Ayiti – A People in Search of a Country
A version of this piece originally appeared in Brasil de Fato.
A new country is being born within Haiti.
It is not strong enough yet to impose itself upon the current political and social structure that reign throughout the country, but it is on the lips of her people. It is spoken about in secret, hushed tones, and only with those with whom one has the greatest trust. This is a reflection of the lessons learned while in hiding and in exile by everyone who criticized previous governments and who fell victim to brutal repression. Those previous government were dictatorial (like those of Francois and Jean Claude Duvalier, from 1957 to 1986) and authoritarian like those of Emmanuel Nerette, from 1991 to 1992, and Jean-Bertrand Aristide, form 2001 to 2003). There is talk of a new country, free and sovereign, of a new society, just and democratic, of something new, all the time.
The talks is always in Kreyol the language of the people – not in French, the official language of the government and the press, which is absolutely incomprehensible to about 90% of the population. It is this Ayiti, Kreyol and popular, against the French Haiti which is still dominant. What this Ayiti will be is not yet clear – and there is a long way to go before a consensus will be reached.
It appears in small scenes and conversations. It appears in the rebellious look of a youth from Bel Air, a poor neighborhood in the capital city of Port au Prince, as he watches the passing of a police patrol with a rock in his hands. It appears painted on the walls of the city of Jacmel in the southeast region, and in the words of Jacqueline Augustin, from the commune of Gwômon, in the north: ” Sityasion politik jounen jodi a pa bon di tou. We genyen lòt kalite sosyete.” That’s Kreyol for, “The political situation is not good. We need a different society.”
This Ayiti, present in all corners of the country, is not the expression of a particular political group or social movement. It expresses itself spontaneously and without coordination, as the revolt of the Haitian people. It is the same type of phenomenon that overcame the population in 1804 when they expelled the French from Haiti and proclaimed the first independent nation in Latin America.
It’s easy to explain the feelings of revolt. The social political and economic situation in Haiti is chaos. It’s a long way from the brightly colored posters put up by the government in the streets of the capital: “Peace, Love and Dialogue.” The posters are in French, of course, which the people cannot understand.
What the population does understand – and what they live – are the catastrophic statistics that are published by the official media: 82% of the 7.66 million Haitians live below the poverty line, 52.9% of the people are illiterate, life expectancy is only 51.7 years, 280,000 people (5.6% of the population are HIV positive with the virus that causes AIDS. In the final analysis, Haiti, once called the pearl of the Caribbean is the poorest and most miserable nation in the Americas and one of the poorest in the world.
The current government of President Boniface Alexandre and Prime Minister Gérard Latortue does not present any viable alternative to the present situation. The government has no program and has no legitimacy. The current government applies the neo-liberal recipe, which many of the current governments officials have been trained to deliver, including Latortue who was a high level employee of the International Monetary Fund for more than a decade.
The government is planning privatizations in the telecommunications, electric and water sectors, and has adopted a trade policy that best serves the greater powers with the lowest trade tariffs in the hemisphere. These tariffs benefit the big transnational corporations that export every imaginable type of product to Haiti. Meanwhile, the government maintains a cripplingly high tax rate for the poor and a lower, more favorable tax rate for the rich.
An example of this is the trade policy related to rice, which is the foundation of the Haitian diet. In 1985 Haiti produced 154 thousand cubic tons of rice and imported 7 thousand cubic tons more from the United States in order to meet the needs of the population. Ten years later Haitian rice production had fallen to about 100 thousand cubic tons and imported rice had increased to a level of 197 thousand cubic tons. In 2004, the Haitian rice production fell even further to 76 thousand cubic tons while the rice imports increased to 340 thousand cubic tons. The direct consequences of the sharp increase in rice imports was increased unemployment in rural areas, rural exodus to shantytowns in the capital. It’s a direct attack on the food sovereignty of the country.
Planned for about 150,000 inhabitants, today with almost 2 million people living in Port au Prince it is the perfect image of Haiti today. There is an excess of misery. Shantytowns almost completely dominate the urban space. There are wooden shacks crammed together with more wooden shacks, leaning against each other, holding one another up. The shantytowns have no beginning and no end. On the unpaved roads in the capital city street vendors sell everything imaginable: shoes, squash, beer, paintings, toys, manioc, books, and anything else that might attract a buyer.
Without jobs the majority of the population gets involved in commerce and marketing – or criminal activity – which is on an unfettered rise in the city. Every night you hear gunshots throughout the city.
On the hills around the city there are no trees – they were first cut down during the dictatorship of Duvalier to expose the bands of urban fighters and to keep them from hiding in the hills. More recently they are cut down by unemployed workers to make a few gourdes (the national currency, worth about 3 American cents) from selling charcoal.
At the base of the hills the sewers are all open and exposed – every single one of them. There is no electricity for many hours every day. But with regard to this, the capital dwellers consider themselves lucky because in the rest of the country, except in a few cities, there is never any electricity at all. There is no running water in the sinks of any of the urban home sin the city – so that the useless sinks are used to store food or, even worse, become places where sickness breeds. When there is some water it often is so contaminated that according to popular knowledge the water can cause diahrreal disease within hours of drinking. The lack of potable water is one of the main causes of disease and infant mortality. The current rate of infant mortality is 74.38 per thousand live births. In Brasil the infant mortality rate is 30.66 per thousand live births.
Within this background of social catastrophe a few impeccably cleaned and well armed white 4×4 jeeps circulate, filled with UN officials and soldiers. They are primarily Brazilians, who have occupied the country since June 2004. These vehicles act like drunken cockroaches; they circle endlessly around the rotaries and they go up and down the principle avenues, stopping here and there and then going on their way. Perhaps they have to spend the $25 million dollar gasoline budget that they were allotted.
“They came to stabilize democracy in Haiti, or so they say, but it looks more like they are here as if they were tourists on vacation” says Camille Chalmers, of the Haitian Platform for Alternative Development (PAPDA). On the 14th of February, a Monday and a work day, there were dozens of UN troops taking part in a working mission of high level and great responsibility: they were sun-bathing and swimming at the beach in Cayes Jacmel in the southeast of Haiti. As they said to the reporter from Brasil de Fato, for security reasons they prevented the local people from coming on the beach. Some local residents, meanwhile, were able to get to the soldiers to ask them for alms.
The local people asked for help. The soldiers responded with silence. These troops would not even look at the Haitians that approached them. The vast majority of the soldiers were Brazilian.
THE NEW SOCIETY
There is a multiplicity of new small organizations popping up all over Haiti -sometimes with no more than 10 or 15 members. They do not have any ideological formation and they do not have any links to the government – whose language, among other things, they often do not understand. They also do not have links to any traditional political party.
They are associations of residents, unemployed workers, labor unions, peasant groups, women’s groups, and student groups. Their primary characteristic is that they have come together to struggle for improved social situations. In many cities these small associations are formed and come together, as was the case in Cap Rouge, in the southeast of the country where peasant groups came together and formed an organization called The Live Hope for the Development of Cap Rouge (VEDEK).
In weekly meetings, the workers discuss the problems faced in their communities and present possible solutions, they analyze local politics and national politics and they talk about the possibilities of joining with other groups to form a larger organization. Vedek has thousands of members almost all of the peasants in their county and they hope to grow. And as Emmanuel Joseph Sanon, of the leadership of Vedek stated: “One day we will be able to have a regional peasant movement that can represent the whole south of Haiti, and then maybe even a national movement.”
To Unite Haiti
To unite this spontaneous revolt and the multiplicity of organizations to create a unified project of nation building is perhaps the principal challenge of the Haitian society, and the future of Haiti really depends on this. On this one idea, all the leadership of the diverse organizations agrees. PAPDA and the Institut Culturel Karl Lévêque (ICKL), the peasant organizations such as the Mouvman Peyizan Papay (MPP) and Tet Kole Ti Peyizan Ayisyen, as do the labor unions and the residents and neighborhood associations and the women’s organizations.
They are also all in agreement that it is critical to prevent the popular organizations in the country from being manipulated by groups of traditional politicians or people who want project themselves on the national political scene. They fear that local and regional associations will be used merely as voting blocks for the presidential elections scheduled for November of this year.
However, in order for there to be unity they will have to overcome a series of formidable obstacles.
First, the fragmentation of the struggle. Many organizations do not understand each other and do not agree on the character of a national program and are not in agreement about the terms and conditions of unity.
Second is the cooptation of social leaders by the government and international institutions. In Haiti there is a lack of experienced leadership – people who can help the organizations to develop strategies and actions that will move forward their struggles and accomplish victories.
Third is the poverty of the population. This high degree of poverty prevents the majority of people; even those who are interested, from participating in meetings because they are so busy trying to meet basic needs, like food.
Finally there is the political confusion that assails Haiti. Ever since the removal of Aristide from the presidency in 2004, after the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of Haitians who were critical of his economic policies, all of the traditional political reference points have disappeared.
The Lavalas party, the party of Aristide, which was founded as an association of organizations who defended popular interests, has all but disappeared from the political scene-and is considered a traitor t o the social movements. The parties of the right – which are now in the government – maintain a strategy of minimal contact with the people. Other associations have arisen; several of them are left in nature, including one of these is being financed by the Workers Party (PT) from Brazil, but has no social base.
Given this situation the people are at the mercy of ever present criminal groups, armed by Lavalas to destabilize the current government, and who generate waves of terror in the poorest neighborhoods. The UN forces do not intervene – they do not appear to be in Haiti for that purpose – and the government, which is weak and without legitimacy, does nothing.
In the meantime in Haiti, while there are dozens of small groups multiplying in the base communities, no movement has come together yet with a national scope to unify all of these small local groups. In the end, it is up to the people themselves, the members of these small movements and their neighbords, to find a way to come together, to find a way to give life to a new Ayiti, popular and Kreole, that is as vibrant as they dream it will be.