Monday, May 10, 2010

The Long View: Haiti Before and After the Earthquake

The Long View: Haiti Before and After the Earthquake

Address delivered by Michael Deibert to the Above Group

Fernandes Industrial Centre, Port of Spain, Trinidad, 30 April 2010

Good evening, and thank you very much to Alex Smailes for that kind introduction and to the Above Group for having me speak here in Port of Spain this evening. As much as Haiti is a world story, it is also empathically a Caribbean story, as well, and that is why I am particularly thankful to address you tonight about this country I have come to know and love so well over many years.

Even before January’s apocalyptic earthquake, much of the what the world knows about Haiti has been of a negative nature, partially the legacy of what Haitian writer and diplomat Frédéric Marcelin in 1904 called “civil strife, fratricidal slaughters, social miseries, economic ignorance and idolatrous militarism.” But there is also so much about Haiti many people don’t know. If people do know, for example, that Haiti was the second independent republic in the Western Hemisphere after the United States, many of them are unaware that one of Haiti’s founding fathers, Henri Christophe, had fought alongside American revolutionary forces at the Battle of Savannah. Many people are unaware that it was the Haitians’ stunning defeat of Napoleon's army - perhaps the greatest military force in the world at the time - that prompted the French dictator to sell Louisiana to the United States, doubling its size. In the lovely city of Jacmel on Haiti’s southern coast, where I once had a small beach cottage and whose colonial zone now lies devastated, the South American leader Simón Bolívar based himself and was provided with material and logistical support at a crucial time during his campaign to liberate the Southern Hemisphere from Spanish rule. People also rarely hear about Haiti’s rich artistic and intellectual culture, perhaps the most impressive in the Caribbean, which produces writers like Jacques Roumain, Jacques Stephen Alexis and Lyonel Trouliot, painters such as Philomé Obin and Stevenson Magloire and musicians such as Toto Bissainthe and Boukman Eksperyans.

Since I first visited Haiti now nearly 15 years ago, I have seen the country in many manifestations. I first saw the early days of the first-term of Haiti’s current president, René Préval, which seemed to many at the time as a simple stop-gap between the two terms of priest-turned-politician Jean-Bertrand Aristide, but which now appears to have been an essential interim of relative peace during which nevertheless the seeds of later political disaster were planted. I saw Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s second term as Haiti’s president, which began with great hope as a man who had been a champion of Haiti's poor returned to office, but which ended in blood and tears as his government descended into a mire of corrupted elections, organized youth gangs and widespread corruption at its highest levels. I saw Haiti during the interim government the ran the country after Aristide’s flight into exile in February 2004, a time when Haiti descended into some of the worst political violence it had ever seen - with a policemen being killed every five days - and I have seen Haiti since René Préval’s second inauguration as its president in May 2006, a time when, despite a series of devastating hurricanes and some questionable political choices, the country, at long last, seemed to be moving, ever gently, towards economic progress. Before the earthquake.

Much has been said and written about the sorry state of Haiti’s politics and the gradual of erosion of what was always a fragile economic base in recent years. Particularly since about 1980, the country has been in an economic freefall Haitians themselves, especially Haiti’s political leaders, bear a share of responsibility for the country’s sorry state, but it must be said that they have had a lot of help

Foreign aid flowed largely unfettered to the Duvalier family dictatorship which ruled Haiti from 1957 until 1986, and since then various political and intelligence elements in Washington courted Haiti’s political actors in ways that often served to muddy and obscure what Washington’s policy towards Haiti actually was, thereby undercutting some of the genuinely democratic elements there, a cynical game at which money was also at play.

Following Mr. Aristide's return to Haiti in 1994, politically connected operators from both political parties in the United States were only to happy to sign off an barely-transparent deals of questionable legality in Haiti in the name of supposedly privatizing the country’s moribund state industries. This was particularly true of the telecommunications sector, which Haiti’s financial intelligence unit and anti-corruption body later found was looted of tens of millions of dollars during the Aristide years, a plunder for their role in which several American businessmen and former Haitian government officials now sit in prison in Miami. American lawyers and lobbyists, likewise, were also all too happy to cynically gobble up some of Haiti’s meagre resources in the name of promoting the Haitian government’s agenda abroad.

Haiti’s peasantry, which makes up a majority of the country’s 9 million people, were suffering grievously even before the earthquake, the victims of both the short-sighted policies of the international community and the venality and brutality of Haiti’s homegrown political leaders. As such, amidst the glittering donor conferences and political pow-wows happening today, I think it is important to realize the fact that the international community policies towards this sector of Haitian society have contributed to its social stresses and economic decay, a litany that would be written as farce had the results not been so tragic.

In the 1940s, the United States sponsored the Société Haitiano-Américaine de Dévelopment Agricole in an ill-fated, half-baked attempted to cultivate rubber in Haiti, an effort that ended up harming the very farmers it was designed to help.

Between 1980 and 1983, when tests showed nearly a quarter of Haiti’s pigs were infected with African Swine Fever, a U.S- Canadian funded program destroyed 1.2 million Kreyol pigs in the country, pigs that formed one of the backbones of the peasant economy. Of the replacement pigs that were delivered, many soon died, unable to adjust to the rough world the Kreyol swine had grown so accustomed to, and the already difficult rural economy suffered another blow.

Further undermining Haiti’s ability to feed itself, President Aristide, implementing an economic adjustment plan mandated by the International Monetary Fund, cut tariffs on rice imports to the country from 35 percent to 3 percent in 1995. This further undermined the peasant economy despite the fact that Haiti for many years had produced low-cost, inexpensive rice for domestic consumption. After 1995, that is, after implementing the economic policies of the international community, it effectively lost the ability to do so.

So the economic policies of the international community, in a very real way, helped drive Haitians off their land and into the labyrinthine slums of Port-au-Prince where so many of them died this past January.

But if we are being honest with ourselves, it must also be fairly said that, as much as Haiti has been failed by the great powers of the world in recent years, events there over the last decade plus and the failure of the wider Caribbean to engage there represents perhaps the greatest failing of CARICOM in the body’s history.

Since Haiti became a full member of CARICOM in 1999, a step that was ratified by the Haitian Parliament on 2002, Haiti - now CARICOM’s most populous member - has too often been treated as a second class citizen by the larger body or, alternatively, as a canvas on which regional leaders attempted to play out what seem to me poorly-informed scenarios of what Haiti is or more accurately should - to them - represent. Even today, despite being full members of CARICOM, the Trinidadian government's own immigration website says that citizens of all CARICOM countries do not require entry visas to enter here, except Haiti.

When CARICOM signed off on Haiti’s deeply-flawed May 2000 legislative elections as free and fair, elections which both the United Nations and Organization of American States refused to endorse, the organization's reputation as a neutral body was badly damaged in the minds of many of those with a stake in Haiti’s political process. When, during Mr. Aristide’s second tenure as Haiti’s president, Caribbean leaders such as Jamaican Prime Minister P.J. Patterson, St. Lucian Prime Minister Kenny Anthony and Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves of St. Vincent continued to fête and praise Mr. Aristide despite the growing evidence of the criminality and brutality of his government on the ground in Haiti, the body’s reputation sunk still further.

Although the world at large seems to have forgotten, Haitians remember that when demonstrators, journalists and ordinary civilians were being attacked and sometimes murdered by Mr. Aristide’s security forces and aligned armed gangs in late 2003 and early 2004, the response of Prime Minister Patterson was to open Norman Manley Airport in Kingston to a South African Boeing 707 bound for Haiti with a cargo of some 150 R1 assault rifles, five thousand rounds of ammunition, smoke grenades and bullet-proof vests for a government that was at the time savaging its own citizens with great brutality. South African President Thabo Mbeki circumvented the usually weeks-long approval process of his country’s National Conventional Arms Control Committee to approve and set in motion the arms distribution in a matter of days, and was roundly criticized for this in the South African press, but Mr. Patterson’s role in this has never been fully explained. The plane eventually returned to South Africa with its cargo intact. Today, former Prime Minister Patterson has been named as CARICOM’s Special Representative to Haiti.

Following Mr. Aristide’s ouster, CARICOM called publicly, via two communiques, for an investigation into the circumstances of Aristide’s departure, but never bothered to formally ask the United Nations for one. Talk equalled action, evidently. Likewise, after Hurricane Jeanne, killed over 3,000 people in Haiti in 2004. CARICOM, despite its statements of solidarity, didn’t lift a single finger or contribute a single dollar to alleviate the suffering there, they were nowhere to be found when it really mattered. In CARICOM’s absence, Latin American nations, particularly Brasil, have stepped in to take the lead of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the country.

But even with all of this, there has been a singular endurance to the Haitian character which has taught me much in my time interacting with the Haitian people, and this was nowehere more in evidence than in the aftermath of January’s earthquake. I would like if I may, to give you a picture of what the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake looked like.

It was Elvis Cineus, a teacher in the town of Leogane, running home to find, under the remains of his home, smashed flat as if pummeled by a giant fist, the bodies of his wife, his nephew, his cousin, and a friend, all dead. He found his 1-year-old son dangling from the building's jagged facade, injured, but alive.

It was two dozen men working in the once-picturesque town of Petit-Goave, set along the glittering Caribbean Sea, labouring all day under the blazing sun with hammers and saws, tearing down what little remained of the town's 208 year-old Église Notre Dame, which once loomed over the city in gleaming blue-and-white relief but collapsed in a matter of seconds, burying market women, passers-by, and people who had paused to rest in its shade

It was young Robert Henry Etienne, walking the dusty streets of the same city with a notebook in hand, carefully cataloging every ruined and damaged structure in meticulous handwriting in the hope that they might one day be rebuilt.

It was Micha Gaillard, a university professor and son of one of Haiti's eminent historians, was one of the first political leaders I met while traveling to Haiti, whom I recall greeting me in his modest home as his wife prepared us coffee. Micha died after the Palais de Justice collapsed on him, in what must have been agony after having been trapped for many hours. Four of the country's foremost feminist thinks -- Myriam Merlet, Magalie Marcelin, Anne Marie Coriolan and Mireille Neptune Anglade -- also died that day. The damage to the country's artistic heritage, from the almost-total collapse of the Episcopal Cathédrale Sainte Trinité, which boasted stunning indigenous murals by eminent Haitian painters, to the loss of much of the Nader art collection, probably the best private collection of Haitian art in the world, is incalculable.

One night, only days after the quake, I found myself cruising thorough the capital on the back of a moto-taxi. A crowded, dirty but also irrepressibly vibrant city during normal times, Port-au- Prince that night presented a landscape that could fairly be described as nightmarish.

Visible through the darkness, the ruined shells of buildings destroyed looked over the fragile forms of hundreds of thousands of people reduced to sleeping in the streets, while in the air mingled the corrosive smell of burning garbage and the vomitous, cloyingly sweet stench of human decay.

Port-au-Prince had never seemed more desperate or defeated.

But the something happened.

Next to the shell of Haiti's Palais National, the hypnotizingly white grand dame of the city's architectural jewels that successive Haitian politicians have fought to control even as their country grew ever-more impoverished and ruined, market women were still frying up marinade and fritay in old steel pots. In the Petionville market, despite the late hour and lack of electricity, goods and fried chicken were still being sold by the orange glow of kerosene lamps. By the following day, dozens of young Haitians had begun sweeping with brooms in front of the ruined Cathédrale Nationale, in preparation for the Saturday funeral on its grounds of Archbishop Serge Miot, who perished within its walls.

"I've worked with this moto for my entire youth," the driver, a young man named Emmanuel, told me that night as we headed up Avenue Pan American, passed the ruins of the United Nations compound where scores of United Nations workers, including mission chief Hédi Annabi, his deputy, Luiz Carlos da Costa, elections chief Gerardo Le Chevallier and scores of other lost their lives.

"Tout moun jwenn," Emmanuel told me as we conversed in Haiti's native Kreyol language.

"Kounye-a, y'ap domi ak Jesu."

Everyone was hit. Now they sleep with Jesus.

Far from being the looting mobs that some media have portrayed them as, hardly anyone who has witnessed the response of the Haitians to this great catastrophe could not be moved by their incredible resilience and solidarity and their intact sense of humor in the face of an unimaginable tragedy.

As all the pillars of the Haitian state -- a state that has often seemed only able to rouse itself to parasitically victimize its own people when it did make its presence felt -- collapsed around them, the Haitians helped one another, dug through rubble, prayed, sang and showed everyone who has watched them what the meaning of true perseverance in the face of adversity looks like, even though the losses were tremendous and irreplaceable.

Sometimes since I had returned to Haiti in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, I felt as if I would be overcome by despair. Looking at block after block of ruins throughout the capital's downtown, or seeing the terrible death and destruction caused by the collapse of the Université de Port-au-Prince, ringed by weeping, desperate relatives of those lost, one almost wanted to turn away.

But the Haitians, always the Haitians, kept one going, and seeing their dignity in this moment has made me love them and their battered country as never before.

"Life goes on," a friend of mine who lost his wife in the earthquake told me, bringing to mind the famous Haitian proverb, deye mon gen mon. Beyond the mountains there are more mountains.

I hope that, as we in the international community move forward with Haiti’s people as they attempt to rebuild their shattered county, we can speak to the best qualities that we in find in them - their incredible resilience, their good humour, their gentleness and laudable work ethic - and are less succeptible to the illusions and self-interest that have driven so much of the international community’s involvement with Haiti in the past.

Step by step, with the right help, I believe that Haiti, a country of personal goodwill and stunning artistic accomplishment as much as it is a place of dysfunctional politics and venal politicians, will indeed rebuild. Perhaps differently than before, but a people who have suffered and endured so much seem, in my conversations with them on street corners under the blazing sun, in tent cities that have sprung up along the roadside, and in grievously affected provincial villages, to be able to withstand even this latest grievous shock and come back swinging.

I hope that we foreigners, who have been so moved by the place, treated so kindly and educated so patiently by its people, will be there to help. Haiti needs its friends now more than ever.

Thank you.

Michael Deibert is a journalist, author and Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Peace and Reconciliation Studies at Coventry University. He is the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (Seven Stories Press).

Photo © The Above Group

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