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Friday, January 8, 2010

Ghana & Haiti

When I was in Ghana last fall I kept thinking about how my observations and experiences in Africa compared to those I have had in Latin America. Now that I'm in Haiti, I keep thinking about how this country compares to Ghana.

I stepped off the plane in Port-au-Prince and immediately felt as if I was back in Ghana. The level of development is about the same, the people are the same (Haiti is largely inhabited by those of West African descent), the tropical climate is similar. Some people would even say that the language is related, as Haitian Creole is a linguistic mix of French, English, and a variety of West African languages. Haitians, particularly those who have little education, are as distant from their official colonial language (French) as those in Ghana are from theirs (English).

Some similarities I fail to notice right away. One of the delegation members says "look, that woman is carrying a basket on her head" and I wonder do they not do that everywhere, or have I become so accustomed to seeing that happen in Africa that I don't think twice about it. It seems that there must be an interesting story of how that tradition was passed from Africa to Haiti, but seemingly not to other African diaspora populations in the Americas.

Both Ghana and Haiti talk about their diasporas being their eleventh province.

Because I feel as if I'm back in Ghana, I have to stop myself from doing some cultural things like ending handshakes with a finger snap. After working so hard NOT to use my left hand in Ghana, one of my reverse cultural shocks is trying to use my left hand again to pass and receive objects.

Ghana was noisy, and Haiti can be noisy as well, but maybe all of Latin America, the third world, or even the world is noisy and I just never really thought about it until someone pointed it out to me as a significant cultural trait in Ghana.

Ghanaians ride tro-tros; Haitians take taptaps. Haitian taptaps are in better condition and much more prettily decorated than Ghanaian tro-tros. I think the tradition of painting up transportation vehicles came from the Philippines, and again there must be a story of how that trait was diffused to Haiti.

Both countries have problems with electoral outages, though those in Haiti are more extensive and problematic. Both countries have noisily annoying generators, although some places in Haiti have rigged up a system of lead car batteries that can carry a household load for awhile until the grid comes back on or the generator kicks on. While standing in the security line at the airport in Port-au-Prince the electricity went off which of course brings down the ex-ray machines which brings everything to a standstill until they can get the generators up and running. The entire country seems to hang by a thread.

Both countries have lots of fresh fruit, but not many people seem to eat it (which is probably true in the US as well). At least in Ghana I cooked for myself, which meant that I could eat as much fresh fruit as I wanted (rather than starch and dead animals).

Ghana was the most religious society I have ever seen. Religious signs are also prevalent in Haiti, particularly on public transportation vehicles, but probably no more so than the rest of Latin America. Religious themed vehicles is only logical given the Catholic roots of the society, and the crazy drivers who need all of the divine assistance that they can get.

Begging is similar in both countries, with kids saying to me "gimme money," which is perhaps to be expected since both countries exist as a similar socio-economic level (Haiti ranks 148 on the UNDP HDI list, and Ghana is 4 places lower at 152). I did not encounter the degree of hassle in Haiti as what eventually wore me down in Ghana, but perhaps that is because in Haiti our delegation leaders took care of many of the problems that I would otherwise encounter. But Haiti is not as much of a basket case as I had been led to believe. I found it to be a surprisingly functioning society.

Is Haiti part of Latin America, or are commonalities I might see with the rest of the Americas just because it is part of the third or developing world? In my classes on Latin America I include Haiti as part of that region and justify it on the basis of it being colonized by "Latin" Europe, the same rational that Napoleon gave for occupying Mexico in the 1860s (and, incidentally, how the term "Latin America" became popularized). But if we include the French parts of the Americas in our definition of Latin America, we should also include French Guiana, Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Quebec, which we do not commonly do. Some people say that Haiti should not be included in Latin America because it has a different language and culture, but the same is true for Brazil. If we exclude Brazil, we have just lost half of the traditional definition of Latin America. But when I am in Brazil, I do feel as if I am in a different world than when I am in Spanish America. For better or worse, I tell my students that my classes largely focus on Spanish America, and perhaps unintentionally I have come to treat Spanish America as synonymous with Latin America.

But these are all academic constructions removed from the lived realities of people in the Americas anyway.

Perhaps some of my impressions of both countries are similar because I entered both at similar socio-economic levels, and perhaps some of perceptions of differences are a result of working in Ghana as an academic at a conservative elite university, and coming to Haiti with a solidarity delegation in alliance with militant grassroots social movement. But Haiti, like the rest of Latin America, does seem to be much more politicized than Africa. This is visible, for example, in electoral propaganda and other graffiti spray painted on walls throughout Port-au-Prince.

Both countries have histories of heavy resource extraction, gold and cocoa in Ghana and sugar and coffee in Haiti. But one thing I can't help thinking is that a high degree of inequality and political activism must somehow be linked. Ghana has a relatively good Gini coefficient of .43, in the same range as the United States and Venezuela (but well below Denmark and Norway), whereas Haiti is the most unequal country in the Americas with a Gini coefficient of .60. I argue that the problem of Latin America is not poverty but inequality, and perhaps that inequality is a contributing factor to highly politicized societies in Latin America.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Leaving Jacmel

We woke up this morning to a leisurely breakfast of fresh fruit and pancakes. People flying out today had already packed themselves and their oversized luggage in a too-small SUV for the curvy ride through the mountains back to Port-au-Prince. We followed later. We had too many people in our SUV as well, and I was stuck in the luggage compartment in the back of the Nissan Pathfinder. Me and my mangos were tossed around as we raced up the lush mountain, and down the other side into Port-au-Prince that showed many more signs of deforestation. I wanted to stop and take a picture, but it is really not a good road along which to stop and play tourist. So, all I have are very blurry pictures from the back of the SUV.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


Today was the last full day of our delegation in Haiti, and our second day in Jacmel on the southern coast. This is a very beautiful area of Haiti, and I now understand why Haiti was once called the jewel of the Antilles and why it used to have a thriving tourist industry. I once heard somewhere that poverty was so extreme in Haiti that it had led to a complete deforestation of this part of the island of Hispaniola, that not a single tree remained. Obviously that is a complete exaggeration. This part of Haiti looks very much like a lush tropical paradise.

We spent the morning at the Bassin-Bleu waterfalls outside of town. The drive across the river and up into the mountains was as interesting and scenic as the falls themselves. The sign at the falls said there were three falls (Bassin Yes, Bassin Palmiste, Bassin Clair), but I really only remember 2 falls. The upper falls was about a 20-meter drop into a pool where some of us swam for a bit.

Tomorrow we head back to Port-au-Prince, and then on Friday I fly to San Diego for the AHA. I'd much rather stay in Haiti.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


Our time in Port-au-Prince was very intense, and life has slowed down significantly upon our arrival in Jacmel. We had a slow start this morning because some luggage was left behind in Port-au-Prince. By the time we got going, it started to rain. We visited an art gallery in Jacmel, and then headed out of town to see damage from a 2008 hurricane. On the way back to the hotel we stopped at a beach for lunch, and lunch was so slow that it stretched throughout the rest of the afternoon ... and you know how I feel about beaches.

I wonder what the level of unrest (political or otherwise) has been in this seemingly peaceful coastal beach town of Jacmel. It doesn't feel like there is much. But yet we see a significant UN presence. From the window of the art gallery we see a parking lot with UN vehicles right on the seashore. As we are leaving the beach after lunch, a UN troop transport truck shows up with soldiers who proceed to strip down to their swimming trunks and jump in the water. A standard joke here in Haiti is that the UN 'peacekeeping' forces are on tourist duty.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Haiti by Nite

We left Port-au-Prince at 7pm for the almost 3-hr trip to Jacmel on the southern coast of Haiti. The country suffers from frequent electrical shortages, and the city was very dark as we left. Informal vendors lined the streets with candles on their tables, sometimes with men gathered around the table in what I assume was a game of chance.

Most of the light on the street came from the headlights of other cars, gas stations with their own generators, and at some street corners huge spotlights with their own generators similar to what construction sites use in the States. When I tried to take a picture of one of these a guy standing alongside the road started to yell at me for taking a picture, even tho the camera was not pointed at him. Then our driver started to yell at me for taking a picture, even tho it was his fault we were driving at night.

BC said it was ok to drive to Jacmel at nite because the road was good, and by Haiti standards I suppose it was. The road wound up through the mountains separating Port-au-Prince from the southern coast, throwing us around the car as we cornered tightly around the curves. Fortunately there was almost no traffic--perhaps no one else is crazy enough to make this trip at nite. At one small town, people had gathered on the dark road for a party. I put on my headphones and tried to lose myself in catching up on news from FSRN, Democracy Now, and Tony's Buzz from last Thursday on WORT.

Press Conference

We had a press conference today denouncing human rights abuses in Haiti. I think the extent of my contribution to this is to:

* post the statement we presented at
* upload the audio of the press conference to (we ran the conference 3 times as people came in late, hence the 3 files)
* put more pictures at

In the afternoon we sent a delegation to visit a political prisoner, but I was one of the people delegated to visit the national museum instead.

Check out the blogs of Stuart and BC who are probably posting much more interesting information that I have here.

We're headed to Jacmel right now. More info from there.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Return to Cite Soleil

My guess would be that there is no doubt about how this kid feels about us returning to Cite Soleil.

We started out the day in Florence's school Deux Jesus in Cite Soleil that doubles as a church on Sundays. When Aristide was president he provided support for schools, but that is no longer the case. They meet in an old building with sunlight filtering in through holes in the walls and roof. The school has 250 students, but other than an old chalkboard they do not have much for resources. Many of the children suffer from hunger, and several of them are orphans.

From Florence's school we continued on to a cyber cafe where we interviewed eight people who were victims of UN attacks. As with yesterday, we took down their names, basic information, pictures, audio, etc. One woman was obviously not entirely ok mentally. We moved people through quickly (Next! Next! Next!). But because we were meeting in the sanitized environment of a cyber cafe the whole undertaking was not as emotionally exhausting as it had been yesterday when we met people right in their living environments. A common theme was that the UN was looking for bandits, but just killed innocent civilians in the process. I'm going to hold on to these testimonies for now until we decide what to do with them. As we were leaving Cite Soleil, we passed another white UN pickup loaded with soldiers in combat gear. We see them all the time.

The final meeting was with Rea's school SOPUDEP that tries to provide food and educational opportunities for street kids. They don't receive funding from the government, but a major theme that emerged was that they don't receive NGO funding either. They provided as a typical example Save the Children whose offices are located right across the street from the school. These NGOs are not interested in helping local grassroots groups, and too much of their funding goes to administrative overhead. This points to a common problem with large NGOs that are more interested in preserving their institutional interests than advancing the needs of the people. Rea urged us to support local organizations instead of large international NGOs.

By now it was raining which really kicks up my sinuses and gives me a royal migraine, so I'm going to cut this all short. Sorry.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Human rights abuses

Saturday started off slowly with a mid-morning visit with Mario Joseph, the director of the human rights organization Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) where we have been interviewing labor and human rights activists for the last several days. The BIA is attempting to organize different grassroots organizations and victims of the government, even though their demands are different. These divisions are reflected in the meltdown at the protest the previous day.

Mario began by explaining how the current electoral council (CEP) in Haiti is not in compliance with Art. 289 of the constitution, and that he is opposed to holding elections under these conditions. The November 2007 congressional elections were delayed until April 2009, and the upcoming February elections have already been delayed from November of last year, so it should not be a problem to delay them further until November of this year while these issues are straightened out. He isn't opposed to democracy, but it is important to emphasize principles.

Preval is trying to divide Lavalas into different parties, which just leaves the popular movement in a weakened state. Funds from USAID, IRI, NDI also are working to destroy strong popular movements in Haiti. Mario Joseph, however, is still confident in the power of Lavalas because of its grassroots base. From his perspective, only the leaders have sold out. Those leaders are upset because they have lost control over the people, but at the same time people don't identify with or trust the leaders because they drive around in SUVs and have security guards and are no longer concerned with the interests of the common people. Lavalas has also been weakened because it has not actively supported the economic demands of workers, including raising the minimum wage. At the same time, the influence of unions has declined because of corrupt leaders who are drawn off into Preval's government or into the electoral process.

After lunch, we visited the poor neighborhood of Bel Air to take testimony from people who had been injured in attacks by the UN peace keeping forces. We walked to four people and took pictures of injuries of others. I have audio tape and more pictures, but I'm going to hold those right now until we can better decide what to do with them. I also need to line up my pictures and audio with the names of the people to whom we talked.

That type of human rights documentation is what I thought would be the focus of the entire delegation, but this has turned into more of a standard solidarity delegation where we talk to people with the idea of influencing structural and policy changes. The concerns of someone who is paralyzed with a bullet in his spine, however, is much more immediate. Who can provide him material aid for his medical and daily needs, especially since he can't work or provide for his family? If we give him money, we would soon be overrun by everyone in the poor neighborhood--and our resources do not stretch that far and we would quickly cause more problems than we are attempting to solve (hence many delegations' bans on gift giving, although we have not talked about that here). Just telling him that our purpose is to focus on larger structural issues so that others are not hurt seems, well, so cold in this case. In the 1930s the CPUSA banned its members from engaging in charity work, but I'm most moved by people who respond to basic humanitarian needs. In essence, I'm always torn between my earlier incarnation as a terminal altruistic and my current focus on structural issues. In the end, it was a brief but overwhelming and emotionally exhausting visit.

We had to rush out of Bel Air because people were waiting for us at Matthew 25, waiting for an hour and a half in fact. Back at the guest center I could plug in my notebook and take notes on the computer. For the first time I wish I had purchased a netbook before coming to Haiti so that I could avoid the lengthy process of transcribing my written notes into this blog that takes up too much of my time. I'm tempted just to dump the notes from those afternoon and evening meetings into this blog, but they are 5 pages long and these blog posts are already too long. So, let's try to summarize:

The first group we met with was the September 30 Foundation that fights for the rights of victims of the 1991 and 2004 coups. The foundation is named after the date of the 1991 coup against Aristide, and is so named in order to keep that date and related events in peoples' memories. Their work has been harder since the disappearance and presumed politically motivated murder of the group's leader Lovinsky on August 12, 2007. It is unclear whether he was kidnapped because of his recently announced plan to run for senate, because of his denunciation of UN abuses, or because of his criticism of the UN occupation of Haiti. Undoubtedly, as a member of the senate he would have used that platform to raise a powerful voice against these abuses, and some feared that. Some people thought that his absence would destroy the September 30 Foundation, but they have continued their fight against the UN occupation and its accompanying abuses.

We then moved quickly into a visit with Rene Civil, spokesperson Mobilization Commission for Fanmi Lavalas. He began by greeting Haitian exiles in the United States, and thanking US people and officials like Maxine Waters who helped return him in 1994, even if that return was not exactly done in the best way. Haitians continue to struggle against the 2004 coup. The went en masse to the polls on February 6, 2006 to change the situation. By voting for Preval they sent the message that they wanted Aristide back. They want to stop the neoliberal plan to sell companies to the private sector. They want to stop political and economic exclusion, but under Preval's government the reality has turned out to be quite different. The Preval government has not followed through with the promises, and the situation continues to be bad.

Civil repeated a previous theme that we have heard of surprise that Democrats who usually work on behalf of the disadvantaged have continued to see the situation of exclusion continue under Obama, someone whom they considered to be a new Aristide. They have started to doubt Obama's position. If the US wanted the situation to change in Haiti, they would do it. They cannot continue to live under this system of exclusion. (For those of us, of course, who never drank the cool-aid we have always seen Obama as responding to the interests of the capitalist class.)

Civil called for a new, credible electoral council. He called for delaying the February election to November so that it could include everyone. Political frustration continues in Haiti, and if it continues it could end in a very difficult moment that could explode at any moment. Unemployment is at more than 80 percent, and the high cost of everything means that people can't afford anything. Meanwhile, UN personal live well in gated communities while Haitians still don't have schools or electricity. The occupation is killing people. It is not intended to rebuilt the country, but to defend the interests of the privileged. At any point this situation might end up in a revolt. Haiti wants its freedom and its second independence. If it were not for the Preval government and UN guns, Haiti would already have this. All of this is happening with support of the international community.

Civil demanded the use of Haiti's natural resources for the development of the country. But many people do not want to see this happen. They are relying on international solidarity to change this situation for the people of Haiti. That is the greatest gift we could give to Haiti. In summary, Civil demanded 3 things: 1. the return of Aristide; 2. a new electoral process that includes everyone; and 3. a fight for equality for everyone in Haiti. We taped Civil's comments, and might edit them for broadcast in the United States.

Our long day ended with a visit with Paul "Loulou" Chery, Secretary General of Confederation des Travailleurs Haitiens (CTH, Confederation of Haitian Workers). He explained how workers originally supported Preval because he was the Prime Minister under Aristide and thought that both had the same dream. They thought with Preval that Aristide would quickly return to Haiti. Under his government, however, they have faced exclusion. Although we can't say that Preval is responsible for human rights violations, socially the government has not done enough to decrease levels of poverty.

Loulou pointed to finding more jobs as the key issue to solving Haiti's problems. Haiti is a very poor country only one hour from a very wealthy US, and sometimes people only come to see poverty. The solution is to create wealth, and the only way to do so is with more jobs. He looked to US government policies like HOPE I and II as a means to acquire more jobs in the textile industry. Loulou said that he did not mind a plan to bring more jobs for people to work, to survive, even if they are paid very little. We cannot talk about the rights of workers when they are not working. The most important thing is that they have jobs. This, of course, just struck as as part of a larger neoliberal plan and left us wondering how people could survive with so little in wages.

The second largest sector in CTH is women's groups, so they started to think about having own union. This group works on AIDS and domestic slavery issues. Ginette Apollon, President of Haiti's National Commission of Women Workers (CNFT), was at the meeting but she did not say much.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Haitian Independence Day

January 1 is Haitian independence day. When Haiti won its independence in 1804 there was only one other independent country in the Americas and that country did not want to recognize Haiti's independence because it was led by slaveholders who did not like the example that the Haitian revolution set for those who were not rich, white, property owners in the rest of the hemisphere.

Independence day traditionally begins with a pumpkin soup at 10am, and we invited a group of people to the Matthew 25 house where we are staying to share the soup. We gathered on the rooftop where Paul explained the significance of the Haitian revolution. After eating the soup, Olens Calixste sang us a couple of songs, beginning with one calling for a return to democracy in Haiti. I had more technical problems with my equipment, but I do have a video clip that I'm uploading to youtube.

After the meal, we drove out to the UN headquarters to observe a protest against the exclusion of Lavalas in the February elections. It was a small protest that was scheduled to start at 10am and it was already after 12 by the time we arrived. Most of the people there were people who we had met over the previous two days in our meetings at the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux. Blue helmeted UN soldiers milled around taking pictures of the demonstrators as well as of themselves with their big guns guarding the UN compound from the demonstrators. I guess it must have been a big thrill for these soldiers on loan from the Philippines.

The demonstration went into meltdown mode when one of the laid off dock workers we interviewed yesterday took the bullhorn to call for the government to comply with its promises for 36 months of unemployment benefits. The people who organized the demonstration shouted them down, saying that they were there to protest funding for the electoral council and holding elections without the participation of Lavalas. After some shouting that left the rest of us a bit bewildered since we don't speak Haitian Creole, everybody just got up and left.

We were now without a demonstration to observe, it was only early afternoon, and we didn't have any more plans for the day. So, we decided to drive through the elite neighborhood of Petionville and up to the top of a mountain overlooking Port-au-Prince. Mostly we just saw smog. I didn't realize how smoggy it was here, but that explains the scratching in my throat.

After looking out over the smog and taking pictures of our group, we headed back down. It was still early and the traffic was light and I wanted to check out the fair trade store Comite Artisanal Haitien with which Cheryl works, but it was closed so instead we went to the Hotel Oloffson made famous by Graham Greene's novel The Comedians (among other things).

After returning to the guest house we had leftover soup from the morning for our supper. Now we're spending a quiet evening. Some of us are tired because of celebrating the new year last nite, and others of us are tired cuz the horrendous noise of the others celebrating the new year kept us from sleeping soundly last nite.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Full moon rising

It's a beautiful full moon rising over Haiti tonite.

This morning we returned to the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux for more interviews. We began with an interview with rural economist Georges Werleigh. Halfway through his talk I looked over at my digital recorder and realized with this sinking feeling that the battery had died on it. Unfortunately, what that means is that I lost the audio file. I don't understand why Zoom doesn't design the H2 so that it automatically saves the file before it goes into shutdown mode when the battery dies. I thought I could use this talk for a feature segment on WORT's Third World View. I also video taped the talk and could extract the audio from that, but my computer has less than 16GB of space left on it--not nearly enough to digitize the video. After Ghana my computer battery is also fried. I really need a new computer.

I don't know that I have a lot of new or insightful thoughts to report today, but let's try another quick summary. Werleigh began with a historical overview of Haiti, tracing developments from the Spanish conquest through French colonization, the slave revolt, and US occupation. In Haiti's first constitution, Dessalines abolished foreign ownership of land but in the twentieth century the US reversed that legislation as it sought to impose a capitalist mode of production on the country. Subsequently, Haiti has been caught between two economic systems: an antiquated, rural, feudalism based on the French landholding system, and an urban, capitalist, formal system emerging out of the US occupation of the country. Both lead to the impoverishment of Haiti and the development of an economic system that runs against the interests of the vast majority of the population.

Werleigh proceeded to describe the emergence of a new bourgeois capitalist class in the twentieth century based around middle eastern merchant immigrants. This class is colloquially referred to by the initials of three of the ten leading families: Brandt, Accra, Mevs or "BAM," a creole word that means "give me." They came to monopolize much of the economy production of the country: industry, trade, banking, etc., while excluding the ability of others to participate.

We then took testimony from a series of groups, beginning with Favilek, a women's victim group that supported those who suffered sexual and other types of violence in the 1991 and 2004 coups. They said that they are tired of talking because they have talked to the government, human rights organizations, and other groups that make lots of promises but never follow through. The reality is nothing ever changes.

Next was ANAMDECH, an association of street vendors founded in 1997. They support people who do not have the resources to start a formal business. Among their work is a defense of human rights. They related the story of the murder of a UN soldier in civilian clothes in an apparent robbery on April 12, 2008. The UN responded by attacking and burning merchants, many of whom lost everything. Because they had bought their merchandize with high interest loans they were destroyed, leading to protests for reparations. They have complained to human rights groups, the UN, US, etc., but no one has responded. 268 vendors were affected, including 2 who were killed. Attacks on informal vendors remain an ongoing problem.

The Center for the Defense of Human Rights (CDDH) made two main demands: that the government follow through with the agreement to help victims of the 1991 coup, and that they establish a new truth and justice committee to look at abuses in the aftermath of the 2004 coup. Many groups also repeated the demand for the return of Aristide, arguing that it was illegal to keep anyone out of the country by force. The CDDH said that beginning on January 15, 2010 they will launch a new campaign to force this issue with the government. Unless he is brought back, everything will be blocked. Another activist emphasized that they want a popular government who cares for people, and Aristide has been the only politician who has cared for marginalized people. They are not just pro-Aristide, one person emphasized, but also pro-democracy.

Representatives of other groups repeated similar stories of a lack of respect for human rights in Haiti, and how the UN and the Preval government have not done enough protect peoples' rights or improve the situation. Why should people in the US and elsewhere have human rights, but not those in Haiti? They called on us to send a message to Obama that Preval should be judged on these charges. He should be forced to follow through on his promises.

Similarly, a common complaint was the exclusion of Lavalas from the upcoming February congressional elections. The CDDH placed a rhetorical question for Obama how he would react if it were the Democrats that were excluded from contesting an election in the US, and only the Republicans were allowed to run. The US is supporting a real mess in the coming elections, and our message to Obama should be to stop them.

Others shared a common misconception that their situation would improve with the election of Obama in the United States. Unfortunately, he has continued the politics of exclusion that hinders Haitian development. This is a historical problem, tracing back to the US refusal to recognize a Black republic in Haiti, the second independent country in the Americas. A free Black country would set the wrong example for slaves in the US, as well as neighboring Caribbean islands. Both France and the United States deliberately sent the message to other countries that they do not want to be like Haiti, that a revolution is a very, very bad idea. While Haiti has helped many other countries, including Simon Bolivar with the independence of South America, those gestures have rarely been reciprocated.

Several people emphasized that while they embrace people from the United States and Canada, they remain adamantly opposed to those governmental policies. Haiti needs cooperation with other countries including the US, but this must be based on a relationship of respect. They called for a different kind of solidarity. They hoped that our visit would help people understand what Haiti needs, and this includes a voice for the marginalized and the participation of Lavalas in the upcoming election.

We also talked to several labor leaders who related stories of being fired from their jobs and the government not following through with promises of unemployment aid. A particular problem was with the public telecom company that was sold to a Vietnamese company at a huge bargain. Typical neoliberal polices of fire sales of public resources continues under the Preval government.

Rural groups talked about the undermining of the agricultural economy that leads to urban migration in search of better living, with the associated problems of growing cities. The situation of human rights violations in rural areas is often worse because people do not have the resources to protect themselves.

Another group described delays in court hearings for detainees in the judicial system, and the terrible overcrowding conditions in Haitian prisons. Prisoners suffer from torture, bad food and water, and a lack of families who could help them.

Common themes that emerged throughout the day were calls for a stop to the oppression, and that even while the majority suffers they never give up on their struggles.

Our long day ended with a brief conversation with Petion Rospide, a former political prisoner, and more thoughts from the journalist Yves Pierre-Louis who talked to us yesterday. I turned the video camera back on, and in addition to my audio recordings (which I'm slowly uploading to my website, hindered only by a slow internet connection) and taking more pictures I didn't manage to take any notes on their talks to transcribe into this blog post. But I think I did get some good audio that I can use for a report on WORT's Third World View.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


We spent the entire day today at the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (the Bureau of International Advocates, a lawyers group linked with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti) gathering testimonies from a variety of people from social movement organizations, and we will return tomorrow for more. The testimonies ranged between moving, fascinating, informative, repetitive, and long-winded. Here are a couple main themes that emerged:

Most of the people we have talked to emphasize the importance of the return of Aristide to Haiti. Popular movement activists emphasize that under his government they had hope for better education and health care, and all of that is gone under the current government. Several people mentioned that aid that comes into the country never seems to trickle down to the people who need it and could use it. Aristide was the only person who cared about people. The opposition was not so much against Aristide as against the huge majority of people he represented. If the international community cared about Haiti, they would send Aristide back. The return of Aristide would change the lives of people, and he does not only have to be president to play that role.

Many people from popular movements are very critical of the UN occupation of Haiti since 2004, blaming them for human rights abuses including shooting civilians and sexually abusing young girls. A journalist from the newspaper Haiti Liberte (Haiti Liberty) complained that the UN mission only protects the interests of the wealthy while terrorizing the poor. Complicating the problem is the co-opted judicial system which holds dissidents in long detentions without a hearing as an excuse to keep them in jail. One person asked whether the UN mission was about peace or fear.

The role of Brazil in the UN mission indicates that president Lula da Silva appears to be ok with this pattern of human rights abuses. For these activists, it challenges a perception that he is of the left, but rather they have come to see him as fundamentally reactionary. His government is different from those of Evo Morales in Bolivia, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, or Fidel Castro in Cuba who govern for the people based on the ideals of freedom and liberty for Latin America. Rather, Brazil's role in Haiti is motivated by powerful economic interests as they try to expand into new markets and solidify their role as the leading economic player in Latin America. Brazil, the journalist emphasized, is following the US, France, and Canada in becoming a new imperial power that forces their agenda on smaller countries.

Representatives from peasant groups described a situation of little agricultural technology and less government support for that sector even though Haiti remains a largely rural society. The agricultural economy is further undermined when aid agencies import cheap food for distribution. Often farmers will harvest fruit trees for charcoal to meet their immediate and urgent economic needs rather than allowing them to mature for their longer term food production. Such economic crises leads to deforestation, further ecological degradation, an inability for Haiti to feed itself, rural-urban migration, and increased levels of poverty and oppression.

Both peasant and labor groups emphasized that globalization creates conditions that makes it difficult to fight for better wages and living conditions. Private companies have cracked down on unions with persecutions and firings. Others have tried to co-opt unions into defending corporate interests. Sometimes this takes the form of drawing previous union activists into the government as a way to undermine their labor activism. Other times owners buy out labor leaders. As a result, since 2007 the Central of Haitian Workers (CTH) is no longer working on behalf of the workers. In fact, the UN occupation force cooperates with the bosses in undermining worker interests. A result is a decline in worker wages.

Informal market vendors blamed the current Preval government for burning down 30-40 market stalls. In the meantime, their operating costs have risen dramatically. The vendors have no place to complain, and the government does not provide help. Rather, the government implements policies that only benefit the interests of large corporations and their distribution networks. Neoliberal policies and privatization schemes leads to more suffering for marginalized people.

Several speakers repeatedly returned to the theme of while they are in favor of democratic elections, the process that is in place for February 28 is more of a selection rather than an election. They are against such "selections." Preval does not remember who put him in power, and has taken a strong stance against the electoral interests of popular movements. Allowing these elections to proceed forward in this manner will only prove to advance Preval's neoliberal agenda. Many activists are calling for a boycott of the election because they have not been included as part of the process. One activist asked us to tell the international community to stop the election because it will not help the Haitian people. Preval is once again establishing a system of slavery in Haiti.

One activist cautioned that Haiti was headed toward a bloodbath worse than what happened in the aftermath of the 2004 coup. Popular movements are not with the current government, and their level of frustration is rising. Another activist noted that his brother was killed just 2 days before the last election, leaving his 10 children in his care. He does not have the resources to care for the children, and is worried that he could also be a target of political violence in this election.

The final speaker concluded that it was important for us to come and listen to the stories of the poor in Haiti so that Obama can hear their stories.

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.

Monday, December 28, 2009


I arrived in Port-au-Prince this afternoon on time after almost missing my connection in O'Hare because American Airlines can never seem to run the flight from Madison on time. I'm at the front of the plane on the flight from Miami, and I zip through immigration and customs at Port-au-Prince and am out of the airport before the people from Matthew 25 arrive to pick me up. A redcap has a Matthew 25 badge and calls a car that just pulls up to tell him that I'm here. I expect a Sister to pick me up, but instead a man is driving the car. We take off on the airport road but it is blocked with heavy traffic, so we turn down very bumpy back streets. I wonder if this is an elaborate rouse to kidnap, rob, and kill me. How hard would it be to print up a badge and call someone who pretends to be from the place where I am staying? They would run scams like that in Africa; would that do that in Haiti? But Lonely Planet doesn't mention these types of scams. Am I too naive and trusting, or too skeptical and cynical about people's intentions?

Arriving in Haiti feels like I'm back in Ghana, except that Brazilian soldiers from the UN peacekeeper mission are crawling all over the airport. Going from Ghana's hot, humid tropical weather to Wisconsin's freezing cold winter, and back to Haiti's hot, humid tropical summer is a nasty shock to my system.

With my arrival in Haiti, I now have only one country in Latin America left to visit: the Dominican Republic, on the other side of this island of Hispaniola. I hope to visit at some point, but not this trip. And with that introduction and my arrival our delegation is complete and it's time to get to work! Tomorrow we're going to Cite Soleil to investigate reports of a UN peacekeeper mission massacre.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Setting up the blog

In all of my travels in Latin America, only two countries remain that I have not visited: Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Years ago my cousin Paul urged me to visit Haiti as it provides a very different face for Latin America. As I slowly began to finish my check list of Latin American countries, I became more and more interested in visiting the country. In my teaching, I grew increasingly fascinated with the history of the Haitian slave revolt and its aftermath.

For a while, political unrest made visits to the country a risky endeavor. As things calmed down, first Wiren and then Cheryl traveled to the island--but neither took me with them. I began to look for a time and a way to travel myself.

Coming less than two week after my return from a semester in Ghana, visiting Haiti will come at both a good time and a bad time. Such quick turn arounds can be exhausting, and not leaving proper time to process one experience before launching on another can diminish the value of both.

On the other hand, living in Africa has heightened my interest in visiting the most African of the American republics. While in Ghana, I have reflected on the parallels with Ecuador, and I am curious what those with Haiti will be like. Haiti ranks 149 in the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Human Development Index (HDI), the lowest of the American republics but at 152 Ghana is still a couple places lower. On the other hand, Ghana has a relatively good Gini coefficient of .43, in the same range as the United States and Venezuela (but well below Denmark and Norway), whereas Haiti is the most unequal country in the Americas with a Gini coefficient of .60.

What is the legacy of French rule, a successful revolution, an attempt to rebuild the country in the face of overwhelming international isolation, and the legacy of authoritarian and exclusionary ruling structures? What is the best role that solidarity movements can play in the face of Haiti's complex recent political history? What can we learn from this most unique of countries? These are the types of questions with which I travel, and the types of things I hope to learn.

And with this trip, only the other half of Hispaniola, where European colonization began, remains on my check off list.

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