Five years following the January 12, 2010 earthquake that struck the capital city of Haiti, the loudly-trumpeted reconstruction of the country is still an unrealized dream. The beginning of the year 2015 finds Haitians engaged in a massive movement of political protest and empowerment seeking to renew, against all odds, their 210-year old nation-building project. Winning a renewal means setting aside the false promises and cruel betrayals of the past five years by the big governments and aid agencies of the world.
The big powers in North America and Europe rushed planeloads and shiploads of supplies, bottled water and aid volunteers to Haiti in the days and weeks following the calamity. They promised to “build” the country “back better.” The world was aghast at the poverty in Haiti revealed by the massive news coverage of the earthquake. Such was the public response and anger around the world that some among the big powers, including former President Bill Clinton, went so far as to acknowledge that economic policies imposed from abroad over the decades have impoverished the country and, indeed, are the source of its economic underdevelopment.
But the acknowledgements proved fleeting. And contained in the planeloads and shiploads of aid were yet more foreign police and soldiers. Their numbers in Haiti rose by 50 per cent in the weeks and months after the earthquake. They were there to make certain that a social earthquake would not follow the geological one and undo the structures of political and economic dominance carefully erected during the preceding 25 years.
The promises of the multi-billion dollar international relief effort and aid industry have been proven largely illusory. A key admission in the months following the earthquake was that democratic governance and national sovereignty were essential tools for rebuilding Haiti on a new and progressive foundation. That political task is at the center of the popular political firestorm that is sweeping the country.
For the past many months, sustained political mobilizations by the Haitian people are demanding the resignation of President Michel Martelly and dismissal of his government. They also want elections that obey the procedures of the country’s revolutionary constitution and delayed for three years to the Senate and Legislature. They want government that will take up the unfinished tasks of post-earthquake reconstruction.
The protests have been inspired by events in the West African country of Burkina Faso. The protest movement calls itself “Operation Burkina Faso.” In October, the people of Burkina Faso overthrew an unpopular president, Blaise Compaoré. Haitians draw inspiration from that event and, crucially, are aware that it is inspired by the socialist, egalitarian and anti-imperialist ideas of past-president Thomas Sankara.
Sankara and his progressive government came to power in 1983 and were overthrown four years later by a clique of military officers led by Compaoré. Sankara was assassinated.
Haiti’s movement scored an important victory on Dec. 13 when Martelly’s prime minister, Laurent Lamothe, resigned. But Oxygène David, a leader of the Dessalines Coordination (KOD), one of the political parties leading the protests, told Haiti Liberté weekly, “Lamothe was just the smallest part of a trinity holding Haiti down. The other two elements are Martelly and MINUSTAH. They, also, must go for Haiti to have democracy and sovereignty.”
MINUSTAH is the United Nations Security Council military occupation regime established in Haiti in the summer of 2004 to consolidate the overthrow of Haiti’s progressive and elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and Parliament in February of that year. MINUSTAH took over day-to-day patrolling of Haiti’s streets and the overall running of the country from the soldiers of the US, Canada, France and Chile that landed in early March to consolidate a Feb. 29 coup d’état by US-backed paramilitaries.
The next wave of large protests will take place in cities across Haiti on January 12, the fifth anniversary of the earthquake.
Foreign occupation and the slide to authoritarian rule
Three factors are driving the protest movement forward – Martelly’s march to authoritarian rule since coming to power in March 2011, the ongoing presence of MINUSTAH and the failed record of earthquake reconstruction.
Although two presidential elections have been held in the years following the 2004 coup, the two presidents who were elected – René Préval and Michel Martelly -have had next to no financial or other resources at their disposal. Haitian governments in the modern era have been threatened, cajoled and embargoed into subservience to the diktats of foreign, imperialist powers. The weakness of the Haitian state was disturbingly evident to the world in the days and weeks following the earthquake. The government was all but powerless to respond to the emergency.
Instead of taking decisive steps to redress the historic injustices revealed by the earthquake, the big powers of the US, Canada and Europe rushed Haiti into an election aimed at creating a stable pillar of post-earthquake, neo-colonial rule. A two-round presidential election in November 2010 and March 2011 brought Michel Martelly to the presidency. The election was entirely financed from abroad. The largest political party in the country – the Fanmi Lavalas of Aristide – was excluded from participation, and the electoral exercise produced the lowest voter turnout of any election in the history of the western hemisphere. The US and Canada, using the office of the Organisation of American States, intervened to change the outcome of round one.
A large leak of US diplomatic cables by Wikileaks beginning in 2011, in partnership with Haiti Liberté, has revealed the extent of US interference in Haiti over the years.
President-elect Michel Martelly appointed his long-time business partner Laurent Lamothe as prime minister. The two declared Haiti to be “open for business,” meaning there would be no impediments to foreign investment in sweatshop factories, high-class tourism hotels, takeovers of peasant lands in the countryside for agro-industrial projects and possible gold and other mineral mining.
Public sector investment to tackle the chronic, pre- as well as post-earthquake needs in housing, health care, education and agricultural development was rejected on ideological grounds. In its place, foreign aid, charity and foreign investment were touted as the motor force of reconstruction.
Michel Martelly is closely associated with the political extreme-right in Haiti that has twice overthrown elected governments, in 1991 and 2004. He welcomed the return to Haiti in early 2011 of the tyrant Jean-Claude Duvalier, who assumed rule of Haiti in 1971 at the age of 19 after his father died. After his overthrow in 1986, Duvalier and his family and entourage lived comfortably in France until his embezzled funds began to run out.
Martelly’s family faces allegations of corruption, including abuse of authority, money laundering and squandering public funds. But that’s only one concern of the Haitian people. They have watched a steady drift to authoritarian rule in which Martelly and his big power backers have used a clever strategy borrowed from the Duvaliers of refusing to convene constitutionally-required elections to the Senate, Legislature and municipal governments as electoral mandates expire. The independent electoral commission that oversees elections in Haiti and, according to the constitution, is supposed to be a non-partisan representation of Haitian society, has instead been deeply compromised by Martelly appointments. It has no authority in the eyes of many elected representatives and even less in the eyes of the masses.
On January 12, the mandates of most Parliamentarians in Haiti will have expired. Martelly says he is prepared to rule by decree. There is last-minute scrambling taking place for a political deal that would extend the Parliament’s mandate until May, but it’s not clear whether this will receive the required consensus from senators and legislative deputies.
Pent-up popular expectations in promised aid and reconstruction are imparting a deep, revolutionary impulse to the unfolding political protests. Tens of thousands of people died from the earthquake and half the houses in Port au Prince, population nearly three million, were destroyed or seriously damaged
Public health care and the cholera calamity
Important achievements in earthquake rehabilitation were achieved with the public health initiatives taken by Haiti’s Ministry of Public Health in cooperation with large international missions and many smaller, vital health care projects. The contributions of Cuba and Partners In Health stood out because the two had a long-established health care delivery presence in the country (since 1999, PIH since the late 1980s) and, importantly, have been training Haitian health care professionals. Large health service providers such as Doctors Without Borders and Médecins du monde saved a great many lives.
Cuba and PIH also stood out because they were working in poorer and geographically remote regions. Cuban personnel and hundreds of students and graduates of other countries at the Latin American School of Medicine in Cuba fanned out into some of the remotest parts of Haiti to meet the new and existing medical needs.  Other Latin American countries made substantial contributions to the Cuban-led health care effort. Cuba went so far as to propose to the UN a plan to create a comprehensive, public health care program for Haiti. The Boston-based PIH built a second training hospital, opened in Mireblais (near Port au Prince) in 2012. It, too, voiced support for a public health plan and it has been a strong critic of the failed economic and social models that have held back Haiti’s development.
Tragically, the advances in building medical infrastructure suffered a huge blow in the autumn of 2010. The culprit was an old and familiar nemesis of Haiti – foreign political intervention. Soldiers of MINUSTAH recklessly and criminally introduced cholera into the country as a consequence of the UN’s failure to screen foreign soldiers for cholera before they set foot in Haiti and the negligence of soldiers of the Nepalese contingent of MINUSTAH when they failed to properly treat their sewage. Cholera is endemic to Nepal.
Since then, cholera has killed 8,500 people and sickened nearly 800,000. Although UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has promised money and resources to combat and eventually eradicate cholera, a report one year ago by the Washington DC-based Center for Economic Policy Alternatives noted, “The UN itself has pledged just one per cent [$23.5 million] of the funding needed for cholera treatment [estimated $2.2 billion], even as the UN’s mostly military and police mission in Haiti costs over $572 million a year”.
The UN as well as the major governments participating in MINUSTAH are denying any culpability for introducing cholera to Haiti and failing to adequately assist in its prevention. Cholera is easy to treat and prevent – all that is required is provision of potable water and sanitary sewage disposal. That’s why people in New York or Toronto don’t catch cholera or die from it.
The housing crisis
Shelter was another of the very immediate needs in Haiti following the disaster. International aid provided short-term shelters to protect from the elements. Materials for a reported 110,000 plywood shelters were delivered, and tens of thousands of canvas or tarpaulin tent shelters were provided. Beginning in 2011, foreign governments provided one-year rental subsidies to families as an incentive for them to leave tent camps. (For the big powers, the camps were an eyesore as well as visible testimony to the absence of substantive programs to build housing.)
Five years after the earthquake – and after mountains of studies about the need for and promises made to implement a massive, home building program in Haiti – the gains are few. According to a recent fact sheet on housing prepared by Church World Service and the Mennonite Central Committee (drawing on figures reported to UN agencies), some 85,000 earthquake victims still live in 123 camps of internally displaced persons within Port au Prince’s city limits.
Many tens of thousands more live in the new, sprawling districts of Canaan, Onaville and Jerusalem, located beyond the pre-earthquake northern limits of the city. By a stroke of a pen in 2013, these communities were no longer considered as earthquake survivor settlements, meaning they no longer qualified for even the miserly formal assistance provided to tent camps.
Thirty four per cent of the families that left survivor camps were forced out by people claiming land ownership or by government officials. Twenty two of the remaining camps face eviction.
The aforementioned fact sheet reports that in the past five years in the earthquake zone, 27,353 houses have been repaired and 9,053 have been built, at a cost of $215 million. That compares to $500 million spent on the plywood shelters, most of which have long since deteriorated in the tropical weather or have been informally dismantled to build more permanent structures.
There is no agency of the Haitian government to build housing. The housing “policy” of the government consists of promising access to financing of house construction. But Haiti does not have many networks of banks or other personal loan agencies where people could obtain loans, and in any event, the proposal was laughable because most Haitians don’t have incomes to speak of. According to the updated country report on Haiti by the World Bank, more than 6 million out of Haiti’s population of 10.4 million live under the national poverty line of $2.44 per day. Over 2.5 million Haitians live under the national extreme poverty line of 1.24 dollar per day. How are they to obtain loans to build houses?
The UN-sponsored housing coordination body (“cluster”) said in 2013 that Haiti needs to construct 500,000 new homes in order to meet its housing deficit between now and 2020.
Public education was another key social need identified after the earthquake. Before the disaster, half of Haitian children did not attend school. The number reaching secondary school was much less. The Martelly regime that came to power in 2011 created a national education fund whose goal was said to get every Haitian child into school. It would be financed by levies (taxes) on international phone calls and money transfers. But the plan has been plagued by many problems and its achievements are slim.
For one, it was unconstitutional. Only the Parliament (Legislature and Senate) has the constitutional power to levy taxes. For another, the program has been mired in bureaucratic and administrative conflict. School administrators say that promised funding does not get delivered. Or it arrives months late. This year, the opening of the school year in September was delayed by weeks because parents said they couldn’t afford to buy the textbooks and other supplies that schools do not supply.
One of the outcomes of the fund, according to a lengthy investigation by the Haiti Grassroots Watch project (published in French last July) is that private schools have been favored over public schools. About 80 per cent of Haiti’s primary and secondary schools are private, typically operated by churches and other charities from abroad.
Teacher unions in Haiti opposed the fund because it had no legislative authority and therefore operates outside of public oversight. They have battled for years to establish a public education system and to pay teachers living wages. Last spring, strike action won salary increases of 30 to 60 per cent, but salaries are still woefully inadequate and payment often arrives months late.
Misguided economic development
Economic development was cited as key to Haiti’s future following the earthquake, including for agriculture. Most Haitians still live in the countryside, precariously so. But millions have been forced to move to the cities during the past four decades due to harsh economic circumstance. International aid never came close to fundamental change in this sphere. Foreign governments and their academic ideologues rehabilitated the failed dogma that posits Haiti’s low-wage, factory labor force as an economic asset to be built upon, thus perpetuating the neglect of Haiti’s all–important agricultural production, including environmental decline prompted by deforestation.
Former US President Bill Clinton and current presidential aspirant Hillary Clinton were key ideologues of the sweatshop labor strategy. A showpiece of that dogma is the Carocol Industrial Park, located far from the earthquake zone in Haiti’s northwest. It was touted to create tens of thousands of jobs when the idea was launched in 2010. But a 2013 investigation by reporter Jonathan Katz revealed that “fewer than 1,500 jobs have been created – paying too little, the locals say, and offering no job security”.
Katz reported, “Hundreds of smallholder farmers were coaxed into giving up more than 600 acres of land for the [industrial park] complex, yet nearly 95 per cent 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.”
Assembly factories in the new park routinely pay below the meagre US$4.76 average daily minimum wage. A report by the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the International Finance Cooperation (IFC) in 2013, which monitor and enforce factory compliance with national and international standards, found that all 24 of the factories it monitored in Haiti were “non-compliant.” All violated occupational safety and health standards. All violated minimum wage laws, and 11 violated overtime standards. None provided adequate health and first aid services, and 22 were in violation of worker protection standards.
“Billions of dollars” in aid
What has become of the billions of dollars of aid promised to Haiti? A report by CEPR in January 2014 said that much of the aid earmarked for Haiti was not spent in Haiti at all: it went to foreign contractors. “67.1 per cent of USAID contracts has gone to Beltway-based firms, while just 1.3 percent has gone to Haitian companies,” CEPR wrote. And “of the $6.43 billion disbursed by bilateral and multilateral donors to Haiti from 2010-2012, just nine percent went through the Haitian government.”
Writing in July of 2014, CEPR reported that of the $1.38 billion awarded by USAID to projects in Haiti, only $12.36 million went to Haitian organizations. Of the Haitian amount, 57 per cent went to Cemex Haiti, a local cement mixing outlet and subsidiary of the Mexican Cemex, the Mexican company that is one of the largest cement producers in the world. (Cemex acquired the state-owned cement producer in Haiti that was privatized some 15 years ago.)
A lot of celebrities and other prominent people have been and gone from Haiti over the past five years. Careers have been created or polished up by charitable works. The Clintons come to mind. Among their number: many Hollywood actors, musicians, Canada’s former governor-general (titular head of state and Michaëlle Jean, an apologist for the 2004 coup while she was in office who became a special ambassador to Haiti for UNESCO following the earthquake. What most of the celebrities and other high-profile foreign do-gooders have in common is support for the political project that keeps MINUSTAH and its local clients in charge of the country at the expense of the Haitian people.
The words CEPR Director Mark Weisbrot wrote in January 2014 remain pertinent today: the lasting legacy of the earthquake “is the international community’s profound failure to set aside its own interests and respond to the most pressing needs of the Haitian people.”
And then there are the Haitian people and their unrelenting determination to build a country based on sovereignty and social justice. They have an army of faithful international allies working in partnership with them in all fields of social development. Together they constitute a powerful social and political alliance that will ultimately assure the sovereignty and social progress denied for so long to Haiti.
Travis Ross and Roger Annis are editors of the website of the Canada Haiti Action Network, founded in 2005 as a source of news, analysis and advocacy for Haiti. An earlier version of this article was published in the January 7, 2015 print edition of the weekly Haiti Liberté.
For more information on Haiti as well as solidarity projects you can support:
- Legal and political rights: Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti and its partner office in Haiti, the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux.
- Medical care: Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba and Partners In Health. (With both agencies, support can be directed specifically to their Haiti projects.)
- Housing: The ‘Under Tents‘ housing support campaign.
- Education: SOPUDEP School
- Sanitation and soil regeneration: SOIL (Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods)
- Information: Canada Haiti Action Network website; Haiti Liberté (Haiti’s left-wing print weekly, in French and Kreyol with an English language page each week); and Haiti Relief and Reconstruction Watch, published by the Center for Economic Policy Research in Washington DC.
1. For an early 2010 report of the Cuban-led effort, see ‘Field Notes from Haiti: After the Earthquake’, by MEDICC (Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba).
2. You can read an eight page essay on the history of foreign intervention in Haiti: ‘ Haiti’s humanitarian crisis: Rooted in history of military coups and occupations ‘, by Roger Annis and Kim Ives, May 2011.