Jean Claude Duvalier, the brutal Haitian dictator firmly buttressed by Washington, once remarked that “it is the destiny of the people of Haiti to suffer.” Of course, Duvalier did little to assuage his forecast; he infamously left behind the legacy of a 15 year-rule littered with cases of systematic torture, extrajudicial killings, disappearances and numerous other human rights abuses. Nonetheless, his remark is telling. Two years ago on this very day, the ground near the town of Léogâne caved and rumbled, taking away over 200,000 lives and displacing millions in its catastrophic aftermath. Since then, in this realm of injustice and inequality, where eight out of ten live on less than $2 a day, where plight and foreign subjugation are chronic historical burdens, where five million people are deprived of the gift of literacy, where 520,000 displaced Haitians must accept the humiliating reality of tarpaulin tents as homes, where the world’s once greatest tropical producer must import 80% of its rice, where an unabating cholera epidemic carried in by UN occupation forces has killed over 7,000 and infected over 5% of the population, hope for a stable, democratic and prosperous Haiti in the near future seems more quixotic than tangible.
Haiti, like many nations of the Third World, is an untoward slave to its past. It is a favourite victim of imperial barbarism; from the world’s richest colony under France’s brutal clasp, to a playground of foreign interests enshrined by invading armies sent by Wilson and Clinton, its fate has always escaped its hands. However, we must not succumb to our persistent historical amnesia and reduce the past and future of Haiti to a plain tragedy. As Eduardo Galeano has so passionately emphasized, it was Haiti not Britain, which was the first country to defeat slavery. And it was Haiti not the United States, to become the first free country in the New World. From the slave revolts led by L’Ouverture and Dessalines that sought to unshackle the Haitian population from its colonial control, to the torrent of popular empowerment and support of the Lavalas movement in the 1990s that sought to wash away the tyrannical heritage of Duvalier rule, Haiti’s history is also one of astounding, courageous and honorable struggle. Such spirit remains today, in the resilience of the quake’s amputees, in the perseverance of those reconstructing their lives from the rubble, in the unified action of community groups, in the generosity of individuals willing care for orphaned children, in the resistance of women towards the sexual violence and neglect that escalated in the post-quake months. As Haitian political activist Patrick Elie reflects, ““Every night I cry for the Haitian people, not for their misery and deprivation, but for their strength, and resourcefulness, and optimism. (…) I cry everyday for the strength and sanity for the Haitian people.” It is perhaps this vicious contrast between courage and intractable predicament that makes Haiti’s plight even more poignant; as Randall Robinson notes, Haiti is an “unbroken agony.”
Despite the mammoth global earthquake relief efforts that sought to lift Haiti out of its catastrophe, progress has been slow over the past two years. Less than 1% of the $412 allocated to USAID for infrastructure reconstruction has been spent, and as of July 2011, the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission has only completed $84 million worth of construction projects from its pledged $3.2 billion. In addition, little effort has been made to enable the Haitian people to guide the recovery efforts in their own land. The United Nations has calculated that only a mere 0.4% of international aid went to Haitian NGOs, and local groups have very limited access to decisive international aid meetings. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, out of the 1490 contracts for services in Haiti awarded by the US government, no more than 23 have gone to Haitian companies. In the case of USAID, $33.5 million worth of contracts have been handed out, yet not a single one of its contractors is Haitian. In terms of aid priorities, more than $700 million are delegated to MINUSTAH (the UN military mission in Haiti) despite crime reports revealing low murder and violence rates, whilst only $109 million have been delegated to the cholera appeal. The Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund has invested funds in commendable ventures, yet it has also given $2 million to finish the construction of a luxury hotel, justified under the pretense the need to “attract investors, businesses and donors.” Such examples are numerous. As political researcher Bill Quigley notes, “the actions of the donor countries and the NGOs and international agencies have not been transparent so that Haitians or others can track the money and see how it has been spent.” It is about time for us to let Haiti’s people determine their own future.
Many nations are complicit in Haiti’s tragic historical legacy – and it is our responsibility to ensure that we do our utmost to assist Haiti in its road to dignity. A dignified Haiti where sovereignty and self-determination become realities and not the hollow platitudes of foreign spokesmen, where charity is replaced by solidarity, where Haiti’s excessive military occupation is curtailed, where the mainstream media does not relegate Haiti to its historic invisibility, where Haitian voices are not excluded. The scars of January 12th, 2010 are explicit and painful, with little expectation that they will cicatrize soon, but robust and principled action, bearing in mind both the overlooked teachings of history and the views of Haitians can achieve substantive and desperately-needed change. As Quigley emphatically laments, “The people of Haiti continue to be plagued by the earthquake of more than 20 months ago. They are our sisters and brothers. They deserve answers. They deserve help.” They deserve better. The deserve dignity. If not, then we ensure that Duvalier’s prophecy might not be entirely inaccurate after all.
“Deye Mon, Gen Mon” (Behind the mountains there are mountains) – Haitian proverb
How you can help
There are numerous campaigns and NGOs working in Haiti asking for support and financial assistance, of which many provide invaluable aid. However, a major problem in the Haiti’s path to dignified development is the plethora of foreign NGOs operating in the area, each abiding to what Phillip Wearne (journalist and founding member of the Haiti Support Group) calls their “own definition of humanitarian aid and development.” This gives a very disjointed and fragmented framework to reconstruction in Haiti, often bypassing the views and voices of the very population the NGOs aspire to assist. As Haitians say, “Lé ou bezwen, se ou k pou mache” -when it’s you in need, it’s you who takes the first step. Find out how you can support the Haiti Support Group, whose primary objective is to “amplify the voices of civil society organisations (CSOs) demonstrating an alternative vision of development in Haiti”, ensuring that the historically inaudible views of Haiti’s poor are heard in the “corridors of power.” Let’s give Haiti back her say.
January 12, 2012 / Daniel Macmillen