Leslie Thatcher: Beverly, first and in the interest of full disclosure, thank you for the inclusion in your acknowledgements. It is also, I think, a deeply embedded aspect of your M.O.: to maintain and foster awareness of the sometimes-invisible communities that feed all our work and to be as inclusive as you can.
Beverly Bell: I find that so many of the activities of our movement members are premised on generosity, care, big-heartedness. You know, I lived in DC for 11 years and believed then that “professionalism” on the job meant that we had to keep our love and warmth carefully regulated. But I have lived far longer in parts of the world in which community support and gift economies are the basis of everything. To me, acknowledging and fostering those elements is part of creating that other world we seek. I’m from New Orleans, after all, where everyone dances together in the streets and calls each other “baby.”
Before we get to “the event” that created “a new binary in Haitian history,” could you tell our readers a little about your own personal history with Haiti?
I had the good fortune to spend a summer in Haiti when I was 15, doing little unimportant building projects with a church youth group. What was important was meeting peasant women – peasant being the self-description of the rural sector – and their kids. I spoke French by virtue of having grown up in New Orleans, and somewhere between that and their Creole we could understand each other a little. They rocked my world with their approach to life.
Also, I saw starvation for the first time, and the cognitive dissonance between that and the luxury in which I had been raised jarred me. So, though I didn’t have the language or the analysis to conceptualize the problem properly, I set about trying to figure out what was going on and what could create different outcomes in the world. Ever since then, beginning the very next summer in the Dominican Republic and continuing until the moment of this interview, I’ve been going deeper and deeper in that search.
I’ve been incredibly lucky that the bulk of my work over the past 35 years has involved Haiti, collaborating on trying to win participatory democracy and economic justice and gender justice and such in that country and everywhere. Haitians have so much to teach the world about the unacceptability of believing the lies or being silenced or giving up and about the power of organizing. I’ve also had the great fortune to work with social movements from around the world, complementing what Haitians have taught me.
Fault Lines is a particularly suggestive title because you write not only about the tectonic and historic shift that occurred on January 12, 2010, but also about the cracks that opened – or perhaps more accurately, were revealed – in Haitian society, economy, politics, the gap between the global response to the earthquake and the survivors’ needs. Are there other rifts I have missed?
You’ve got it covered. As we saw in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing flood, and in many other places, there’s a huge correlation between the effects of supposedly natural disasters and class. Hurricanes and floods and tsunamis and the like may be natural, but the resulting suffering is usually not. In the case of Haiti, the earthquake amplified pre-existent socio-economic fault lines.
First of all, let’s look at who died and why. The single greatest cause of the estimated 200,000 to 300,000 deaths – we’ll never know the exact number – was housing made of shoddy materials and built on precarious locales falling on people. That is, falling on the exclusively poor people who inhabited these insecure dwellings. Why were they living there in the first place? Well, we can draw a straight line between IMF policies and the death toll. In the 1980s and 1990s, the IMF forced the Haitian government to lower import tariffs as a condition for loans. When that transpired, foreign – mainly US – food commodities began flooding the country. The peasant farmers couldn’t compete. Hundreds of thousands of them lost their small incomes and fled, either going to other countries or to the capital, where they got jobs as sweatshop workers or shoe shiners or something similarly inadequate for survival purposes. Guess what housing they could afford?
In another of many examples of social fault lines, while most everyone lost loved ones and many of all classes lost possessions, those with means quickly began to recover their material losses, rebuilding their houses and their businesses, if not directly making money off the disaster. The poor have never been able to. In fact, about 300,000 still live under crappy pieces of plastic today, risking cholera that UN troops imported in their bodies and, for women and girls, sexual violence. (Readers can go to undertentshaiti.com to learn how to engage in a global campaign to demand the right to housing for these people.) The social fault lines have again victimized them far disproportionately to the better-off.
The whole book, really, tells the story of these fault lines, of how horrible policies of the US and other major powers, and neglect and exploitation by the Haitian state and elite, have put most Haitians in the state they’re in. It’s not just Haiti, of course.
But actually, Leslie, I take hope from all this. Haiti shows us that large-scale poverty is neither natural nor inevitable. It’s a result of choices in policies and programs. That says that we’re not condemned to live in the world as it currently is. Different choices can yield different and better outcomes.
You write about the two core principles of Haitian grass-roots action: “Nothing about us without us” and that everyone must benefit from decisions and actions. Can you highlight the many ways these principles were violated by the international relief effort?
Social movements of youth, students, small farmers, workers, women, etc., began organizing immediately after the earthquake for those principles you mention. And I mean immediately; I heard of people starting two days after who were told to go home as folks had to address their enormous losses first. The idea was and is that the country that’s reconstructed [should] look different than the one that was largely brought to its knees by the earthquake three and a half years ago, because that country served only a very few. The movements’ agendas are very clear and specific, and include not only end goals, but also a process through which everyone, especially those most deleteriously affected, would have a say.
But of course that hasn’t happened. The vast majority have been excluded from the whole process. They weren’t even informed about a constitutional coup that took place three months out, when pressure from the international community got the Haitian Parliament to create something called the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, or IHRC. While the Haitian Constitution outlines a tripartite government, with power shared by an executive, a parliament and a judiciary, the IHRC shifted power to the international community. It worked like this: Half of the 26 board members were representatives of foreign institutions, like the US government. They literally bought their seats at the table, by either pledging at least $100 million or canceling at least $200 million in debt. Bill Clinton co-chaired the commission. The only power left the Haitian government was veto power by the president, which the moribund René Préval never used.
There was absolutely no transparency as this group began doling out contracts and having more power in shaping the nation’s future at that time than any other body. Everything was done in total secrecy. I checked with very well-informed Haitian social actors who didn’t even know of its existence. Certainly the population whose country was being played like Monopoly didn’t.
Clinton’s buddies, the Beltway bandits McKinsey and Company, “designed” and “launched” the commission. Korn/Ferry International even led the job search for the ED by circulating an announcement over the web, in English. This for the team that was making major decisions in the name of Haiti.
The stories of exclusion go on and on. But the Haitian grassroots is still mobilizing to have their say, as they have since their forebears started the revolution in the 1750s.
In this vein, probably the most shocking aspect to me – even after Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine – of the global response to the Earthquake was the “gold rush” of corporations and NGOs seeking to profit from the catastrophe. Can you outline some of the more egregious examples?
I’ll just give one, which is emblematic. Never one to miss an opportunity, Monsanto “donated” 505 tons of seeds to Haiti after the earthquake. They included seeds treated with a chemical so toxic that the EPA has banned its purchase for home gardens in the US. And they included hybrid seeds, which are hard to save and replant the next season because subsequent generations don’t reproduce identically, meaning that farmers have to buy them anew each year. Monsanto made these seeds easily available in local warehouses, and for free, the first year. But the Trojan horse was designed to hook farmers so as to guarantee Monsanto profits in the future.
We don’t know what’s happened to all the farmers who got the handouts. But we know what happened with some of the seeds. In June 2010, peasant organizations gathered up all those they could find, held a 10-kilometer march denouncing Monsanto, and then set fire to the seeds.
In contrast, as you say in your book and earlier in our conversation, Haiti has a long culture of social solidarity and community based on dignity, respect and self-sufficiency. How did that culture respond to the earthquake?
That solidarity kicked in from the moment of the earthquake. Most of the first responders were not the uniformed foreigners that you saw on TV; they were neighbors and family and strangers. People dug with bare fingers through broken glass and cement and climbed over buildings that were still shaking, to pull out bodies, both live and dead. They carried injured people on doors or cardboard boxes or whatever they had, to try to get help. They used their motorcycles or cars to get the wounded to hospitals and the corpses to the mass graves.
Haitian citizens were the second responders, too. Most of the emergency aid that reached survivors wasn’t given by the outside world, though it’s important to acknowledge and celebrate that more than one in two households in the US donated. Ordinary Haitians, who generally had nothing themselves, gave whatever bits of food or water or blankets or money they had. They scrounged together rags for bandages or newspaper for splints. They took in elders and babies and whole families, even if they didn’t know their guests. They helped kids who’d gotten lost find their relatives.
This solidarity was taking place on more organized levels, too, among peasant and community groups. Small-farmer organizations compiled whatever was in their fields and schlepped into the still-shaking capital on motorcycles to feed survivors. Students and doctors and grass-roots organizations set up makeshift clinics, psychological counseling stations, shelters, community kitchens and more. Like everyone else, they had almost nothing in the way of resources, But what they had, they gave. It was stunning, those displays of gifting.
Finally, how can readers avoid feeding the disaster capitalism catastrophe business and be sure their support for Haitians is well-utilized?
Best to give to organizations that support grass-roots organizations. A study by Grantmakers without Borders backs what I have always found in Haiti: Grass-roots groups are by far the most effective in delivering aid and services. Of course, if they are also working to address the root causes of the problems, all the better.
No matter what, always do your research before giving. How accountable is that organization really to the community, and what exactly will it do with the money? If you can’t get enough information, consider skipping the donation.
But there are more important ways to be good global citizens than giving aid. The US government, acting in our name and with our tax dollars, is a big part of the problem all over the world. Everywhere I travel, people tell me that the best way to help is to go home and work to mobilize public awareness and change policies here. Working with, not on behalf of, those in other nations who are striving for a more just global economy, for trade rules that privilege food sovereignty, against US and UN neo-colonialism, etc., is of primordial importance. The imperative for that is democracy everywhere, so we’d better get cracking trying to reclaim ours.
By Beverly Bell
Forward by Edwige Danticat
Cornell University Press, 2013