Upside Down World
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Why Haiti Wasn’t “Built Back Better” PDF Print E-mail
Written by David L. Wilson   
Tuesday, 17 April 2012 20:10
Tectonic Shifts: Haiti Since the Earthquake. Mark Schuller and Pablo Morales, editors. Kumarian Press, 2012. Paperback, 288 pages, $24.95.

Earthquakes may be hard to predict, but it should have been easy to foresee the disaster that would result from the sort of quake that hit Haiti in January 2010. Haiti’s failure to recover in the two years since was just as predictable.

The structural problems that turned a bad earthquake into a cataclysm go all the way back to Haiti’s colonial history, but the immediate causes are much more recent. With the help of the Haitian elite, the “international community” has imposed a series of neoliberal economic policies on the country since the 1970s, strangling native agriculture with the elimination of protective tariffs and driving the peasantry into the overcrowded capital, where they provide bargain-basement labor for the benefit of the U.S. apparel industry. Forty years ago, Haiti imported 19 percent of its food, sociologist Alex Dupuy writes in Tectonic Shifts: Haiti Since the Earthquake, a revealing anthology of articles on the disaster. Now 51 percent of Haiti’s food is imported.

The U.S-backed neoliberal program also called for removing the already weak social protections offered by the Haitian government. The social safety net, such as it is, came to be supplied by a chaotic array of some 10,000 NGOs (nongovernmental organizations); sanitation, city planning, the provision of water were basically left up to the private sector. Port-au-Prince became the capital of free-market economics. There was no enforcement for the country’s sketchy housing code, of course. Haitian development worker Yolette Etienne notes in her contribution to Tectonic Shifts that 86 percent of the houses destroyed by the quake had been built since 1990.

Helping the Foreign One Percent

The same international forces that made Haiti so vulnerable to the earthquake promptly took over the recovery effort.

Despite the unprecedented generosity of private donors in other countries, the thousands of NGOs failed to mount a coordinated response to the desperate situation of some 1.5 million people left homeless by the catastrophe. Two years later, hundreds of thousands still live in camps, or beside or even inside their damaged and unstable former homes.

While many NGOs were well intentioned but incompetent, foreign governments and their disaster planners were altogether too competent in promoting the interests of their corporate sponsors. Instead of working to revive Haitian agriculture and develop an internal market, the international agencies continued to push the low-tariff, sweatshop policies that had failed Haiti so dramatically in the past—while benefiting the one percent back home. The result: a new “free trade zone” built on farmland some 200 miles from the earthquake zone, and a luxury hotel rising above the displaced persons’ camps. And U.S. agribusiness continues to flood the country with what Haitians call “Miami rice.”

During a June 2010 visit to New York, Haitian peasant organizer Chavannes Jean-Baptiste aptly summed up the foreign powers’ view of post-earthquake Haiti. “Haiti is essentially roadkill,” he told a meeting in a Brooklyn church. “Companies like Monsanto are devouring what is left of us at this point.”

Most Haitians are of course excluded from discussions of this plan to “build back better,” as former president Bill Clinton puts it. U.S. solidarity worker Melinda Miles describes in Tectonic Shifts how Haitian grassroots representatives were kept out of planning meetings; even when they were admitted, they found that the discussions were held in English or French, without translation into Haitian Creole.

This same exclusion characterizes U.S. media coverage of Haiti. We only hear from the select group of Haitians who support the official policies. In the absence of dissenting Haitian voices, the New York Times feels free to explain away the recovery effort’s failure with the remark that “many international donors and investors are skittish as political instability continues.”

Letting Haitians Speak

One of the things that make Tectonic Shifts indispensable reading is its commitment to correcting this imbalance. The editors—anthropologist Mark Schuller and Pablo Morales, a former editor of NACLA’s Report on the Americas—made sure that at least half the selections come from Haitians and Haitian Americans; the rest are written by foreigners with longtime experience in Haiti and an understanding of Haitian reality. Contributors include human rights lawyer Haitian Mario Joseph, the worker organizers of Batay Ouvriye (“Worker’s Struggle”), the Force for Reflection and Action on Housing (FRAKKA), independent U.S. journalists like Ansel Herz and Jane Regan, and the Haitian journalists of Ayiti Kale Je (Haiti Grassroots Watch).

With so many different contributions and perspectives, readers may sometimes find the book confusing and contradictory--like Haiti itself. But where else would we read anything like the statement from a May 2011 forum on the housing crisis? More than 40 Haitian grassroots organizations and NGOs and at least 35 committees from the displaced persons’ camps signed on to the forum’s final resolution. The document ranges from practical “minimum demands” for such things as rent control to a sweeping call to “bring all of our forces together to overthrow the capitalist system.”

And then there are the uniquely Haitian demands:

We want houses that respect our local architectural style and that use as much local materials as possible… We want beautiful houses that represent our culture, houses that give the community life, and that help us maintain dialogue between ourselves; houses that have yards and gardens where we can grow vegetables and medicinal plants…houses that provide space for us to live as families with neighbors in the lakou [traditional communal courtyard], where we can share food and daily activities.

“Maybe it is indeed time to ask the experts to stop talking,” author and educator Evelyne Trouillot writes in another selection. “[R]ather they should listen, observe and learn, instead of setting the stage for future disasters.”

David L. Wilson is co-author, with Jane Guskin, of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers, Monthly Review Press, July 2007. He also co-edits Weekly News Update on the Americas, a summary of news from Latin America and the Caribbean.

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