[News] We Want Our Voices To Be Heard: Democracy in Haiti's Earthquake Zone

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Mon May 3 11:34:49 EDT 2010

"We Want Our Voices To Be Heard": Democracy in Haiti's Earthquake Zone

By Laura Flynn

“We are living in the mud.  We are wet and we are 
hungry.  Those in charge have left us without 
hope. If they have a plan we do not know it.   We 
are asking about the future.   And we want our 
voices to be heard, " Suzette Janvier a resident 
of  St. Martin (a neighborhood of central Port-au-Prince) -  April 24, 2010

Each Saturday for the past two months a thousand 
or more Haitian earthquake survivors have met in 
the auditorium of the Aristide Foundation for 
Democracy to talk about the future of their 
country.   Since its founding in 1996 the 
Aristide Foundation, whose auditorium seats up to 
3000 people, has provided a place for grassroots 
activists and ordinary Haitians to come together 
to debate and discuss national issues.  In 
response to the earthquake the Foundation is 
sponsoring weekly public forums in which 
participants tell their stories, talk about the 
conditions of their lives, and describe their 
needs; they receive training or information on 
the current situation and on their rights under 
the Haitian constitution, and the United Nations 
principles on Internally Displaced People; and 
together presenters and participants brainstorm 
and discuss actions that can be taken to make 
their voices heard.  Each forum has drawn between 
900-1500 participants; the majority of those 
attending are living in spontaneous settlements 
across the earthquake zone--as are the majority 
of the citizens of Port-au-Prince.   Delegations 
come from other parts of the country as well, 
particularly the South and Southeast – Jacmel and 
Les Cayes --which were also hit hard by the quake.

Participants at AFD forums have offered vivid 
testimony about conditions of life in 
Port-au-Prince since the earthquake. Now that the 
rains have begun, people describe spending the 
nights “domi pandeye," (sleeping while balancing 
upright), standing under their plastic sheeting 
because there is no room for everyone to be 
sheltered and lie down, and because water floods 
the tents.  During the rainy season, which has 
already begun, but will intensify in May, it 
rains nearly every night.  In the morning the sun 
blazes, the heat under the plastic sheeting—which 
is all most people have to protect themselves—is 
stifling.  They are now living in “labouye” (the 
mud) 24 hours a day, in camps almost uniformly 
lacking in latrines, or other sanitation.

They describe the struggle to feed their 
families.   The price of basic foodstuffs  (rice, 
beans, cornmeal, cooking oil, and charcoal for 
cooking) have risen 15-30% since the earthquake, 
while incomes have all but disappeared.  Only 
those receiving funds from family overseas are 
able to purchase food.  For those dependent on 
international aid, finding food for their 
families is an unending labor.  Coupons for food 
might be distributed in the camps once a week, 
though not to everyone and not with 
predictability.   Women who were able to get the 
coupons must then go to a different site, often 
miles away, and line up long before the sun 
rises.  If they are lucky, by noon they might 
receive a 50lb bag of rice, which must then be 
carried or transported back to where they are 
living.   The next day the same struggle might 
begin again this time to find cooking oil—one day 
spent in line waiting for the coupons, another 
day to travel to where the oil is being 
distributed, in a completely different location 
than the rice.   Often these ventures yield 
nothing: there aren’t enough coupons to go 
around, the rice runs out, the distribution 
center has been relocated, or it does not open 
due to security concerns.  And with the rains bags of rice get wet and spoil.

Participants describe with horror a dramatic rise 
in prostitution—young women and girls selling 
their bodies to feed themselves and their families.

They describe the dire health conditions in the 
camps where infectious diseases are poised to run 
rampant.  Each Wednesday since March 10, 2010, 
the Aristide Foundation has held a large free 
clinic in the auditorium of the Foundation, 
providing primary care services to 1,200 people 
every week.   What AFD doctors see and hear from 
patients in the clinics confirms the testimony in 
the forums—that is, high rates of illness that 
result from the conditions in which people are 
living: malnutrition, diarrhea among children, 
urinary tract and other infections.

The first demand of those who have gathered at 
the AFD in the forums is for temporary housing in 
safe and sanitary locations.  The second is for 
food.  Beyond this jobs, education, healthcare, 
and—despite the fact that most of the 
participants are urban—they are demanding real 
investment in agricultural for food production 
that can one day offer food security to the country.

Underlying all of this, participants in the 
forums are asking to participate in the planning 
of the nation’s future—the necessary precondition 
for real recovery.   Those gathering at the AFD, 
feel more intensely than ever before, a profound sense of exclusion.

Certainly there was no attempt at consultation or 
participation with Haiti’s vibrant and engaged 
grassroots organizations in the preparation of 
the PRND  (the Post-Disaster Needs Assessment) 
put forward by the Haitian government to the 
international donors conference on March 
31st.   On the eve of the donor meeting, on March 
27, over 1,200 people met at the AFD for a debate 
focused on the constitution – specifically the 
constitutionality of the creation of the 
20-person  Interim Commission for the 
Reconstruction of Haiti, dominated by foreigners, 
which will oversee all international 
funding.  The next, even larger, forum focused on 
the GOH plan to extend its emergency powers for 
18-months in order to allow the Interim 
Commission to be created and to exercise 
extra-constitutional powers.  Fourteen hundred 
people gathered, and most expressed deep concern 
over the repercussions for Haiti’s 
sovereignty.  This was followed by three days of 
sit-ins of 500-600 people, at the Haitian 
parliament, to protest the passage of the law.

In addition to preparing the plan and creating 
this Interim Commission without participation, 
there has also been almost no communication about 
what might be in that plan. People coming to the 
forums at the Foundation have all heard there’s a 
plan.  They have no idea what is in it.  They 
hear billions of dollars were pledged in New 
York.  They have little faith this money will be 
given, and no faith that what is given will be spent in their interests.

The issue at the top of everyone’s mind is the 
question of temporary resettlement, of moving 
people out of the way of the clear and present 
danger that the coming more intense rains 
represent.  But three months after the quake, no 
clear message or plan has been articulated by the 
Haitian government or international NGOs.

In early April there were several reports of 
forced removals of people encamped on the grounds 
of private schools, private property, and from 
the soccer stadium.  At some sites bulldozers 
arrived without notice to tear down shelters and 
families were left with no a place to go.  To 
date it appears the only voluntary relocation 
which has had any success is at Corail, where 
over the last week or two the Haitian government 
in collaboration with international NGOs has 
begun to move people from the Petionville golf 
course (where more than 45.000 people are 
encamped) to a relocation center at Corail, but 
this camp is only intended to hold 7,500 
people.   Over one million people are estimated 
to be homeless in the metropolitan area.  If 
there are plans for temporary shelter for anyone 
other than those on the Golf Course they are not 
being communicated to the general public. Those 
gathering at the AFD express fear that they will 
be forcibly evicted from the camps where they are 
living.  They are also skeptical about plans to 
relocate people to remote areas, which would 
leave them cut off from the economic life of the 
city, meaning cut off from the mutual aid 
provided by families, communities, neighborhood 
associations etc, and the informal 
economy.  Mutual aid and the informal economy are 
the only things that keep Haitians alive.  That 
was true before the quake and it is still true.

Efforts to assist must empower Haiti’s powerful 
networks of mutual aid and the informal 
economy—not dismantle, not ignore them.  What 
would it mean to empower them?  Community 
kitchens in the camps, loans to women to restart 
“ti komès” (informal sector commerce), relocation 
for those in imminent danger with their 
participation, finding way of keeping people 
close to the city if that is what they 
desire.  And if, as we hear, decentralization is 
a goal for Haiti’s future, then who is talking to 
the residents of Port-au-Prince about lives they 
might imagine outside the city?   And why out of 
$12.2 billion dollars requested in the Post 
Disaster Needs Assessment (the plan) was only $41 
million or .3% allocated for agriculture and 
fisheries, i.e. for local food production?

Forums at the Aristide Foundation, held on March 
13, March 20, March 27, April 3, April 17, and 
April 24, along with the International Women’s 
Day event on March 8, 2010 (attended by 3000 
women) represent the largest indoor gatherings of 
Haitians to discuss and debate the country’s 
future since the earthquake.  We are not aware of 
any occasion since January 12 where the Haitian 
government, the UN or any international NGO 
planning Haiti’s future and the distribution of 
aid funds, have brought large groups of Haitians 
together to ask for their opinions, their input, or their stories.

Finally, those attending the forums at the AFD 
are unanimous in their call for the return of 
former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to Haiti. 
It is best summed up by Jean Vaudre, a community 
organizer from Bel Air, who said at the forum on 
April 17, “If Aristide were here even if he had 
no money to help us, he would be with us, in the 
rain, under the tents.   If he were here we might 
believe, we might have hope that we will be able 
to participate in the future of the 
country.”  Hope is a commodity in short supply 
right now in Haiti. Is there some way of rebuilding the country without it?

Laura Flynn is a member of the board of the 
Aristide Foundation for Democracy-US, which 
supports the work of the Aristide Foundation in 
Haiti.  AFD-Haiti was founded by Jean-Bertrand 
Aristide in 1996 on the principle that to bring 
real change, democracy must include those at the 
margins of society: street children, market 
women, landless peasants, restaveks (children 
living in Haitian households as unpaid domestic 
laborers), and the urban poor. For 14 years the 
Foundation has dedicated itself to providing 
educational opportunities, and opening avenues of 
democratic participation for those who 
traditionally have had no access to education or 
voice in national affairs. Since the earthquake 
the AFD has mobilized its staff, doctors, 
volunteers and supporters--nationally and 
internationally.  The AFD is operating Mobile 
Schools in 5 refugee camps, participating in 
mobile clinics, and providing medical care to 
1,200 people at the AFD each week.  For more on 
the current work and history of the Aristide 

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