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Haiti: Just When You Think It Can’t Get Worse

We may soon look back on this period in Haiti with greater appreciation. Amidst the world-historic levels of death and suffering from last January’s earthquake, citizens have at least been spared the scale of government violence that has marked much of their nation’s past (notwithstanding attacks against internally displaced persons during forced evictions, and occasionally … Continued

We may soon look back on this period in Haiti with greater appreciation. Amidst the world-historic levels of death and suffering from last January’s earthquake, citizens have at least been spared the scale of government violence that has marked much of their nation’s past (notwithstanding attacks against internally displaced persons during forced evictions, and occasionally against street protesters.)

This may change under Michel Martelly, the incoming president. For starters, he wants to bring back the army that former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide dismantled in 1995. Since Haiti already has a police force to maintain public order and the country is not expected to go to war, Martelly can have only one aim for reintroducing armed forces: to reclaim the tool that past presidents have used to shore up their power by means of violent repression of dissent and competition.
Forces are already readying for violence, which will likely be exerted both through the army and through gangs. Journalist Isabeau Doucet filed this eyewitness report last month: “For over a year, on a hillside south of Port-au-Prince, around 100 former soldiers and young recruits train three times a week. They claim to have a network of camps all over the country where Haitian men meet and exercise, learn military protocol and martial arts and receive basic training… The black-and-red flag of Jean-Claude Duvalier’s party hangs in their tarpaulin dressing room… Somebody is paying for this, even though they claim that it’s all-volunteer, and the current government is turning a blind eye, if not giving tacit support.”
Just how the forces of violence may ally with various backers – some combination of Martelly and those surrounding the returned former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier – is one question. Another is how much they may tyrannize a citizens’ movement which is demanding solutions to widespread homelessness, unemployment, and extreme poverty. Two U.S.-based groups supporting community organizing in Haiti are already preparing emergency responses in case significant political violence should erupt.
Beyond Martelly’s plans for an army, his past associations raise concerns about what policies he may bring to office. Martelly was public in his support for the death squad-friendly regimes that reigned after coups d’état against Aristide (1991 and 2004). More recently, Martelly has made such public statements as “I would kill Aristide to? stick a dick up his ass.”
Martelly won in a run-off in which less than one in four registered voters bothered to turn out, meaning he was endorsed by 16.7% of all registered voters. If this sounds abysmally low for a mandate, it is lofty compared to the 4.6% who are believed to have supported Martelly in the first round. No one knows the figure for sure, because that round was so fraudulent that even the government’s Provisional Electoral Council refused to ratify it with a majority vote. While legally, this should have nullified the first round, the Organization of American States and the U.S. government intensively pressured the Haitian government to approve the elections and send Martelly to the run-offs. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even traveled to Haiti to ensure these outcomes.
After Martelly was declared president, Clinton said, “Now he has a chance to lead and we are behind him. He is committed to results. He wants to deliver for the Haitian people. And we are committed to helping him do so.”
Other bad news dogs Haiti. The lives of those left displaced from the earthquake are growing more, not less, vulnerable, contrary to what one might expect with the passing of time and the many billions of aid dollars circulating.
A primary risk is cholera, which is due to spike once the imminent rainy season hits, because the near-daily storms will leave standing water and mud in most camps. The camps are already the perfect breeding ground for this disease of poverty, with their densely concentrated populations who are frequently weak and ill, often lack water – not just drinking water but often any water at all – and suffer from a dearth of hygiene options and medical care. A recent study in the medical journal The Lancet predicted 779,000 cases and 11,100 deaths from cholera by the end of November.
With all humanitarian and international agencies in Haiti aware of the dire risk of this illness, which can result in death only a few hours after infection, 39% of ‘transitional shelters’ still do not receive water or basic sanitation services. Michelle Karshan, an American advocate engaged in anti-cholera efforts, reported: “There is a deadly shortage of available cholera prevention and treatment supplies. And the most important prevention of cholera transmission – creation of a water system infrastructure making treated water widely available – is still not off the ground, while distribution of water continues to reach only a minuscule number of camps. The majority of the resource-poor camps are left to fend for themselves.” [1] The U.N. Cholera Appeal for Haiti has only received 45% of the funds it needs.
The deeper worry is why, with up to 1.5 million people still homeless after 16 months, water purification tablets and port-o-potties are being discussed as a solution. The only way to make people safe from this disease is to resettle them into decent housing. Yet still neither the international community nor the Haitian government has any workable plans. The government has yet to invoke its constitutional right to declare eminent domain and claim large plots of unused private land in order to relocate people. International aid has yet to be significantly employed in clearing rubble, 80% of which remains, rendering much of Port-au-Prince uninhabitable.
Another hazard that internally displaced persons (IDPs) face is being forced out of their camps, left in even greater precariousness. According to the International Organization for Migration, 820,000 of the original set of IDPs dwellers – more than half – have left the camps, but not because they have found a better situation. Only 4.7% have gone to new or repaired housing. The remainder, as reported by the International Organization for Migration and substantiated by many community watchdog groups in Haiti, have fled for two reasons. One is an anywhere-but-here response, in which families have escaped to dangerously earthquake-damaged structures, ravines, crowded rooms, or whatever they can find. Others have been evicted in a growing wave of expulsions – some violent, many illegal – by both government institutions and private landowners.
As they have since the earthquake, coalitions of progressive NGOs, community groups, and camp committees are trying to mount pressure to win gains in a broad-based agenda which includes democratic participation and socio-economic rights. Predominant strategies include popular education, legal support for camp residents, policy advocacy, and grassroots mobilization. A snapshot of some of the groups’ activities in the three-week period surrounding this article includes: a three-day May Day mobilization for workers’ rights; a three-day symposium critiquing disaster capitalism, “What Financing for What Reconstruction?”, and a three-day exchange to strengthen efforts to force resettlement of IDPs, “International Forum for the Right to Housing.”
These movements currently lack funding and cohesion. At many points in Haitian history, however, pressure from below has proven to be the critical variable in forcing change. Given the disappointing track record of the international community and development industry, and the ominous prospects of Martelly’s presidency, they may be Haiti’s best hope.
[1] Email from Michelle Karshan to Beverly Bell, April 27, 2011.
We extend our gratitude to the organizations in the Haiti Response Coalition for their careful observation and steady stream of vital information. We send special thanks to the Center for Economic and Policy Research and to Just Foreign Policy for their consistently excellent research. Once again, many thanks for Ben Depp for the gift of his photographs.
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,, which promotes social and economic alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.
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