Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Poor Always Pay, by Beverly Bell

Photo by John Carroll



By Beverly Bell

December 13, 2010

The start of Haiti’s most recent crisis came with ample warning. Most
Port-au-Prince residents scurried to their homes mid-afternoon last Tuesday,
certain of the violence and chaos which would ensue once the electoral
council announced which two presidential candidates would make it to the
run-offs. The trouble-makers didn’t wait until the 8:00 p.m. announcement,
but started throwing rocks and erecting barricades by late afternoon for
good measure. By nightfall, gunfire ricocheted around the capital and other
towns. Through Friday, the black smoke of burning-tire barricades rose above
the small crowds who rampaged through towns, destroying shops and other
structures, burning cars, and occasionally shooting people. Haitian Radio
Metropole reported five deaths.

The electoral council’s results were as transparently
the vote
The only candidate with popular appeal, Michel Martelly, was excluded from
the run-off. The widely hated president René Préval’s chosen successor, Jude
Célestin, was inserted into the January 16 run-off along with Mirlande

Scrambling to get itself out of its jam, the electoral council announced a
recount, but both Martelly and Manigat have rejected this option.
Cancellation of the vote is a distant option. The council’s routes through
which to backpedal appear blocked.

Meanwhile, on Friday, Sen. Patrick Leahy, who sits on the Senate
Appropriations Committee,
President Obama to withhold aid to the Haitian government and suspend
travel visas of senior Haitian officials until “necessary steps” are taken
to guarantee a democratic result. And yesterday, the United Nations,
Organization of American States, European Union, American, and four other
ambassadors in Haiti
urged the
government on to the next legal step, requesting that the 72-hour period in
which parties may contest the results begin today.

The weekend brought calm - partial on Saturday and broader on Saturday. Some
ventured out hesitantly after days spent house-bound to stock up on food or
view the destruction, but still motor vehicles and pedestrians remained
scarce. This morning dawned as just another Haitian day, except that schools
remain officially closed. But there are more electoral council announcements
on the horizon. No one knows what the coming week will bring, but calm is
not high on the list of options.

The only ones who stand to gain from the current upheaval are the candidates
vying for victory, and the demonstrators and agitators they have paid. Some
acts of violence and construction of road barricades appeared to be random,
enacted by thugs who control various neighborhoods or others who were
perhaps simply bored. Those grassroots organizations who normally sponsor
demonstrations against Préval sat this week out; these are not the
activities of an organized pro-democracy movement.

As always, it is the poor who have paid the heaviest cost. For starters,
those who live from the informal economy have lost days of the miniscule
incomes which barely keep their families alive. The small army of vendors of
phone cards who congregate at gas stations, the men who peddle long-expired
medications from red buckets on their heads, the women who sell imported
corn flakes or second-hand underwear, and all the rest were not to be found
on the deserted streets from Wednesday through the weekend, meaning that
their families lost the few cents they make on each sale.

Those living in shantytowns where much of the violence was concentrated
could not leave their homes out of fear. Neither could those living under
plastic tarps or tents on the streets or in internally displaced peoples’
camps in volatile neighborhoods; they, moreover, could not even retreat
behind walls or lock their door. Numerous women in these settings, among a
circle who call me whenever they can buy cell phone minutes, reported that
their meager supplies of food and water ran out after a day or two. With no
means to buy more even if they could have gone to the market, they ran to
neighbors’ homes in calmer moments to try to collect small gifts to sustain
their children – sometimes with more success than others. Hunger, every
woman told me, has been the norm since Wednesday.

Yesterday morning, for example, one of my daily calls was from Dieuveut
Mondestin. She is a widow who lives with four children and an infant in a
tarp-covered lean-to in the shantytown of Martissant. She has no nearby
relatives, no job or other source of support, no source of free or nearby
water, and no electricity. Dieuveut had just returned from two days in the
hospital, where she was watching over her dead husband’s father who had
cholera. I ask how she’s made out these last few days. “I can’t suffer
anything I haven’t already suffered, so I still have hope. But it’s been
hard, hard, hard, I tell you. There was so much shooting in my neighborhood,
there was nowhere to run. I haven’t had anything to feed my kids. They’re so
skinny, even little Larissa; you remember she was chubby. They’re just
sticks now.”

This past week has also provided the perfect conditions for a spike in
cholera, what Partners in Health calls “a disease of
” which impacts those without safe drinking water. With roads blocked and
all but a valiant few health care and sanitation workers at home, much of
the humanitarian coordination effort in Port-au-Prince and other parts of
Haiti was in “lock-down,” a high-level cholera response worker told me on
Friday. My inbox brought an urgent call for anyone who could travel to ten
camps to deliver the cholera-prevention essentials of water purification
tablets and bleach. Clean drinking water, another essential, also ran out in
many places early on in the days of mêlée.

Because sanitation workers could not get to the camps, toilets and garbage
overflowed to extremes. (For a chilling account, see Sascha Kramer's recent
article in Counter Punch
.) The
sporadic rains throughout the week, moreover, spread contaminated water and
sewage, perfect vectors for the disease.

One eye-witness told me that the group controlling the burning tires on the
central Champs de Mars Boulevard refused to let medical transport vehicles
through. The street barricades and lack of available drivers limited
possibilities of the cholera-struck to get to health care centers during the
window in which healing is possible, which in extreme cases is as short as
four hours. Lack of drivers for medical vehicles also meant that corpses of
many cholera victims remained in camps, bringing serious risk of

The socially and economically marginalized will gain nothing for their
troubles, as no president sympathetic to their cause is forthcoming from
these elections. None of the 19 candidates has been outspoken or active on
behalf of the needs of survivors languishing in camps, or on behalf of a
reconstruction process or economic model which prioritizes the most
vulnerable. The unknown Célestin, from the party that has failed the
citizenry, is so clueless about state responsibility that he even told a
campaign crowd, “To counteract this illness [cholera] is a matter of hygiene
more than anything. Hygienic measures, the state can’t assume that… It’s a
personal and individual matter.” [1] The right-wing intellectual Mirlande
Manigat briefly served as first lady in 1988 to the figurehead civilian
president of a military dictatorship, but is otherwise undistinguished.
Michel Martelly has made public no policy agenda, though it’s hard to
imagine that he could effectively push through any policies. His notoriety
stems being a buffoon and carrousing musician, known for such
non-presidential antics as flashing his bare backside in public.

A vote for Martelly, several people interviewed for this article said, was a
vote against the standard political elite. Human rights lawyer Patrice
Florvilus said, “The [people] don’t know if Martelly will give them anything
different, but they know that they won’t gain anything from the suits who
are the current politicians. Martelly is a product of the vacuum of
alternatives. People need an alternative to the current conditions of their
life but they’ve been totally abandoned.

“So many have been under tents for eleven months with nothing coming to
them. They haven’t seen any of the international aid. They’re at the end of
their rope with their social problems. It’s such a shame that politicians
are using them for their own political profit.”

Regardless of who wins and how, the next president will come in with
constitutionally constrained powers. Since the parliament ceded its power in
April to the Interim Commission for the Reconstruction of Haiti, a 28-member
body whose membership is 50% foreign and whose co-chair is Bill Clinton, the
president holds little power over the country’s future beyond the right to
veto the commission’s decision. With the World Bank as the group’s fiscal
sponsor and all the international muscle around the table, even that veto
option is unlikely to translate to much authority. This constraint will
remain at least until the commission’s current mandate expires in August

The electoral debacle appears to have one other beneficiary besides whoever
wins the presidency. It is the boys who, for once in this super-dense city
with almost no recreational spaces, have had endless open streets on which
to play soccer. Block after block is full of fleet-footed kids moving
between the broken cinder blocks which serve as goals. On an outing to check
out the state of the streets, I called out to one group of boys, “The
elections gave you your soccer field. You lucked out!”

One called back, “No way! We’d rather have a free election!”

Many thanks to Allyn Gaestel for her research help.

*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,
www.otherworldsarepossible.org, which promotes social and economic
alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the Institute for Policy
[1] Campaign speech of Jude Célestin, Port-au-Prince, November 25, 2010,
taped by Reuters journalist Allyn Gaestel.

Rachel Wallis
Other Worlds
Media and Education Coordinator

No comments: