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Haiti: The Aftershocks of History

—by John Ripton

At 9 am each day in a busy Petionville intersection one can see a cross-section of the international earthquake relief effort in Haiti. A small white United Nations vehicle is parked in the shade. Several lightly armed UN soldiers in military dress and blue helmets speak casually with each other, at ease on the sidewalk outside their jeep. A black vehicle, its driver already enjoying air-conditioning, turns left. A small red Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) insignia is on the front door. A white pick-up, also with its windows closed for air-conditioning, turns right. FAO, the abbreviation for the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, is neatly stenciled in black on its doors.

In the space of a few minutes other vehicles of assistance agencies pass through the intersection: Oxfam, UNICEF, World Concern, International Red Cross, CRS (Catholic Relief Services), International Rescue Committee, Mercy Corps. Several vehicles, mostly pick-ups and vans, jammed with North American church volunteers head toward various destinations in and around Port-au-Prince. A curious group with one young man donning a curly red wig travels in the back of another white pick-up. The side of the door bears the black letters FOCAS. Later it is learned that this group is in Haiti to rescue dogs.

At the edge of a park, women vend fresh fruit and young men hawk packaged pills. In the shade of the park people squeeze between tents housing displaced Haitians. USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) is stamped on one of the tents. The intersection itself is splashed in sunlight. Across the street a young Haitian man in a sharp dark business suit and bright tie passes an elderly woman with a soiled plastic pail of water balanced on her head. Down the street toward the center of Port-au-Prince, a group of young men and women with straw brooms sweep the street. They all wear dark blue shirts emblazoned with YeleHaiti, the foundation of Wyclef Jean, the popular Haitian American hip-hop singer aspiring to be president of Haiti.

“Aba Preval” (“down with Preval”) is sprayed in black paint on a wall not far away. This message is repeated on many walls throughout Port-au-Prince. Rightly or wrongly, René Préval, the current president of Haiti [2010], is broadly criticized for his “silence” during and after the earthquake. He is reportedly a humble man, a former agronomist who has the people’s interest at heart, but Haiti is so devastated, so obviously dysfunctional that poor Haitians without adequate food, water and shelter, tired of generations of corrupt politicians, dismiss Préval as well.

As to Wyclef’s support among Port-au-Prince’s impoverished masses, it is difficult to determine. Support for him is written on walls here and there but in the slums of Bel-Air, among the people in the camps and streets there, his name seems to possess no special charm. He is a “politician,” one in a long line of “leaders” and “the rich” who have “done nothing for us.” Down the street from the dilapidated house where a medical relief team from New Jersey sets up a temporary clinic a slogan on a wall reads: “Down with Leaders, the Rich, the Chic.”

Gabi, one of the principle organizers in the St. Martin neighborhood of Bel-Air, has long been a political activist and arbiter in this community. At night he is a DJ at local clubs. He lives with his wife Bette and their young child in one room at the back of what was once his sister’s residence. It is this house that Mano a Mano International Relief uses as a temporary medical clinic when in Bel-Air. Standing on the building’s flat roof, pointing out the various neighborhoods of Bel-Air, Gabi gestures toward the school across the street where 1200 students perished in the January earthquake.

“The only politician that ever helped us was Aristide,” Gabi asserts. Jean-Bertrand Aristide was Haiti’s first democratically elected president in 1990. Overthrown by a military coup in 1991, he was restored to power by the U.S. in 1994. He completed his first term in 1996. Aristide was reelected to office again in 2001 and served until he was deposed once more in 2004. He is currently living in forced exile in South Africa. [He eventually returned to Haiti in 2011, where he lives today] “He [Aristide] visited this school and provided public funding to double its size by adding a second story. He then arranged for buses to transport students outside of Port-au-Prince on field trips, so they could see their own country. He wanted them to envision a better future,” Gabi recounts.

Leaning against the wall at the edge of the roof, Gabi looks down. A few friends call up to him from the street below. He returns their greeting. “The country was on the verge of a civil war when Aristide was kidnapped,” he continues his reflections. “The police did not want to turn their weapons on the poor. Two weeks before Aristide was removed the police abandoned their stations, leaving their weapons behind. With these weapons nearly 2000 poor people, people living in these ghettos, were armed and ready to fight to protect Aristide.”

Asked why Aristide was deposed, and by whom, Gabi frowns. “Are you sure you want to know?” he returns the question quickly. “Okay.” Gabi resumes his account of those days: “Most of the supporters of Aristide believe it was U.S. military forces that kidnapped him.” Aristide himself claimed he was kidnapped. In 2007 Randall Robinson, after much investigation and documentation of the event, recounted the details of Aristide’s kidnapping by U.S. Special Forces in his book An Unbroken Agony—Haiti, From Revolution to the Kidnapping of a President. Robinson received a first-hand account of the event from Frantz Gabriel, Aristide’s helicopter pilot, whom he interviewed in Pretoria, South Africa in 2005. Frantz had lived in the U.S. and served as a sergeant in the U.S. Army. He was with Aristide and his American wife when they were captured at 4 am on February 29, 2004 and flown to the Central African Republic.

Gabi says he’s not afraid to “tell the truth.” He drinks some water from a plastic bottle and picks up his story: “U.S. sharp shooters in camouflage trousers and black shirts arrived in Port-au-Prince during this time. They moved through the ghettos, trying to engage the armed civilians. But the U.S. soldiers were heavily armed and, like I said, they were marksmen. They killed many of those in rebellion.” Gabi points to a flank of tents in the distance: “Those are UN forces stationed here now, here to keep the violence from flaring again. But, as people continue to endure without enough food even, many begin to wonder in whose interest they keep the peace.”

As to why Aristide was such a threat, Gabi emphatically states that “he built schools, he nationalized communications, electricity and water, he raised the minimum wage, and he tried to improve life for the majority of Haitians.” Gabi asserts that there were only 10,000 electrical transmission lines before Aristide came into office and, within a year, there were 50,000. Put another way, Gabi suggests, Aristide threatened the status quo, the unrestrained private investment, profit and theft that has characterized the politics of Haiti and secured the fortunes of its tiny elite.

Haiti gained its freedom from France in 1804, after more than a decade of bitter war. Eventually Haitian ex-slaves defeated Napoleon’s forces sent to restore the power and properties of the former sugar plantation owners. Haiti became the first American republic to eliminate slavery. It was, moreover, the first black republic in the world. The U.S. and Europe immediately embargoed this new Caribbean nation. France further burdened Haiti by demanding $21 billion (2004 dollars) in reparations for property lost by its citizens, the very plantation owners who had enslaved approximately 500,000 Africans in Haiti until the 1790s. Many in the U.S., especially slaveholders, feared the example of Haiti’s revolution. Thus the U.S. did not lift its embargo of Haiti until 1863.

By 1915 Haiti paid out 80 percent of its annual budget in interest to French and American banks, interest on loans to Haiti to pay its debt reparations to France. In that same year the U.S. began nineteen years of military occupation of Haiti, resulting in some 15,000 Haitian deaths before leaving in 1934. Then, in 1922, the U.S. compelled Haiti to pay off its remaining debt to France with a $16 million loan from the U.S. The U.S. loan was eventually settled in 1947, retiring Haiti’s war reparations debt nearly 150 years after its independence. By then, a small elite of whites and mixed African-Europeans (mulattes) were ensconsed behind high walls in places like Pétionville in the mountains overlooking Port-au-Prince. After 1957 François “Papa Doc” Duvalier and later his son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier terrorized Haitians with their private paramilitary, the murderous tonton macoutes. The U.S. government had a rocky relationship with the Duvaliers but justified its uneven support of the two dictators by the “stability” they brought to Haiti.

More than a century of slavery, 150 years of unprecedented debt imposed on the victorious ex-slaves, two decades of military occupation, and three decades of bloody dictatorial repression (under the Duvaliers more than 20,000 Haitians were murdered by tonton macoutes and “Baby Doc” allegedly stole an estimated $300–$900 million from the Haitian treasury) left Haiti in shambles. By 2000, a mere 1 percent of the population controlled 50 percent of the wealth. Half the population makes $60 or less a year. The infant mortality rate is the highest in the Americas by far, with 74 infant deaths in every 1000 live births. Only 1 in every 10,000 Haitians has access to a physician. Potable water is available to less than 45% of the population while 63% of Haitians are undernourished and 76 percent of children age five or less are underweight. Haiti has the highest rate of HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis in the Western Hemisphere. Perhaps more than 75% of Haitians are unemployed or underemployed. About 55% of Haitians cannot read or write.

In downtown Port-au-Prince huge piles of cement rubble still block streets. Half-fallen buildings suggest the natural disaster is not yet complete. In Cité Soleil, the poorest slum in the city, great hills of urban waste run for thousands of yards in every direction. A few pigs root in the plastic and assorted cartons and bags in the middle of a tidal river, a colorful slag that clogs its deep and wide channel from bank to bank. There seems to be no room here even for the rising tide. Hordes of people beckon to passersby, offering small plastic bags of water, sundry packages of snacks, plastic shoes, fresh produce, cut sugar canes, myriad cheap objects. The main thoroughfare is a grimy scar slashing through the heart of the ghetto. Residents flood through it and into adjacent streets, many of them seemingly plowed through mountains of garbage.

Yet people bring life, even hope, to the choked and dusty streets. There are shouts and laughter, smiles and greetings. In addition to vibrant street commerce, tap-taps (colorful Haitian pick-ups and trucks used for public transport) are packed with riders. People are continuously coming and going. “Why not hire the people to crush and remove the structures destroyed in the earthquake?” asks a registered nurse riding in the open body of a pick-up on the way back from a day of work in a camp. She gestures with both arms toward the street. “Can’t people be hired to remove these mountains of garbage to more secure landfills away from the city?” “Pay them for excavating those landfills!” Her harsh voice betrays frustration. “Am I missing something,” someone retorts, “or are these indigent people, even if they had access to the tools and resources, simply too ignorant to build their own houses?”

Cynicism is part of the response to seeing so many international assistance organizations and so little activity toward actual recovery and reconstruction. Another member of the Mano a Mano team in the back of the pick-up cracks facetiously, “Haitians like tents better than real homes. They don’t need much food. They apparently don’t require electricity or running water in their homes.” Everybody chuckles. Someone recalls one American aid worker who said that her group’s goal was to have the “best camp” in Haiti. Then the same person offers his own scathing assessment of that remark: “How about helping people get out of those stinking camps and into functioning communities with homes, electricity, indoor plumbing!”

“Couldn’t a lot be salvaged from this construction debris and sea of garbage that could be used in constructing homes and for other useful purposes?” a young medical assistant asks. A Mano a Mano physician muses, “Maybe the Cubans had it right in the beginning of their revolution. Cooperatives for rural farming and urban home construction would make sense here. At least it would direct the assistance money into the hands of ordinary Haitians and stimulate some local economy. Small scale. Low tech. Modest investment like that can go a long way toward rejuvenating communities instead of tent cities.”

A week in Port-au-Prince awakens the medical team members to the need for new assistance strategies but it also elicits more questions than can be answered. Working long days in the camps, listening to the people, experiencing constant eye irritation from riding through the streets, all this and more has challenged their patience with the apparent slow pace of recovery, the debilitating torpor of the camp environments. “Wouldn’t it make more sense to train and employ Haitians to build their own churches and homes rather than spend the money on airfare and accommodations to come down here and build all or part of these for them?” a team member wonders aloud. “Yeah. Supplies could be made and bought locally rather than importing everything from rope to fabric. Wouldn’t that employ more people and keep the money in local circulation?” asks another.

“If there really was a coordinated effort among all aid agencies and democratic participation of the Haitian poor in reconstructing its homes and lives, do you think the money would be spent on more tents and latrines? Doesn’t using that money to employ Haitians in making their own homes and wells make a little more sense?” Such questions keep surfacing in conversation. Reconstruction of a nation is a complicated matter but it must ultimately be done on the ground by the hands of those who need the assistance if it is to succeed, i.e. if it is to employ, feed, shelter, educate and empower those who have the greatest need of such opportunities.

The economic and social development of Haiti is possible despite its history and the January earthquake. But it requires moving beyond “tent cities”, beyond “disaster tourism” and the notion that assistance is an end in itself, beyond the mindset that uncoordinated piecemeal relief efforts without local democratic participation actually work, beyond the ideology that private investment from foreign companies operating in an environment of subsistence wages, negligible taxes, and unaccounted profits will lead to sustainable development.

The earthquake, perhaps, may be seen as a tragic metaphor for Haiti’s long history. If it had not happened, would the international community have even considered the recovery of a people who have endured a persistent social catastrophe for generations under colonial and neocolonial powers?

The gravest aftershock of January’s natural disaster may be the failure of nations to honor the pledges to Haiti of $5.3 billion over the next eighteen months and $11 billion in the next decade. Approximately 10 percent of the former pledged amount has reached Haiti and perhaps only half of that amount has actually been disbursed in the form of direct relief and reconstruction. Of the nations that made these ceremonious pledges at the United Nations in March 2010, the U.S., France and Canada have conspicuously failed to deliver on their promises.

Neglect compounds injustice. Historically victimized, poor Haitians seem yet shackled by similar economic and political forces that enslaved and subsequently indebted them. These realities are inescapable to those with their eyes open to history and their ears listening to the poor Haitians themselves. As the Mano a Mano medical team prepares to return to the U.S., having seen about 1000 patients, for most of its members the images of mothers with feverish children, open sewers running at the edge of tents, adolescents begging for what water is left in the bottom of a bottle will be what lingers in the mind. Some openly wonder if it will take another earthquake to awaken everyone to the injustice so evident in what they have witnessed, to the unfinished work of assisting ordinary Haitians to realize the dreams and goals of a revolution that is more than two hundred years old.

—John Ripton Ph.D. Board Member, Mano a Mano International Relief

Man breaking cement (near Petionville) —photo by John Ripton, July 2010.

Man breaking cement (near Petionville) —photo by John Ripton, July 2010.

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