Democracy Works in Haiti

“Democracy works in Haiti.” Brian Concannon (who made the statement, p. 157), Mario Joseph, Fran Quigley, the author of How Human Rights Can Build Haiti: Activists, Lawyers and the Grassroots Campaign, and other supporters of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) and the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) are in no doubt about it: democracy, the kind the mainstream media ignores, belittles or calls “utopian”, works from the bottom up. This extraordinary book is about an extraordinary struggle for justice and dignity in an extraordinarily castigated country, the only one in the world where a slave revolt led to the founding of a state. Haiti’s successful rebellion flew in the face of the order of empires built on slavery, colonisation, subjugation and dispossession. This at least partially explains why Haiti has been so maltreated, in a kind of historical vengeance. Brian Concannon (p. 149) sums it up: “[…] Haiti is a bad example of the gap between what we practice and what we preach. In 1804, the problem was that Haiti was really free… We [the US] weren’t so we could not accept a country that was actually carrying out those ideals.”

After he was captured, Toussaint L’Ouverture, former slave and leader of the 1791 revolt, presciently warned, “In overthrowing me, they have only felled the trunk of the tree of black liberty in Saint Domingue [Haiti]. It will regrow from the roots because they are deep and many”. The long history of Haiti’s punishment suggests that its would-be overlords have never learned the lesson that the people who understand justice best are those who are deprived of it. These are the people who have never stopped struggling for democracy and justice in Haiti. The violent modern history of Haiti gives some idea of where this deep yearning springs from. The exploitation of the island Ayiti, renamed Hispaniola by Columbus, began with the extermination of the indigenous Taino people, who were forced to build Spanish forts and toil in sugarcane fields. By the mid-seventeenth century France had colonised the western third of the island, calling it Saint-Domingue and bringing slaves from Africa to replace the now extinct local “workforce”. Haiti became the richest colony in the Americas and key point of sugar production in the Caribbean. By the end of the 1780s, some 40,000 slaves were being imported annually and a population of 500,000 slaves worked on 8,000 plantations, cruelly subjugated by a white population of about 32,000.

After Haiti achieved independence from France in 1804, the United States, with its own slave population of some four million, refused to recognise the country until 1862. A crippling economic embargo was imposed by the US and France, the latter of which forced Haiti to pay reparation for the freed slaves which, with interest on loans from US and French banks, amounted to more than $20 billion. From 1915 to 1934 the US occupied Haiti, siphoning off more billions in customs and quigleyhaittaxes, after which the US-backed dictators “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc” Duvalier ran the country, draining what remained in its coffers, running up debt and imprisoning, torturing and killing protestors. Then the IMF and the World Bank forced Haiti to open its markets. The country, self-sufficient in rice and sugar, had to import cheap US-grown and subsidised rice and sugar, which destroyed the rural economy. In 2004, the US annulled democracy by backing the coup against the elected President Aristide. Today Haiti tops the list for the number of millionaires per capita in the Americas, while also being home to the region’s poorest people, some 76% of whom are living on less than $2 a day. The political corollary of this is that the country has endured thirty-two coups d’état and an almost constant military dominance over (protest-prone) civilians.

All this prepared the ground for the appalling devastation of the January 2010 earthquake (over 200,000 killed, 300,000 injured and two million homeless), confirmation of the rule that “natural” disasters strike the poorest people. Most deaths were caused by the collapse of hovels built on steep, overcrowded hillsides. About 86% of the two million homes destroyed in the earthquake were built between 1990 and 2010 by people displaced from the countryside (p. 98). The crucial lesson, not just for Haiti but for anyone concerned about the human toll of “natural” disasters, is as the Haitian lawyer Mario Joseph, director of BAI says, “[…] far too many people died in this earthquake. And that is because we in Haiti have no respect for rule of law” (p.3). It is a systemic problem. The dangerous dwellings were illegally constructed when dispossessed rural people flowed into Port-au-Prince. Now rebuilding is frustrated because it is all but impossible to prove legal title to land. With the cholera outbreak after the earthquake, the poorest Haitians have no access to the rights of housing, food or health care enshrined in Articles 22 and 23 of the Constitution. The most basic rights of Haiti’s people, including the right of existence will be threatened as long as there is no rule of law.

A rights-based approach founded on legal principles guides the highly effective work being done by the Haitian organisation Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, and its US-based partner, the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) to obtain justice for the people of Haiti. Mario Joseph and Brian Concannon are heroic because of their physical and moral courage and also the dogged hard work demanded by putting their principles into practice. However, as both clearly and repeatedly recognise, they haven’t worked alone. Their struggle was launched in the streets of Haiti, underpinned by the country’s history of grassroots activism dating back to the slave rebellion.

Preservation of rights needs political guarantees in the form of strong, just institutions but “the state is functionally absent” (p. 87). This is Haiti’s gravest problem, the one that Joseph and Concannon have tackled, beginning with a “jumpstart for the justice system” (p.75). In 2000 they won a landmark case in which 53 soldiers were convicted for their part in a 1994 massacre in the pro-democracy stronghold of Raboteau. With little faith in the government’s ability or will to bring the killers to justice (not least because the use of French in legal proceedings means that only ten per cent of the population can understand them if they ever get near a court) the people tended to resort to mob violence. However, this time, the two lawyers seized on an opening in French procedure whereby victims of crime have legal standing as a civil party in the prosecution. With this, the Raboteau Victims’ Association soon started to engage in highly effective pre-trial advocacy, despite many threats. They demonstrated, vociferously demanding arrests and trials, started a graffiti campaign – Fok kriminel – yo jije (The criminals must be judged) – and carried out citizens’ arrests of offenders they recognised on the street. The legal initiative acquired international dimensions when the UN/OAS mission in Haiti recruited retired Argentine military officers to analyse the Haitian chain of command and responsibility for the massacre, and Raboteau became the first criminal trial in Haiti to use DNA evidence. Another innovation was the use of documents in support of eyewitness testimony, although the oral tradition also had to be respected in a country where the illiteracy rate is around 51.3 per cent. The trial, which took four years to prepare, demonstrated that determined lawyers could bring justice to ordinary people and was also a process of empowerment for Haiti’s perennial victims. It was “a near-total affirmation of human rights and the rule of law” (81).

If justice is to be achieved in Haiti social change must come from the bottom up. The elites aren’t going to build legal systems to favour the poor (and limit their own power). BAI and IJDH “provide the platforms on which the aggrieved majority acts” (p. 60), a two-pronged project in which BAI provides indigenous legal leadership and IDJH, working from Boston, contributes fundraising skills, access to the media and policy makers, and legal and activist experience. The international dimension is necessary for practical and symbolic reasons because, as Mario Joseph says, “Some of the roots of our injustice lie underneath Haitian soil …But many of the roots of Haitian injustice extend north, starting in places like New York and Washington… If the roots of our injustice extend to powerful countries, it is essential that the fight for our justice extend there too” (p. 73).

Access to clean water has long been a basic problem in Haiti. In 2001, the Inter-American Development Bank pledged $146 million in loans for water and sanitation infrastructure but US President George W. Bush, punishing President Jean-Bertrand Aristide for his socially oriented policies, blocked the funds. Loans from the European Union were also stopped. Hence gross institutional failure, both national and international, led to the 2010 cholera outbreak, which was directly caused by UN peacekeepers of the MINUSTAH mission, established in Haiti after President Aristide was forced to leave the country. The source of contamination of the Artibonite River was traced by genotyping to a strain of cholera (Vibrio cholera) introduced by Nepalese members of the mission. Deplorable standards of hygiene, in which untreated sewage from the UN camp was dumped into Haiti’s longest river – mainstay of agriculture, source of drinking water, and used for washing – did the rest. By 2013, cholera had killed over 8,6oo Haitians and infected more than 684,000 (one in fifteen people).

There is no reasonable explanation for the “peacekeeping” mission’s costly presence in Haiti. It has nothing to do with peacekeeping, as cables from the US Ambassador to Haiti, Janet Sanderson reveal: “a premature departure of MINUSTAH would leave the [Haitian] government… vulnerable to… resurgent populist and anti-market economy political forces” (p. 12). In these terms, MINUSTAH is an occupying force so it is hardly surprising that the UN, scrambling “immunity” with impunity, refuses to accept any blame for the cholera outbreak, its legal staff cynically claiming that Haiti’s “simultaneous water and sanitation and health care deficiencies” (largely due to US interference with the loans to remedy them) are responsible (p. 14). The Haitian people are not going to take the rap. Thousands of citizens, still struggling to cope with the physical, economic and emotional effects of cholera and its aftermath have demonstrated outside UN bases in the country, insisting on jistis ak reparasyon — justice and reparations. On 23 October this year oral arguments were heard in the case Georges et al. vs. United Nations et al. in which the plaintiffs are citizens of Haiti and defendants include the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, United Nations, and Ban Ki-moon. Damages could total more than $30 billion. The decision is still pending.

With very few resources, Joseph, Concannon and their supporters have drawn attention to issues reaching far beyond the terrible, tragic consequences of the cholera epidemic and UN immunity/impunity. Litigation is important but not the only component of BAI and IJDH advocacy in their broad agenda in defence of Haiti’s poor and disenfranchised. They led the effort to prosecute Jean-Claude Duvalier for human rights crimes and engage in community-based programmes for rape accountability and prevention, free and fair elections, prisoners’ and housing rights, disaster response, internally displaced people (1.3 million in 2010) and rights for the Haitian diasporas.

After the earthquake the international community pledged $5.35 billion in aid. Less than 1% went to the Haitian government and almost half was not delivered at all. Haiti became a “Republic of NGOs”. Aid went to these foreign enterprises which provided 80% of basic services, making Haiti one of the world’s most privatised countries (p. 86). Private military contractors, “walking about carrying assault rifles”, also grabbed a share of Haiti’s aid. The anti-governance repercussions of this are far-reaching, not least because NGOs have appropriated state powers without having the capacity to deal with large problems like nation-wide emergency response, environmental protection and sewage treatment.

In September 2012, the UN Special Envoy reported that only 52.3% of the money pledged had been disbursed. Disbursement does not mean spending so much of the disbursed money has gone to the UN, World Bank or IDB in opaque manoeuvres. Most USAID dollars supposedly for Haiti went to Washington-based contractors. Instead of empowering the Haitian government to direct relief and recovery, the US military took over the country in the first weeks after the earthquake. Cheap US-grown food “aid”·once again flooded Haiti’s markets, undermining local farmers who end up in shanties that will be destroyed in the next earthquake. Constructing a clean water system, a logical way to start “building back better”, would cost about $800 million, the same as the MINUSTAH annual budget.

If human beings have any valid claims of need, they must be the elementary claims of the subsistence and basic security that permit freedom, the basic rights that Henry Shue defines as “… everyone’s minimal, reasonable demands on others […]”. If these rights are reasonable and justified, they entail the duty to ensure that every single human being enjoys the “rights to those things without which one cannot enjoy any other rights”. Yet, while trillions of dollars are available for questionable military endeavours, there is no money to compensate the victims of the UN’s criminal negligence.

What if compensation took the form of restoring to Haitians “rights to those things without which one cannot enjoy any other rights”? Paying an unconditional universal basic income above the poverty line would be one way in which the so-called donors could stop being predators and respond to the “reasonable demands” of the people of Haiti. A basic income of, say, $5 per day for every inhabitant would be the economic equivalent of Concannon’s legal “jumpstart”, making it possible for Haiti’s resourceful people to build the economy from the base with small businesses, and for those who have jobs to free themselves from the yoke of foreign-owned sweatshops where many workers earn just $1.3 per day. It would cost about $19 billion a year, approximately 0.63% of the estimated $3 trillion spent by the United States on the Iraq War. The “international community” could thus start to make amends for all the wrongs done to the country since 1492. But the obstacles to such a nod to justice are huge and more political than economic. This is why Mario Joseph, Brian Concannon, Fran Quigley and the people of Haiti, who are striving to make legal systems uphold the rights of ordinary people, are so important. For anyone who wants to defend justice, anywhere in the world, this book is a first-class vade mecum.

Daniel Raventós is a lecturer in Economics at the University of Barcelona and author inter alia of Basic Income: The Material Conditions of Freedom (Pluto Press, 2007). He is on the editorial board of the international political review Sin Permiso

Julie Wark is an advisory board member of the international political review Sin Permiso. Her last book is The Human Rights Manifesto (Zero Books, 2013).