“We have all suffered. But we are motivated right now to help our people. That makes us strong. That allows us to go on. ”
– Teacher at a mobile school/ Aristide Foundation for Democracy
It is now more than five months since the January 12th earthquake devastated Haiti. Over 200,000 people have died, and1.5 million are still living under sheets, tarps and plastic in internal refugee camps. An Interim Reconstruction Commission headed by former U.S. President Bill Clinton has promised that at least $5.3 billion is in the “pipeline” destined for relief. Even though the rainy season is here and hurricanes are on the way, the UN’s World Food Program announced in April that it was “winding down” its initial emergency food distribution program in Haiti.
What is most shocking when one travels to Haiti is how little aid is visible in the earthquake zone. Where is all the money? Members of our delegation visited three different refugee camps. We heard the same story over and over again during our visit in late May: no food, poor shelter and no work.
In one camp, close to the airport, 5,000 people were living with no sanitation, little protective shelter, and no consistent food distribution. It had rained the night before, and the tarps had flooded. One woman told us, “We are not treated as human. We have seen no relief since February.” When asked about Haitian president Rene Preval, a man sitting nearby said, “He may be the president of the republic, but he is not our president. We have never seen him.”
This sentiment is widespread in Haiti. A week before we arrived, large anti-Preval demonstrations in Port-au-Prince (estimated by independent observers at 30,000) and other parts of Haiti called for true democratic elections, full participation by grassroots organizations in relief plans, and the return of former President Aristide to Haiti. Concerned about the rise in protests, the UN decided to send 600 additional foreign police officers to augment its force in Haiti.
In a parallel initiative, over 20,000 women have already signed a petition to President Obama urging him to end opposition to Aristide’s return from forced exile in South Africa. Their argument is compelling: continuing to banish a major spokesperson for the poor in Haiti signals that development and reconstruction will take place without respecting the voices of those most impacted by the quake.
There is strong evidence that they are correct. On June 1, at the most luxurious resort in the Dominican Republic, Bill Clinton headed yet another planning session to bring an elite vision of Haiti to fruition. The “new Haiti” means Coca-Cola with its Haiti Hope drink. It means the Royal Caribbean Tour Lines planning a massive expansion – in coordination with U.S. AID – of the tourist industry in the north of Haiti. It means an ever-growing and ongoing UN military occupation (at latest count, over 13,000 troops and police). It means high-powered NGO’s creating even more infrastructure in the NGO capital of the world, and corporations lining up to establish a low-wage assembly sector in Port-au-Prince.
This vision seeks to marginalize the popular movement that is the real engine of social change in Haiti. It does not include free and democratic elections in which all parties – including the most popular political party, Lavalas (banned from the last elections) – can participate. That is why so many Haitians are raising their voices right now. The earthquake has unleashed a dynamic grassroots process and highlighted the critical connection between democracy and development.
Haiti is alive with activity, alive with young and veteran activists struggling to rebuild while refusing to accept any limitations on their democratic or human rights. Take, for example, the work of the Aristide Foundation for Democracy, created in 1996 by Jean-Bertrand Aristide after the end of his first term as president, a term shattered by a U.S.-supported coup. Despite a second coup against President Aristide in 2004 and the repression that followed, the Foundation is still there. With limited funding, it has been able to create mobile schools in five refugee camps, train a small cadre of Haitian mental health workers who offer mental health support to those who have suffered so much in the camps, run a mobile clinic staffed by Haitian doctors and medical personnel, develop micro-lending projects for market women, and support local agriculture with loans to peasant farmers in the Port-au-Prince area.
The efforts of the Foundation and other dynamic popular institutions and organizations are tied to a broader vision, one of real self-determination and a long-term effort to regenerate democracy.
Haitians know that the “official story” is all about Bill Clinton and the NGO’s, but they are writing their own story. It is time we pay attention.
ROBERT ROTH is a co-founder of the Haiti Action Committee and a board member of the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund. He most recently traveled to Haiti in late May, 2010.