Five years ago on this day, a colossal shifting of the ground brought Haiti to its knees. On January 12, 2010 the island nation was devastated by the trembling. 0ver 300,000 people were killed according to Haitian government statistics, but the truth is that nobody knows how many were killed that day. Port-au-Prince was left devastated and in ruin. Today is a day to remember and mourn the people who were killed. It is also a day to reflect on how the devastation came to be so great, what happened afterward, and where Haiti is today.
At the time of the catastrophic quake, Haiti was already the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The disaster was a combination of natural and man-made devastation. The earthquake itself was nature’s work. But the massive extent of its destruction has its genesis in a long history of racism and colonialism. Haiti’s earthquake registered 7.0 on the Richter scale—big to be sure, yet Chile’s earthquake registering 8.8 only weeks later killed just 723 people. The discrepancy lies in Haiti’s long history of political mis-use by France and the United States that led to its abject poverty and to the desperately overcrowded and precarious conditions in Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince when the earthquake struck.
History of Horrors in the Fault Line
In 1804 Haitian slaves led a momentous uprising against the French slave owners who controlled that half of the island becoming the second free nation in the hemisphere and the only Black republic in the world. The power of the new republic was great enough at the time that it was able to annex its neighbor the Dominican Republic.
Haiti’s magnificent birth through a successful uprising in the name of justice and equality did not go unpunished by the world’s most powerful nations. Western nations placed embargoes on the nascent country—lest their own slaves get ideas. France did not recognize Haiti until 1838 and the US refused to recognize it until 1862.
Since then the US has held embargoes of Haiti, played a role is coups d’état and occupied the nation from 1915-1934. Since the earthquake, Haiti has been occupied again, this time by the United Nation’s security MINUSTAH which through its soldiers introduced cholera to the nation. US interventions and policies have played a massive role in making Haiti’s rural peasant farmers poorer, which, in turn, led to the preposterous overcrowding in Port-au-Prince that caused the mind-blowing devastation there five years ago.
One such intervention was the wholesale slaughter of the Creole Pig in the early 1980s. The Creole Pig served historically as a “piggy bank” that a farmer could sell one to send a child to school or provide treatment if someone in the family fell ill. Worried that swine fever–which some Creole pigs had—might infect North American pigs, the US pushed for the slaughter of about 400,000 pigs. This loss continues to impact families who relied on pigs as their only source of wealth and savings. Since that time, Grassroots International has worked in partnership with Haitian peasant groups to reintroduce the Creole pig and the economic independence it proves to rural communities.
Perhaps the biggest interventions that created the perfect conditions for catastrophe in Port-au-Prince five years ago can be traced back to two International Monetary Fund (IMF) agreements, in the 1980s and 1990s that led to massive imports of dirt-cheap US agricultural commodities with which Haitian farmers could not compete. Hundreds of thousands of rural Haitians left the country or migrated to Port-au-Prince in search of wages. And just like that a town meant for 200,000 people ballooned to 3 million. On the day the earthquake struck many of those 3 million or so people were living in shanty towns on the sides of hills and ravines crammed together in makeshift homes that for countless unknown Haitians would become their graves.
After the quake the international community promised over 10 billion in aid. Across the world people were genuinely and deeply moved by a desire to provide some kind of help to fellow humans in such a tragic moment. Sadly though, aid accountability in the wake of the disaster has been a disaster in itself. UN forces were quickly augmented in Haiti, and US armed forces joined them. In the early hours of absolute desperate need when lives were hanging in the balance, airplanes carrying food, doctors, and medical supplies were turned away from the airport by US military personnel.
Our partners were deeply unhappy about the process of distributing aid which essentially left out Haitian civil society and the Haitian government to a large extent. Antonal Mortime, the executive secretary of Grassroots International’s Partner the Platform of Haitian Human Rights Organizations (POHDH) described the situation to a reporter at The Nation during a visit to the US this summer: “I think it was important for them to go and help Haiti. But the way they went about it was not the right way. Humanitarian aid actually contributed to a weakening of the state and also to the weakening of local organizations.” Everyone but Haitians had a hand in deciding how Haiti should recover.
For Haiti’s Martelly Administration, the slogan for the last few years has been, “Haiti is open for business.” This mantra has very much been in line with US plans for recovery in Haiti which focus on mega-projects like industrial parks, mining, tourism, etc. These types of projects steal land from peasant farmers. In the case of the Caracol industrial park, for example, stolen land from small farmers is now sitting unused, with the industrial parK incomplete because promised ports and other infrastructure are unfinished. A report published by POHDH in August shows that Haitians who work there face extremely low wages, poor working conditions, and extensive sexual harassment on the job. Meanwhile, Haiti has been quietly working on a new mining law with the cooperation of the World Bank and private industry. Haitian civil society has been left out of the process.
Meanwhile, the political situation in Haiti has been on the brink of turmoil. President Martelly has been promising election for local and parliamentary positions since 2011, but the elections have never happened. There have been months of daily protests leading to the resignation of Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe. The protests have met with violence by police, and UN MINUSTAH forces have been photographed shooting at protesters. President Martelly and opposition parties were in negotiations yesterday and have agreed to an electoral law that must be passed in an emergency senate meeting today. If it is not passed, the terms of the senate and parliament will have ended and Martelly will begin to “rule by decree.” Our partners fear that in this event he will use the lack of parliament to enact laws such as the mining law, speeding up the sale of Haiti’s resources at the expense of the Haitian people.
Grassroots Movements Offer Solutions, Hope
In the haze of political crisis, and the fervor of big project development that will only benefit a mostly-non-Haitian elite, it’s easy to be depressed about Haiti. But the work of Grassroots’ partners is as much of a cause for hope now, five years after the earthquake, as ever. Antonal Mortime reminds us of what’s really important: “I hope that with all of this political crisis, people don’t forget about the social and economic realities in Haiti on the five year anniversary of the earthquake.”
To address those realities, our partners are still hard at work. The Peasant Movement of Papaye (MPP) is re-foresting the central plateau of Haiti and training peasants in agro-ecology. They’ve even built houses for earthquake victims. The MPP’s eco-villages are now home to earthquake victims who were living in tent camps. The residents are trained in agro-ecology and grow their own food and even some extra to increase their household income. The National Coordination of the Peasant Movement of Papaye (MPNKP) has expanded its pig and goat distribution and veterinary training courses to cover the majority of the country, growing steadily every year and redeveloping Haiti’s traditional “piggy bank.” Our partners in Haiti have joined with others to form the Collective for Mine Justice (Kolektif Jistis Min) that is working to fight to protect Haiti’s communities from exploitative mining companies and to ensure that civil society has a say in any new mining law.
In Washington, DC, today the Haiti Advocacy Working Group (of which Grassroots International is a member) is conducting an interfaith prayer service in remembrance of those who died as well as a “Haiti 101” session to educate politicians in Washington about Haiti and the role of the US there. Grassroots International prepared a short presentation on food sovereignty in Haiti for the event. Later events this week will include a round table discussion focusing on aid accountability after the quake. Grassroots International’s partner Antonal Mortime will speak at the events in DC this week.
Today is a day to remember the terrible tragedy of the earthquake and the people who perished in it. After five difficult years and a political crisis coinciding exactly with the anniversary, let’s remember that Haiti’s best hope and strength lies with its people who everyday show profound courage, generosity and a ceaseless capacity to organize and resist.
Authors note: for the sections on Haitian history and post-earthquake response I relied heavily on Beverly Bell’s excellent book, Fault Lines: Views across Haiti’s Divide.