By Michael Deibert*
Transmitted to AlterPresse on April 16, 2010
When US First Lady Michelle Obama paid a surprise visit to Haiti this week to survey reconstruction efforts after that country’s devastating January earthquake, she set foot in a nation that has been transformed as profoundly as at any time since its 1804 revolution defeated Napoleon’s army and abolished slavery.
In the tremor three months ago, Haiti’s Direction de la Protection Civile estimated that 222,517 people lost their lives, while at least 250,000 were injured. Of the nearly 1.2 million displaced persons, nearly 600,000 are thought to have migrated from the capital Port-au-Prince and its environs back to Haiti’s countryside. This reverse migration, after years of peasants flowing into the Haitian capital from desperately poor agricultural areas in search of jobs that did not await them, will likely have a significant affect on Haiti’s political and economic trajectory going forward.
Haiti’s peasantry, which makes up a majority of the country’s 9 million people, were suffering grievously even before the earthquake, the victims of both the short-sighted policies of the international community and the venality and brutality of Haiti’s homegrown political leaders. With a recent meeting on Haiti held at the United Nations concluding with nations and organizations pledging nearly $10 billion to Haiti, it is important that Haiti’s peasantry not be forgotten, and that the international community remember the ways in which it has failed them, and Haitians in general, in the past. It is a litany that would be written as farce had the results not been so tragic.
In the 1940s, the United States sponsored the Société Haitiano-Américaine de Dévelopment Agricole in an ill-fated, half-baked attempted to cultivate rubber in Haiti, an effort that ended up harming the very farmers it was designed to help.
Between 1980 and 1983, when tests showed nearly a quarter of Haiti’s pigs were infected with African Swine Fever, the U.S- Canadian funded Program for the Eradication of Porcine Swine Fever and Development of Pig-Raising destroyed 1.2 million Kreyol pigs, pigs that formed one of the backbones of the peasant economy. Of the replacement pigs that were delivered, many soon died, unable to adjust to the rough world the Kreyol swine had grown so accustomed to, and an already difficult rural economy suffered another blow.
Further undermining Haiti’s ability to feed itself, in typically duplicitous fashion then-Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, implementing an economic adjustment plan mandated by the International Monetary Fund and further turning the screws on a political bloc that he could never win over, cut tariffs on rice imports to the country from 35 percent to 3 percent in 1995. This further undermined the peasant economy despite the fact that Haiti for many years had produced low-cost, inexpensive rice for domestic consumption. After 1995, that is, after implementing the economic policies of the international community, it effectively lost the ability to do so.
Former President Bill Clinton, still deeply involved in Haiti, has since expressed regret for his role in this, of a piece with his regret for failing to lift a finger to stop Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, a “regret” that led him - at best - to turn a blind eye to vicious ethnic cleansing by Rwandan soldiers and Congolese rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo throughout the 1990s. But this day late, dollar short approach to international affairs will do little good if not followed up with concrete action.
The Haitian government’s Preliminary Damage and Needs Assessment, a document said to have been largely drafted by Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, was put forth in March and advocated an ambitious re-envisioning and decentralizing of Haiti, looking to “decongest,” rather than rebuild as before, the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area while advocating a “refounding” of the Haitian state.
In a country with a long history of an often violently abusive imperial presidency (a tradition that, despite his other faults, current President René Préval has not adhered to), decentralization may be an important tool to break the hold a traditionally corrupt executive branch and dysfunctional political class based in the capital exercise over the rest of the country, active as they have been in filtering out any money that may come into the country while granting precious little in return.
With the mass migration from Port-au-Prince back to Haiti’s countryside, it is essential than any rebuilding effort take into account, along with programs for Haiti’s urban centres, a sustained effort to aid Haiti’s peasantry, who have been in an economic tailspin for decades now and whose migration to Port-au-Prince, where they lived on top of one another in woefully substandard housing, at least in part led to the death toll in January’s earthquake being as high as it was.
Over the past 50 years, 90 percent of Haiti’s tree cover has been destroyed, with the resulting erosion destroying two-thirds of the country’s arable farmland. With little left to hold the topsoil when the rains fall - often torrentially after prolonged spells with no precipitation at all - they rush in torrents down the mountains, carving gullies and carrying crops and seeds along with them, sweeping vital minerals into the country’s rivers to be deposited, uselessly, in the sea. Storms that kill a handful of people in neighboring countries kill thousands when they reach Haiti because of this precise dynamic. I have stood many times with Haitian peasants under the unfurled Caribbean sky outside of villages with names like Fonds-Verettes, Papay and Maissade and listened to Haitian farmers, so powerless in the face of their own government and international interests, tell this sad tale.
But the Haitian peasantry do have their advocates. Grassroots peasant organizations such as the 200,000 member Mouvman Peyizan Nasyonal Kongrè Papay and Tèt Kole Ti Peyizan, the former led by 2005 Goldman Environmental Prize winner Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, have been advocating for decades for Haiti’s rural majority to be taken into account in the discussion of their fate by those politically powerful forces both inside and outside of Haiti.
The patience of Haitians - who have reacted to a terrible catastrophe with incredible dignity and restraint in the three months since the earthquake - is often remarked upon. But it is not, nor should it be be, perceived as endless. It was in Haiti’s countryside, among the peasantry, that leaders such as Charlemagne Péralte and Benoit Batraville led the strongest resistance to the 1915-1935 U.S. military occupation of Haiti and now, with the resources of rural families stretched to the breaking point by the influx of so many new mouths to feed, the international community must, at long last, take their needs into consideration among their glittering conferences and meetings.
Such an approach is not only the morally right thing to do, given the role the international community has had in helping to impoverish Haiti, but it is also the only way to guarantee long-term security and development, not only in Haiti but indeed across the island of Hispaniola as a whole.
* Michael Deibert is the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (Seven Stories Press) and a Visiting Fellow at the the Centre for Peace and Reconciliation Studies at Coventry University. His blog can be read at www.michaeldeibert.blogspot.com