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Amid Haitian Crisis, Opportunity

Residents of one camp beat pots and pans to protest a pending eviction. Photo: Ben Depp, www.bendepp.com.

When people ask me, as they do all the time, “Is there any cause for hope in Haiti?” I answer yes.

It’s more tempting to think that the situation is so hopeless that it can’t any worse, especially right now. Last week, Hurricane Tomas brought three days of heavy storms, causing flash floods which washed away farmers’ homes, animals, and crops throughout the island. The storm also left filthy standing water in towns, promising to spread cholera even more rapidly throughout the country. Cholera has already killed more than 500 people and infected about 7,500, and will surely ravage many more, particularly as the best measures for prevention –using a sanitary toilet and washing one’s hands often – are not possible for most of the 1.5 million living in internally displaced person’s (IDP) camps. (One recent, extensive study of IDP camps found that 40% have no water and 30% have no access to toilets of any kind; a second showed that 44% primarily drink untreated water and 27% have no toilet.)

Despite this grim state of affairs, I like to recall two definitions for ‘crisis’ offered by historian Rebecca Solnit. The Greek origin of the word means “a point of culmination and separation, an instant when change one way or another is impending.” And in written Chinese, ‘crisis’ is a combination of the ideograms for ‘disaster’ and ‘opportunity.’[1]

The natural disaster of January 12 and the social and economic crises it has propelled mark a sharp rupture with Haiti’s past, a fulcrum in an as yet uncertain future. Labor organizer Yannick Etienne told me, “This earthquake was one of the worst things that could have happened, but we have to turn it into something positive. We have to make sure that people are agents of change and right now this is a good opportunity, positive in a political sense. There are so many things that can be done to shake up the traditional way things have always worked here.”

My hope comes from the power of progressive movements in Haiti, which have been active at many periods since the slave uprisings began in 1791 and which are again today, slowly, gathering force. Throughout Haitian history, united action from the grassroots has been the locus of all systemic change benefiting the majority. Just a few advances from modern political history (a period usually demarcated by the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship in 1986) are a popularly ratified constitution, universal elections (though their results have already been ruptured twice by coups), and the right to free speech and free assembly (not always protected, but infinitely more so than in past times). Sometimes progress has built slowly. Other moments have seen the camel’s-back phenomenon, in which one act has set off long periods of relative quiescence, such as when the killing by Tontons Macoutes of three youth in November 1985 ignited the spark of fury against the dictatorship; Duvalier survived a scant ten weeks of the resulting social upheaval.

A few examples of recent advances from the post-earthquake work of social change organizations include the following:

  • A few environmental groups like Haïti Survie are using this moment not just to address the symptoms of ecological crisis like deforestation, but to challenge the root causes, including lack of income opportunities for the rural population which force them to over-exploit natural resources.
  • Women’s organizations, such as Women’s House (Kay Fanm) and Solidarity among Haitian Women (SOFA), are using the visibility created by post-earthquake gender-based violence to draw attention to the ongoing need to reinforce women’s rights;
  • Friends of Health, the Haitian branch of Partners in Health, has developed an alliance with the Haitian Ministry of Health to remake the University Hospital, the largest public hospital in the country and a long-standing symbol of the deplorable state of health care available to the poor;
  • The networks Society for Social Mobilization and Communication (SAKS) and Haitian Women’s Community Radio Network (REFRAKA) are literally giving voice to earthquake survivors, providing radio transmitters to camps around the country;
  • Several IDP camps have, under women’s leadership, created a culture of community support and initiated programs – cultural, skills-building, income-generating, educational, and empowerment - which model what a nurturing society would look like.

A wholly new movement – though rooted in the long tradition of organizing - arose within days after the quake to claim a just reconstruction. The effectiveness of the women’s sector, peasant farmer cooperatives, popular media, human rights groupings, youth and student associations, and other mass organizations is a critical variable in how equitable, rights-based, and democratic their country becomes. The grouping is not yet strong, both because coalitions were already fissured by political divisions when the earthquake hit, and because in the quake they lost members and organizing fundamentals (computers, internet possibilities, cell phones, offices, supplies, archives, etc.). This movement has in its short history already repeatedly stalled and restarted in new configurations. But given the urgency of the crisis, they are gaining steam. And two moves toward reconciliation between former adversaries - amongst peasant organizations and amongst some groups long divided by their positions around former president Aristide – give hope for greater unity and thus greater strength.

A declaration from this movement stated the priorities as “strengthening national production, valuing the riches of the country…; [and] establish[ing] a reconstruction plan where the fundamental problems of the people take first priority. These include housing, environment, food, education, literacy, work, and health for all; a plan to wipe out exploitation, poverty, and social and economic inequality; and a plan to construct a society which is based on social justice.” As usual in Haiti, the means to the solution is collective action, or what the statement calls building “a social force.”[2]

Today the united action is most visible in the form of street demonstrations, which reemerged in August. The demands of the protests span the political gamut, mostly concentrating the right to permanent housing for those in camps. The movement is also engaged in information-sharing, consciousness-raising, and advocacy.

The potential for a real rebellion against the unacceptable status quo is strongest within the camps, where 1.5 million or so people – all of them desperate, many of them angry – have languished for ten months. Small groups of activists have been moving through some camps, trying to raise political awareness there. Though the population’s response is repressed by hunger, illness, and depression, increasing engagement by camp committees indicates the potential for mass mobilization.

Rising self-organizing from within the camps may be a fear among the Haitian and U.S. elite and others. A Wall St. Journal article hinted at the logic for the fear: “Inside the many tent cities… a rudimentary social order is beginning to emerge as committees agitate to secure food, water and supplies in high demand from international aid organizations. ‘We knew we wouldn't receive any assistance unless we formed a committee,’ says Mrs. Beaupin… She presides over an executive committee [which]… handle[s] everything from getting people to sweep outside their tents in the muddied terrain to ensuring that the sick and injured get treatment. ‘There is no government but us,’ says Mrs. Beaupin.”[3]

In the bleak landscape, it may be tempting to think that the Haitian people are losing their shot at the structural transformation alluded to in the disaster/opportunity dyad. But to believe that they have lost the battle discounts the evidence of their history. My own reading is that in politics, as in love, remarkably unpredictable shifts can and often do happen; any number of factors could flip the downward trajectory of the majority’s well-being and power since January 12. The organized grassroots are working to ensure that they do.

[1] Rebecca Solnit, Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster (Penguin Books, 2009), p. 142. The quote is by Samuel Prince, cited by Solnit.

[2] On January 12, the Earth Shook and Encountered a Country without Governance. Let’s Raise Up the Dignity of the Country and the Haitian People,” Port-au-Prince, February 13, 2010, signed by dozens of popular organizations.

[3] Miriam Jordan, “Social Structures Form in Haiti's Tent Cities: As Homeless Settle in for the Long Haul, Committees Lobby for Aid and Keep Order; 'There Is No Government but Us'”, Wall Street Journal, March 8, 2010, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB1000142405274870486930457510393072427417....

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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