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January 19, 2010

We must stand with Haiti: Solidarity, not Help


January 18, 2010
By Alissa Trotz

Alissa Trotz is Editor of the In the Diaspora Column

It is now nearly one endless week since the earthquake that devastated Haiti, shattering lives and communities. In Toronto, where I am based, the Haitian diaspora (one of the largest outside of Haiti) has come out en masse, organizing support while mourning and searching for missing or dead relatives and friends. One event planned in Ottawa will be called “AYITI VIVAN” (Haiti is ALIVE!). These initiatives are part of a longer Haitian tradition known as konbit (collective work), and they continue on the ground and in the diaspora.

Haitians are engaged and are mobilizing as they always have, taking the lead even as they must be overwhelmed with sorrow and loss. We must demonstrate our solidarity, and not just in the short-term, when the emergency requirements are so crucial. We can all ask ourselves what might be the best ways that we can each offer meaningful support, now and in the longer-term. For example I have received distressing messages about Haitian colleagues dead or missing. One e-mail said simply and heartbreakingly that “University Quisqueya, the Université d’État d’Haïti and many high schools have collapsed, some with teachers and students.” As a teacher, one of the meaningful commitments I can make is to organize with others at our places of work and professional associations to offer support for the rebuilding of Haiti’s educational infrastructure.

We also want to know that our contributions are actually reaching the Haitian people, that the monies collected are not either being diverted elsewhere or getting lost as part of administrative overhead of the collecting agency. In Guyana there is a commendable national drive for resources. In addition to supporting this national drive, Red Thread is also continuing with the appeal it began on the night of the earthquake as part of the Global Women’s Strike, which works with grassroots women and men in Haiti. They are supporting the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund, which was established long before the earthquake

(http://www.haitiaction.net/About/HERF/HERF.html [1]) and has a demonstrated capacity to get resources to grassroots Haitians in Haiti.

You can take donations to the Red Thread Centre, 72 Princes & Adelaide Sts., Georgetown, Guyana, or make payments directly to the account, where all monies received will be promptly acknowledged: Account name: Red Thread/Haiti Emergency Fund for Grassroots Women and Families;
Signatories: Andaiye and Joy Marcus;
Bank: Citizens Bank, 201 Camp Street, Georgetown, Guyana;
Account number: 0218 567806.

In trying to think about what solidarity with Haiti might look like, I found inspiration in a statement issued by Fidel Castro on January 14th – in fact, Cuban doctors were already on the ground when the earthquake hit, and Cuba was one of the first Caribbean countries to respond – in which he also described co-operation with Haitians as consisting of “fighting in the field of ideas and political action in order to put an end to the limitless tragedy suffered by a large number of nations such as Haiti.”

This comment put into words the frustration and anger I have felt at how the mainstream media – with their immense power and reach – have been managing the tragedy, shaping our perceptions through their coverage.

There is of course the language of the extreme right, exemplified by the obscenely racist demagoguery of American televangelist Pat Robertson that the earthquake was payback for the pact Haitians made with the devil in return for an end to slavery under the French. In an interview on the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC, Haitian Ambassador Raymond Joseph offered a perfect response: “I would like the whole world to know, America especially, that…when the slaves rose up against the French and defeated the French army, the US was able to gain the Louisiana [purchase] for fifteen million dollars, that is three cents an acre. That is thirteen states west of the Mississippi, that the Haitian slave revolt in Haiti provided America. Also, the revolt of the rebels in Haiti allowed Latin America to be free. It is from Haiti that Simon Bolivar left with men and boats, to deliver Gran Colombia and the rest of South America. So [the] pact the Haitian has made with the
devil has helped the United States become what it is”.

It is easy to condemn such virulent messages as the exception, while missing the subtle – and therefore more dangerous – underlying text running through most of the major broadcast networks, which have been offering up the earthquake and its tragic aftermath on a television platter, an unchanging one course meal for us to consume until the next headline. As a friend commented, it is tantamount to eating the pain of others.

In most of this coverage, we are given a familiar and racist patronizing script, in which Haiti is once again reduced to a basket case, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. In the images that flash before us on the television screens, it is the foreign press that is reporting, Western governments that are making decisions, the ones acting and doing, taking centre stage, perennial agents of salvation.

In these unending stories Haitian engagement is displaced, and Haitians are reduced to supplicants, increasingly desperate, who must be rescued by the West. Just yesterday we learned that a CARICOM emergency and technical mission that included the Secretary-General was refused permission to land by the United States, now in control of the airport in Port-au-Prince. They will probably have to go through the Dominican Republic. We will surely hear that the airport is congested, but this is the regional integration movement, of which Haiti is a member. And no-one refused landing permission to the plane carrying Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. Her visit made front page news. One can only wonder what will happen if the governments of Cuba (which incidentally granted permission for the US to fly aid and evacuation missions over its airspace) and Venezuela try to bring in supplies and technical support.

Let me be absolutely clear. The people of Haiti are suffering and need our support immediately in terms of emergency relief and in the medium- to long-term as they set about the painstaking process of rebuilding shattered lives. But the language of charity is not the model, for it springs from pity and is not based on a principle of equality. It ends up enhancing the generosity of the giver and – ironically – emphasizing the distance and disconnection between the giver and the receiver.

It also offers no wider context to situate the tragedy. In September 2008, this column commented on the vastly different outcomes of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike in Cuba and Haiti (few deaths in the former, over a thousand fatalities and 12% of the population displaced in the latter). Back then there was discussion of the political crisis that accounted for the overwhelming lack of resources and absence of an infrastructure to cope with the threats of natural disasters and their aftermath. Back then there were calls to unconditionally cancel Haiti’s debt and use the payments for relief and long-term reconstruction. And here we are, less than two years later and witnessing such immense grief and tragedy in a sister nation. In his January 14th statement, Fidel Castro observed:

“The tragedy has genuinely moved a significant number of people, particularly those in which that quality is innate. But perhaps very few of them have stopped to consider why Haiti is such a poor country…why not analyze the realities that led Haiti to its current situation and this enormous suffering as well?”

What are the stories that are being told instead? A few days ago CNN and the New York Times carried reports of looters and mobs roaming the streets (this time BBC reports contradicted these security concerns), and of tens of thousands of heroic US military troops arriving to secure the country. I asked myself, who are the real culprits here who have denied and continue to deny Haitian liberation and self-determination? The Stabroek News has carried two excellent editorials that foreground the historically criminal actions that began 200 years ago when sanctions were imposed by the Americans and French on a newly independent Haiti, forced to ‘compensate’ France for the loss of its slave plantations and the cost of the war the enslaved waged to free themselves. The list is long.

What of the criminals who have authorized various occupations of Haiti? The financial institutions that bankrolled the Duvalier dictatorship for years because the government obeyed the bidding of foreign investors, but then withheld monies from the democratically elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide when he attempted to stand up to them? The governments that engineered the kidnapping and removal of Aristide in 2004, the bicentennial of Haitian independence? Those who authorized the exclusion of Fanmi Lavalas from the supposedly democratic electoral process that was to take place this year? Those who continue to press for free trade and the opening up of the Haitian economy, policies that are patently anti-people?

In a jointly written op-ed piece in yesterday’s New York Times, Presidents Bill Clinton (who visited Haiti just recently to press for free trade, more export factories and foreign investment) and George W. Bush stated that “Crises have the power to bring out the best in people.” The title, A Helping Hand for Haiti, is telling. An excellent translation of this classic case of doublespeak can be found in a recent interview with journalist and author Naomi Klein, who talks about disaster capitalism, where profiteering scavengers prey on crises and the weaknesses they engender in affected countries to impose their own pro-business, anti-poor agendas. As one egregious example of this, Klein pointed to a conservative American think tank the Heritage Foundation, which posted the following notice on its website less than 24 hours after the earthquake (it has since taken it down):

“Amidst the suffering, crisis in Haiti offers opportunities to the U.S. In addition to providing immediate humanitarian assistance, the U.S. response to the tragic earthquake in Haiti offers opportunities to re-shape Haiti´s long-dysfunctional government and economy as well as to improve the image of the United States in the region.” In other words, disasters are big business. Klein warns us that the tragedy facing the Haitian people now must not be used as a pretext to further policies that prioritize corporations and saddle Haiti with more debt. We must insist that any money that goes to Haiti is in the form of grants and not loans, and is not conditional or tied aid. Transparency and accountability must not be to big business or international financial institutions and the governments that control them, but to the most vulnerable in Haitian society, the majority of the Haitian people.

In an emotional press conference, Michaelle Jean, Haitian-born Canadian Governor-General, offered these words: “Women and men of Haiti, we shall not lose hope. We have, we are known for our strength and resilience. We need to stand courageously, before this challenge that is affecting us again. And I was saying to the Haitian people that they are not alone.”

And a colleague at the University of Toronto who has lived and worked in Haiti, shared these words: kenbe fèm devan lavi, pa lage’l (stay strong in the face of life – don’t let go). It seems unfathomably obscene how much the people of this country have had to face, the price in bodies and blood they continue to pay, this island nation that liberated itself from colonialism and slavery 200 years ago, that offered solidarity to all freedom-loving people, that backed it up with material support to Simon Bolivar.

This is what Haiti has taught us, to never let go, and she has also held us, continues to hold us, even now. In return for this priceless gift, we are the ones who have let Haiti and Haitians go, over and over again. Will we do so again now, once the headlines disappear, the cameras stop rolling and the media moves on to its next breaking news story? Let us finally recognize the debt we owe, and think about what action, what responsibility recognition finally entails. If fighting on the terrain of ideas is one way, by educating ourselves about Haiti beyond the distortions of the corporate media, what will we do with that knowledge, how will we then put it to work? It is support and solidarity, not help, that is needed now more than ever. Our hearts are full for Haiti. Let it really mean something this time.

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