Haitian teacher Camille Chambers was in Asturias, Spain, in May, to talk about what kind of solidarity the Haitian people need
to surmount the damage caused by the earthquake
that devastated their country on January 12.
These are some of the words and ideas
she shared with a moved and concerned audience .
We experienced a terrible earthquake on January 12. A seismic movement of that intensity normally produces 20-30,000 victims. But the situation in Haiti, with its history of colonialism and the destruction of the country’s social fabric caused by the numerous US invasions Haiti has suffered since 1915 resulted in the death of 250,000 people. The earthquake also left 300,000 injured, over 30,000 people with amputations and over a million orphans. Thousands of these orphaned children are being taken out of Haiti illegally, as people exploit this tragic situation.
Three days after the earthquake, certain military decisions were taken: everything was centralized in Port-au-Prince, ignoring the decentralization established in the 1987 Constitution; the State put itself under Pentagon orders; and, in alliance with the pro-Duvalier militias, repressive measures increased. An economic model based on the “everything for exportation” philosophy was rapidly imposed, which has involved the loss of 800,000 jobs. The “minimal State” that neoliberal policies have forced on Haiti for years left us headless when the earthquake hit and with no social policies.
Following the earthquake, the number of NGOs present in Haiti increased from 4,000 to 10,000, of which 1,000 were from the United States.
A lot of solidarity among usCommunity and autonomous solidarity measures arose immediately after the earthquake, particularly food distribution in the neighborhoods. This enabled many people to survive, independent of the foreign presence. That solidarity among the Haitian people must form the basis of our country’s reconstruction.
And we say this because most of the 9,000 foreign soldiers who arrived in Haiti in response to the earthquake did nothing. They didn’t move a finger to help people during the first days; they just patrolled the streets.
The reality is that 690,000 people fled Port-au-Prince after the earthquake. They were helped and fed only by their compatriots, the peasants in the countryside.
The people and governments of the Caribbean sent us efficient aid right away. We received aid from Cuba, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Barbados… We saw an impressive wave of world solidarity, including from the people of the United States. It is said that half of the US population contributed something to palliate our people’s pain, but did all of that aid channeled to improve the life of the Haitian population?
Why the military invasion?Twenty thousand US Marines arrived immediately after the earthquake in 126 ships deployed to our coastline by the United States. Why such a disproportionate response? And why only one hospital boat, which was totally insufficient for our needs? Why were there even nuclear arms on those boats? Why send the 82nd Air Transport Division, which was the one that invaded the Caribbean island of Grenada in 1983? That military presence blocked the arrival of other aid from France, Venezuela, Cuba, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries... We know that for every dollar contributed by the US population to support Haiti, US$0.43 financed this military deployment, this military invasion.
We also know that in many cases the aid sent to us helped those who sent it—sometimes even more than it helped us. For example, it was admitted that the Dominican Republic had an economic deficit, but there was unexpected economic growth during the first few months of the year thanks to the economic movement caused by the humanitarian crisis in its neighboring country of Haiti.
Aid that ruins usA great deal of aid went to the most visible camps of earthquake victims, ignoring other people and generating inequity. And although the earthquake didn’t affect agricultural production, there has been ill-willed aid that, rather than use local resources and buy local production, flooded the country with basic food products, which has been the ruin of many farmers.
Worse still, about 500 tons of transgenic seed is arriving from the powerful Monsanto Corporation, even though it is rejected by a defenseless population that feels impotent against this avalanche.
Hypocracy and promisesIn March the government presented a plan of action to the donor countries without consulting the population or the social organizations. That lessens the possibility that it will be successful. There have been promises to give the country US$9 billion. But such promises have been broken on other occasions, and in any event they don’t respond to the needs Haiti will have to face in the next ten years.
There’s been a wave of donor world conferences, but the results aren’t enough. Commitments made years before and even pending debts have been tallied as post-earthquake aid. As a result, France talks about $ 340 million, but is really only contributing $120 million; the United States announces $2.4 billion, but in reality has already spent a third of that amount on its military operations in our country following the earthquake. Meanwhile $1.4 million people are still living in the streets during the rainy season, waiting for hurricanes.
We want brigade aid:The international solidarity moves us. Haiti is a small country that has been isolated for a long time. The fact it has now returned to the interest of international public opinion is an opportunity for us to build real, permanent solidarity links that reach beyond the calls for immediate charity.
People to people solidarity
We’d like to form an international solidarity network along the same lines as the international brigades that helped Nicaragua during the eighties. We would like such brigades to help us not only in the reconstruction work, but also in getting out of our social crisis. We’re talking about people-to-people solidarity, not the kind of solidarity exploited by governments to dominate peoples.
We’re approaching Independence bicentenial time in Latin America. Haiti has been recognized as playing an essential and active role in support of Latin America’s independence struggles. Perhaps this symbolic commemoration will help us think about, invent and build real people-to-people mechanisms in response to the projects adopted in New York, which only involve prolonging the neoliberal structural adjustment model, installing new free trade zones with their sweatshop work and privatizing the few public companies still in state hands.
We don’t discard the idea of a wave of solidarity being generated in the world to push for cancellation of our foreign debt, which is an illegitimate, criminal debt. But we are also proposing a moratorium of three to five years on agreements adopted before the earthquake as well as changes to those agreements. For example, we have 400,000 cows in the country that could provide food to schools and public centers, but we have a prior agreement with the European Union that 50% of the milk we consume has to be from Europe.
Our proposal is to totally change the international cooperation paradigm. The UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti, which is a military mission, is a squandering of millions of dollars. For example, they anchored a luxury ship in Haitian waters to attend to their officials while our local police don’t even have the money to fill their patrol cars’ tanks with gas.
Our proposal vs. theirsOur proposal is a model that assumes a break with dependency and with the kind of State imposed on us. It’s a model that includes the needed land ownership reform and an urban reform that focuses investment on strategic sectors such as peasant agriculture and agro-transformation.
We have social forces, including women, peasants, youth and artists, that would mobilize to achieve this if the project is attractive. We propose convening an assembly of social movements, a Grassroots Assembly for Reconstruction.
In doing so we are confronting the Interim Committee for the Reconstruction of Haiti (CIRH), co-chaired by former US President Bill Clinton, now a UN special envoy, and Haiti’s Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive. The Haitian government has extended the state of emergency imposed after the earthquake for another 18 months, which stops us from questioning the reconstruction policies imposed by this committee, most of whose members and technicians are foreign.
To be part of the CIRH, you have to belong to an international finance organization and/or contribute the sum of US$100 million. This condition means, among other things, that Cuba, which had 800 of its doctors working here in difficult places before the earthquake hit, then increased the number to 1, 200, cannot be on the committee.
We don’t want more of the sameDespite all the difficulties, the foundations for that alternative project we all need so much could be born from the Haitian people who have organized themselves in response to the crisis and practiced solidarity in a truly moving way. Those people rejected the militarization and are shocked by so many rifles and so little food, medicine and clean water. We don’t want more of the same. We want something really alternative and from the grass roots.
Camille Chalmers is the director of PAPDA, a nonprofit umbrella group with no political affiliations founded in 1995 and made up of social movements and civil society organizations that work on public policies, providing training, critical analysis and alternative proposals. Its slogan is “yon iot ayiti posib” (another Haiti is possible). You can communicate with PAPDA / Camille Chalmers by telephone: (509) 3837 1899 / (509) 3461 1455, or by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org