A mess, indeed

The Seattle Times today published a column by William Raspberry, Syndicated columnist, entitled, “The mess in Haiti demands our attention”. You can read “his piece here”:http://archives.seattletimes.nwsource.com/cgi-bin/texis.cgi/web/vortex/display?c=1&slug=raspberry17&date=20040217&query=haiti before you read the following response, which I emailed to the writer and to the Seattle times just moments ago. I’ll let you know if I hear back…

Mr. Raspberry –

Regarding your column of February 17, 2004, “The mess in Haiti demands our attention”, could you please cite the sources that lead you to claim that the election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide is “widely seen as corrupt”? I’ve done substantial research into current Haitian politics as background for a book I’m writing on Haitian history. There are several legitimate sources that challenge your interpretation of the facts.

There were two sets of elections in Haiti in 2000 – the legislative elections in May and the presidential election in November. Though there was some disagreement over the counting methods used to determine some of the winners of the May legislative elections, these elections can at worst be referred to as “flawed,” though even at that, the will of the people was widely felt to have been represented in the results. The Embassy of Haiti notes that the election involved 29,500 candidates vying for 7,500 seats. Only 8 of these seats were ultimately in question, and the question was only whether these candidates would be involved in runoff elections or win the seats outright. Aristide called for and received the resignations of the senators whose seats were in question (save for one not associated with his party who refused to step down), so he appears to have been responsive to charges of irregularities.

Other than that, Haitian elections went pretty well for a country with such a turbulent political history. Election observers such as the OAS and ICIO (International Coalition of Independent Observers) agree that about 60% of registered voters participated. The UN even stated that the elections on May 21, 2000, went “unexpectedly well.” (UN document a/55/154)

The November presidential election, as observed by the ICIO and KOZ�PEP, a Haitian peasant organization, was widely reported as fair and honest. The OAS and UN have agreed with this assessment, though their own representation at that election was limited. Even the United States recognized Aristide as the legitimately elected leader of that country. As you can read for yourself in the transcript of the State Department Daily Press Briefing for December 17, 2001, Richard Boucher said, “We have looked at the leadership in Haiti as being a legitimate, elected leadership, we recognize the results of the last election, and obviously we stand with people who are elected against those who would seek to overthrow them by force.”

I have put together an extensive review of Haiti election reports by the UN, OAS, ICIO and others at my website. I encourage you to take a look at “http://www.stumax.com/tlp/tlparchives/cat_haiti_elections.html”:http://www.stumax.com/tlp/tlparchives/cat_haiti_elections.html. There you will also find links to the relevant reports so that you can read them for yourself.

You are an intelligent man, and you know full well that to a public that knows little about Haiti, the perception that its president entered power by corrupt means allows them to turn their heads when his ouster is called for. But Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whatever his flaws, is the legitimate, democratically elected leader of Haiti, and his ouster by other than legitimate, democratic means would represent a serious blow to Haiti’s fragile republic, and would be a damning indictment of those who purport to love and defend democracy. Even the US government agrees: the Associated Press today quotes Colin Powell as saying, “We cannot buy into the proposition that the elected president must be forced out of office by thugs and those who do not respect the law.”

If Reverend Fountroy, who you quote, believes that Aristide should be removed from power, who does he propose to put in his place? Andy Apaid, leader of the opposition alliance, as a holder of a US passport is ineligible to hold government office under Haiti’s constitution (and may in fact face prosecution under the US Neutrality Act). The Haitian majority have not put forth an alternative. Many of the individuals who are jockeying for power in Haiti at this point are ex-military. Do you mean to advocate for a return to military regime in favor of an Aristide democracy?

Your column further confuses the current issue by suggesting the “majority of protesters [in recent violent demonstrations] had voted for Aristide,” an assertion which I can find nowhere else in the press. Can you cite a source? If not, you must understand that this gives the impression that Aristide’s supporters are turning against him, which is clearly not the case. In fact, the AP reported on Sunday that only 1,000 people took part in what was to have been a major anti-Aristide rally.

Please, Mr. Raspberry; the situation in Haiti is very serious. I agree with you that Haiti is a mess, but Aristide is no Duvalier. Please don’t mislead the American people with unsubstantiated allegations. Please don’t advocate against democracy in Haiti. I beg of you, take another look at the facts and write another editorial correcting the wrong impressions you have left with your readers.

Stuart Maxwell
Seattle, Washington

To understand Haitian politic… give up?

I posted a question to the Haiti Mailing List yesterday, asking if anyone could point me to some resource that would give me a balanced analysis of the elections of 2000.

I’ve gotten two responses so far. One was from a woman who asked me to pass along anything I find to her. The second was from a gentleman who said basically the same thing, and that he’s been going to Haiti for 20 years and still doesn’t understand the politics.

Fascinating that there seems to be no easy resource for a fair look at Haitian politics.

Haiti Websites

Some websites with Haiti information, gathered from COHA‘s country pages:

The official website of the Republic of Haiti. You will find useful information here about Haiti, the Government, Business opportunities, Visa and Tourism.

Governments on the WWW: Haiti

The CIA’s World Factbook page for Haiti

Human Development Report on Haiti 2002
An independent reporting tool for policy analysis reflecting people’s priorities, strengthening national capacities, engaging national partners, identifying inequities and measuring progress.

Haiti Reborn – Let Haiti Live
The Let Haiti Live Coalition unites organizations and individuals to advocate for U.S. policies which respect the independence and self-determination of the Haitian people and their Republic. The Let Haiti Live Coalition is committed to building a dynamic and well-informed network of solidarity to support the Haitian people in their pursuit of democracy, human rights and equitable development.

Haiti Film Festival

The American Museum of Natural History will host Haiti on Film on this Saturday, January 31st from 1pm to 5 pm. See this link for details.

I looked into flying to New York for this, but decided instead to make plans to attend the Haiti On Screen Film Festival slated for March 31 to April 4, 2004. Will post further details when I get them.

With Friends Like These…

In thinking about my post from yesterday, I want to make sure I’m not misunderstood on one point: In criticizing ways that aid to Haiti is sometimes delivered, I don’t mean to call into question the genuine good will of those who are trying to help. I’m also not saying that Haitians shouldn’t be helped, or that they somehow deserve their misery and poverty. I’m saying that they should be taken on their own terms. I’m saying that the dignity and situation of any people is not enhanced by outsiders who dictate conditions based on their own arbitrary conclusions about how the world should work.

Amy Wilentz’s article on page 124 of Libète underscores the pitfalls of judging behavior we don’t understand by filtering it through our usual pair of lenses. Haiti, she suggests, must be taken on its own terms. We cannot force our ideas and sensibilities on others.

Take, for example, our insistence on forcing our idea of democracy on Haiti, a policy which has led to the withholding of over $500 million in aid money. We seem to forget in this country that one of the major reasons our representative democracy works so well for us is that we decided on it ourselves. We fought for it and we won it because we thought it was right for us. We declared independence because we thought that King George’s tyranny was crushing us and depriving us of our lives and liberty. I dare say our constitution would be meaningless if it had been forced on us at bayonet-point by some country who thought they knew better.

Yet, I can sympathize with those who ache for change in Haiti at any cost. Conditions there are miserable, of that there is no doubt. The infrastructure that might supply basic human needs such as clean water, sewage, and health care are non-existent. The token number of garbage trucks that actually run can’t manage to make a dent in the hundreds of tons of trash that pile up in the streets. Families who have shelter are reduced to living either in cardboard hovels or tin boxes that become ovens in the noonday sun. Eight people might live in a 12-foot by 12-foot room, and so must either sleep standing up or in 4-hour shifts. One lady reported sleeping standing up holding two children while flood water mixed with human waste flowed past her belly button. Children as young as four years old are given up by poor families to well-off urbanites who will use the toddlers as house slaves. Twelve-year-old prostitutes satisfy their johns for the equivalent of 30 American cents. Doctors warn patients not to go to the public hospitals. Misery after misery after misery splatters the canvas of Haiti like an epileptic Jackson Pollack.

What feeling person wouldn’t respond with sympathy and love to such a situation? When faced with such stark poverty, caring people want desperately to help. Yet, putting a bandage on someone with internal bleeding is not help.

Take the food shortage, for example. Drought and degraded agricultural conditions are causing a severe famine in Haiti. Humanitarian aid that does make it to the country is so laden with conditions as to make it meaningless. The US government surplus food aid is referred to as manje sinistre, and Haitian criticisms of it are stinging. As the Haiti Briefing’s Famine and Food Aid (p 117, Libète) reports:

“A coordinator of the Tèt Kole peasant movement harshly denounced the government’s emergency food-for-work programme administered by CARE. Hungry people must work for three weeks to receive a small quantity of US-government-supplied surplus cracked wheat. He told Haiti Info that Tèt Kole had met with the government in March and suggested that local food instead of food aid be used, and instead of road work, peasants should be paid to work on their fields to prepare them for the upcoming season.”

The same criticism is leveled in a 1997 report by Grassroots International. The report, entitled “ Feeding Dependency, Starving Democracy: USAID Policies in Haiti,” opens with the following quote:

CARE has been “helping” people in the Northwest [of Haiti] for decades. But each year, the misery of the people of the Northwest increases. What is the real impact of this aid? To make people more dependent, more vulnerable, more on the margins?…The aid is not given in such a way as to give the people responsibility, to make them less dependent….This is what you call “commercializing” poverty….The people’s misery should not be marketed…. – Samuel Madisten, Haitian Senator

The report found that US-funded food aid and job-creation programs actually hurt Haitians by, among other things, lowering the prices farmers could get for rice and other grains, initiating projects which are at odds with “stated national, regional, and local priorities,” underfunding agricultural revitalization programs, and luring people into job-creation programs at key harvest times. This last item had the stunning effect of letting entire rice crops rot in the middle of a famine.

Treating our brothers and sisters in Haiti in this way is not right; it is not just. Compassion is from the Latin and means “to suffer with.” A compassionate nation will suffer with – not profit from – its brother in need.

A compassionate nation offers assistance without strings attached. A compassionate response becomes the “rising tide that lifts all boats.” A compassionate response would invite participation of the Haitian people in coming up with solutions. A compassionate response to people in need would be one that made future instances of help unnecessary. If, like Amy Wilentz, we learn to understand Haitians and meet them on their terms, then we may yet hope for improvement. If not, then more and more lives will be wasted in suffering, and more of them will suffer at the hands of those who would help.

Annoying the pig

I’m continuing to get up to speed on the full scope of Haitian history, reading today from Libète.

After three centuries of subjugation and brutal government, the resilience of the Haitian peasantry is extraordinary. After reading the third chapter in Libète, though, I wonder if the peasant population hasn’t been pulling the wool over our eyes all along. Amy Wilentze’s The Rainy Season suggests that the peasants have absolutely no care for national politics generally, but can become incredibly impassioned and active citizens when their way of life is threatened. She suggests that the major events in Haitian history – the Revolution, the end of American occupation, and the ouster of Duvalier – were possible only because of the peasant class’s “organization and unrest.”

It’s quite possible that Western sensibilities will never take root in Haiti, nor will oppressive regimes truly dominate. For a system of government to be effective, people have to participate. We all have to care about similar issues and buy generally into common solutions. The peasant class in Haiti considers most of the debates that go on in their parliament to be just a bunch of noise. The decisions that are made in the Haitian government will have little effect on a population that has adapted defensive strategies to keep their simple way of life intact.

Mats Lundahl in Underdevelopment in Haiti describes various tactics developed by the peasant society to maintain their way of life and avoid being affected by the state. These tactics include:

“’getting liked’ by outsiders, hiding facts (like the voodoo cult and the site of real power), as well as using multiple names for the same person. Moreover, structures that are built by intruders are eroded by peasant action… Development projects are left to decay as soon as the outside experts have left the project site. Dissuasion – persuading the outside aggressor that his intervention is in vain – and mockery complete the picture. Ultimately, resort is made to force. When all other mechanisms have been rendered ineffective, outbursts of violence are directed against the sources of disturbance of the peasant equilibrium.”

People writing in the Haiti listserv have noted how long it takes the Haitians to do projects that we might do much more rapidly in this country. I remember in particular a recent discussion about organizing medical records. The author despaired that the Haitians could not stick to the discipline of maintaining records that he had put so carefully in order. But I wonder if he had considered the reasons why Haitians might be averse to keeping records. Might they, for example, be worried that those records could be used against them at some point? Might not mistrust of the government – not laziness or ignorance – be at least a contributing factor?

At the risk of making an unflattering comparison, I am reminded of the farmer’s admonition to someone engaged in an act of futility. “Son,” says the farmer, “don’t try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig.” For all of the good intentions of those who would bring Haiti politically and economically into the 21st century, maybe Haiti just doesn’t want to go.

Another essay in Libète drives this point home for me. In Ideas and Action, The Low Voice of Saint-Jules Clocy, A Haitian Farmer, Gérald Belkin asks a peasant farmer why he and his countymen ignore the advice of the experts who teach them to plant in straight lines. The farmer replies with a splendid analysis of local economic and agricultural conditions which require him to plant the way he does, as well as a reasoned consideration of why planting in rows doesn’t work for his farm. Then he basically says that the outside experts insult the intelligence of the peasants by not taking their years of knowledge into account. He says, “If people found that planting in straight lines really worked, they wouldn’t be so stupid as to reject the method.”

The insistence of the UN, the OAS, the US, and others that Haiti become a properly functioning democracy may be a losing battle. Haitians seem determined to be exactly what they want to be; no more, no less. Ironically, the money that the Western powers are withholding might be the very thing that would move the democratic cause forward. When Haitians have their most basic needs taken care of, they’ll be much better able to pay attention to larger issues.

Obviously, of course, there are those in Haiti who do want to move that country forward soon, who long for a better life. But do they have the right to do it at the expense of the peasant classes? Are they wasting their time and annoying the pig?