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Getting Their Reward on Earth: Haitian Social Movements and Reconstruction

A collapsed hospital under the traditional symbol of conquest: U.S., Canadian, U.N., Haitian, and French flags. Photo: Beverly Bell.

“There needs to be a new vision for Haiti, and that vision needs to come from the people,” says Marc-Arthur Fils-Aimé, director of the Karl Leveque Cultural Institute (commonly known by its Creole acronym ICKL), a grassroots center which supports peasant and other popular organizations to help them develop their analysis and capacity as a movement.

Post-earthquake Haiti is often portrayed in the international media, by some international humanitarian organizations, and by the U.S. government as a nation of victims whose future depends on the largess of the international community.

A more accurate portrayal is that a large and diverse social movement is highly mobilized to participate in rebuilding a country that won’t resemble Haiti as it was. The movement is continuing in the tradition of awareness-raising, organizing, and mobilizing that it commenced during slavery times, and which it has never ceased, even during the most brutal dictatorships. The core agenda has remained constant. With new post-earthquake particulars, it includes:

1.) Opening the space for participatory democracy. Citizens – all citizens - have to be allowed voice, decision-making, and power to develop future policies and programs which will, after all, impact them more than anyone. Haiti being a democracy in name, the government must serve the people and be accountable to them. Yvette Michaud, an organizer with the National Committee of Peasant Women, said, “If Haitians want to have a better future, we are the ones who must decide what that future is and construct it.”

2.) An essential corollary to the first point, restoring power to the Haitian government. Today Haiti is a literal protectorate, its parliament having voted in mid-April to turn its power over to the Interim Commission for the Reconstruction of Haiti, a wholly illegitimate body. The commission’s 18-month mandate is to determine Haiti’s reconstruction model, e.g. to create the country’s future. The membership of the ever-expanding group is 50% foreigners, who literally buy their seat at the table: either their government or institution donated $100 million or more since the earthquake, or it cancelled $200 million or more in debt. The only power left the Haitian government is veto by the executive, which power everyone knows that President Preval won’t use. Should the next president choose to use this power, there are other vehicles of control, such as the World Bank being the fiscal sponsor of the process, which means it has oversight over all the international aid of governments, financial institutions, and major agencies.

The members are elected by no one and are accountable to no one. They don’t have to publish any reports or make any statements. There’s no number a Haitian citizen can call to find out what they’re doing, no office to whom they can lobby. U.S. Special Envoy Bill Clinton co-chairs the commission along with Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive. This naked colonialism must be replaced by the power of the elected government.

3.) Ensuring women’s and children’s rights, security, and well-being. This must be front and center in the fragile and dangerous post-catastrophe environment.

4.) Providing permanent housing for the homeless and displaced, who the U.N. estimates at almost one in five.

5.) Putting central focus on providing for social needs. Besides housing, people need food, potable water, health care, education, and work with a living wage.

6.) Rebuilding under a new paradigm of economic justice, one which breaks free of the old path in which more than 50% of the people live on less than $1 a day.

7.) Privileging peasant agriculture. Rural farmers comprise 65% to 80% of the population who can barely survive, and who produce only 45% of the food needs of the population. It’s critical to invest substantial resources in restoring the agricultural sector. Just trade policies which protect domestic production are an essential component.

Below, Fils-Aimé tells how Haiti got in the shape it’s in and what is necessary for an alternative reconstruction.

“Haiti’s problems didn’t begin with this earthquake. Haiti began [as in independent nation] in 1804 with a system of exclusion in which a minority was in league with the French colonists. The people of this minority were already big property owners and slave owners when Haiti was a colony - people like Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and Henri Christophe, who played a key role in the Independence and in driving Haiti after the Independence. That is to say, class divisions were already existent, so when they took power they developed the system to benefit the minority.

“So from 1804 until today, we’ve had a class system in which a small minority controls all the wealth of the country, while the majority suffers every kind of misery imaginable. And, unlike in many countries in which the wealthy ruling minority develops a national policy for the country’s advancement, in Haiti in general, every government that’s come to power has taken sides with the dominant class and doesn’t make the slightest effort to develop the country. That’s allowed misery to compound upon misery. That’s led to a small group of wealthy today investing its money in foreign countries, in the Dominican Republic, in Jamaica, in the United States. They leave the country in this condition.

“The earthquake of January 12 gave us a lesson. It let us know the limits of this rotten system, a system that can’t be fixed anymore, and it made us see once again the weakness of this government. The government is protecting its own economic interests and its own power, and submitting to the international community which gives the government that power and its blessing.

“The government hasn’t used this event as an opportunity to move the country forward. On the contrary, it’s let everything fall into the hands of the international community, especially the American government. But the American government isn’t here to defend the interests of the Haitian people; it’s defending its own interests. Capitalists do what they do to make more money. They have political and strategic interests. The American governments and Western powers are profiting from the weakness and absence of the vision of the Haitian state.

“Political change is necessary for Haiti to make any progress. But the traditional political class doesn’t agree with this kind of change. On the contrary, members of that class are all restavèk, indentured child servants, of the international community.

“The reconstruction plan is their [the traditional economic class and Western powers’] plan. It isn’t the people’s plan. For us, it’s a false plan, first because the money that was pledged isn’t arriving; second because all the decisions are being made by foreign countries; and third because the plans are to build houses and buildings and roads, but not to build a new system. What we need is real agrarian reform, reform of the health care and educational systems, and another civic system in which there can be real participation by the grassroots majority.

“Real development has to do with the path the nation wants to take, how a country thinks, the participation of the majority. Development doesn’t mean a lot of huge buildings. We don’t need that or billions and billions of dollars. Today, for example, you see schools that were made of cement that were destroyed, so they’ve recreated the same schools under nice big tents, and they’re working.

“People have to have power in their own hands and they have to be organized. With the country’s preexisting resources and solidarity of people in other countries, we’ll have the power to reconstruct.

“The thing to do is to help the people think, understand, analyze. This seems a little abstract but it’s really not, because when people finally take power, they’ll have the will power and the real capacity to change things. We’re helping groups strengthen themselves so they can know we don’t have to wait to get our reward in Heaven. We’re teaching that it’s human beings that created the system that makes them poor, and it’s human beings who can destroy that system. They’re the ones who carry the burden, and they’re the ones who can bring about the solution.

“A few drops of water makes a brook, a brook makes a stream, and a stream make a river. The work we’re doing now, little by little, will grow to encompass the majority of the people in the country. Working together, that majority will create change so they can control the politics and the economic and political affairs of the country.

“I have so much hope for the Haitian people, who are a rebellious people. They’ve been used by others ever since the first battle, by those who took control after 1804. They’ve continued to fight, and they’ve continued to be used a lot. I have hope that one day people won’t let themselves be used anymore. My hope is that, as long as there are people who are being exploited, there will be struggle, and as long as there is struggle, there will be victory.”

Beverly Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for over 30 years. She is also author of the book Walking on Fire: Haitian Women's Stories of Survival and Resistance. She coordinates Other Worlds, www.otherworldsarepossible.org, which promotes social and economic alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.

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