996 International Planned Parenthood Foundation annual report, he read about "a campaign to reach voodoo followers with sexual and reproductive health information ... by performing short song-prayers about STDs and the benefits of family planning during voodoo ceremonies." As would any conscientious senator (especially one who uses prayer breakfasts with Jerry Falwell as political fundraisers), Helms fired off a letter to Secretary of State Madeline Albright, demanding that the funding be stopped. In doing so he made it clear that he is hiding his well-known penchant for pro-life politics behind a wall of voodoo (italics ours):

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"On February 3, the [USAID] wrote to the Committee requesting permission to proceed withy [sic] the obligation of funds for population control programs ... It is no secret that these programs are far too often wrongheaded and wasteful. Nevertheless, if the Administration insists on funding these programs I shall not stand in the way, so long as you agree to the following conditions: 1) that no funds be obligated to any affiliate of the International Planned Parenthood Foundation (IPPF) in Haiti, including PROFAMIL; and 2) that no funds be provided directly or indirectly to any group whose programs include producing material intended to be used in a voodoo ceremony ... A.I.D. is funding programs that endorse or legitimize what amounts to witchcraft."

The Miami Herald broke the story on March 15, and reaction from the White House was swift, unequivocal, and veiled in laughter. White House spokesman James Rubin admitted that while, yes, we are funding voodoo, we weren't really funding voodoo.

"[USAID] has sponsored in Haiti an International Planned Parenthood Foundation program ... to utilize traditional Haitian health practitioners for distributing information on family planning," Rubin said. "Traditional practitioners are the first point of contact for many Haitians seeking health care ... While some traditional practitioners may have participated in voodoo ceremonies, USAID funding has not been used to support those practices ... USAID no longer funds the IPPF local affiliate in Haiti ... So the point is that we are not using our funds to promote voodoo."

The issue, clearly, isn't really voodoo. It's condoms. USAID has been bankrolling Haitian voodoo for years without incident. In 1995 Rick Barton, director of USAID's Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI), stated, "We have 13 teams covering 16 areas of [Haiti] ... These teams have the decision-making authority to spend up to $5,000 on any project ... Many are extragovernmental, anything from a voodoo event to more traditional groups."

Yet Helms took no issue with either Barton or the OTI back then. Instead, he waited until one of his pet political peeves was at issue, and then went after the IPPF. He succeeded, garnering a handful of "U.S. Funds Witchcraft" headlines and an end to funding for the IPPF in Haiti.

Sources within the State Department, who asked not to be identified, told the MoJo Wire that funding for the IPPF in Haiti was discontinued, partially but not wholly, due to Helms' concerns. However, USAID claims that the eliminated funding was simply part of a larger family-planning program that had already run its course.

Meanwhile, Haiti continues to be crushed by an exploding population and rocked by an AIDS epidemic, which the IPPF was also working to combat. Perhaps not coincidentally, Helms is perpetually looking to freeze or reduce AIDS funding, stating that "the ultimate origin of all AIDS-tainted blood has been homosexual contact." Helms historically has blamed AIDS victims for engaging in "deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct."

Helms has never exactly been a friend to Haiti, either. In 1995, he said, "As far as this senator is concerned, the administration's free-spending Caribbean vacation in Haiti is over. It's time for the President and his advisors to stop playing beach-blanket-bingo with Aristide and get to work protecting America's real interests abroad." (Such as promoting big tobacco in Asia, perhaps?)

In the words of Timothy Wirth, former U.S. undersecretary of state for global affairs, "More people in Haiti want family planning than any place else in the world."

Unfortunately for them, Helms had his MoJo working.