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We Don’t Want Any More Saviors

March 2004

In a promising departure from the norm, the March 7 edition of the Houston Chronicle published an article leading with a quote from the director of a Haitian human rights organization. Pierre Esperance of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights and the Haitian Human Rights Platform (POHDH) tells the Chronicle, “We don’t need a leader. We don’t want any more saviors. We need a structure put in place to satisfy the needs of the population.”

I have a collection of over 200 recent press quotes from U.S. think tankers and another 100 from U.S. government officials…and I haven’t really been looking. There are even quite a few quotes from Haitian officials, rebel leaders and the odd Haitian on the street during the recent crisis. The views of Haitian human rights workers have gotten precious little attention.

We at Grassroots have been providing modest support to Pierre’s work for years, so we know him well. We also know that two years ago unknown assailants shot Pierre twice and left him for dead at the side of a road outside of Port-au-Prince. His presence in the Houston Chronicle is a modern miracle.

Pierre’s comment points to a growing realization of the structural nature of the crisis in Haiti. Few in Haiti see solution in just of finding the right “figure” to make the waters part before Haiti’s stuggling population and take them to the promised land.

This view is quite consistent with the argument made by Michel-Rolph Trouillot in his 1991 book Haiti: State Against Nation. The book is even more relevant now than it was when it was written. If you can find it, we suggest that you check it out. Many libraries have it and used copies are available on the Internet.

Trouillot’s basic argument is that Duvalierism wasn’t just about a bad man, his evil son and the viscious people that supported them. It wasn’t even primarily about the imperial ambitions of the United States (although those ambitions did great harm in Haiti). Duvalierism is seen very much as the outcome of the structural evolution of Haitian society from independence through the mid-1950s. The legacy of slavery, the economic isolation of post-independence Haiti, the political marginalization of Haiti’s rural population, the U.S. occupation beginning in 1915 and the rise of the Haitian military are all key elements of the historical foundation of Duvalierism.

The ability of Haiti’s state to extract resources from the country’s peasants in the form of taxes on export crops became the economic foundation of an extremely unequal class system in Haiti. This, and the fact that the state became by far the country’s largest employer, turned state power into the “winner take all” prize of all prizes. In the absence of any democratic means of influencing state control, the elites turned to forced removal of the rival as their favored way of changing political leadership.

Haiti’s peasants won the country’s independence and provided the economic basis of the post-independence state, but they ended up very much outside of the urban world of Haitian politics. For Trouillot, the state developed separately from and quite in opposition to, Haiti’s civil society. Duvalierism took this process to new heights, but the dictatorship definitely had its feet planted solidly in Haiti’s past.

This situation created an agenda for structural transformation of Haitian society and culture that could not be achieved by merely replacing Duvalier with a popular leader. Trouillot’s cautions about the depth of the challenges faced by anyone interested in changing Haitian society seem particularly relevant right now.

At last week’s Global Philanthropy Forum in Palo Alto, CA, former National Security Advisor Anthony Lake reflected on those challenges in the wake of Jean Bertrand Aristide’s removal from power. Lake said that building democracy in Haiti would require a very long term commitment from the U.S. and others, as well as massive resources. Given pre-existing nation-building commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, a commitment to Haiti is not in the cards. As a result, he saw very little to be hopeful about in the current situation.

UN General Secretary, Kofi Annan, is clear about what overcoming this crisis will require of his organization. Speaking to a Canadian journalist on March 9, Annan said:

I believe we certainly want to avoid errors that were made in the past, and we want to work very closely with Haitians to ensure that the country will be able to move ahead, that the money that is given to it will be used properly. The international community will remain involved and with them. As of today we want to put Haiti and the needs of Haitians at the very centre of what we were doing. We’ve had programs in the past, but I do believe there are lessons to be drawn from the past. We can look to the future. I’m persuaded that we will be able to make progress, but that does take time. That will take time, a lot of time. It is not one year or two, it will take much more time. It could be ten years or more. One must have patience.

The UN sent an assessment team to Haiti this week. Only time will tell if the Secretary General was being entirely sincere in his comments.

There is plenty of reason to be hopeless about Haiti, but that’s almost too easy. We will continue to try to find reasons to join our Haitian partners in imagining a better future for their country. We agree with Pierre Esperance that this will require more than a savoir. We’ll now ask Pierre how better structures will be “put in place,” and we’ll be sure to share his answer here.

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