Friday, November 12, 2010

Crisis and Opportunity, by Beverly Bell

Photo by John Carroll
Laplaine, Haiti


By Beverly Bell

When people ask me, as they do all the time, “Is there any cause for hope in
Haiti?” I answer yes.

It’s more tempting to think that the situation is so hopeless that it can’t
any worse, especially right now. Last week, Hurricane Tomas brought three
days of heavy storms, causing flash floods which washed away farmers’ homes,
animals, and crops throughout the island. The storm also left filthy
standing water in towns, promising to spread cholera even more rapidly
throughout the country. Cholera has already killed more than 500 people and
infected about 7,500, and will surely ravage many more, particularly as the
best measures for prevention –using a sanitary toilet and washing one’s
hands often – are not possible for most of the 1.5 million living in
internally displaced person’s (IDP) camps. (One recent, extensive study of
IDP camps found that 40% have no water and
30% have no access to toilets of any kind; a
secondshowed that 44% primarily drink
untreated water and 27% have no toilet.)

Despite this grim state of affairs, I like to recall two definitions for
‘crisis’ offered by historian Rebecca Solnit. The Greek origin of the word
means “a point of culmination and separation, an instant when change one way
or another is impending.” And in written Chinese, ‘crisis’ is a combination
of the ideograms for ‘disaster’ and ‘opportunity.’[1]

The natural disaster of January 12 and the social and economic crises it has
propelled mark a sharp rupture with Haiti’s past, a fulcrum in an as yet
uncertain future. Labor organizer Yannick Etienne told me, “This earthquake
was one of the worst things that could have happened, but we have to turn it
into something positive. We have to make sure that people are agents of
change and right now this is a good opportunity, positive in a political
sense. There are so many things that can be done to shake up the traditional
way things have always worked here.”

My hope comes from the power of progressive movements in Haiti, which have
been active at many periods since the slave uprisings began in 1791 and
which are again today, slowly, gathering force. Throughout Haitian history,
united action from the grassroots has been the locus of all systemic change
benefiting the majority. Just a few advances from modern political history
(a period usually demarcated by the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship in
1986) are a popularly ratified constitution, universal elections (though
their results have already been ruptured twice by coups), and the right to
free speech and free assembly (not always protected, but infinitely more so
than in past times). Sometimes progress has built slowly. Other moments have
seen the camel’s-back phenomenon, in which one act has set off long periods
of relative quiescence, such as when the killing by Tontons Macoutes of
three youth in November 1985 ignited the spark of fury against the
dictatorship; Duvalier survived a scant ten weeks of the resulting social

A few examples of recent advances from the post-earthquake work of social
change organizations include the following:

- A few environmental groups like Haïti Survie are using this moment not
just to address the symptoms of ecological crisis like deforestation, but to
challenge the root causes, including lack of income opportunities for the
rural population which force them to over-exploit natural resources.

- Women’s organizations, such as Women’s House (Kay Fanm) and Solidarity
among Haitian Women (SOFA), are using the visibility created by
gender-based violence to draw attention to the ongoing need to reinforce
women’s rights;

- Friends of Health, the Haitian branch of Partners in Health, has
developed an alliance with the Haitian Ministry of Health to remake the
University Hospital, the largest public hospital in the country and a
long-standing symbol of the deplorable state of health care available to the

- The networks Society for Social Mobilization and Communication (SAKS)
and Haitian Women’s Community Radio Network (REFRAKA) are literally giving
voice to earthquake survivors, providing radio transmitters to camps around
the country;

- Several IDP camps have, under women’s leadership, created a culture of
community support and initiated programs – cultural, skills-building,
income-generating, educational, and empowerment - which model what a
nurturing society would look like.

A wholly new movement – though rooted in the long tradition of organizing -
arose within days after the quake to claim a just reconstruction. The
effectiveness of the women’s sector, peasant farmer cooperatives, popular
media, human rights groupings, youth and student associations, and other
mass organizations is a critical variable in how equitable, rights-based,
and democratic their country becomes. The grouping is not yet strong, both
because coalitions were already fissured by political divisions when the
earthquake hit, and because in the quake they lost members and organizing
fundamentals (computers, internet possibilities, cell phones, offices,
supplies, archives, etc.). This movement has in its short history already
repeatedly stalled and restarted in new configurations. But given the
urgency of the crisis, they are gaining steam. And two moves toward
reconciliation between former adversaries - amongst peasant organizations
and amongst some groups long divided by their positions around former
president Aristide – give hope for greater unity and thus greater strength.

A declaration from this movement stated the priorities as “strengthening
national production, valuing the riches of the country…; [and]
establish[ing] a reconstruction plan where the fundamental problems of the
people take first priority. These include housing, environment, food,
education, literacy, work, and health for all; a plan to wipe out
exploitation, poverty, and social and economic inequality; and a plan to
construct a society which is based on social justice.” As usual in Haiti,
the means to the solution is collective action, or what the statement calls
building “a social force.”[2]

Today the united action is most visible in the form of street
demonstrations, which reemerged in August. The demands of the protests span
the political gamut, mostly concentrating the right to permanent housing for
those in camps. The movement is also engaged in information-sharing,
consciousness-raising, and advocacy.

The potential for a real rebellion against the unacceptable status quo is
strongest within the camps, where 1.5 million or so people – all of them
desperate, many of them angry – have languished for ten months. Small groups
of activists have been moving through some camps, trying to raise political
awareness there. Though the population’s response is repressed by hunger,
illness, and depression, increasing engagement by camp committees indicates
the potential for mass mobilization.

Rising self-organizing from within the camps may be a fear among the Haitian
and U.S. elite and others. A Wall St. Journal article hinted at the logic
for the fear: “Inside the many tent cities… a rudimentary social order is
beginning to emerge as committees agitate to secure food, water and supplies
in high demand from international aid organizations. ‘We knew we wouldn't
receive any assistance unless we formed a committee,’ says Mrs. Beaupin… She
presides over an executive committee [which]… handle[s] everything from
getting people to sweep outside their tents in the muddied terrain to
ensuring that the sick and injured get treatment. ‘There is no government
but us,’ says Mrs. Beaupin.”[3]

In the bleak landscape, it may be tempting to think that the Haitian people
are losing their shot at the structural transformation alluded to in the
disaster/opportunity dyad. But to believe that they have lost the battle
discounts the evidence of their history. My own reading is that in politics,
as in love, remarkably unpredictable shifts can and often do happen; any
number of factors could flip the downward trajectory of the majority’s
well-being and power since January 12. The organized grassroots are working
to ensure that they do.

[1] Rebecca Solnit, Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities
That Arise in Disaster (Penguin Books, 2009), p. 142. The quote is by Samuel
Prince, cited by Solnit.

[2] On January 12, the Earth Shook and Encountered a Country without
Governance. Let’s Raise Up the Dignity of the Country and the Haitian
People,” Port-au-Prince, February 13, 2010, signed by dozens of popular

[3] Miriam Jordan, “Social Structures Form in Haiti's Tent Cities: As
Homeless Settle in for the Long Haul, Committees Lobby for Aid and Keep
Order; 'There Is No Government but Us'”, Wall Street Journal, March 8, 2010,

*Beverly Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for over 30 years.
She is also author of the book Walking on Fire: Haitian Women's Stories of
Survival and Resistance. She coordinates Other Worlds,, which promotes social and economic
alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the Institute for Policy


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