Words by Stevenson Benoit
The Republic of Haiti entered 2015 with a new prime minister bringing with it a phase of political uncertainty. With the dissolving of the parliament, protesters have promised increased demonstrations while President Michel Martelly rules by decree after a stalemate with lawmakers.
In December, Prime Minister Evans Paul was selected but due to the deadlock in the Senate, his nomination could not be debated. With Martelly ruling by decree, Paul took office without opposition. The former Port-au-Prince mayor stated that he hated the fact that he took office without a vote and blamed the deadlock on the opposition.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Paul criticized the violence by the anti-government demonstrators which have become increasingly common-place in Port-au-Prince. President Martelly took office in 2011 amid a power vacuum. He was tasked to call elections that same year for a majority of the senate, the Chamber of Deputies and local offices but was unsuccessful when opposition senators invoked parliamentary procedures to stall the vote, while alleging Martelly was abusing his presidential authority appointing party supporters to the electoral council and other ranked positions. By the five-year anniversary of the earthquake that devastated an already defunct country, parliament was dissolved and elections were not expected to be called in the near future.
In the five years after the Haiti earthquake, millions of dollars that were pledged by the international community, enough so that every Haitian would receive a check for $1,000, went elsewhere. Corrugated metal fences surround construction sites throughout the capitol and are covered with a simple note: “Ayiti ap vanse,” or “Haiti is moving forward.” In the same location where thousands of displaced residents made tattered tents and makeshift shelters their home, massive shells of concrete and tall cranes break the skyline. Most of the large camps that once was home for displaced Haitians have been cleared away but beneath the appearance of progress lies a sinister realization.
Eighteen kilometers north of the Haitian capital on the dusty hillsides overlooking Canaan Sea lies an impromptu city, home to hundreds of thousands of Haitians displaced by the earthquake. According to the State Department, it is rapidly becoming the second largest city on the island. Alexis, an area resident, said that “It’s a living hell.” She lives there because according to her, she is unable to afford living any where else. She received rent support from NGO’s as an incentive to move out of the camps in Port-au-Prince but when it ran out, she was displaced again. Now that she is no longer facing eviction, a new set of challenges arise. Canaan does not have any government services to offer and water and employment is an extremely rare commodity.
In the wake of the quake, the global aid industrial complex was rapidly set in motion. No-bid contracts were awarded to groups responding to the crisis just days after. Within months, $10 billion in aid was pledged by the international community with promises of change and relief from failed policies of the past that undermined the established government. But after 5 years and billions of dollars down the drain, only 9,000 new homes have been built in Haiti. Haitians living in the United States feeling the pinch have protested in front of Bill Clinton’s Harlem office demanding an accounting of billions of dollars in aid managed by Clinton. Demonstrations aimed at Clinton have called on the U.S. to suspend support of the totalitarian regime of Michel Martelly. Once close relations with the Clintons have soured into dislike and mistrust over the imposition of Martelly as president while destroying the republic’s democracy. The unwillingness to explain how the aid was allocated further exacerbated poor conditions.
So where did the money go? In order to properly view where the money went, the traditional idea of foreign aid being an altruistic endeavor to better help others needs to be shelved. USAID has reportedly spent over $1.5 billion explaining that its goals are to further “American interests.” USAID stated that “the principal beneficiary of America’s foreign assistance programs has always been the United States.” The reconstruction of Haiti makes the statement evident. Out of every dollar that is spent by USAID, less than one cent goes directly to Haitian organizations, government, or private sector. Over 50 cents went to Beltway firms in charge of rubble removal, housing construction, security, health services and more. The single largest recipient of USAID funding is for-profit firm, Chemonics International.
Amid the mishandling of aid money however, rays of hope peek through dark clouds over Haiti. One example is Haiti-born and raised Magalie Dresse. She runs a manufacturing company in Port-au-Prince called Caribbean Craft that designs arts and crafts for foreign markets. Her heart reaches out to those hit hardest by the political unrest, natural disasters, and health crises. Her dream is for the people of Haiti to move away from international handouts and to fully realize that, the people would have to reduce their dependence on handouts and instead attract foreign investment.
Dresse employs over 400 Haitians in her factory, many who come from the slums of the capital city. She is proud to be able to provide jobs for artisans and others and by Haitian standards provides fair wages to her employees. Currently, six out of ten Haitians live off less than $2 a day and one out of four lives off less than $1 according to the World Bank. Caribbean Craft employees earn $13.50-$18 a day, high wages for Haitians according to the Latin Trade publication. She also offers employees health benefits and accident insurance while providing employees with one meal a day at the factory.
When the earthquake struck Haiti, many of the employees were affected and the factory was destroyed. Dresse and her husband moved the operation to their home and placed 20 employees in their workshop. The couple still provided the displaced employees with a meal a day and a transportation stipend. Dresse’s work has been recognized internationally with the Latin Trade Group awarding her with the Innovation and Social Sustainability award in Miami in 2013. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton lauded her in a video message shown at the ceremony. “While Haiti is clearly in everyone’s hearts these days, its future,” she says, “is ultimately in the hands of Haitians.”
Another difference maker rarely heralded is Mario Joseph and Brian Concannon, whose Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) gives hope numerous Haitians through the “bottom-up” approach. Like Dresse, they encourage Haitians to make changes themselves and not rely on the U.S. or other non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
Joseph, referred to as the leading human rights attorney in Haiti, is president of BAI. He has built a reputation as a fearless advocate in the face of numerous death threats. Concannon, Joseph’s counter-part, directs the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) in Boston. He has worked in Haiti for nine years and returned to the U.S. to start IJDH, BAI’s sister organization in 2004.
The duo won their most important human rights case in Haitian history back in 2000. Since then, 53 paramilitary and military soldiers were convicted of human rights transgressions during the Raboteau massacre in 1994. The pair has established community-based programs on housing rights, rape accountability and prevention, immigration rights, and an international advocacy for fair elections in Haiti. BAI has assisted in organizing street-crippling protests by tent city dwellers facing eviction and in response to the U.N.’s cholera response in Haiti.