Haiti: Where Will the Poor Go?

During my last trip to Haiti this June with a delegation of students and human rights observers, we were exposed to the raw violence of the ongoing forced dispersal of the poor. On May 31st, the Martelly regime intensified a process—in the name of “eminent domain”—of violently evicting the poor from their homes in downtown Port-au-Prince and then physically destroying their homes and businesses. We met with a group of men and women who had been subjected to this violence and we filmed their extensive testimony. They spoke of SWAT police and bulldozers coming at night, of having only 10 minutes to flee their homes, then witnessing the destruction of everything they had.

These survivors came to us with tears, anger, and backpacks full of the only possessions they had left. They spoke of having to sleep in parks or on roofs, of children being put out on the street, of vulnerability to infection and ongoing harassment by the government.

One man, speaking on behalf of the Representatives of the Citizens of Centre-Ville Against Forced Displacement, stated that more than 62,000 people had lost their homes in downtown Port-au-Prince since May 31st. The Martelly regime has not provided compensation and humane, alternative housing—in clear violation of the Haitian Constitution. Indeed, official sources acknowledge that 400 properties have been destroyed, but only 17 people compensated.[i]   Clearly, this grossly underestimates the numbers of people rendered homeless since legally registered pieces of property may actually consist of multiple dwellings of the poor with dozens of people living within them.

Secretary of State Planning Michel Presume stated earlier in the spring that the Martelly regime had taken all the necessary steps to compensate “the owners .” “We deposited this money in a deposit account, owners have just to appear with their original titles, so they can receive from the expropriation Committee the value of their land or their homes in accordance with the evaluation criteria for buildings.”[ii]  Undoubtedly, the problem with this compensation formula is that it does not take into account the thousands of people dispossessed of their homes who were tenants, not owners.

Accompanied by a Haitian human rights journalist, we visited the areas of downtown that had been subjected to these demolitions; we saw massive destruction spanning blocks and blocks, including half of the General Hospital. We saw a bulldozer still at work and Haitians standing around the rubble, perhaps some still in shock, as if another earthquake had hit.


Downtown Port-au-Prince where the Martelly regime has been destroying homes of the poor using “eminent domain.”

The initial eminent domain decree for the downtown was issued by President Preval in 2010, then repealed and re-issued (with some modifications) by Martelly. Ostensibly, the goal is to rebuild the administrative center of the city, but Martelly has also stated that he welcomes the involvement of “entrepreneurs” and the private sector. Secretary of State Planning Presume stated that “the State has a budget of about 150 million U.S. dollars [for the construction of the administrative city] from several sources: Petrocaribe, treasury and fund of the cancellation of Haiti’s debt..”.[iii]

The people who shared their testimony with us blamed Martelly for their dispossession and current misery. According to these Haitians, the eminent domain project involves not just the reconstruction of the administrative center, but the transformation of the downtown into an upscale, commercial zone. Further investigation is required to determine other facets of this plan and sources of funding/ investment involved, particularly those by the “private sector” welcomed by Martelly.

Where will the poor go? Where have so many tent city dwellers already gone? The Martelly regime has dismantled most of the tent cities through stick-and-carrot methods: many families have received a once-time payment of $500 to relocate while others have been violently evicted from the camps. The $500 payment is notoriously inadequate given the spike in land and housing prices/ rents, a “market reaction” in large part to so many rich foreigners now living in Port-au-Prince as part of the NGO/ UN network. Moreover, the price of rice (now “Made in the USA”) has increased dramatically in recent years, perhaps as much as 500%, further rendering this $500 aid package paltry.

We gained a sense of where so many desperate people are relocating when we visited Canara, a “city” of approximately 200,000 people seeking to eke out an existence in the arid, “dust bowl” hills in the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. Out of sight, out of mind—that is for the foreign tourists and Haitian bourgeoisie who stay at the new Oasis hotel or who perhaps will shop soon in downtown Port-au-Prince. The people of Canara do not have any meaningful access to water, electricity, education, healthcare, food, and employment, let alone even the cement and cinder blocks to complete many of their houses. People are forced to walk or travel considerable distances just to pay for water, food, and other supplies, if they have the money. And, yet, while we were meeting with an older Haitian woman about a water cistern project our team is funding in her community of Canara, we heard machinery- a bulldozer and truck—at work. After the meeting, we walked about 50 feet behind her dwelling and discovered that they were digging out a vast canyon, extracting truck-loads upon truckloads of rock and sand to be sold elsewhere, reportedly for the profits of a private company. She came to the edge of the canyon and yelled down to the workers not to dig any closer to her home. While she lacked the sand, rock, and cement to build a simple water cistern for her community, an apparently private company poached these resources for free in order to sell to those who could better afford the “market rate”.

On June 19th, perhaps as the bulldozers were still clearing the rubble of people’s homes in downtown Port-au-Prince, Bill Clinton received the “Lifetime Achievement Award” for his work in Haiti from the Happy Hearts Fund in the NYC Cipriani Restaurant. The award ceremony was led by Petra Nemcova, a super model who runs the foundation and who is the girlfriend of the current Haitian Prime Minister, Laurent Lamothe. Also in the audience was Haitian President Michel Martelly who received an award for his “leadership in education”. Outside of the lavish restaurant, a group of Haitian activists and their allies protested the ceremony, chanting “Clinton, where is the money for reconstruction?”.[iv]

The timing of these awards is particularly absurd. According to the news website “Tout Haiti”, earlier this April, two prominent lawyers have petitioned Haiti’s Superior Court of Auditors and Administrative Disputes to demand an audit of Bill Clinton’s management of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC). A federal audit, conducted by the US Government Accountability Office and released on October 9th, 2013, raised major concerns about the USAID’s recent work in Haiti, particularly on Clinton-backed projects.[v]

But there is a deeper issue than alleged missing funds, mismanagement, and shoddy, incomplete aid projects. The deeper issue is Clinton’s agenda for “development” in Haiti: a strategy that is not really healthy development at all, but rather mal-development in the service of corporate exploitation of the country’s resources and people. Expanding this corporate-driven mal-development was a central agenda for Clinton in the 1990s, just as it is for the Obama Administration today.

As President, Clinton pushed this strategy when he pressured the Haitian government to open up its economy to US-subsidized, big business rice exports, thereby driving many Haitian rice farmers out of business and crippling Haiti’s domestic rice industry.[vi] Though Clinton publicly apologized for this “trade policy”, he has been pursuing a similar corporate strategy through his handling of “aid” as head of the Clinton Foundation and the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC) since the 2010 earthquake.[vii]  He has been a vigorous supporter of the new Caracol Industrial Park, funded in large part by USAID. The “park” consists of garment sweatshops, offering substandard, unlivable wages. This has been a boon to companies that can have clothing assembled in Haiti by workers receiving near-slave wages, then sold in the US without having to pay any customs.[viii] However, as investigative reporter Jonathan Katz notes, the “park” has not been such a boon to the local Haitians:

“But less than a year after Caracol Industrial Park’s gala opening — with Bill and Hillary Clinton, Sean Penn, designer Donna Karan and Haiti’s current and former presidents among the guests — the feeling these days is disappointment. Hundreds of smallholder farmers were coaxed into giving up more than 600 acres of land for the complex, yet nearly 95 percent of that land remains unused. A much-needed power plant was completed on the site, supplying the town with more electricity than ever, but locals say surges of wastewater have caused floods and spoiled crops.

“Most critically, fewer than 1,500 jobs have been created — paying too little, the locals say, and offering no job security. “We thought there was going to be some benefit for us,” says Ludwidge Fountain, 34… He worked for two months at the park as a guard, taking home about $3.40 a day, until his contract ran out. “Maybe it’s good for some of the people inside the park. Everyone else got nothing.”[ix]

Likewise, Bill Clinton has funneled aid money to establish a business venture between Coca-Cola and local mango farmers, using existing mango groves and using land for new groves to produce exports for Coca-Cola and its “Haiti Hope” project (an Odwalla drink). About the project, Clinton stated:

“The Coca‑Cola Company responded to Haiti’s urgent immediate needs with financial support and beverages. The Haiti Hope Project goes a step further and exemplifies the innovative role that partnerships with the private sector can play in the reconstruction of Haiti.”[x]

According to Coca-Cola’s website, $9.5 million has been raised since 2010 to launch this project tin a public-private partnership. Coca-Cola claims to have 19,000 mango farmers “enrolled” in the project, frequently organized into co-ops, and that half of these farmers are women. Moreover, Coca-Cola claims that 10 cents on every bottle of “Odwalla Mango Tango Smoothie” purchased will go back to “Haiti Hope”. [xi] The Clinton-Bush Fund gave a grant of more than $500,000 to the project.[xii] Projects such as this do not advance Haiti’s vital need for food security, but instead tether the well-being of Haitian farmers to the fickle tastes of more affluent, primarily “First World”, consumers.

The Clinton Foundation is also funding similar agricultural, “supply chain” projects involving peanut and coffee farmers. The Foundation claims to be assisting these farmers by funding the construction of regional depots, providing marketing and technical assistance, as well as linking the farmers to buyers elsewhere, such as the Four Season Restaurant chain.[xiii]As with the Coca-Cola Project, this “market-driven” and export-led approach to agricultural development fails to directly address Haiti’s vital need for domestic food production and security. While Haitians produce more coffee, peanuts, and mangos for export, they remain dependent upon overpriced, US corporate food imports while growing tracts of their land are being leased off to “foreign investors” for “industrial parks” and tourist sites.

Then there is the infamous Oasis Hotel in Port-au-Prince, a huge, elite structure built to court rich tourists and foreign investors. It is “awkwardly” close to the houses and shacks of the poor that lack decent sanitation, plumbing, and electricity. The Clinton-Bush fund allocated $2 million in “aid” to construct this hotel.[xiv] Clinton is likewise allocating more Foundation aid into the construction of new Marriott Hotel.

Tourism, sweatshops, and export-agriculture: these are integral components of Clinton’s vision for Haiti. Undoubtedly, some of this “development” will require the coercive dispersal of the rural poor who occupy land that will be turned into “free trade zones” and of the urban poor who occupy space—either in tent cities or popular neighborhoods—slated for tourist projects and up-scale commercial zones.

And what of Martelly, the other award recipient? Has he doubled the rate of Haitian children going to school, as claimed in the Happy Heart Fund ceremony? This claim is patently false, according to Haitian grassroots educators who we interviewed. Martelly pledged to provide payments to schools on a per pupil basis, but this funding reportedly only covers a fraction of all pupils and, to date, has not even been received by schools for this past school year. Many teachers have not been paid in months, resulting in the recent, widespread teacher and student protests. Apparently, super model Petra Nemcova was unaware of these basic, easily verifiable realities on the ground in Haiti when she awarded Martelly.

Martelly came to power in 2011 through sham elections—what many Haitians call “selections”—because the largest political and most popular political party, Fanmi Lavalas, the party of the poor majority, was excluded from participation. Only 22% (or less) of the electorate bothered to vote and, of that fraction, Martelly received the winning fraction. This was reportedly the worst voter turnout in the Americas since 1947.[xv] The Obama Administration financed the selections (including legislative positions) to the tune of at least $14 million.[xvi] Moreover, the Administration exerted considerable pressured, including threats to cut off aid to Haiti, in order to insure that Martelly was included in the run-off elections, even though he technically placed third in the first round. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flew to Haiti and personally intervened to help push Martelly into power.[xvii] Martelly, himself a very wealthy entertainer, spent considerable sums of his own fortune to leverage his “victory” (the equivalent of $15 billion in the US). Martelly’s Duvalierist ties in Haiti and his far rights connections abroad have been well-documented by reporter and historian Greg Grandin, among others.[xviii]

Predictably, since coming to power, Martelly has been rebuilding the Duvalierist system in which elite gets rich in ventures with foreign interests (e.g. Clinton) while the poor majority is further marginalized, immiserated, and increasingly subjected to selective repression. Martelly has attempted to rebuild the dreaded Haitian army[xix], he has integrated Duvalierist elements into his regime, and he has established a supportive, friendly environment for “Baby Doc” Duvalier now back in Haiti.[xx] Grassroots activists of the poor reported to our team that they are experiencing threats on their lives by a growing network of repressive agents. The Martelly regime has postponed legislative elective and Mayoral elections, with Martelly instead selecting many Mayors across the country, including in Port-au-Prince. A high-level judge who was calling for an investigation into Martelly and his family for corruption mysteriously died several days after meeting with and reportedly being verbally attacked by Martelly and his Prime Minister (Lamothe). Many Haitians suspect death by poisoning.[xxi] In ostentatious displays of their wealth, Martelly and his family are well-known for their extensive travels abroad and lavish life styles. He is an excellent junior partner for Bill Clinton and the Obama Administration.

The people in downtown Port-au-Prince whose homes and businesses have been destroyed are demanding justice and reparations.  They have just experienced another earthquake and they are clear that this one is human-made, in the service of “economic development” that discards the poor. Now is the time to join our voices with them in demanding justice and reparations. Now is the time to join our voices with those of Haitian grassroots activists in the Lavalas movement struggling courageously for the restoration of democracy in Haiti.

Seth Donnelly is a member of the Haiti Action Committee and a Bay Area high school teacher. He regularly travels to and works in Haiti. 


[i] Personal communication.

[ii] Haiti Libre, “Haiti-Reconstruction: the Demolition of the Area of Public Utility.” http://www.haitilibre.com/en/news-8090-haiti-reconstruction-expropriation-no-title-no-compensation.html.

[iii] Haiti Libre, “Haiti-Reconstruction: Expropriation, No Title, No Compensation.” http://www.haitilibre.com/en/news-11287-haiti-reconstruction-the-demolition-of-the-area-of-public-utility-began-in-port-au-prince.html.

Also, for a 2012 projected breakdown of funding for the particular components of the “administrative center” project, see www.skyscrapercity.co, “Haiti-Reconstruction: the New Haiti Is Emerging.”

[iv] For a more in-depth discussion of this event and the protest, see Dunkel, “Haiti: Bill Clinton Receives ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ But Where Is the Money for Reconstruction?” http://www.globalresearch.ca/haiti-bill-clinton-receives-lifetime-achievement-award-but-where-is-the-money-for-reconstruction/5388737.

[v] The GAO’s report is available at http://www.gao.gov/products/gao-14-47t.

[vi] See Katz, “With Cheap Food Imports, Haiti Can’t Feed Itself”. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/03/20/with-cheap-food-imports-h_n_507228.html.

[vii] See his filmed apology on “Democracy Now”, April 1, 2010. http://www.democracynow.org/2010/4/1/clinton_rice.

[viii] For excellent coverage, see Edmonds, “Sweatshops Over Homes”. http://nacla.org/news/sweatshops-over-homes-haiti.

[ix] Katz, “A Glittering Industrial Park in Haiti Falls Short”. http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2013/9/10/a-glittering-industrialparkfallsshortinhaiti.html.

[x] “Coca Cola Scheme Brings Hope to Haiti” on www.coca-cola.co.uk.

[xi] See Moye, “Hope in Haiti: Why Job Creation and Economic Development Will Drive Nation’s Recovery”. http://www.coca-colacompany.com/stories/hope-in-haiti-why-job-creation-and-economic-development-will-drive-nations-recovery.

[xii] See the “Haiti Hope Project” fact sheet on Clinton Bush Fund website.

[xiii] See official website for the Clinton Foundation.

[xiv] For a detailed examination of this “aid” project, see Wilentz, “Letter from Haiti: Life in the Ruins.” http://www.thenation.com/article/172101/letter-haiti-life-ruins.

[xv] For a summary of the many problems with these “selections”, see Weisbrot, “Haiti Election: a Travesty of Democracy” and IJDH, “The United States Should Support Fair and Inclusive Elections in Haiti.” http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/jan/10/haiti-oas-election-runoff.

[xvi] Beeton, “Haiti’s Elections: Parties Banned, Media Yawns.” http://www.cepr.net/index.php/op-eds-&-columns/op-eds-&-columns/haitis-elections-parties-banned-media-yawns. The $14 million figure refers to US funding of the initial round of Presidential and Legislative elections in November, 2010. Undoubtedly, the US pumped in more money to finance the run-off elections in the spring of 2011 since the US was vigorously pushing for Martelly’s inclusion in the run-offs.

[xvii] Grandin, “Martelly: Haiti’s Second Great Disaster.” http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2011/05/20115413435816393.html.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] The Economist, “Haiti’s Army: Who Needs Them?” http://www.economist.com/news/americas/21588085-michel-martelly-pushes-ahead-reviving-army-who-needs-them.

[xx] CEPRI, “Former Dictator Lives the Good Life.” http://www.cepr.net/index.php/blogs/relief-and-reconstruction-watch/former-dictator-lives-the-good-life-as-haitian-government-has-deliberately-stalled-investigation.

[xxi] Geffrard, “Haiti: Political Assassination?” http://www.globalresearch.ca/haiti-political-assassination-suspicious-death-of-judge-who-called-for-prosecution-of-presidential-family/5343313.



Seth Donnelly is a member of the Haiti Action Committee and the author of The Lie of Global Prosperity: How Neoliberals Distort Data to Mask Poverty and Exploitation (MR Press 2019).