Reading the international press, it’s easy to conclude that Haiti is a hopelessly violent place. The crushing poverty and claims of a “culture of violence” steer Haiti into a spiral from which it cannot escape. Certainly the poverty is a horrible, unfair burden. Is it “crushing”? Crushing implies inaction, certainly not the case in Haiti.
On every piece of sidewalk, Haitians sell from their tiny inventories – a pair of worn size 8 sneakers, combs and hair clips, a dozen adapter plugs for cell phones, a fruited frond of a banana tree. These vendors are no doubt angry from having been robbed of more fruitful livelihoods by inept and corrupt governments and international aid that has often aggravated rather than helped. These failures have left them to scratch out a living without the most basic of safety nets. The days are long on the street. Vendors breathe exhaust and smoldering plastic bags. Goats and pigs root on mounds of stinking trash. The ground they sit on turns to mud in the rainy season. The vendors fall asleep, arms draped over their merchandise.
Do they all turn to violence? Of course not. Young people who ought to be excited about a career ahead of them are among the vendors. Most don’t join street gangs; they sell a comb. It is a tiny minority – much covered by media outlets trading in sensationalism — that resort to violence. Is it a “culture of violence”? In many cases, the gangs have been created or manipulated by the powerful and wealthy — the Aristide-armed gangs (chimeres) formed to protect presidential power, the violent apparatus of drug traffickers working in complicity with corrupt police and government officials; and the criminals extradited from US prisons bringing their best practices to the Haitian streets.
The poorest of the poor sell their mango and banana on the street corner because there is no choice. They want their families to stay together. They love their small country. There is no way of leaving. U.S. immigration policies are such that global goods flow freely into Haiti and Haitian exports flow freely out — but the people themselves can’t leave. Farmers come to Port au Prince because the rural economy is in ruins, worsened by free trade policies. Their domestic markets are dominated by cheap imports — just 20 years ago Haiti was a rice exporter, now it’s an importer – that leave no room for domestic products that would boost the local economy. Tariffs – maligned as unfair competition – that might protect local industry are out of vogue due to free trade policies. Health budgets have been slashed to pay a staggering foreign debt, over $60 million dollars per year — one of the largest public expenditures.
The booming Haitian informal economy is a creative strategy to try to get out from under the centuries-old legacy of violent policies that has created so much poverty. It’s not at all fair that options for most Haitians are so few. Still, selling a comb on the street corner- and among the more hopeful, joining with others to create social change – are remarkable non-violent acts of survival and resilience.