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Solidarity After the Storm


While the extent of Hurricane Sandy’s damage in the U.S. and the Caribbean is still being assessed, what’s already clear is that across the map the recovery process will be long and require massive financial and human investments by both governments and non-governmental groups alike. Lessons learned from the earthquake recovery in Haiti, particularly regarding the importance of international solidarity and recovery based on the needs of those most directly impacted, are critical for us all to heed. Though Sandy did not even directly hit Haiti, at least 52 Haitians lost their lives in the storm. Haitian activist Patrick Elie told Democracy Now on October 29, given the vulnerability of Haiti’s environment, “roads have been destroyed. Whole villages have, for all intent and purposes, disappeared.”

Those who were still homeless from the January 2010 earthquake are among those hardest hit — again. Sandy’s rains flooded many camps, damaged makeshift structures and increased the risk of contracting cholera, underscoring the ever more urgent need to rethink the flawed recovery efforts in Haiti. As Elie went on to say, “[With regard to] the refugees, the people in the camps… what this government has done is cleared the camps that were the most visible…It was mostly a cosmetic affair.”

Real and lasting recovery cannot happen without genuine input from and accountability to those most affected.

The Power of People’s Movements

It was the Saturday evening before Sandy’s arrival in Haiti.  In a tent camp in Port-au-Prince, a group of homeless earthquake survivors were chanting “No land!  No house! No vote!” They had just finished viewing Dear Mandela, a documentary of the work of Abahlali BaseMjondolo –the largest movement of the poor to emerge in post-apartheid South Africa. The film’s audience was chanting the words an Abahlali activist and shackdweller, Mnikelo Ndabankulu, wrote on his ballot in South Africa’s 2009 elections during a scene in the documentary. Ndabankulu’s words resonated loudly with those living in Haiti’s tent camps, who had their own refrain in response to Haiti’s highly flawed elections in 2010-2011:  “We will not vote while living under tents.”  In both countries, poor peoples’ movements have emerged in response to their unfulfilled right to housing.  Last week these movements came together, putting their hope on international solidarity among those most affected rather than political leaders who have betrayed them or private relief organizations who have ignored their voices.

We traveled to Port-au-Prince with Ndabankulu, fellow Abahlali activist Zodwa

Nsibande, and the co-director of Dear Mandela, Dara Kell, to hold screenings of the film for

Haitian activists and residents of Haiti’s tent camps. Like the Haitian Constitution, South Africa’s post-apartheid Constitution enshrines the right to housing. However, despite Nelson Mandela’s promise of universal housing, the number of South African families living in shacks has doubled over the past 18 years.  Shackdwellers realized that they would have to lead the struggle for housing. Thus, Abahlali was born.

Displaced Haitians have also realized the same. Nearly 400,000 people still live in camps notorious for their unsafe, unsanitary conditions nearly three years after the earthquake hit Haiti, killing hundreds of thousands of people.  Many people have been made homeless anew through illegal evictions from even these “temporary” encampments. During the discussions after the film screenings, camp residents discussed their own burgeoning, collective struggle for housing rights.  In starting their movement, they explained that they are responding not only to government failures, but also to an entrenched and inherently problematic model of aid delivered by international NGOs.  Grassroots activist Jackson Doliscar, who works with the Housing Collective, a collective of Haitian organizations working together to fight for the right to housing, remarked, “Learning about how Abahlali advances the struggle [for housing] has shown us, here in Haiti, how we can strengthen our movement.”

Lessons in “Building Back Better”

A screening the following Monday evening took place in a sprawling camp home to 30,000 earthquake survivors.  The camp sits on the land of the Acra family, one of Haiti’s wealthiest families, in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Delmas.  When we arrived, camp residents were excited to share the housing plan they had devised, tired of waiting for a plan from the Haitian Government and the international aid community.  The camp leaders explained that the Martelly administration and mayors have offered people $500 to move out of camps, but the offer falls far short of what is needed to find sustainable housing. So the camp residents calculated that if they pooled that money together, assisted with construction, and paid into an income-based rent-to-own housing plan, they could construct an entire community, complete with permanent housing, a school, hospital, daycare center, and public park.  They had planned a peaceful march to government offices to present their plan, eager to work with officials to re-develop their community, but the mayor stopped the march, stifling their efforts to “build back better.”

The international community, led by the United States government, has its own ideas of what it means for Haiti to “build back better.”

While we were screening Dear Mandela in Port-au-Prince’s tent camps, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UN Special Envoy to Haiti Bill Clinton and a slew of celebrities such as Sean Penn, Ben Stiller and supermodel Petra Nemcova were in northern Haiti for the inauguration of the Caracol Industrial Park, a $300 million project. Controversy over the park, home to textile factories, abounds in Haiti particularly because of its displacement of small farmers and astoundingly low wages.  The industrial park has been a priority of the U.S. State Department’s Haiti reconstruction agenda, with Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff Cheryl Mills making frequent trips to the area and the U.S. providing millions of dollars in subsidies. The Haitian government has also focused heavily on the project, providing the land free of charge and granting significant tax exemptions to the Korean textile company. Meanwhile, camp residents can’t even get a response on a concrete housing proposal they devised based on the real needs of those hardest hit by the quake, much less access to land from the government or capital to start businesses.

The need for solidarity, not charity or imposition of projects based on a failed sweatshop model, was the focus of the Dear Mandela events in Haiti. Ndabankulu and Nsibande emphasized a central principle of the Abahlali movement: “There will be nothing for us without us.”  They explained that Abahlali refuses any purported assistance offered by big NGOs who seek to control rather than listen to Abahlali members. “People in Haiti must tell outsiders that they cannot come and take, but [they] can come and support [you] in the way [you] need support,” explained Ndabankulu to the residents of Camp Acra, “Because being poor in life does not mean you are poor in mind…It is you who knows the right answer [when it comes to the development of your country].”

Law and Protest as Tools for Change

A broad-based movement with a decentralized leadership structure and truly participatory decision-making process, Abahlali takes to the streets and the courts to make sure the voices of South Africa’s poor are heard.  After watching a screening of the film at the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, a Haitian human rights law office, Sophony, an activist from the Haitian women’s group KOFAVIV, remarked, “What is really inspiring to me as a woman activist is that you use the law in your struggle.  [Poor people] don’t realize they can use the law in their favor.”

Dual failures – governmental and private – demand a movement by and for the people in Haiti.   “No land, no house, no vote” is not simply a boycott of a failed political process, but also a commitment to allowing those with the most at stake to set priorities and determine their own futures. Last week, as South Africans and Haitians traded stories, compared challenges, and found strength in each other’s successes, the hope of international solidarity based on principles of self-determination and inclusionary democracy spoke loud and clear. Given all the challenges facing Haiti’s poor from disasters both old and very new, we hope those rushing to Haiti’s aid (again) will listen.  As Doliscar expressed, “We know the work is not easy, but together, we can advance in the struggle.”

Laura Raymond is Advocacy Program Manager at the Center for Constitutional Rights. Follow her on twitter @laurajraymond.

Jeena Shah worked as a lawyer at the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux in Haiti from 2010-2011. She is currently working with the Center for Constitutional Rights.

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