WE'VE LOST THE BATTLE, BUT WE HAVEN'T LOST THE WAR:
HAITI SIX MONTHS AFTER THE EARTHQUAKE
By Beverly Bell
July 12, 2010
Haiti during the World Cup is much like my hometown of New Orleans was
during the Superbowl. Don't try to make plans with anyone to do anything
during a game (in the more cash-rich New Orleans, the ban on
non-game-related activity stretched back a day or two before a game, because
there was food and alcohol to be purchased and a feast to be cooked). I
make the mistake of trying to go to a cell phone office during that time;
employees sit hypnotized in front of the big-screen TV, unwilling to be
distracted by clients.
When Argentina, a favorite in Haiti, loses the soccer match, I can finally
conduct my business and leave the store. People are pouring out from their
tents and houses with a thing or two to express about Argentina's loss. A
group of skinny men parades in bikinis and wigs. Noontime drunks shout
nonsense at each other. Throngs of mourners dance through the streets of
Port-au-Prince, waving Argentine flags and palm fronds. Among them,
loyalists still smarting from Brazil's loss wrap cloths with that country's
flag around their heads.
Thank God it's almost over, my friend Maryse, director of a special
education school, said this morning. Argentina's the last team in the
competition that anyone here really cares about, so all this madness will
have to stop. Four Haitians died in arguments after the loss of the
Brazilian team some days prior.
Soon, said a young construction worker on break from hammering outside my
window, the [political] demonstrations can resume. They stopped at
the start of the World Cup; people suddenly had more important things to do.
Once the World Cup is over, too, the popular educator Ricardo assured me,
the electricity that has been guaranteed during the past month will go back
to its standard state of irregularity. It's the same every four years, he
said. We'll be back in a blakawout, black-out.
From the cell phone store I catch a taxi to a women's meeting. Collective
taxicabs are identified in two ways: the red ribbon hanging from the
rearview mirror, and the decrepit state of the vehicle. They are usually the
oldest and most beat-up cars on the road, and it's not uncommon that a key
part gives out or a many-times-repatched tire blows definitively while en
route. When that happens, the customers simply patiently climb out and pay
the driver, then catch another cab.
I establish up front that I'm not going to be ripped off. Listen, I know
it's one zone. I'm just paying a fare for one zone.
It's two zones, the taxi driver replies.
No, cheri. To Avenue Lamartinière it's one zone, 25 gourdes. Don't give me
the price you make up for blan, foreigners.
He gives me a circumspect look. But aren't you a blan?
As usual, everyone in the cab is sharing stories about evenman la, the
event. You hear the word all day long (in New Orleans, four and half years
later, the same is true of Katrina...my friend, Grant, a writer, said that
his dream is to go just one day without hearing the word). Six months later,
with a little distance and a lot of moxie, many of the stories of misery
have evolved into dramatic tales, complete with humor. The driver and the
four other passengers wedged into the little Nissan are laughing loudly at
one such account.
I tell them I am amazed that they can laugh. The man against whom my thigh
is jammed says, "If you stay traumatized all the time, it's not good for
you. You have to find joy to diminish it."
In some ways, everything has changed since the earthquake. Almost one in
seven are living in streets or camps in wretched conditions. No
comprehensive, or even piecemeal, plan for addressing homelessness has been
revealed by anyone in power, except to move them from one tent city to
another. Hurricane season is underway, but no preparations have been made to
protect those living under bed sheets or pieces of nylon.
Food aid has been suspended except as food for work. Water aid is soon to
be suspended, too, since Haitian businessmen have complained that it is
undermining their profits. Many of the free clinics that were created in the
humanitarian outpouring after the disaster have closed up shop.
Imagine that six months after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleanians were still
trapped in the Superdome and the Arena. Imagine that they were not given
food or even, usually, drinking water. That they shared filthy
port-o-potties with thousands and that they had to stand in long lines in
the hot sun to get buckets of water for bathing. That they had no
electricity or lighting to speak of, not even flash lights. That the
government had never announced a plan to get them out of there and back into
homes, or even checked to see how they were doing.
Normal conversations are markedly different after the earthquake, so many of
them reflecting the loss of hundreds of thousands of friends and family
members, and of an even higher number of homes. For example, in a clinic, a
little girl I'd never seen before approached me and said, a propos of
nothing, My mother died. My little sister's name is Timarie. Did your
house get crushed?No. My house got crushed.
And this: I was sitting in on a meeting in a refugee camp - the only
blan present - when an elderly woman planted herself in front of me. In
a flat voice resounding with loss, she said, "I have one son, a strong young man of
ten. He lost his foot in the earthquake. What are he and I supposed to do?".
A ten-year-old with a stump. Before I could compose myself enough to
respond, she turned and walked away.
A commission, half-composed of foreigners, today has formal oversight over
Haiti and its reconstruction (see "Foreign-Led Commission Now Governs
It was elected by no one and accountable to no one. It issues no reports,
gives no State of the Union address. There is no number to call to learn its
position on a given topic or to register one's opposition. I've heard
numerous people here bitterly refer to U.N. Special Envoy Bill Clinton,
co-director of this Interim Commission for the Reconstruction of Haiti, as
president of Haiti.
But in many ways, Haiti is the same as it ever was. The elected government
and its associates--what is sometimes referred to here as the political
class--are, as always, apathetic in the face of desperate citizens' needs.
One young woman said to me, "The Haitian government is deaf, dumb, and mute."
Ricardo commented, "From the first second after the earthquake, the
government fled. Not the first minute, the first second."
As they've been for many decades, demonstrations are (excepting, as
mentioned, during the World Cup) one outlet for the anger of marginalized
Haitian citizens, who have no other advocacy options within the formal
system. Citizens regularly take to the streets to demand housing for the
displaced, good education, and support of national agricultural production.
They have recently protested violence by the U.N. security mission,
non-payment of wages to state workers and teachers, and the introduction of
toxic Monsanto seeds, among other complaints.
Grassroots organizations still meet regularly to develop their strategies
for political change, as they have throughout history. Across the country on
any given day, small groups perch on broken chairs under tarps in refugee
camps, huddle amidst rubble in the courtyards of earthquake-destroyed
schools, or sweat under thatched-roof gazebos. Despite all, they remain
convinced that, as the slogan adapted from the World Social Forum says,
another Haiti is possible, or at least that they can win more justice than
they currently have. They are developing pressure points for housing rights
and protection against rape for those in camps. Some plan information
campaigns aimed at sweatshop workers, others programs to politicize youth.
The agendas are seemingly endless.
Haiti is the same in much more plebeian ways, too. No one on the block where
I'm staying can breathe for two days because of the thick and putrid smoke
from wood charcoal being made up the ravine. Flies and the mosquitoes change
shifts at sunset and sunrise, while sweat pulls 24-hour shifts. Pigs forage
in garbage piles downtown. For a few cents, people purchase from street
vendors meals of sugar cane, or fried bananas, or cassava bread and peanut
butter with cayenne. They wear shoes cracked down the middle of the sole
that, most anywhere else, would have been thrown away long ago.
Boys fly homemade kites and girls carry water. Motorcycles zip by with as
many as five people on them. Salesmen stand at the front of buses and
display jars of dark liquid which they tell their audience will cure
fibroids, high blood pressure, and eczema. Little boys stand facing out from
the walls to urinate, men stand facing towards the walls to urinate. Women
pull thin flowered handkerchiefs from their bras and slowly unwrap them to
produce crumpled gourd notes.
People insist on giving you a cup of coffee as though they had nothing else
to do in the world. Women walk through the streets with baskets on their
head, chanting in loud voices, "I got peas, I got carrots, I got cabbage."
Pedestrians pause on the sidewalk to wipe the thick dust off their shoes
with a little scrap of toilet paper, though the shoes will become filthy
again momentarily. Men sit on chairs in sidewalk barber shops, getting
shaves. Girls flap down the streets in backless sandals, swinging their
behinds. Neighbors break up coupling cats, because who needs more kittens?
As always, to disarm hostile situations, many make their voices supplicatory
and call each other cheri. In crowded streets, people anger easily and laugh
easily. They engage in gestures of great tenderness and harsh meanness. They
show impressive generosity and rip off the most vulnerable.
Now it's Saturday night, and neighbors do what they do everywhere that is
big on community and short on funds: gather on stoops and curbs to talk.
Mirlene, who used to cook for a friend of mine, walks up the street to meet
me. We haven't seen each other since the earthquake, so we arrange ourselves
on a curb, tuck the excess cloth of our skirts under our knees, and begin
with the only possible topic: the event.
While we're talking, a couple of men come join us. I offer them my
condolences for the loss of Argentina. One lifts his hands heavenward and
says, "We're resigned." Then: "We've lost the battle, but we haven't lost
Spoken like a true Haitian, I tell him.
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