by Katie Curran
Ms Curran is in Haiti to train young film-makers.
I wanted to say hi and also let you know more about the situation here in Haiti, at least from my perspective. It’s pretty bad. Actually, it’s horrific, in many ways. I am very grateful to be able to focus on working with the kids here (I call them kids but most are in their 20s) five days a week – they’re fun, smart, very talented, and I hope they can really push for independent media here, which I think is of utmost importance, for Haitians and the world.
The conditions are probably worse than you can imagine, for the majority of Haitians. It was ranked as the most impoverished country in the Western Hemisphere before the earthquake, and conditions have only worsened. 1,300,000 people were left “homeless” after the earthquake (I put that in quotes, because the shacks so many were living in qualified as homes) and there are still 1,050,000 homeless. They are in camps all over Port-au-Prince and the surrounding areas (many neighborhoods have more tents than other buildings). There are a few that are bearable (like the one that is across the street from me), but a recent human rights survey I read described the conditions as close to unlivable (and from what I’ve seen, I agree).
The sanitation is one of the worst problems – though many organizations (over 10,000 NGOs in Haiti) have tried to implement compost toilets, the efforts only scratch the surface. Toilets are overflowing to the point where people are shitting in plastic bags and with no trash services, the bags are just thrown in ravines. The water situation is obviously so bad that it led to cholera. Sanitation conditions of the entire city are absolutely deplorable. Streets are covered with trash and just flow with the water when it rains. Every single ravine is clogged with trash.
The cost of living here is higher than the U.S. People averaging a dollar a day face tuna fish packages that are $4(maybe $2 in the U.S.), $8 orange juice ($4 in the U.S.), $5 for a box of $2 American cereal. A room for rent in a clean house is about $500 a month. I have NO idea how people are surviving.
The political situation is tenuous, to say the least. Protests are a regular occurrence, but they haven’t been very big lately. As you probably know, the president responsible for mass murders and torture has returned, and I didn’t find out until today that I was actually at the same event as him last night (more on that later). The state hasn’t filed any charges against him, though a few individuals have. Though Duvalier/Baby Doc was a relentless dictator, poverty is actually worse now then when he was in office, and many people are supporting him because anything seems better than what they have now – especially the younger ones that didn’t live through his reign. Aristide is supposed to come back, but I’ve heard various rumors as to whether he will, all surrounding stupid bureaucracy about his passport. Lavalas (his party) has been holding press conferences (I live in the same house as the other Haiti Reporter teachers and with other independent journalists who have been reporting on the press conferences). I’ve received very different opinions on Aristide (from rational people that have lived here a long time). The kids, except for a few, are not super interested in politics and I don’t blame them – people say that the country was just broken when Aristide came back(the second time) and spoke nothing of the economic justice he promised, as he had before the US supported coup that ousted him (as the first democratically elected president of Haiti). The kids, in general, like reporting on Haitian culture, the people who have stayed strong against the odds, and the good parts of Haiti, which I totally understand and support. (By the way, I’m writing mostly about the negative stuff because it is so overpowering, but I don’t mean to leave out the amazing things – like the incredible artistic talent, the inner strength and courage and the kindness of so many Haitians – this is, after all, the first slave rebellion that overthrew slavery and colonization). But the kids typically don’t lean towards overtly political stories (their stories, by the way, have been great so far – I’ve been blown away by what they’ve accomplished in 2 months). I think many of them see “politics” not as something that can be of regular people coming together to take control of their own lives, but as the rich, consistently corrupt men that stay at fancy hotels and take power through illegitimate elections (of which they recently had and is still being disputed) and are supported by various members of the military, state police, UN and “paramilitaries” (sometimes referred to as street gangs). Everyone, for the most part, hates the UN and police – the UN is constantly rolling around in their tanks and trucks with machine guns, often pointed directly at people, and the state police are also everywhere. The country is pretty much occupied by the UN soldiers who seem free from any state or international oversight (constantly using live ammunition at protests, etc.).
I have had some interesting insights as a foreigner, ones that I didn’t have last time I came (late spring of 2009).One of the journalists staying here has a lot of connections in the NGO and journalist world, most of which I’ve found to be pretty disgusting. A few of us went to a party at a big house of an NGO in the richest neighborhood of Port au Prince. The (terrifying) motor ride we took to get there drove us by thousands of tents, and once inside the gate EVERYONE was white (except for security) and all dressed up like they were in New York and EVERYONE worked for an NGO or media conglomerate. Then, last night, a few of us went to a“jazz festival”. I was told today that Duvalier was among the guests that included, again, all the NGO people (they all know each other), journalists and ambassadors of all the first-world countries – US, Canada, Spain, etc. It was a group of people that under any other circumstance I would be protesting their political and economic castrations, rather than mingling with them. It was disgusting. When I say NGO, I include not only people from all the different aide organizations (many of whom are paid outrageous salaries to be here) but the World Bank and Organization of American States. I met a guy last night that worked for the OAS in finance, and I said something like, “you all have got to change your economic approach -- capitalism has obviously not worked and its starving people and making everything worse”. And he said, “I totally agree. If you want to see capitalism at it’s best, come to Haiti”. I was quite amazed that he admitted that.
I have never been in a place of such economic disparity. (There are mansions here bigger than the ones on Long Island.)
One of the problems with Haiti is that organizations have either purposefully sidestepped the Haitian state with the good intentions (as obviously the state has not been trustworthy with its funds) or bypassed it out of their own interest. The results are completely disorganized and in-cohesive attempts to improve Haitian living conditions by organizations of every type working independently of each other (resembling hundreds of people trying to stop a gigantic surge of water with small and misshapen plugs) and with no coordination, and economic interests run wild (often
under the auspice of an NGO title). Some of the organizations have done a lot of good, and maybe the situation would be much worse without them, but the lack of coordination and community is a lot of wasted resources at best and contributing to the problems at worst.
The bottom line is that the underlying, root causes are not being addressed and a lack of political structure holds nothing together – I would label the biggest problems as neo-liberal capitalism/globalization, international political destabilization (to support capitalism run riot)and a lack of democracy. I’m pretty convinced that the best use of money/donations is investing in community, grassroots organizations working for political empowerment,education and economic justice, even though it’s tempting to just give money to anybody, anywhere, as that might buy them a meal. Until the political system changes, not much of anything else will change.