Surviving Day to Day in Haiti
American Airlines Flight 268 picks up speed for takeoff from Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Sitting behind me, two young Canadian soldiers from the United Nations peacekeeping force head home to Alberta on leave. "Can't believe I'm gonna see this island shrink in my face. Came in August, four fucking months." One notices a peasant in a straw hat working in a field next to the airport: "See that guy? He's carrying something, and he looks fucking tired." CLUBS Walking in central Port-au-Prince, I notice demonstrators at the entrance to the Ministry of the Economy and go in to investigate. About 75 ragged people are shouting angrily. I pull out my camera and snap a picture. The instant the flash goes off, the group wheels around and surrounds me, asking in Creole who the hell I am. I'm a journalist, I reply in French. Why are they demonstrating? They say they're unemployed and trying to get benefits; they can't feed their children.Just then the vanguard of a much larger crowd bursts in the door chanting and waving leafy branches, symbol of the Lavalas, the social movement of Haiti's poor. A few men with wooden clubs whale on the stone pillars and wrought-iron gates of the Ministry in a fury, like Parisians storming the Bastille.Then they notice me and move toward me, pounding their clubs on the floor. feeling like Louis XVI, I duck behind a pillar with a couple of Haitians, who wave their hands and yell, "Li se journaliste!" A large melon flies past us and shatters. Frenzied men batter the pillar we're cornered behind. finally the crowd around the door ebbs, and my volunteer bodyguards pull me out into the street.On the edges of the crowd, I talk to some demonstrators. The larger group is made up of public employees who say they haven't been paid for three months. "The government is full of macoutes [henchmen of the departed dictatorship]," they say. "President Aristide should fire them. They owe us the money, we know they have it. We can't live like this." When a blue pickup truck full of uniforms and rifles pushes through the crowd, a demonstrator reassures me that the new police don't fire on demonstrators any more like the Army did.Later, the Ministry's budget director tells me the demonstrators were confused. Unemployment payments come from a different ministry, and the public employees work for the city, so both groups came to the wrong office. "I don't hire macoutes, I hire competent people who are willing to work. These demonstrators have problems, I understand that, but they need to look elsewhere for solutions."GASHES We all have problems: Haiti in December 1995 has gaping, putrescent gashes. Before the illegitimate government of General Raul Cedras was removed by U.S. forces in October 1994, its members ripped out the plumbing from the main government building -- a gesture that might play well in Congress. In three years, the Cedras regime killed more than 4,000 Haitians and exiled hundreds of thousands.After three years of coup d'etat, an infrastructure-eating virus appears to have trashed the water, electric, phone, education, and health-care systems. Garbage is piled in big mounds in the streets of Port-au-Prince, constipating traffic and menacing public health.The most profitable colony in the world in 1789, Haiti is now the poorest country in the hemisphere. Its citizens can expect to live 45 years, about 30 years less than Americans. Only one in four can read and write. The average individual income is $230 a year, roughly a week's pay at U.S. minimum wage. Sixty-six percent of total income goes to the four percent of Haitians at the top of the heap, while only 20 percent of total income goes to the 80 percent at the bottom.Unemployment is around 70 percent. This doesn't mean that people don't work: rather, old and young hit the streets selling Chiclets or shining shoes, or try to scratch out a living from tiny plots of exhausted soil.BULLETS Still some things have improved since President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's return. His most popular act -- in defiance of Washington's protests -- has been to abolish the 7,000-man Forces Armees d'Haiti [FAd'H], the gangbangers and drug smugglers that impersonated an army and swallowed half the country's budget. Aristide turned the old Army headquarters over to the Ministry of Women's Affairs.Since 19 years of occupation by U.S. Marines ended in 1934, FAd'H has been supplied and trained by the United States. Paramilitary death squads, too, have been funded and used by the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency, according to reports in the U.S. media. The Clinton administration has continued to protect the hit men, refusing to return confiscated Haitian documents without deleting the names of American agents, and recruiting new CIA agents within the reformed police force."Before, these strong men, their word was the law," says Nestor, a taxi driver. "Now you can speak freely. The macoutes are still all around with big guns, but for now they're laying low." Many sources echo this assessment, and macoutes still surface periodically to assassinate lawmakers and officials close to Aristide.Although most of the 6,000 United Nations peacekeepers, including all U.S. forces, will withdraw at the end of February, Haiti and U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali have requested that around 2,000 troops remain another six months. The government is trying to rapidly build the new National Police into a force strong enough to keep the macoutes at bay, but not so strong as to threaten democracy again.Haitian human rights groups have criticized the U.S. and the U.N. for failing to completely dismantle the terror networks, and fear their resurgence after the peacekeepers leave. A Truth Commission established to bring the killers to justice is laboring in the smoking ruins of the legal system.Even if the death squads were disarmed, though, economic power would still remain concentrated in a few wealthy families. Some of these families were implicated in funding the 1991 coup, and they've never been genteel about defending their privileges.BALLOTS The elections of 1995 also opened doors for Haitians. On December 17, Lavalas party candidate Rene Preval, who was endorsed by Aristide, won the presidency by 88 percent in a clean and peaceful vote.But turnout was only 28 percent. Many abstained because they wanted Aristide to serve out his three years robbed by the coup. Others felt discouraged by the lack of improvement in their lives since the Lavalas coalition won huge majorities in Parliament last summer.As Aristide's prime minister before the coup, Preval's "radical tone" made Washington nervous, according to the Haitian paper Le Nouvelliste. But even the Wall Street Journal credits the Belgian-trained agronomist with a reputation for honesty. His transition team was headed by the leader of Haiti's most important peasant organization.Lavalas, literally "landslide" in Creole, suggests a purifying flood washing away the old, corrupt order. At the movement's heart are neighborhood, peasant, and church groups, the real schools of democracy for poor Haitians. But divisions are surfacing. Some coalition members criticize Aristide's government for making too many concessions to moneyed interests, while others support compromise to rebuild the country.For the three-quarters of Haitians who live in the countryside, though, perhaps the most meaningful political change occurred last summer with the first democratic election of mayors and municipal councils. Before, rural districts had been ruled by strong-men appointed by the military. Lavalas won over two-thirds of the mayoral races.GOURDES Suzy Castor, director of a think tank connected with popular organizations in Haiti, believes the new municipal governments are laying foundations for participation and development. "After 10 years of struggling, Haitians want to feel a change in their daily lives. The woman who spent eight hours a day going to get water, and now she can get it from a tap right by her house-that's a real change."With the FAd'H dismantled and elections held, economic development has eclipsed politics as the critical path. Further advances for democracy will require raising the standards of living and education of the majority of Haitians. Until they can read and write and don't have to struggle to survive, too many will remain excluded from public life.Foreign aid is necessary, says Castor, but not sufficient. "First, the community must participate, people must feel involved, and projects must meet their real needs. Second, we need a national project that takes the long view." Years of dictatorship have molded everyone's way of thinking. "We need to constantly explain where we're going if we are to develop a new mentality."The mentality of the United States and international financial institutions must change too, she says. "Change in Haiti is in the interests of the United States. In the post-Cold War period, the United States needs to stop seeing all popular movements as plots against its national security. And the International Monetary Fund must recognize that its actions sometimes impose a burden that people just can't bear."Nevertheless, some see investment opportunities. A conservative French businessman, chatting over a hotel breakfast, is bullish on Haiti: "Everything needs to be rebuilt." After a few years of import-export in Micronesia, he's scouting the French-speaking world for greener pastures. "Clinton needs Aristide's return as a foreign policy victory for the November elections, so he'll prop up the gourde [the Haitian currency] at least through November." BUCKS While the people who form the base of the Lavalas party try to improve their lives, international donors demand fiscal austerity. In the wake of the coup's destruction, foreign aid has risen from 45 percent to close to 60 percent of Haiti's budget.U.S. assistance, often to groups close to the former dictatorship, has served mainly to make the cheapest labor pool in the hemisphere more pliable and accessible. U.S. Agency for International Development [USAID] head Brian Atwood recently told the Senate that 60 percent of the agency's funds go directly to U.S. businesses. In 1991, according to law student Jean-Role Jean-Louis, "USAID spent millions and millions of dollars to stop Aristide's proposal to increase the minimum wage" from two to four dollars a day. Egged on by Aristide's enemies in the CIA and Congress, the Clinton administration continues to withhold some aid to twist his arm. "Foreign aid tells us what we have to do," says Harry Nicolas, an organizer with peasant groups. "It puts us in a place where we have to say, 'Thank you, foreigners, thank you.' It doesn't listen to people's needs. It's like the proverb: I'm making a rope and I give you the other end to hold. But while I'm twisting it, you're untwisting it." Development, he says, should focus on basics: "First, we need to take care of agricultural production, land issues, and irrigation and roads. We need to pick up all the trash out there and use it to make bio-gas for cooking."The U.S., the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund [IMF] are pressuring Haiti to sell off nine government-owned firms, including the telephone and electric companies, as part of a Structural Adjustment Plan -- a market-flavored recipe for downsizing governments. Privatization touches a raw nerve for many Haitians. Supporters say it is a necessary price to pay for international funding and a way to modernize dysfunctional sectors of the economy. Opponents believe it will increase the power of the elites and the suffering of the poor.In 1993, wealthy Aristide backer Antoine Izmery told a newspaper: "This Mafioso private sector has robbed the Haitian people through smuggling, drug-dealing, government subsidies, non-payment of their taxes...so that now they have the capital to buy up the state industries with the money they have stolen." Izmery was assassinated by paramilitaries later that year.In a plan presented last January to international donors, the Aristide government said that privatization should democratize property, not concentrate it further. It emphasized that any plan would have to be publicly debated. Then last fall, Aristide halted bidding on a state-owned flour mill and cement plant, and refused to sign an agreement with the World Bank and IMF. Over $100 million in aid still hangs in the balance. Incoming President Preval recently said he would not bow to "ultra-liberal" demands on privatization. But the closed-down cement and flour plants are draining government funds. "Wouldn't it be better to look for private capital," he said, "instead of using state money which could serve for something else?"The pressures are as inexorable as gravity. In this Ptolemaic economic universe, Haiti is an investors' paradise of light-assembly plants revolving around the United States. It exports agricultural products for the whims of the North, but imports its basic food needs. As investment flows to the cheapest wages, Northern workers share the insecurity.Under this system, poor nation-states are only theoretically sovereign. They become an echo of the borlottes, the brightly painted lottery booths along the streets of Port-au-Prince, whose winning numbers come mainly from the New York State Lottery. GRASSROOTS Although privatization would favor the wealthy, Haiti does need structural change, says economist George Werleigh, advisor to the government and husband of outgoing Prime Minister Claudette Werleigh. "After three years of the putsch, the elite has milked the cow to the bone and there are no financial resources left in Haiti to impulse development." He looks to overseas Haitians and civil society in North America and Europe as funding sources. Public spending, Werleigh believes, should be channeled mainly into agrarian reform that promotes small-scale farming, processing, and marketing, and provides justice in land disputes. "The land worker should be the land owner," he says.Land reform could also help reverse Haiti's severe deforestation. Cheap imported grain and expensive inputs and loans bankrupt small farmers. They cut down trees to sell for fuel, and the exposed topsoil washes down into the rivers, ruining fisheries. After decades of this cycle, people still work 43 percent of the land, but only 11 percent is technically arable.In the rice-growing Artibonite Valley, peasant cooperatives are pooling resources to reforest bare hillsides and work the land more efficiently. They also carry out potable water projects and train members in health care. With a small loan from a non-profit development bank, one group recently built a silo to store their grain.Members have died in conflicts with big landowners, organizers say, but local courts are still dominated by military-appointed judges. The local water authority is also corrupt, so they are raising their own money for irrigation pumps.Genuine development also percolates through slum-dwellers' associations in Port-au-Prince's bidonvilles, warrens of burnt-out cars, open sewers, and malnourished children. Here, ti kominote legliz, Christian communities which practice liberation theology, are "trying to find a way to live like humans in this country," as one member put it. "Sharing food is a kind of communion."The groups sponsor an artists' cooperative and a sewing center. "Work means freedom and respect," says another member. "If we could work, we could have a place to live, we could eat." In one area, community pressure has helped win a new water tower and sewers.WOMEN Haiti has a high percentage of women who are heads of households, says Suzy Castor. Many are market women, she says, who "are more open to modernizing than men and have more cash flow, which gives them more freedom than in many societies."Despite a typically hard life, Immacula Alvares has become a force in her community outside Port-au-Prince. After raising seven children with her late husband, she sewed baseballs for 13 years and cleaned houses for five. finally, with a couple of dollars loaned by a friend, she started a small business selling bread. Then, with the help of an American ex-priest, she turned her home into a non-profit health clinic for her neighborhood."Here, if you're poor, you have to pay the doctor and pay for medicine, or they won't treat you," she says. The clinic, with supplies and sometimes volunteers from North America, offers medical and dental care. No one is turned away."There are so many things that need to be done here," says Alvares. "The roads are so rocky and bumpy. And there are so many people without work. They should be put to work fixing the roads. And so much garbage. It clogs the gutters, and then when it rains the water overflows and ruins the road. People have to take responsibility for cleaning up."These cooperative efforts draw on the African tradition of konbit -- unpaid communal work -- which has survived in the countryside. George Werleigh traces its lineage back to the marrons, slaves who escaped into the mountains. They never internalized slavery or recognized the French slaveholders' legitimacy, he says. Rather than seeking to dominate the universe, the African world-view "sees ourselves as a force among forces" seeking harmony. HOOPS In Port-au-Prince, little boys still play with hoops made from bicycle rims. The boys carry them with a coat-hanger wire hooked at one end. They start the hoop rolling and whip it along with the hooked wire. The boys roll their hoops over rocks and ruts, but the hoops don't fall down. At least I didn't see them fall. They lash them along with finesse at full gallop, faces flat with concentration, and boys and hoops become mythical creatures with one wheel and two legs, half animal, half vehicle. Port-au-Prince is short on smooth surfaces, but the hoop-boys glide over decades of erosion and neglect on a cushion of insouciance. HANDS Nestor the taxi driver takes me to the airport on a new road that skirts the city to the north. We glide over smooth asphalt with shapely drainage, all done in the past year, he says. The road runs past Aristide's home-Nestor points out the gate. The hills on either side are bare."The city is packed, no more room. Now that the road is done they're going to have to build some new neighborhoods out here, some new businesses." From the air, Haiti's landscape looks so vulnerable: bony, convoluted mountains chipped away by ochre quarries, parting for a moment to reveal the luminous green rice paddies of the Artibonite, finally crumbling down in the north to white-sand beaches scalloped with clear turquoise. A piece of my heart stays with the Haitians working to reclaim this place for their own. In 1990, the U.S. Ambassador warned Aristide with a proverb, "Apre bal, tanbou lou -- After the dance, the drums are heavy." Aristide replied with another: "Men anpil, chay pa lou -- Many hands make the burden light."