Haiti, one month after the earthquake
Daniel Jiménez • 2/15/10 •
The first month of the tragic earthquake in Haiti was recently completed, leaving more than 270, 000 people dead, thousands injured and more than one million homeless. This has happened in one of the poorest countries on the planet, which is rarely paid attention from developed countries if exceptional events do not occur. But the drama of Haiti began long before the earthquake, and you will continue after leaving behind this catastrophe and all that may occur in the future, unless the internal conditions of the country change substantially, as well as many of the neo-liberal economic policies that are being promoted. on an international level. This is the thesis of Waldo Fernández, Coordinator of Manos Unidas for the projects of Central America and the Caribbean, to which we have conducted the following interview.
Positive News: A month after the earthquake, what is the situation in this punished country?
Waldo Fernández: The easiest thing would be to say that the situation tends to normalize, although when we talk about normalizing in Haiti we know that it is very relative. Normalize means that aid is always arriving, with limitations, to the victims.
In all emergency situations, and many have touched me, the arrival and distribution of aid is always problematic, but in Haiti it takes much larger dimensions for all administrative shortcomings. The state is absent or even non-existent, and that makes everything much more difficult. Within all this complication, aid is flowing and is not being stored at the airport as it was in the first few days.
We talk about the most strictly emergency help. Keep in mind that there are still several hundred thousand people sleeping on the street in Port-au-Prince. According to our local Haitian partners, many of these people continue to leave the capital towards their places of origin in the countryside.
N +: The problem is that the countryside has been abandoned after years of neoliberal policies.
WF: These economic policies have done a lot of damage to Haiti in recent decades, especially since 1990. In that year he was elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who wanted to start a program of social reforms. But at eight months a coup d'etat took place and the president is taken from the country and taken on a plane to the US, who was the one who promoted the coup. In 1994, the US restored Aristide himself to power, but on his return neither he nor his party were already the same nor did they have the same reformist plans.
The fact is that the week before Aristide returned, the coup administration signed a letter of intent with the World Bank, the IMF and the Inter-American Development Bank. This document granted new credits to Haiti, but not intended to boost the country, but to pay the previous debt, mostly acquired by the coup governments between 1990 and 1994. Aristide came then With tied hands.
The most lacerating was the commercial opening that forced the granting of these credits. Commercial opening that dismantled local agriculture. The agricultural surpluses of the USA began to arrive in Haiti, especially rice, a basic product of the Haitian diet. The result was very negative. In Haiti, 90% of the food consumed by people was produced, but today, due to this policy, 55% have to be imported.
The immense rice fields of Haiti were deserted after the opening of borders due to the unfair competition of the cheapest rice in the US. In fact, it is cheaper for the California producer to produce rice than for the Haitian producer, who could not compete in this situation. People ended up leaving the field and had to go to Puerto Principe. I wonder how many of these former farmers were left under the rubble. This is the result of unfair competition caused by free trade agreements.
N +: According to this approach, the first aid that Haiti should receive would be to end this type of free trade agreements for its territory.
WF: The resignation and abolition of trade agreements and treaties that favor foreign companies, but not Haitian citizens, is inexcusable.
I wonder if when the reconstruction is planned, there is only talk of rebuilding the country that existed before January 12. Obviously, the lost must be replaced, but it is also necessary to support production and bring productive investment. Help farmers to produce food, in short.
This is the deforested country of America. Only 2% of forest area remains in Haiti, which they are turning into a desert. This is terribly detrimental to agricultural production, which is the basis of citizen support. The reconstruction must therefore promote ecological agriculture that diversifies production and guarantees the food of the people. In addition, it is estimated that 75% of the population has no job, and if we want to help them, we have to see how employment can be generated. And in a rural country, it is clear that the solution is to invest in the countryside.
N +: A necessary complement to all these policies is the abolition of external debt.
WF: Haiti has around 900 million dollars of foreign debt, and that is overwhelming for a country with its characteristics. More than half of the debt is with the banks, the IMF, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. For the country to prosper, this debt must be forgiven since, if everything you produce you have to allocate to pay what you owe, as in this case, you will never take off.
Another criterion that must be kept in mind is to avoid that the aid resources of the organizations of the international community generate a new indebtedness or establish external conditions or impositions that are going to distort the mechanisms of the recomposition. In general they are aid tied to certain conditions. For example, they support you to build roads but if you buy tractors of a certain brand. It is not honest to try to look for these advantages.
N +: These words remind me of what happened in Southeast Asia after the 2004 tsunami. In Sri Lanka, many of the local fishermen on the coast who were victims of the tragedy had to suffer after a second tragedy caused precisely by the reconstruction . Instead of supporting them so they could go fishing again, they were thrown off the coast to build luxury tourist hotels and residential homes.
WF: Sometimes the bad management of the aid causes fractures in the community organization of society, when precisely this cohesion must be another of the elements to be reinforced. In the case of Haiti, one cannot speak of reconstruction if there is no re-foundation of the Haitian state. It is true that it is a rickety state, absent and without resources, but even if I had them, I would not know how to use them because sometimes some armed gangs are stronger than the state itself.
Six years ago a UN mission, MINUSTAD, was sent to Haiti in order to guarantee the country's stability. But I wonder what it means to guarantee the stability of the country. If we talk only about preventing people from killing themselves, if stability is given. But no new political practices have been generated that would be necessary. That mandate should have been completed with some non-military, but political, force that would have sought a rapprochement between the different political forces in the country.
Since the overthrow of the Duvalier dictatorship in 1986, each government that has entered has created its own military force to protect itself and to survive. When elections arrive and another different government enters, the newly formed executive does the same, but he who has finished his term does not undo his guard. Today there are many of these forces with their respective territories controlled by them. This is mixed with other problems such as organized crime or drug trafficking.
We must see how these people are demobilized and ends with the proliferation of weapons caused by the existence of these groups. A process of peaceful citizen reeducation is needed, not only repressive measures that do not take into account the problems of Haitians to survive. If people don't have what to eat, they will look for how, and if they have to use a weapon, they will. It is essential to create new ways of working and pacify the country with social and economic measures and citizen education. You have to think about civil society. Haiti is a disjointed country with very little social fabric.
N +: That despite its history of so much popular struggle, with episodes as important as the liberation of slaves that gave rise to the country, or Aristide's own rise to power, thanks to the union of platforms and social movements.
WF: The repression has greatly weakened these grassroots organizations. For example, the Duvalier dictatorship left 30, 000 dead. Among these victims were the most struggling people and capable of leading social movements. Also with Aristide there were many citizen mobilizations and then a new coup d'etat and more repression took place.
Haitian society has been fracturing over the past few years due to the attitude of the different political forces. Grassroots organizations still exist, but with little strength and little backbone because they took care that they didn't grow anymore.
An inexcusable issue in which grassroots organizations can play an important role is the aspect of working on the so-called risk management. In the case of Haiti, the main risk, despite the earthquake, is mainly hurricanes. But you can anticipate when they will arrive and be prepared. For example, last year there were quite strong hurricanes in El Salvador, but very few people died because this issue of knowing how to manage risks is working hard.
N +: Changing the subject, another issue that has created controversy is the performance of the US Marines, who according to some voices have come to torpedo the distribution of aid due to their eagerness for prominence.
WF: I have my doubts about what happened. On the third or fourth day of the earthquake, I received an email from a friend from the Dominican Republic. He is a Jesuit who mobilized a convoy with 14 aid trucks that departed from the Dominican Republic and arrived in Port-au-Prince, where they unloaded the material in the warehouses of Caritas. He told me that the distribution network of this aid that Caritas had in the capital worked reasonably well despite the difficulties. I have the feeling that he wanted to give the impression that this was a disaster and that someone should go to fix it. Then the marines arrived and it seemed that all the problems were over. I believe instead that the intervention of the Marines was excessive, as the news about the pillages or looting was exaggerated. Members of a partner organization of Manos Unidas in Haiti watched on the international television what the media said about continuous looting and pillaging, and from this entity they told us that although it is evident that these episodes always occur, people were behaving solidarity and calm way in its vast majority. There were looting, of course, but there were also before the earthquake. In short, the situation of chaos and looting was oversized.
N +: The last question is how we can help the work performed by Manos Unidas in Haiti.
WF: We have been working in Haiti for more than 30 years with local partners in the country. These local organizations present their proposals. From here we analyze them, approve them, send the money and they are in charge of carrying out the project in the Caribbean country.
We have sent 1, 166, 000 euros in the first two weeks after the tragedy, a period that is the most critical in the emergency situation. These funds have been used in 16 projects.
Now we are trying to articulate a coherent reconstruction program. It must include in any case the replacement of community infrastructure, such as schools, health centers, social centers or homes, of course equipped with anti-seismic mechanisms. We also want to put emphasis on productive investment and guarantee the food security of poor and medium-sized farmers. It is essential to guarantee the technical, administrative and organizational training of the field. Another important issue is the rehabilitation of people, as there are hundreds of thousands or even millions of Haitians who have been severely damaged in their personality after the catastrophe.
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Photo: Orphans of Haiti. Image by Ozier Muhammad Eyevine.