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  Number 354 | Enero 2011
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Haiti

Stop Playing with Haiti

Ricardo Seitenfus, the OAS Mission representative in Haiti, was interviewed in Switzerland by Arnaud Robert. Iin late December last year, the anniversary of the earthquake that devastated Haiti, followed by hurricanes, a cholera epidemic, fraudulent elections and even the return of the dictator, Jean Claude Duvalier.

Ricardo Seitenfus

10,000 UN Blue Berets in Haiti:
A good thing?

The UN framework’s dispute prevention system isn’t adaptable to the Haitian situation. Haiti isn’t an international threat. We’re not in a civil war situation. Haiti isn’t Iraq or Afghanistan. Nonetheless, after President Aristide left in 2004, the UN Security Council, lacking an alternative, promoted the presence of Blue Berets in the country. MINUSTAH, the UN Mission, has been in Haiti since 1990.

After Jean Claude Duvalier fled in 1986, Haiti has been experiencing what I call low-intensity conflict. We’re confronted with struggles for power by political actors who don’t respect the democratic game. In addition, it seems to me that on the international stage Haiti is essentially paying for its proximity to the United States. Haiti has been the object of negative attention by the international system. The UN has tried to freeze power and turn Haitians into prisoners on their own island. The anguish of the boat people who emigrate vividly expresses the result of the international community’s presence in Haiti. They want Haiti to stay isolated at whatever cost.

The presence of foreign troops and dictators has alternated in Haiti for 200 years. Force, never dialogue, is what defines international relations with Haiti. On the world stage Haiti’s original sin was its liberation. In 1804 Haitians achieved the unacceptable, a crime of high treason in the world at that time, when racist, slave-holding colonial powers of the West based their wealth on the exploited riches of conquered lands. Haiti’s revolutionary model scared those great powers. The US didn’t recognize Haiti’s independence until 1865. And France demanded an enormous sum of money as payment in exchange for acceptance of its former colony’s liberation.

Thus, Haitian independence was compromised and the country’s development obstructed from the outset. The world has never known how to treat Haiti and ends up ignoring it. The international community has isolated Haiti for 200 years. Today, the UN is blindly applying Chapter 7 of its Charter and deploying troops to impose a peace operation. But this doesn’t resolve anything; it only makes it worse. The idea is to turn Haiti into a capitalist country, an export platform for US markets. It’s absurd. Haiti should return to what it is, essentially an agricultural country still steeped in traditional ways of life. Haiti is frequently seen as a violent country, but the reality is that the level of violence in the country is less than in other Latin American countries. And there are Haitian societal norms that have succeeded in stopping the violence from spreading out of control.

A part of Haiti is modern, urban and oriented towards the outside world. An estimated 4 million Haitians live outside the country. Haiti is open to the world and doesn’t want to return to the agrarian society of the 16th century, but it also doesn’t want to live under international influence, with the universal charity of NGOs [nongovernmental organizations]. More than 90% of the education and health systems are now in private hands. The country doesn’t have the public resources to even minimally function as a State. The UN is failing given the country’s cultural characteristics. Reducing Haiti’s problems to a peace operation is to ignore the real challenges. The problem is socioeconomic. When the unemployment rate reaches 80% it’s intolerable. Deploying a stabilization mission to the country is absurd: there’s nothing to stabilize because everything’s still to be built.

One of the most aided countries:
Why the deterioration for 25 years?

Emergency aid is effective. But when emergency aid becomes structural, when it replaces all the State’s tasks, it leads to collective de-responsibility. If there’s one proof in the world of the failure of international aid, it’s Haiti. The country has become a Meca. The January 12 earthquake followed by the cholera epidemic has only accentuated this phenomenon. The international community has the feeling that each day it must redo what it did the day before. The fatigue Haiti provokes is beginning to predominate, and this tiny nation would seem to be duty-bound to surprise the world’s conscience with increasingly more enormous catastrophes. I had hoped that with the pain and anguish of January 12 the world would grasp that it had been wrong about Haiti. Unfortunately, it has only buttressed the same policies and, instead of doing an analysis, even more soldiers have been sent in. Roads need to be built and reservoirs reconstructed, and the state apparatus and the judicial system must be attended to, but the UN says it has no mandate to do anything about these things. Its mandate in Haiti is only to maintain the peace of the cemeteries.

Since the earthquake, the presence of international NGOs has become an unmanageable crossroads, a necessary stop for NGOs around the world. I would say even worse, it has become a training ground for professionals. The age of the volunteers that arrived after the quake was very young. They come to Haiti with no experience. And I can attest that Haiti isn’t for amateurs or apprentices. Because of the massive recruitment of international volunteers since January 12, the professional quality of those who arrive has gone way down. There’s a harmful or perverse relationship between the strength of the NGOs and the fragility of the Haitian state. Some NGOs exist only at the expense of Haiti’s ills.

International NGOs have made mistakes. I’ll cite a few. Importing food for those affected by the disaster has worsened Haiti’s already problematic agricultural situation. The country offers an open field to all humanitarian experiences but it’s unacceptable to look at Haiti as a laboratory from a moral standpoint. Haiti’s reconstruction and the promise of US$11 billion for this reconstruction sparked many people’s greed and a great number of people come not to support Haiti but to do business. For me as a US citizen, this is an embarrassment that offends our conscience. Another sad fact is that of the over 500 Haitians trained as doctors by Cuba, more than half don’t work in Haiti today but in the US, Canada and France. The Cuban revolution has ended up financing human resources that are working in capitalist countries.

The periphery of the world or a
concentration of today’s world?

Haiti concentrates our dramas and the failures of international solidarity. We’re not up to the challenge. The press from all around the world comes to Haiti and describes the chaos and public opinion immediately reacts by feeling that Haiti is one of the worst countries in the world. But one should look more closely at Haitian culture and go further into the interior of this country.

There are too many doctors for each sick person and the majority of the doctors are only thinking about their pocketbooks. Haiti needs anthropologists, sociologists, historians, political analysts and even theologians. Haiti is too complex for people in a hurry and the volunteers are always speedy, in a hurry. No one takes the time or has the desire to try to learn about what I would call the Haitian soul. Haitians understand this very well and therefore consider the international community to be a cash cow. They want to benefit from our presence and do it with great skill. If Haitians only look to us for the money we provide, it’s because that’s how we’ve presented ourselves to them.

In two months I’ll complete my two-year mission in Haiti. To stay in Haiti and not be shattered by what I see, I’ve had to create certain psychological defenses. Speaking the way I do means I’d like to be an independent voice, despite the weight of the organization I represent. I’m doing it because I want to express my deepest doubts and tell the world this must stop. It’s time to stop playing with Haiti.

On January 12, I realized there’s an extraordinary potential for solidarity in the world. However, I can’t nor do I want to forget that in the first days after the earthquake it was the Haitians, on their own, with their bare hands, who fought to save their neighbors. That compassion was very important in the midst of a major emergency. But charity can’t be the driving force behind international relations. The motive that must rule in these relationships is autonomy, sovereignty, fair trade and respect for others.

Solutions?

We have to offer Haiti export opportunities while protecting family farming, which is essential for the country. Haiti is an as-yet unexplored Caribbean paradise. It has 1,700 kilometers of virgin coast. We should favor cultural tourism and avoid paving the road to Haiti’s “El Dorado” with mass tourism. For a long time now—too much time—the lessons we’ve given Haiti have been ineffective. Accompanying and rebuilding such a valuable society as Haiti’s will be one of the last great human adventures.

Two hundred years ago Haiti illuminated the history of humanity and human rights. We must now give Haitians the opportunity to confirm that original vision of theirs to us.

Roberto Seitenfus, Special Representative of the OAS Secretary General, Chair of the OAS Office in Haiti and author of several books of historical analysis on the country, was recalled 24 hours after publication of this interview to explain his statements. He was reportedly first told to “take a vacation,” which meant he would not be in Haiti for the crisis following the disputed November 28 presidential election, then was abruptly dismissed on Christmas Day.

The original French text of this interview published in the Swiss daily Le temps on December 20, was translated into Spanish by Father Julin, a tireless worker for the rights of the Haitian people. It was then retranslated into English by the envío translation team.

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