Thursday, January 31, 2008

Let them eat mud

It was lunchtime in one of Haiti's worst slums, and Charlene Dumas was eating mud. With food prices rising, Haiti's poorest can't afford even a daily plate of rice, and some take desperate measures to fill their bellies.


  1. Haiti's wealthy prosper while the poor decline

    HIP - Port au Prince, Haiti — Cite Soleil, a seaside shantytown of
    more than 300.000 people residing in homes made of cinder blocks with
    tin roofs, has been described as poorer than India's infamous slums
    of Calcutta. On any given day it teems with the life's blood of
    Haiti's poorest citizens.

    Despite the twists and turns of what residents describe as several
    foreign interventions, members of the community still recount with
    pride how they served as a launching site for former president Jean-
    Bertrand Aristide's first election campaign in 1990.

    Yannick Jean, a frail 70 year-old woman whose longevity is a
    testament of hope, spoke in hushed tones as she washed her clothes in
    a ditch of dirty water, "We were the ones who presented Aristide to
    Haiti when he ran for president. He was our greatest hope. I am
    waiting for him again."

    A controversial figure, Jean-Bertrand Aristide is a former Catholic
    priest who was overthrown twice in Haiti's turbulent political
    history. His first ouster was at the hands of Haiti's former brutal
    military with the support of the traditional economic elite who live
    fabulously wealthy lives as compared to Haiti's average citizens.

    Where Yannick Jean washes her clothes probably speaks more to Haiti's
    current reality and the contradictions of the current United Nation's
    mission than any expert on development possibly could. Rising above
    her and creating shadows over her dirty laundry is a huge edifice of
    new construction that bears the mark GB. It is a new building that
    covers several acres and is home to the business of Haiti's
    wealthiest man, Gilbert Bigio.

    While the surrounding residents of Cite Soleil are forced to
    literally eat dirt to stave off hunger, Bigio is a billionaire whose
    family supported the first coup against Aristide and reportedly
    helped to back the movement that forced his second ouster in 2004.

    One need not look very far to see where Gilbert Bigio's interests lie
    in relation to Cite Soleil. According to his own company's web site
    his family maintains controlling interests in 16 of Haiti's largest
    companies. They are also the largest Haitian partner in the wireless
    communications giant Digicel, a mammoth company based in Ireland that
    has nearly cornered the cellular market in the Caribbean. Bigio's
    family is not merely wealthy amidst a sea of poverty stricken
    residents in Haiti, his family represents the uber-wealthy who have
    benefited most since Aristide's second ouster in 2004.

    The Office of Foreign Assets Control of the US government blocked all
    of the Bigio family's holdings in US banks following the brutal
    military against Aristide in 1991. Since Aristide's second ousting in
    2004, the financial wealth of the Bigio family along with those of
    other well off Haitian clans such as the Mevs, Brandts, Acras and
    Madsens have nearly doubled.

    Not to be forgotten is the fact that Aristide's forced departure in
    2004 was legitimized and enforced by a UN authorized mission during
    the term of former Secretary General Kofi Annan. The fact that a few
    families of Haiti's traditional elite continue to exact exorbitant
    profits, while residents of Cite Soleil are forced to eat and bathe
    in ditches, has shaken confidence in the non-governmental sector
    working with the poor in Haiti.

    A young woman who began her NGO career to end poverty in Cite Soleil
    shakes her head in disbelief as she watches throngs wash their
    clothes and bathe next to Bigio's glistening plant. There are
    security towers protecting every corner of the property with armed
    guards while UN forces in large armored personnel vehicles patrol the
    outer perimeter. She asks not to be identified and comments, "I
    bought into the development model the UN used to encourage us to come
    here and invest in Cite Soleil. The US government funds our
    organization through USAID and I came here to make a difference in
    these people’s lives. I am now faced with the reality of a
    humanitarian crisis we cannot be expected to solve. The UN's main
    thrust seems to be security at any cost. This can only result in the
    loss of another generation of Haitians in this community being lost
    to poverty and misery. I am ready to quit unless something changes

    In another corner of this community and trying not to draw attention
    amidst the children with bloated bellies and flow of the poverty, is
    a representative of Aristide's Lavalas movement. Mr. Jean- Marie
    Samedi was brutally beaten and tortured after Aristide's ouster in
    2004. He is the leader of a movement called the Base of Lavalas
    Reflection and gave another view to the already disfigured politics
    of suffering in this community.

    Mr. Samedi commented, "At least the people they called bandits and
    gangsters shared what they had with the community when they were
    here. People could eat. They had food and had running water. They
    didn't have to eat dirt to live or have to wash their clothes and
    their bodies in ditches of dirty running water."

    Several children run by with almost blondish hair, a clear sign of
    malnutrition amongst blacks, to punctuate Mr. Samedi's point. He
    continued, "They told us that everything would change after they got
    rid of the bandits and yet people cannot feed their children. You see
    them forced to wash in this dirty water. What did the promise of the
    Bush administration and the UN really mean to the people of Cite
    Soleil? They have merely continued politics as usual in Haiti. The
    rich get richer while the majorities are forced to continue to suffer
    in poverty. I challenge anyone to show me the difference they have
    made for the majority of the poor in Haiti." Growing visibly angry
    and bitter Mr. Samedi concluded, "The UN came in here and slaughtered
    residents who supported Lavalas on July 6, 2005 and again on December
    22, 2006. And for what have to ask? So that Bigio and the Haitian
    Chamber of Commerce could force us back into accepting this level of
    poverty? Nothing has changed for the poor in Haiti."

  2. January 31st, 2008
    Editorial: When The Poor Die of Hunger Who Speaks For Them, The
    By: Wadner Pierre -

    For several months there has been a new twist in the history for the
    poor in Haiti, but the story has been enveloped in silence. The
    standard of living has been declining, with rising costs of basic
    goods and a continued lack of social programs. People cannot afford
    to eat.

    Haiti has become a 'republic of NGOs' long dependent on outside aid
    because of the methodical destruction of its own civil enterprises
    and popular alternatives.

    Around the new-year a huge march against poverty and unemployment
    took place in the capital of Port-au-Prince. The protestors demanded
    reparations and that the government represent the interests of the poor.

    The most pressing issue for the poor is the most basic commodity of
    life, food. This week, particularly in the poorest districts, such as
    Cité-Soleil, people go starving and bathe in muddy streets. In Cité-
    Soleil, a woman sells small plots of eroded land for a living. She
    says it "is my life, this is where I earn my daily income."

    Haiti's wealthy in the hills of Pétionville, where most foreign
    journalists spend their time, have profited from the growing gap in

    NGOs more and more fill the abyss, an abyss left by the eroded state.
    But one must ask: Should NGOs replace the state? Why is this
    happening? What is the plan of the government? Is the government
    folding in on itself for the sake of global capitalism?

    The Fascists Are Still Capable

    A new blow is always being prepared, afraid of what the popular winds
    might bring. "Resignation", investigation, imprisonment,
    interpellation of the rich, we must wait for the results. They will
    tell us what happens. This is the fake democracy we are living with
    in Haiti. A "democracy" only in rhetoric.

    The Catholic church too is following a path of silence when it comes
    to the life of the poor and the possibility of building an
    alternative. The homily of the head of Haiti's bishops, at the
    celebrations of the 65th anniversary of the consecration of the
    country at Notre Dame du Perpetual Succor and the 165th anniversary
    of the miraculous cure of people infected with the Vérole (Verrette),
    was a reminder of where the top religious hierarchy stands. After
    people had chosen their leaders with dignity, these sons of the
    Haitian upper and middle classes in the religious hierarchy now
    appear as an arm of fascism.

    They are silent when it comes to unconstitutional governments,
    jailing, killing, firing, privatization, and coups. This is the
    structural reality we face in our society.

    In the district of Fort-Dimanche one can see the high rising
    platforms of factories of wealthy Haitian families. Duvalier once
    used this site to torture his impoverished victims. Next to these
    sites sit the homes of little children made from piles of garbage.
    They seek their daily lives in this maze.

    A man with a sack over his shoulder who I spoke with in Fort-Dimanche
    explained that "Life is very difficult, there is no option, we can
    not stay at home to die, we come here to find life."

    We are told over and over that everyone is full, things are
    improving, the wheels are turning, the United Nations is here, but
    this is hypocrisy. The living situation is worsening and it is clear
    to those in the slums. In the public markets one can hear the small
    merchants analyze the situation.

    We are told by the big media that Aristide was an elected dictator,
    maybe because he cared for the poor? The loads of subsidized rice his
    government brought into the poor districts hurt the profits of
    industrialists like Apaid Jr. So today we must eat dirt to let the
    mansions grow. The cost of food rises by forty percent. Pregnant
    women eat mud cookies.

    Go into the poor neighborhoods, see where the poverty is deep and
    tell the world what is going on. It is our duty. There is a need for
    truth. We must tell people the truth.