“If this happened in my district, they would have been rioting already.”
Congressman Bobby Rush (Chicago, IL), nine days after the earthquake
It has been eleven months now since the earthquake destroyed much of Port-au-Prince. We’ve heard the statistics repeated into infinity: more than 1.5 million people are still homeless, living under tarps and bed sheets. Add to this a six-year foreign military occupation that most recently has been accused of bringing a deadly cholera epidemic to the country, and widespread awareness that although hundreds of millions were donated to help earthquake survivors practically nothing has changed in the concrete living conditions of said survivors, and it is truly impressive how patient and peaceful Haitians have been.
During the first weeks after the quake, the U.S. prioritized getting its military forces onto the ground to stave off the expected civil unrest, however nearly a year later there has yet to be a real riot – even if the press might want you to believe otherwise. There has, however, been something more dangerous and frightening than food riots and looting of heavily stocked NGO warehouses: community-based mobilization and well-organized peaceful protests.
After Haiti’s very first democratic elections, a coup d’etat brought into power a military and paramilitary intent on destroying the extremely successful popular movement known as Lavalas. For three years the leaders and followers of the movement were hunted, tortured, publicly killed – and some disappeared. Whole areas of Port-au-Prince and Gonaives were burned to the ground. Although it has been fifteen years since democracy was restored, the interim has included another coup d’etat, an internationally installed government and various foreign military occupations.
As author Peter Hallward explained, Haiti is in “one of the most prolonged and intense periods of counter-revolution anywhere in the world.” The means to squash the rebirth of a true grassroots-based social movement have been both overt and covert, but they have been largely successful. The earthquake, however, changed everything; it reorganized society into large vulnerable settlements and decimated the middle class, widening the gap between the very rich and the miserably poor. As a result, a new space has opened for mobilization.
Recently the number of protests has been multiplying and this is no accident. Local organizations based in poor urban communities like the Neighborhood Association of Solino (AVS) and the inivèsite popilè (popular university) have teamed up with new organizations defending the right to housing (FRAKKA) and long-time NGOs like KOFAVIV, the Commission of Women Victims for Victims. With facilitation and organizing from the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) and the alternative media/community mobilization team Bri Kouri Nouvèl Gaye (Noise Travels, News Spreads), these groups have been meeting and carefully planning peaceful protests and sit-ins for months.
These demonstrations have straightforward demands such as housing and education for homeless and displaced earthquake survivors - and justice for rape victims. Protests have also called for the end of the United Nations peacekeeping mission and have accused the MINSUTAH of being responsible for the outbreak of cholera, a theory that has nearly been confirmed by the UN itself. Members of the planning teams choose the themes for the demos in advance, and a talented graffiti artist in the poor neighborhood of Solino has been hand-painting the placards the demonstrators take into the streets. Often the slogans are presented in Creole and Spanish, so that UN troops who haven’t bothered to learn the language of the country they occupy won’t miss the meaning.
In addition to protests, the partnership of grassroots based groups has been mobilizing within dozens of camps for internally displaced people, and some of the groups like Bri Kouri Nouvèl Gaye also travel into the countryside to connect rural-based cooperatives and networks with the community leadership in the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area. Popular university sessions at camps including the isolated “model” relocation site in the desert of Corail have included guest lecturers like Camille Chalmers, prominent economist, professor at the State University and Secretary General of PAPDA, the Platform to Advocate for an Alternative Development.
Creating dialogue among the most marginalized Haitians is a truly revolutionary activity, so it is unsurprising that the powerful would want to downplay the sophisticated movement building that is happening right now.
Unfortunately it is mainly the international media, and American journalists in particular, who are undermining the social movement emerging in Haiti today. With overtly hostile and racist characterizations of Haitians, the press have been the most guilty of perpetrating lies about who is in the streets demonstrating these days, and why. In a most disappointing display of ignorance and racism, long-time Haiti watcher Amy Wilentz - tweeting as @amywilentz stated: “Who wrote little signs? Not grass-roots protesters! Real protest in Haiti: No trilingual posters in nice lettering. http://bit.ly/b6Pemb” But why can’t Haitians make nicely lettered trilingual signs?
Perhaps one of the most repugnant pieces of “reporting” about protests in Haiti came from AOL News’ Emily Troutman. The title is meant to capture attention, “Rum, Resentment and Restlessness in Haiti”. Troutman meets a tattooed English-speaking twenty-something who spends his days smoking pot and drinking rum, calling her “baby” and carrying a gun in the waistband of his pants. With the tone of ignorant racism of white America, Troutman paints a picture of young black men who are taking to the streets in recreational protest. According to her, “They are unemployed, restless, exhausted, angry and, at last, foolish.”
Contrast Troutman’s shallow reporting with independent journalist Ansel Herz, who explains that: “All Elements of Society are Participating.” He interviews an elderly man in the streets of Cap-Haitien during anti-MINUSTAH demonstrations in November.
“The population has information that MINUSTAH introduced cholera,” he told me. “So many people have died. They’re obligated to hold fast, to demonstrate, so that the authorities will take responsibility. They’re asking MINUSTAH to leave the country.” Asked if the protests are by a single group or the general population, he said all elements of society are participating in “the movement.”
Herz goes on to interview a 24 year old, who articulately explains:
“The objective of the movement is clear: they’re asking for the departure of MINUSTAH.” He said irresponsibility by the leaders of the country had led to this situation. In a more developed country, without so many young unemployed people in the street, the protests might have been more peaceful, he said. “But the real solution is for people to live in a climate of peace, in dialogue. Today all Haitians should work together finish with hunger and poverty,” he said. “The best solution is the promotion of social dialogue.”
The situation in Haiti nearly one year after the earthquake calls for nothing less than revolutionary leadership. While the international humanitarian community continues to sit on money donated to help earthquake victims and the UN pleads for more funds to fight a cholera epidemic it is very likely responsible for, none of these non-governmental actors is being held accountable. Haitians are suffering inhumane conditions while being excluded from the decisions about their own future. Elections held at the end of November were riddled with fraud and corruption, yet the international community stands poised and ready to rubber stamp and force the country to accept the results.
The people have been patient long enough, and now a new social movement is growing in the communities of the most vulnerable, disenfranchised and marginalized people. This new movement is the best hope of the revolution Haiti so sorely needs right now, and we best not misrepresent it, nor underestimate it.
Melinda Miles, Founder and Director, Let Haiti Live, a project of TransAfrica Forum