Haiti’s politics of blame

PORT-AU-PRINCE — For all the talk about a Haitian people who have grown impatient with the slow pace of a largely foreign-led reconstruction effort, what Haitians are clamoring for most is accountability from their own government for promises that remain unfulfilled two years after the earthquake.

Many Haitians thought they had found the man who could help the country break out of a cycle of failure and finger-pointing, former pop star Michel Martelly, when he was a candidate vying for the presidency early last year.

After Haiti’s electoral council announced that Martelly had not made it to the second round of voting, tens of thousands of Haitians took to the streets of Haiti’s capital city, burning tires and parked cars and shutting down Port-au-Prince.

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When Martelly was reinstated and won the runoff last March, Haitians around the country celebrated that the country could finally move past months of election controversy and focus on rebuilding itself. Supporters were confident their new president would jump-start a lagging reconstruction process following the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake that caused an estimated $7.8 billion in damages and economic losses — equivalent to two-thirds of the country’s pre-quake GDP. Martelly’s mantra, and his promise, became “change.”

On the second anniversary of the quake, most Haitians say that few of these promises of change have been fulfilled. Over half a million people remain displaced in tents and makeshift shacks. Many of the 300,000 buildings that collapsed in the quake remain in ruins, and rampant unemployment prevents families from lifting themselves out of poverty.

The Martelly administration blames a stubborn parliament dominated by an opposition party still sore after seeing their presidential candidate lose last year. The parliament says Martelly has largely refused to even meet with legislators much less cooperate to compromise on issues critical to the reconstruction. Both parties say they have no means by which to oversee the NGOs that are implementing the majority of the billions of dollars in aid money — and the NGOs say that engaging more directly with an inefficient and bureaucratic Haitian government would cause the reconstruction process to slow down even further.

As the foreign press questions how $2.4 billion in disbursed public aid and approximately $3 billion more in private donations has failed to achieve lasting impact two years after the catastrophe, most Haitians are looking inward, demanding accountability from their recently elected government that promised so much but has delivered so little.

“To me, Martelly is still campaigning,” said Jean-Ives Blot, a professor at Haiti’s State University. “He’s having a hard time keeping his promises, so he spends his time making new ones to maintain his rapport with the people.”

Housing crisis remains

On the eve of the second anniversary Wednesday, Martelly emerged on a small stage across from the collapsed National Palace to announce that the 20,000 people living in the Champs de Mars tent camp that surrounded him on both sides would be resettled with help from the Canadian government. About half of the modest crowd of 1,000 or so camp residents and other spectators cheered at the news, while the other half looked on in silence.

One by one, the president spoke the names of the six camps whose residents are currently being resettled to permanent housing with assistance from the International Organization for Migration. Proudly, he declared “Champs de Mars will be the seventh.”

He did not say when the 700 other tent camps would join them.

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Enock Jestable, 39, has now lived in a tent in Port-au-Prince’s Delmas sector two years.

“Martelly said he was going to move the people living under tents — but look at us, we are still here,” Jestable said.

While Martelly spoke Wednesday, thousands of Haitians from all 10 regions of the country marched nearby to demand solutions to the general lack of adequate housing and land upon which to build it. Among them was 40-year-old Joseph Josué, a subsistence farmer from Haiti’s Artibonite region, who came to deliver a message to Haiti’s president.

“For us, nothing has changed. We don’t have tools, resources to work the land. You call yourself Peasant Response,” he said, referring to the name of Martelly’s political party. “Well we are the peasants, so help us.”

Politics, politics

In commemoration of the second anniversary of the 7.0-magnitude earthquake, businesses closed Thursday and Haitians around the country attended church ceremonies. Late in the day, relatives of the deceased attended a memorial at the mass grave site in Titanyen an hour outside the capital to honor the thousands of unidentified bodies that were buried there in the weeks after the earthquake.

Among the several hundred attendees was former president Bill Clinton and former dictator of Haiti Jean-Claude Duvalier who looked on as a large clock was erected, frozen at just before 5 p.m., the time the earthquake struck on Jan. 12, 2010. 

Martelly attended the ceremony also, laying a wreath at the site. A few people in the crowd held pink handmade signs bearing his name.

But many Haitians tuned their radios to news stations and pundits, attended university seminars, marched through the streets of the capital demanding housing, and debated their own government’s role in the successes and failures of Haiti’s slow reconstruction.

In an event put on by the grassroots Haitian advocacy group “Noise Travels, News Spreads,” organizers planned to screen a film and lead discussions in a large Port-au-Prince tent camp Thursday night on the subject of how reconstruction funds have been spent.

“The idea is having an activity with the real victims, so they can explain and share their stories with other [displaced persons] and what perspective they have for the future,” said Etant Dupain, director of the organization. “Today we’re going to see people talking about their anger at the way the government is going about the process — they feel excluded, ignored.”

On Wednesday, students and scholars convened at Haiti’s State University for the release of a new book about the political and social forces shaping the earthquake and its aftermath, which was written by over 50 authors and scholars both Haitian and foreign.

“We have all these social problems that endure,” said Blot, who contributed a chapter on last year’s flawed elections. “These are structural problems, housing problems, existed before the earthquake.”

Slow learning curve for Martelly

When Haitian critics blame Martelly for the slow pace of the reconstruction, they tend to focus on his initial refusal to compromise with Haiti’s parliament — a stance they attribute to the former stage performer’s political naiveté.

The president’s lack of familiarity with matters of political process and etiquette have hobbled him from his first days in office.

During the first five months of his tenure, Martelly failed to pass through parliament his nominees for prime minister — a powerful position without which the political body cannot vote on new measures and Haiti’s government essentially does not function. Last year the parliament rejected his first two picks, a business owner with no political experience and a former justice minister who resigned amid charges that he was an accomplice to murder and false imprisonment during his tenure.

Finally in October, the body approved Martelly’s third pick, former UN development official and member of the special envoy to Haiti, Garry Conille.

But the very next month, Martelly again angered legislators when national police arrested a parliamentarian from an opposition party whose name appeared on a list of prisoners who escaped from the national penitentiary on the day of the earthquake — despite immunity granted to lawmakers by Haiti’s constitution.

“The way he’s dealing with parliament, and the way he’s treating the people in this traditional populist way — that shows that politically, I don’t think he’s out to change much,” said Daly Valet, editor of the Haitian newspaper Le Matin.

Today, Martelly faces an uphill battle to convince the parliament to extend the mandate of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, the part government-, part foreign-directed body that governed Haiti for 18 months following the earthquake but has remained dormant since its term expired this October.

And just last week, the lower house of parliament appointed a new speaker who is a radical Martelly opponent and has even called for the president’s impeachment. That is a sign, says Valet, that Martelly’s relationship with Haiti’s legislature may get worse before it improves.

Big progress in education

One year ago Thursday, 31-year-old Islande Vilmeus sat in front of her tent on a hill overlooking the neighborhood where she used to live before the earthquake sent her house tumbling down upon her five children. All of them survived the catastrophe, but a year later, her 5-year-old son Dudley died from an unknown sickness. Vilmeus’ remaining two school-age children had to stop attending class because she could not afford the fees, and she relied on donations from neighbors and friends to feed them.

“I just want to live here with my children in peace, without fear of them dying,” she had said.

This year, Vilmeus is still without a real home, though she managed to upgrade her tent to a small shack using money from a cousin. Sitting with her son Abraham on her lap, she says even though she still has no house or income, she’s encouraged by the fact that her children are once again attending school.

“They are going to school free thanks to Martelly. He’s helping lots of mothers by sending their children to school.”

Ask Haitians about Martelly’s biggest success, and most will point to his program to send tens or even hundreds of thousands of children — he says 903,000 — to school for free this year using revenue from a new tax on overseas phone calls and other resources. In a nation where 5,000 schools were damaged in the earthquake and where a predominantly private education system consumes a significant chunk of a families’ income, the program has garnered Martelly much popularity.

The president’s supporters point to his education scholarship program as a promised kept, and a sign that the president has the capacity to revitalize Haiti’s ailing economy as well.

Overseen by Prime Minister Conille, the government is working to improve the climate for foreign businesses by offering a 15-year tax holiday for certain businesses and developing its manufacturing sector through an industrial park that is expected to create 20,000 jobs.

Still, progress is slow. The Associated Press reported this week that only four of Haiti’s 10 largest reconstruction projects have broken ground.

Martelly’s defenders point out that the much of the power to reconstruct Haiti actually lies outside of Haitian government control.

A record of failure

Examples of failures within Haiti’s construction and development process are plentiful.

Last August, workers who had built an ostentatious new office for the Mayor of Delmas blocked entrance to it in protest because they had yet to be paid weeks after its completion.

But problems like these plagued Haiti long before the earthquake, and previous governments have made little headway in cutting government inefficiency and corruption.

When he took office, Martelly inherited a government that had lost all but one of its buildings and an estimated 20 to 40 percent of its civil servants in the earthquake.

And while foreign governments and individual donors have pledged an estimated $12 billion for reconstruction and relief efforts, the Haitian government received just a fraction of it. The US State Department spending plan approved by Congress in 2010 allocated only $12.5 of the initial $797 million — or 1.5 percent — as direct budget support to the Haitian government. Of the money disbursed to date by donor governments, just 10 percent went directly to the Haitian state. The rest is making its way through foreign-led reconstruction funds and the thousands of NGOs that many say have become Haiti’s de facto government.

“The prime minister was very clear. Ninety-nine percent of the money that’s coming in is going through NGOs and not through the Haitian government,” said Charles-Henri Baker, a Haitian manufacturing business owner and a contender in last year’s presidential election. “So therefore, what can we expect?”

Like the foreign press asking how billions of dollars of aid seem to have been spent with little progress, Haitians also place some of the blame for the pace of the reconstruction on foreign entities.

But if the current patriotic movement to restore the nation’s long-disbanded army and kick out the UN peacekeeping force is any indication, Haitians are desperate for autonomy and the ability to participate more directly in their nation’s affairs.

“Those people overseas, they have sent money here, and they want to know what happened to it,” said Valet. “The Haitian press, the priority is what our own government is doing. The concern for us is why the government sits by doing nothing while the NGOs run everything.”

This story is presented by The GroundTruth Project. 

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