Land Ownership at the Crux of Haiti’s Stalled Reconstruction

At a UN Conference on Mar. 31, about 60 countries and multilateral banks promised $5.3 billion for Haiti’s reconstruction over the next 18 months. Only about 10% of those promises have been delivered on (some of it just forgiven debt), and of that money delivered into a World Bank managed fund, only a fraction has been spent to help Haiti.

Meanwhile, private citizens around the world gave hundreds of millions of dollars to NGOs and impromptu efforts like the Clinton-Bush Foundation, but (where statistics are available) less than 25% of those contributions, sometimes much less, have been spent while desperation in Haiti grows. Much of the blame for Haiti’s faltering recovery has focused on this trickling release of money and the disorganization of inefficient, administratively costly NGOs which have received most of the funds to date.

But big NGOs reply that they are ready to build new storm resistant houses – the most urgent priority, everybody agrees, as the hurricane season bears down on the 1.7 million displaced people still living under tents and tarps. The problem, Bekele Gelata, the secretary general of the International Federation of Red Cross Societies said last week, is that the Haitian government has not provided open land on which to build large numbers of houses. “We have high hopes that the Red Cross will get a little land soon,” he said.
In this way, the Jan. 12 earthquake reveals that the principal fault-line in Haiti is not geological but one of class. A small handful of rich families own large tracts of land in suburban Port-au-Prince which would be ideal for resettling the displaced thousands. The lands are located near the city, often with water and some trees, and are largely undeveloped.
However, these same families control the Haitian government and, more importantly, have great influence in the newly formed 26-member Interim Commission to Reconstruct Haiti (CIRH), co-chaired by former President Bill Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive. Thirteen of the CIRH directors represent multilateral banks like the IMF, World Bank, and Inter-American Development Bank and donor nations like the U.S., France and Canada. The other thirteen members represent Haiti’s elite.
The most prominent elite representative on the CIRH is Reginald Boulos, who heads one of the Haitian bourgeoisie’s most powerful families and backed both the 1991-94 and 2004-06 coups d’état against former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. (Despite regular and massive demonstrations asking for the Haitian government to facilitate his return, Aristide remains in exile in South Africa, without a passport or laisser-passer to return home.)
The CIRH is empowered for the next 18 months under a “State of Emergency Law” to seize land for rebuilding as it sees fit. (It is no coincidence that the time period for the “state of emergency” and the $5 billion injection coincide). But the elite families on this body in charge of expropriations are not volunteering their own well-situated land to benefit Haiti’s homeless.
As a result, only one major displaced person camp, Corail-Cesselesse, has been built about 10 miles north of the capital, on a forbidding strip of sun-baked desert situated between Titayen and Morne Cabrit, two desolate zones where death-squads dumped their victims during the anti-Aristide coups. The 6,000 person camp is several kilometers from Route National One, where transport toward the capital runs. One resident said he had to leave the camp at 4 a.m. for a three hour commute to his job in the city. Another resident said bus fares cost $1, a lot of money in Haiti.
Long-time democracy activist Patrick Elie told Democracy Now! on the quake’s six month anniversary that “the Haitian elites over centuries [have] appropriated land which […], especially after independence and the end of slavery, would have been common property, and they appropriated vast tract of land, pushing the peasants – the newly freed slaved who did not want to work on the plantation system anymore – to the mountains.”
This appropriation process – some call it theft – is not ancient history. Some of Haiti’s best suited land for post-quake resettlements is located just north of the capital between the Freres Road and Tabarre. Over the past 25 years, Haiti’s bourgeoisie bought up large swaths of this fertile valley, where the Haitian American Sugar Company used to grow sugarcane. Now it is home to a Miami-style luxury home development known as Belle-Ville, an amusement park for rich kids , the Vorbe family car dealership, Brazil’s military base (Brabatt), and a giant new U.S. Embassy, among other things. “The elite paid the peasants pennies for the land not long ago, pushing them off,” Elie told Haiti Liberté. “Now they will look to sell it for a huge profit.”
The bourgeoisie has placed itself in charge of resettlement and is looking to make a killing. “The government had appointed Gerard-Emile ‘Aby’ Brun, president of Nabatec Development, a consortium owned by some of Haiti’s most powerful families, to be in charge of relocating the squatter camps in Port-au-Prince,” explained the AP’s Jonathon Katz in a Jul. 11 story. Brun then put Corail-Cesselesse on land owned by Nabatec, thereby making his company “first in line to gain part of $7 million the government will spend compensating landowners.”
And, Katz continues, “that’s just a small part of the potential payoff. Nabatec is also a lead negotiator with South Korean garment firms to build factories that Haitian officials say will likely go into Corail-Cesselesse.” Forty years ago, Cité Soleil, Haiti’s biggest and worst slum, was also built as a model development (then Cité Simone) to provide workers for the first industrial park near the airport, built and owned by the same wealthy families with U.S. support.
So the bourgeoisie keeps its best land and sells its worst for a huge, guaranteed profit. This is the Haitian equivalent of the U.S. bank bailout.
In this way, the Préval government and CIRH appear ready to squander the millions contributed to Haiti by buying land at inflated prices from the bourgeoisie, land which was often stolen or obtained by ruse in the first place.
Land is also needed to grow food for Haiti’s increasingly hungry masses, especially as post-quake humanitarian aid begins to drop off. Haiti’s bourgeoisie and big landowners are more interested in building assembly industries, office buildings and luxury homes, not on developing fields of rice, millet or corn. In the past six months, four new industrial parks, according to one report, have been built to take advantage of Haiti’s $3 a day minimum wage.
This struggle for Haiti’s principal means of production – the land – has now been thrown into sharp relief as sharks and vultures use this moment of a weakened state to expand their real estate holdings, not contribute them to their devastated compatriots.
A good example of this is in Ganthier, a town of about 72,000 located 18 miles east of the capital near the Dominican border. Half the town’s residents are peasant farmers who survive by farming on state lands used as a commons to grow food for over 80 years. But in recent weeks, two businessmen have laid claim to this state land.
Two weeks ago, the businessmen sent out a bulldozer that began to clear the peasants’ plots. The peasants banded together, burned the bulldozer, and blocked the road from the border. The local mayor, Ralph Lapointe sided with the peasants and was arrested for a few hours. He credits his partial freedom to immediate local protests and barricades. His office’s general director was imprisoned for more than 24 hours.
“We are both now under virtual house arrest,” he told journalists from Haiti Liberté and Democracy Now! “My life is in danger if I leave my home. As a government representative, I am supposed to defend the interests of the local population. Instead the judicial authorities are allying themselves with the marauding businessmen and are attacking the peasants and those that defend them, like myself.”
Meanwhile the interlopers, armed with false deeds to the land (the elite’s age-old weapon of choice), have enlisted the police in a manhunt for the leaders of the peasant rebellion against the land grab. Mayor Lapointe identified the two businessmen trying to take the land as Frank Galette and Gérald Brutus. “Because I don’t agree with their actions, they have promised to assassinate me,” the mayor said.
This stand-off in Ganthier does not bode well for Haiti’s reconstruction under the leadership of Préval and the CIRH. To build Haiti back better, Haitian authorities will need to expropriate at least some of the land the elite has stolen and accumulated over the past 200 years. Instead, landowners’ thugs, often in concert with police and UN troops, are brutally uprooting people, often at gunpoint and at night, from spontaneous settlements without giving them any alternative homes. The internally displaced just have to move farther up the mountainsides or further into the Arizona-like desert north of the capital.
Of course, seizing the ruling class’ land would exacerbate the already simmering class war, of which Ganthier is just an opening skirmish. “The landowners say if they’re not compensated, the ‘new Haiti’ in Corail-Cesselesse will end up making the violent slums of pre-quake Port-au-Prince look tame,” Katz wrote. “Every squatter seems to have had an encounter with gangsters they believe are sent by landowners.”

The need was there before, but the earthquake made it even more crying. Haiti needs a social revolution where the land of the rich is transferred to the ownership of the poor – that is, nationalized, as it was under Dessalines – so that it can serve not just as a means of production but also to build shelters from the coming storms.