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January 13, 2011

Haiti: Why nothing gets better

Eleanor Grant

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"Since 2004, the new colonists have painted the face of us who are Haitian with the mud of humiliation." - Jean-Bertrand Aristide, year-end letter to the Haitian people, Dec. 21 from exile in South Africa. The hearts of the world opened to Haiti a year ago this week, in the wake of the vast destruction and death and injury caused by the devastating earthquake. But today we are bewildered and angry to see that the rubble still isn't being removed and thousands are still living in crowded camps with only thin tarps over them and no possessions or basic safety.

Early in 2010 an Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission (IHRC) was established at the behest of the US State Department, to allocate the billions of dollars slowly coming in from donor governments.  Co-chaired by former US president Bill Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Marc Bellerive, this 26-member body has the outward appearance of equality. 

But the IHRC has been taking a lot of criticism lately for its foot-dragging and interference in Haitian affairs.  Its 12 Haitian members presented a letter to Clinton in December, complaining of being kept in the dark about projects the commission is asked to approve, and being expected to just rubber-stamp them. 

The Jamaican board member representing the Caribbean Community, PJ Patterson, also complained about “the lack of information being provided to IHRC members about projects, the submission and acceptance process, the general lack of visible progress, the continued existence of mountains of rubble deposited by the earthquake, the plight of the persons in tents, response to the outbreak of cholera and the general lack of urgency in addressing key issues,” according to the Jamaican Observer.

Haitian native Alex Dupuy, now a professor and writer in Connecticut, writes: So far, the IHRC has not done much. Less than 10 percent of the US$9 billion pledged by foreign donors has been delivered, though not all of that money has been spent. Other than rebuilding the international airport and clearing the principal urban arteries of rubble, no major infrastructure rebuilding—roads, ports, housing, communication—has begun. But of the approximately US$267 million doled out so far in more than 1,500 contracts, only 20 of those, worth $4.3 million, or $1.60 out of every $100, have gone to Haitian firms. The rest have gone to U.S. firms, with 23 percent going to two large U.S. firms in no-bid contracts.

And what of the thousands of NGOs that Canadians and others donated generously to so generously?  Dupuy explains that they are all operating independently of the Haitian government, providing piecemeal the services that should be public, such as water purification and health care. 

Could not some of the billions in government-to-government funds go to investments in these needed infrastructure projects?

Here are two examples of where those billions funneled through IHRC are going.

Kevin Edmonds of the North American Congress on Latin America writes: On September 20, Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Marc Bellerive, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation announced their partnership with the South Korean garment firm Sae-A Trading Company to establish an industrial park that will create 10,000 garment assembly jobs in Haiti.

Plans have already been made to build a large, low-wage industrial complex directly next to the displaced persons camp at Corail Cesselesse located just north of Port-au-Prince, with a population of 6,000 – where the construction of permanent homes has yet to take place. The camp will be the primary source of workers for these factories.

The minimum wage in Haiti is $3.09 per DAY.  The government tried to raise it to $5 per day back in 2009, but backed down when business groups called the move “dangerous”. 

All of this strongly suggests that the “temporary” camps are now seen as permanent housing for ultra-cheap labourers for these new maquiladoras.  The earthquake disaster is being taken as an “opportunity” to expand Haiti’s traditional role as sweatshop.

Meanwhile in April, Canada’s foreign minister Lawrence Cannon announced that Canada has committed $44 million to equipping police in Haiti.  During a brief visit to Haiti in May, he stated that the UN mission in Haiti had assigned Canada the “earthquake relief” task of providing security.  He announced that Canada will finance the building of a police station/jailhouse in Croix des Bouquets, and later in November the CBC reported that Canada will build a new national headquarters for the Haitian police.

Canada, according to a government web site, supports the UN “stabilization” force in Haiti, MINUSTAH, with $15 million in annual funding and the provision of Canadian police.  That police presence was recently increased from 90 to 134 Canadian officers.  MINUSTAH is hated by the Haitian people, especially since its violent incursions into Cite Soleil, a pro-Aristide poor section of Port-au-Prince, in 2005. 

Haiti Liberte reports that “UN officials have repeatedly rejected President Rene Preval’s pleas to turn MINUSTAH’s tanks into bulldozers” since the earthquake.  A leading Brazilian diplomat, Ricardo Seitenfus, was recently dismissed from his post as the Organization of American States (OAS) ambassador to Haiti, for saying, “When the level of unemployment is 80%, it is unbearable to deploy a stabilization mission.  There is nothing to stabilize and everything to build.  We are trying to turn Haiti into a capitalist country, an export platform for the US market.  It is absurd!”

Seitenfus also objected to the way the OAS is taking over the role of Haiti’s electoral commission, to impose the international community’s preferred outcome of November’s horribly flawed presidential election.

Just this week, an OAS team of “statistical experts” has concluded that the three front-running presidential candidates actually finished in a different order than the count in December suggested.  Remarkably they found that the pro-government candidate, Jude Celestin, was actually in third place, with 21.9% of the votes, compared to popular singer “Micky” Martelly’s 22.2%.  It would mean that Celestin would be dropped from the ballot in a run-off. 

This razor-thin difference in standing is based on a sample of only 17% of the votes cast.  President Preval is now under pressure to approve this result, which he perceives as contrary to his people’s best interest.  Does he really have the freedom to refuse?

These examples of events of the past tragic year in Haiti are just a snapshot from the long history of foreign interference that has characterized that country’s life ever since its successful slave revolt of 1804.

Can Haiti not do a better job of governing itself, the media pundits ask.  It has never had the chance to try.

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