Haiti two years after the earthquake

From the new January-February 2012 issue of News & Letters:

Haiti two years after the earthquake

Two years after the devastating earthquake, Haiti’s disaster continues:

More than half a million Haitians live in displacement camps, primarily in tents and plastic tarps. Vast numbers, particularly women, live in great insecurity. Only a little over 10,000 new homes have been constructed; barely several thousand old homes restored.

Cholera has infected 500,000, killing close to 7,000. Though access to clean water has improved, decent sanitation is lacking for hundreds of thousands.

With no prospect of work, thousands upon thousands are fleeing their country, often in unsafe boats. Recently dozens died as their boat sank near Cuban waters. Thousands of others have crossed into the Dominican Republic and migrated to South America. An estimated 4,000 have arrived in Brazil.

At the same time, within the misery of the last two years, Haitian activists and masses have once again sought to determine their own lives:

Housing: A housing rights movement has developed. Among its demands is that the government needs to create public housing on the claimed land; not alone building houses, but insuring access to water, electricity and sewage. In many areas activist groups have local initiatives to repair old housing and construct new homes.

Agriculture and Food Subsistence: Today there is a new movement to return to the countryside. Peasant organizations, including many women activists, are calling for restoration of small-farm sustainable agriculture. “Restoration” because after the slave rebellion and Haitian revolution (1791-1804), the Haitian masses resisted any continuation of slavery-era large plantations. Foreign ownership of land was prohibited. The Haitian masses wanted no return of a slave economy. A rural economy of small subsistence farms and decentralization was the Haitian reality in the 19th century. With the 20th century U.S. occupation of Haiti, servitude was restored in a new way and continues to this day. (See the newly published Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, by Laurent Dubois.) Twenty-plus years of neoliberal economic policies devastated the countryside, compelled migration into Port-au-Prince for survival, and left Haiti more and more dependent on imported food. Where farming was 40% of the economy a decade ago, it is only 25% today. More than 50% of Haitian food comes from abroad, whereas several decades ago only 20% was imported.

Jobs and Port-au-Prince: Today the national government barely functions, while hundreds of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), a mixed bag of good and bad intentions and effort, continue their dominant role. Now private investment has entered with a host of projects from schools to promises of manufacturing and assembly factories. There is no doubt that Haiti needs jobs. Hundreds of thousands in Port-au-Prince barely survive.

But who decides? Who decides what kind of jobs, what kind of housing and development in the city, what kind of farming and shelter in the countryside? “Good-hearted” businessmen? “Well-intentioned” NGOs? Haitian elites and governmental bureaucrats? U.S. economic-political, and if need be, military intervention? Or will the Haitian masses once again, as they did in their early 19th century revolution, be able to take matters into their own hands, and strive to determine their own future?

–Eugene Walker

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