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Haitian Earthquake Survivors Struggle for Social and Economic Rights
"It's a nightmare from which you never wake up

Haitian Earthquake Survivors Struggle for Social and Economic Rights

"It's a nightmare from which you never wake up

“It’s a nightmare from which you never wake up,” said a coordinator for Partners in Health in Port-au-Prince, referring to the January 12 earthquake and its social aftermath.

The “nightmare” has long roots in structural violence, the set of national and international systems and policies that have left the majority in Haiti (and the world) neglected and resource poor.

Survival in Haiti often balances on a razor-thin wire. The catastrophe which began with the earthquake has, for many, tipped the balance, sending them over the edge.

The tip can happen with a seemingly small, nondramatic action: a family’s house was damaged in the earthquake, so it moved elsewhere. But the new home is too far for Dieusel, who used to wash their clothes, to walk and she has no money for the bus fare. She can’t find anyone else wanting her services as belts are tightening down the line. She earned about $4 a week before and, while it was always a struggle, she felt she had a reasonably good chance then of keeping her four kids alive. Now Dieusel has no more income with which to feed her children. She refers to their constant hunger as her “Calvary,” a reference to the site of Jesus’ crucifixion.

Dieusel told me the above story on the same day that a driver told me about losing his job when his boss relocated to the US after the earthquake. He, too, has been unable to find anyone else who can offer him a job. Similar stories are playing out across the nation with wearying repetition. Dieusel and the driver and others like them, had no safety net before the earthquake, and, today, all bets are off.

A collection of Haitian groups is promoting the social and economic rights of earthquake survivors and others whose vulnerability has grown in the crisis. Having been excluded from all formal processes of consultation and decision making, grassroots civil society groups are using what tools they have to push their agenda to the center: circulating position papers, mobilizing popular resistance, accessing the media and promoting international solidarity. A central demand is that the rights to decent housing, jobs, food, water, education and medical care be fulfilled.

Speaking for Haiti’s social movements, Camille Chalmers of the Platform for Alternative Development in Haiti (PAPDA) told me, “We have to project ourselves into the future. We’re pushing to open space so that the Haitian people can determine their future and can impact international processes. We’re developing political alternatives about the conjuncture, for a different development. We’re taking these ideas out to discuss with grassroots groups and also reaching out to the diaspora and solidarity groups in other countries. We’re promoting a culture of resistance.” (For statements and positions of popular movements and the Haitian diaspora on their priorities to guarantee social and economic rights. and on the reconstruction, see this.

The Haitian Constitution guarantees “the right to life, health and respect of the human person” and recognizes “the right of every citizen to decent housing, education, food and social security.”

The UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognizes “the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing and to the continuous improvement of living conditions; … to be free from hunger; … [and] to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.”

Ricot Jean-Pierre of PAPDA said, “The government has to take responsibility for the lives of its people.”

But as community organizer Louisnor Gilles told me in a comment I’ve heard stated many times in many ways since the earthquake, “From the first second, the government went deaf, dumb and mute. Not the first minute – the first second.”

The Haitian government does not bear sole guilt for the failure to guarantee the well-being of those left devastated, or for the failure of the billions in aid money to help stabilize the population in any substantive way. Haiti is now governed by an Interim Committee for the Reconstruction of Haiti. Thirteen of its 25 members are foreign, and it is co-led by Special Envoy Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive. This formalizes the reality since January 12, which is that policy decisions and program implementation are being led by international governments, the UN and large foreign NGOs. They share culpability, through commission and omission, for what was intended as disaster aid instead becoming an aid disaster.

The Haitian and international response to the dire needs of 1.3 million to 1.9 million who are living on the streets or in camps[1] is to relocate them to other tents in other camps. “The state owes us a place to stay with security,” said college student (at least until the time of the earthquake; her school is now closed) Edithe Jean-Jacques, who now lives in a tent in the neighborhood of Babiole. Edithe reported that she spends every night wet under the crashing rains.

Hurricane season begins in three weeks, on June 1. At that point, Edithe and all those in her circumstances will be protected by no more than a thin sheet of nylon or cloth. I could find no plan of any Haitian or international government or agency to address this risk in any way, including through the clear first step of providing permanent and sturdy housing.

The displaced people’s camps are a portrait in social neglect and poverty. People are wedged in among strangers, often at no more than an arm’s length away. Residents speak to me regularly about feeling violated by the noise, overcrowding and constant proximity to hundreds, if not tens of thousands, of strangers. They have nowhere safe or private where they can relieve themselves, bathe, wash clothes, relax, or – for the kids – play. Sometimes, wash water can be hauled in from public spigots or from giant plastic bags provided by agencies; sometimes not.

The risk of rape to women and girls in the camps is constant. Abandoned children are at risk of being swooped up in the restavek, child slavery, system by neighbors.

Poverty in the camps is so great that some young girls whose parents have died or are elsewhere resort to prostitution to survive. Malya Villard of the Commission of Women Victim to Victim (KOFAVIV) said, “You pass by tents and see orphaned girls under a man.” The going price is anywhere from US$2.50 to US$5.00.

As for education, following its post-earthquake suspension in Port-au-Prince, schools are now reopening. The conditions in which earthquake victims have been left excludes many, if not most, of those left homeless. “It’s only for the high-ups this year. It doesn’t exist for the poor,” said one woman in a camp. In one spontaneous discussion in a narrow dirt corridor of a camp, mothers reported that none of their children can return to school either because they are too exhausted – “they are sleeping in the mud,” as one said – or because their uniforms were crushed under falling houses and they cannot afford new ones.

Obtaining food is another collective source of stress. The same caveat that applies to all other social basics applies here: few have money to buy it. Food is all too rarely distributed (and, then, mainly consists of rice) and is given under tense conditions, according to hundreds of interviews I’ve done. Getro Nelio, who was living in the downtown soccer stadium until police destroyed his and others’ shelters and threw them out, described how hundreds of neighbors spent the entire night on the sidewalk when word went out that rice would be distributed at the stadium the next day.

Food has become even less available now that some international agencies have suspended distribution. One is the World Food Program of the UN, which claims it “is now transitioning its programme to support recovery effort though long-term food security and investments in human capital.”[2]

One woman said to me, as a US military helicopter passed overhead, “That’s the only thing they give.”

Medical care is, judging from reports, another source of constant worry. Camps are full of sick people, the result of lack of sanitation combined with poor nutrition, stress and lack of sleep. While some clinics – like those of Partners in Health, the Cuban medical team and Doctors Without Borders – are free, they may require bus fare, which is well out of reach for many families. In the informal research I have conducted by necessity on behalf of friends and allies, I have also found that it is quite common to wait all day and never get seen because of the volume of people in line. It is also common that, while the first consultation might be free, the specialist or the lab tests to which the patient is referred are not. If all those things are free of charge, in some cases the family still has to purchase medications, there ending the hope for medical relief.

Getro Nelio’s mother, 57-year-old Sylvanie Sylvain, is one small demonstration of the failure of the medical system. She is ill and needs surgery for her throat. A doctor at the university hospital scheduled her for surgery, but when she went back on the appointed day, she was told that the necessary machine was broken. She was referred to another hospital, but there she would have to pay for the procedure. She has no money.

I hear stories that should never have to be told, such as from a young volunteer nurse from the US whom I encountered in the bathroom of a fancy hotel where I snuck in to wash my face after a sweaty day in the camps. Wide-eyed, she explained that she had just come from delivering a baby at a hospital; her only supplies had been a pair of plastic gloves that she had supplied herself and a cloth that had been used to deliver another baby a few minutes before. She had passed the night before with a young boy who was dying from cerebral malaria; he breathed two times per minute. She had nothing to give him the entire night except one bottle of water.

Some sound and committed international organizations are at work in Haiti, as are foreign foundations and community groups, which have come to support the priorities that Haitians have defined for themselves. Haiti is much better off for their help. There are far too many other examples, though, of foreign actors who have sidelined Haitians as decision makers, project participants and staff. As for the yawning chasm that exists between the billions in aid and the population in need, four months out is far too late for the excuse of “problems in coordination,” the rationale that several associated with UN and other weighty agencies have given me.

Despair is growing. The mother of a teenage girl who had been raped asked, “Can you help us find a psychologist? This whole nation needs a psychologist.” I learned of one 17-year-old who tried to slit her throat. A volunteer from the US who was working at a refugee camp in the town of Jacmel told me about an 18-year-old girl who was so despondent over her and her one-year-old’s life situation that she threw the baby in the garbage. (Volunteers recovered the baby and are now offering the mother psychological help.)

But survivors have also told me, repeatedly, that they are resigned to do whatever it takes to keep going. They appear, for the most part, tough and strong and stoic. Carolle Pierre-Paul Jacob of the women’s group Solidarity Among Haitian Women (SOFA) characterized the situation this way: “People are despairing but they’re still not hopeless.”

“Hold strong” is the national salutation, the exhortation that ends most human interactions, phone calls and emails.

“We Haitian people have to carry on,” Ricot Jean-Pierre said. “We are going to continue to demand accountability from our government, the international financial institutions and the international community.”

And Elitane Athelus, a leader of the street merchants’ group the Women Martyrs of Brave Ayibobo, said, “We won’t stop struggling until the conditions of our lives change. Remember that we already led a revolution with our own two hands. We haven’t lost completely. The water is still running in the canal.”


1. No one knows the number of those living on the streets. They are a subset of the 1.3 million to 1.9 million of those left homeless or displaced by the earthquake, in figures estimated respectively by the government of Haiti and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs of the UN. The rest have gone to the countryside.
2. UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “Haiti: Humanitarian Bulletin Issue #1,” April 23, 2010.

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