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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Cite Soleil

Cite Soleil is Haiti's largest and most famous slum. When Cheryl found out we were visiting here she told me it was too dangerous, and we were crazy to go. I had mental images that it would be similar to Kibera, the largest and most notorious of Nairobi's slums where sewage runs through the streets and walking in alone indeed could be suicidal. Instead, what we found was something more akin to the parts of Rio's favelas where guides will take visitors on poverty tourism adventures. The streets of Cite Soleil were paved and society seems well organized. Even Los Banados, the area of slums along the river on the edge of Auncion, were rougher than this. Later Kevin tells us that there are worse parts of Cite Soleil, that we'll visit those on Sunday. Where we were today was one of the better areas.

We start with a visit with Mythro Philistin, the coordinator of former president Aristide's Fanmi Lavalas party in Cite Soleil, and a parliamentary candidate for the Lavalas break off Parti Solidarite. We meet at Radio Boukman, a community radio station, and talk a bit with the station manager, but mostly this was just a convenient place to meet local activists.

Mythro raises common themes that we will hear throughout our time in Cite Soleil. The arrival of the UN in the aftermath of the ouster of Aristide in 2004 only made things worse. Many houses are riddled with bullet holes from their attacks. More children are dying of malnutrition, there is no money for schools, there is a lack of a political will to improve the situation. This is all a result of a significant gap between what the UN claims it is doing in Haiti and what it actually accomplishes.

Activists raised a common complaint that the government has excluded Lavalas from the upcoming February 28 legislative elections. Current president Rene Preval was an ally of Aristide who originally emerged out of Lavalas, but he is an opportunist who is just co-opting the situation to entrench himself in power. They called on the international community to accompany them in their denunciations of these abuses. Mythro's Parti Solidarite is an attempt to create an end run around the exclusion of Lavalas in the elections. As has become increasingly the case, social movements do not want to be excluded from the electoral process.

Women's coordinator Florence complains that Preval hasn't done anything to improve the situation, and that women are the most vulnerable and as a result the worst victims of his government. International aid never filters down to the grassroots; NGOs donate materials, but people never receive them. It is important for us to listen and hear the voice of the people. Youth Popular Power coordinator Rene Civil emphasizes that their opposition to Preval is not personal, but it is against his increasingly dictatorial tendencies to concentrate wealth and power through policies of privatization of resources. In contrast, Lavalas has a vision of social justice, equality, and better living for all. Whereas he was in Aristide's first government, now he is attempting to implement the policies of the coup government.

We then meet with members of of the Committee for Popular Mobilization Fanmi Lavalas, Cite Soliel. The secretary begins the discussions by tracing their history back to the leadership of Jean-Jacques Dessalines in the slave revolt that led to Haitian independence in 1804. After Dessalines' death in 1806, no one similarly inspired people until 1990 when Aristide emerged as a new leader that gave them a new voice and a hope for a better future.

Committee members complained that delegations rarely come to Cite Soliel to hear their stories, but that it is important for us to listen to them. They emphasized their strong support for Aristide, and their primary demand that he be allowed to return from his exile in South Africa. When he was president, they emphasized, at least we had jobs and healthcare. He brought life, but now all they face is death. Even if they were offered jobs and riches they would still not drop their primary demand for the return of Aristide. His return would inspire political stability and economic growth.

Another theme running through these meetings is that activists in Cite Soliel expected the situation to improve with the election in Obama in the United States. In fact, they had an Obama election sticker in Haitian Creole on the wall. But, they complained, Haitians didn't understand why Obama was so slow in making changes. As the first African-American president in the United States, Obama owes something to Haiti. (I, of course, would retort that Obama is also white, and is as adherent to the interests of capital as the 43 US presidents before him, and most of Haiti's Afro-descendant presidents have not done much for their country either; Obama's race does not automatically make him more responsive to the needs of the people.)

In the afternoon we visit the Ste Clare Parish feeding program that Father Jean-Juste had set up with the support of a "What If" foundation Margaret set up in California. Some of our delegation members knew Jean-Juste and were deeply impressed with his politics and commitment to the poor. Jean-Juste was imprisoned twice on political charges, and died earlier this year from cancer that some say it was brought on by his imprisonment. The program feeds 800 kids a day, as well as about 400 adults. A constant theme throughout the presentation was that we need help we need help we need help, and the meeting ended with repeated and fairly direct calls for material support. They tried to frame the project as showing people how to fish rather than giving people fish, but I did not see it as much of an empowerment project. Rather, their calls for someone with a good heart to fund their project reminded me of Dom Helder's comment that when he fed the poor they called him a saint, but when he asked why there were poor people they called him a communist.

A lot of questions run through my mind that are quite broader than the delegation's focus on the current human rights situation in Haiti. Is Haiti part of Latin America? Coming from Ghana barely two weeks ago, my mind is naturally drawn toward parallels with Africa. The country seems much more functional than my previous images and stereotypes had led me to believe. Sitting on top of the Matthew 25 guest house at nite, the soft tropical breezes are very calming. And we're surrounded by trees. I had been told that due to extensive deforestation largely due to the harvesting of wood for cooking fires, no trees survived in Haiti. How many more inaccurate mental images do I have?

I'm uploading more pictures to Stuart is also blogging at I assume other delegation members are writing stuff as well, and I'll post links as I get them.

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