‘Haiti Through Clear Eyes’

Remarks by Dr. Robert Maguire

The first of our policy papers is a version of ‘Haiti Through Clear Eyes,’ a presentation given by Dr. Robert Maguire on September 19th 2013 at the panel session entitled “Haiti: Ongoing Engagement,” organized for the 43rd meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference.

INTRODUCTION

To Congressman John Conyers, the sponsor of this panel, for his long and continued attention to Haiti, and to Ron Daniels, the organizer and moderator of this panel – and whose indefatigable interest in Haiti is an inspiration – I offer “Honor – Respect.”  And I offer ‘Onè – Respè’ to all of you who have come here today.

I am honored that I have been invited to speak on this important panel.  It behooves us to keep our eyes on Haiti, but we must be certain to look at Haiti with clear eyes that are not clouded by self-delusion or wishful thinking.

We have deluded ourselves – or been deluded – before when it comes to our engagement with Haiti.

THEN

In the early 1980’s, while Haiti was under the regime of the dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, and following the end of what Jean Dominique called ‘the Haitian Spring’ inspired by President Jimmy Carter’s emphasis on human rights, when Duvalier’s regime clamped down on journalists and human rights activists following the election of Ronald Reagan, we were told to believe certain things that were untrue:

  • We were told that Haiti no longer had tonton makout, Duvalier’s paramilitary goon squad.  It was not true.
  • We were told that Haiti would become the ‘Taiwan of the Caribbean’ through the exploitation in assembly factories of plentiful and cheap labor.  It was not true.
  • We were told that the stability that existed under Duvalier – which muzzled the voices of ordinary Haitians – was good for the country’s ‘development.’  It was not true.
  • And we were told that Haiti was making ‘progress’ toward democracy under Jean-Claude.  That, also, was not true.

It was when the souls of the 30 Haitians who had desperately fled Haiti’s poverty and repression and washed ashore at Hillsboro Beach, Florida in 1981 spoke to us that we began to look at Haiti with clear eyes.  I had the very sad but unforgettable experience of attending, with DC Delegate Walter E. Fauntroy, the wake in Miami of those who perished in that unspeakable manifestation of Haiti under Duvalier.

Thereafter, Reverend Fauntroy, joined by Representatives Shirley Chisholm and Bill Gray – all founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus – led the effort to exert greater Congressional oversight on Haiti and on US-Haiti policy.  What they quickly concluded was that the country had become a repressive ‘kleptocracy’ – that is a government of thieves – under Duvalier.

NOW

Today, my fear is that once again there is a tendency to look at Haiti through rose-colored glasses, and therefore deceiving ourselves by thinking that is much too wishful.  While it is good to accentuate the positive – and there are positive developments taking place in Haiti today – we must be careful not to diminish Haiti and its people by accepting the country as a modern day POTEMKIN VILLAGE – a place where we see a pretty façade and assume that all else behind it is just fine.

I would caution us to accept what is positive, but not in a way that places form over substance.

  • Painting the facades of the homes of poor people who are perched on a dangerous hillside called ‘Jalousie’ because they cannot find a safer place to live, while conditions inside their homes – no water, sanitation, electricity, or employment – continue to manifest their severe, grinding poverty is, simply stated, putting form over substance.
  • Applauding the creation of a ‘Supreme Council of Judicial Power’ (CSPJ) without looking critically at those who have been nominated to be on it is, simply stated, putting form over substance.
  • Citing the creation of an anti-corruption unit yet ignoring the fact that foxes have been placed in charge of this henhouse is, simply stated, putting form over substance.
  • Looking uncritically at so-called ‘social programs’ that are little more than politically-oriented hand-outs to poor people – and to cronies of those in power – as opposed to efforts that actually address root problems that limit opportunity and perpetuate poverty is, simply stated, putting form over substance.

And I will not even touch the toxic dossier called ‘elections’.

PLUS CA CHANGE

In the aftermath of the January 12, 2010 earthquake, Bill Clinton told us that Haiti would be ‘built back better.’  I have reached a different conclusion emanating from the wisdom of a French dramatist, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin –  better known to us as ‘Molière’ – as more applicable to Haiti today.  Molière once surmised that the more things change, the more they stay the same’ – plus sa change, plus c’est le meme chose.  When we look at Haiti today we can see that things have changed – but in a way that they have remained the same.

  • New government – political gridlock: Yes, Haiti has a new government – a change – but Haiti’s governance and politics continue to be plagued by the politics of personality and self-aggrandizement, political polarization, difficulty in consensus-building among political actors, the struggle over elections – oft delayed.  And, as before, a UN force is essential to ‘keep the peace.’
  • Debt relief – indebtedness:  By the early years of the 21st century, Haiti had become mired in external debt.  Before the quake, the Haitian government – executive and legislative branches, working with international lenders – put in place reforms that resulted in the forgiveness of much of the country’s debt.  Following the earthquake, international actors wiped the debt slate clean.  Earlier this month, at a summit in Port-au-Prince of countries who participate in Venezuela’s Petro Caribe program, it was acknowledged that Haiti had run up a debt of $1.522 billion – to Venezuela alone, through its participation in that program.  The lion’s share of that debt has accrued over the past 2.5 years – and for what; to what benefit of Haiti’s people (besides the aforementioned patronage hand-outs)?  The lack of transparency in accounting for those funds keeps all of us guessing exactly how they have been and are being used.
  • Port-au-Prince: Yes, three and a half years after the earthquake the rubble has been removed from Port-au-Prince and most internally displaced people, we are told, have been relocated (sometimes simply to be out-of-sight) or have returned to their old neighborhoods.   But, has Port-au-Prince been ‘built back better?’  No. Rather, the city is back to its ramshackle self, with inadequate infrastructure and bursting at the seams with people who have fled the progressive impoverishment of the countryside for opportunities – real or perceived – in the city.  Haiti’s primate city remains a magnet for off-the-land migration at a pace that averaged 75,000 per year for the decades before the earthquake and a city of broken dreams for most of these migrants.  It remains the hub of 65 percent of Haiti’s economic activity, with 85 percent of the country’s fiscal revenue concentrated there.  And, as a Haitian businessman once told me, some 300,000 people a day (at least) continue to rise each morning without a penny in their pockets.
  • Aid and investment: Since the earthquake there has been a great deal of aid and activity related to it – principally in the Port-au-Prince area and principally managed by externally based non-government organizations and for-profit contractors with high overhead costs or profit margins.  In addition to this way of managing aid remaining the same, what else remains the same is that the twin anxieties of the vast majority of Haiti’s people – cheche lavi (hustle to survive) and Lavi chè (the high cost of living) – continue to plague them.  And these twin anxieties, as before, hover over the country as a cloud from which lightning and thunder can descend at any time.  Also, this sad, but true Haitian proverb is still at work:  The mules work so the ponies can play (Bourik travay pou chawal garonnin).  In other words, the aid and investment that does reach Haiti continues to accrue in the pockets and accounts of the privileged few, not in the hands of the 80 percent who somehow survive on $2.00 a day or less.  This is how aid and ‘open for business’ translate to Haiti’s reality.    Luckily, Haitians living overseas (the Diaspora) continue to send remittances back home – to the tune of more than $2 billion a year – to help family members keep their heads above water.
  • Universal talent – limited opportunities: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked in 2009 that in Haiti talent is universal but opportunities are limited.  Despite post-quake activities, this remains the case, especially for the youth in a country where 43 percent are younger than 15 years of age and 71 percent are younger than 29, and where job creation remains a rumor.  If opportunities for earning a decent living with a ‘living wage’ are not expanding in Haiti, two scenarios appear:  look for them elsewhere; protest their inexistence in Haiti.  Why is there not more investment in youth and in Haiti as the ‘Creative Republic of the Caribbean,’ where expression of arts, culture, music, handcraft, and other forms of the creativity that Haiti is known for can offer significant opportunity for young and stifled talent?
  • Voices of the voiceless: Even though Haiti’s voiceless voices were accorded an opportunity to present their views on the country’s development at the March 2010 Haiti Donors’ Conference at the UN – the most important intervention at that meeting in my judgment – those voices remain ignored or unheeded.  Rather, as before, it is the loudest, shrillest voices – mostly in Port-au-Prince and at the upper echelons of power and privilege – that are listened to.

No wonder, then, that ‘the more things change, the more they remain the same.’

CONCLUSION

There is a special urgency today for the Congressional Black Caucus – and the US government more broadly – to lead the way for looking at Haiti with clear eyes.  Congressman Conyers, allow me this opportunity to urge you and your colleagues to assure that there is helpful Congressional oversight on Haiti, and to ask this important, simple question:  Is the United States in its policy and practice toward Haiti placing form over substance?

And then follow up by asking:

  • Are we seeing in Haiti the consolidation of power in one branch of the government or is there true and autonomous separation of power among those branches?
  • Is Haiti’s political trend toward a type of benevolent – at least for now – authoritarianism, or will transparent democratic process be strengthened?
  • Is the country experiencing the kind of political and economic recidivism that is taking it ‘back to a pre-1986 future’ or is Haiti really moving forward?
  • Has the thorn in the side of Haiti’s movement toward democracy – impunity – becoming weaker or stronger?  In this regard, I suggest that Jean-Claude Duvalier, drug-trafficking trends, and the nascent return of kleptocracy serve as important markers.
  • Is Haiti being run by work horses that are needed to devote themselves tirelessly to improve the living conditions of all citizens, or are show ponies, more interested in their own preening, running the country?
  • Are the changes we are informed of real or cosmetic?  Is Haiti a modern ‘Potemkin Village’ with a façade of change or are root causes of the poverty and misery of those 80 percent struggling each and every day to assure their own survival being forthrightly and incessantly tackled?

To end, I will cite an expression used in a popular US television show about high school football in Texas (and I’m sure that Micky Leland, another giant of the CBC who dedicated himself to Haiti, would be happy to hear me mention his home state): “Clear Eyes; Full Hearts: Can’t Lose.”

Let us keep our eyes clear and our hearts full, and truly engage Haiti and its people toward a future in which all of them are winners.

Thank you very much – mesi anpil.