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A New Kind of Disaster in Haiti in the Midst of Stagnant Reality

November 2010

Haitian peasant leader, Chavannes Jean Baptiste, put it best: “Haiti is going from disaster to disaster.” He was talking about debilitating disease among displaced people in squalid living conditions, tropical storms destroying agricultural land, and international aid programs undermining local organizing.

                  His words offered a vivid portrait of the struggle in Haiti that has taken center stage in the media ever since it was devastated by last January’s earthquake. But Chavannes had actually spoken them almost a year before the tragedy in January.    And now, the disasters continue to unravel.   More than a thousand people have already lost their lives from the deadly cholera outbreak, with confirmed cases in each of Haiti’s ten departments. Health officials expect those numbers to multiply—at least tenfold. Grassroots International’s partners mourn the loss of friends, family, and key organizers.   Rice farming peasants in the Artibonite Valley who have continually fought an uphill battle for food sovereignty are particularly vulnerable, due to their proximity to the outbreak’s epicenter. When the first of them died, the grief spilled far beyond the rice paddies to the capital of Port-au-Prince. They called him Jenawè.   The Dominican Republic’s historically difficult relationship with Haiti has created a new kind of fault line along their shared border. When cholera inevitably showed up on the Spanish speaking side of the island, old strains of racism rose to the surface—separating Haitians not only from the Dominicans, but also from their own families and access to livelihoods.    Just like most “disasters” in Haiti, this most recent one is of external origin and perhaps might have been avoided had the international community respected Haiti’s right to self-determination. For the last many years, Haitians have been asking for the removal of UN troops (who they see as occupiers) and the full restoration of their sovereignty.   Haiti’s local organizations and social movements have been working in the trenches with their communities from day one. And when disaster strikes, it is they as first responders that understand the complex root causes and are able to create the appropriate solutions. 

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