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Breaking the Chains of Dependence in Haiti

January 2010

As news of the earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince trickled out on Tuesday evening, the Haitian Diaspora held its collective breath.  At 6 a.m. the next morning I placed an anxious phone call to my father, who left Haiti’s political violence behind for Miami in 2004.  He had no news of his sister, brother-in-law, or nieces.  By noon, calls and messages alerted me that all my relatives survived unharmed.  Seven days after the quake, I realize how truly lucky my family had been. Every single Haitian friend, co-worker, and acquaintance of mine lost someone in the quake.

The scale of human suffering in and around Port-au-Prince is cataclysmic: up to 10% of the metro area population may be dead, with another 10% newly homeless, and eight local hospitals destroyed.  While the outpouring of humanitarian support from the world’s peoples and nations has been tremendous, it is not too early to ask what happens after disaster-fatigue sets in (the racist drivel of Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh doesn’t deserve repeating).  At some point “relief” missions must give way to efforts designed to “rebuild,” renewing the question of the two-century-long struggle of Haiti’s people for justice and dignity.

Haiti’s “dependence” has been designed from without.  Democracy has been undermined by repeated U.S. military interventions and support for murderous dictators, before and after Duvalier pere and fils.  Cheap American food exports, especially rice, systematically destroyed peasant production. In the 1980s, USAID forced Haiti to exterminate the native Creole pig—the major source of insurance for peasants against famine.  Will relief aid simply import external foodstuffs, or purchase goods from Haitian farmers in parts of the country left intact by the quake, thus bolstering local agriculture?  Will reconstruction aid support the needed massive program of sustainable agriculture and reforestation so that Haiti can restore food sovereignty?

While President, George W. Bush blocked millions of dollars of funding targeted towards upgrading Haiti’s weak (now-shattered) public health system. Will funds and training allow Haiti to develop a real, functioning public health system?

In the 1990s, IMF and World Bank “Structural Adjustment” (brokered by the U.S.) imposed privatization of state-owned electricity, water, port administration, and flour production, with the resulting shrinkage in public-sector employment. During the Duvalier years (and persisting to this day), peasants in Haiti have been subjected to brutal exploitation, facilitating major concentration of arable fields in the hands of a small clique of rural owners.  Haitian workers toil for a minimum wage of approximately $2 U.S. (cut by 50% after the 2004 coup).  Union activists are subject to brutal physical repression, including murder.  Will the vital public-sector services be restored?  Will long-delayed agrarian reform be implemented?  Will the rights of workers to organize for better wages and conditions be respected?

What vision for Haiti’s development will emerge? Civil society and government institutions were weak and foreign debt high before the disaster.  One can easily imagine a redevelopment plan for Haiti divorced from local voices and initiatives and dominated by a neoliberal agenda of sweatshop manufacturing and further privatization of public resources.  Simply put, will international “aid” help break the chains of Haiti’s bondage, or only shine them?

Progressive activists in the United States are asking what can be done to support Haiti. Haiti needs our financial help, but it probably needs our political help more.  This week the IMF offered disaster relief only with conditionality: a freeze on public sector wages and increased electricity rates.  Haiti already has almost $1 billion U.S. in debt that it would need to have creditor nations forgive in order to recover.

Is it utopian to imagine a reconstruction process in Haiti driven from the grassroots, with a radical, egalitarian vision of democracy, justice, and human rights for all?  Not if we listen to Haitian activists already on the ground.  Grassroots International partners and allied organizations like Zanmi LaSante/Partners for Health in Haiti have been striving to prove that another Haiti is possible.  Grassroots International supports Haitian peasants and farmers, human rights campaigners, and anti-globalization activists.  It is imperative that their voices be heard as a bottom-up reconstruction and development plan for Haiti takes shape.  Now more than ever, the Haitian popular movement needs our solidarity with Haiti’s its long fight for justice.

Rob Baril is a Board Member of Grassroots International.

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