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Haiti’s poor majority pushed to the margins

Development (Aid)
women on protest
Women from the CTH union protesting against the poor working conditions at Caracol Sokari Ekine

‘Now is the time to seize opportunities in Haiti, a nation which can provide “incredible value” to other countries as well as to itself, especially by virtue of its private sector,’ says an article I just read on actor Sean Penn meeting with World Bank officials.

Another article, this time in the Guardian in 2009, advocates that Haiti should seize the ‘window of opportunity’ by mirroring Bangladesh’s garment industry. But Haiti should be running as far away as possible from the Bangladesh model which has, on more than one occasion in the past few years, resulted in the deaths of garment workers. Recently, over 1,100 people died in a factory collapse. Imagine the uproar if that number of US workers had died as a result of negligence – just so that we can buy T-shirts for $3.00 in Walmart.

After three years of regular visits and four months of living in Haiti, I have seen and heard so much bullshit being spouted about what is supposedly happening here. It bears little relationship with the Haiti I see around me, and the people I speak with on a daily basis.

In Caracol, farmers sold their land for $1,200 to make way for an industrial park. This is one of the problems in the new ‘open for business’ Haiti. Poor farmers and displaced people are being offered meagre sums of money to sell land or to move from camps. It’s hard to resist and consider the long term when you have nothing.

I attended a May Day protest by some of the women workers who make T-shirts for Walmart. Caracol is a fortress which looks like a detention camp. It lies next to a small village of the same name and beyond that there are new box houses being built for workers. They complained of a wage cut as well as verbal and, in one case, physical abuse by the overseers. On the positive side, the workers are members of the Confédération des Travailleurs Haïtiens [CTH] trade union, which was founded in 1998 and is particularly strong on women and youth workers’ rights. It is through them that the Caracol workers (mostly women) continue to negotiate for better working conditions.

Martelly’s government has introduced some social programmes which include providing the most vulnerable with money to help with children and giving families small amounts of food – ‘baskets of solidarity’. News reports tell us that so far there have been some 100,000 beneficiaries across the country.

There are two problems with these programmes: One is that they are contradictory: at the same time as women are being handed out free bags of food, market vendors are being driven off the street – making it impossible to earn a livelihood. Secondly, people need to produce both their ID and voter registration cards. The possibility then exists for the government to add the names of the participants to their party numbers. Surely it would be better for women to earn a living selling in the market or have the opportunity to run small urban farms?

Just as the infrastructural and commercial changes have become significantly visible, so too has the increase in the level of poverty. The cost of food is rising and consequently more people are hungry. Market traders, mostly women, are struggling to sell on the streets as they engage in a constant battle with the police.

The government of Haiti and its US masters are determined to build a prosperous new country. Whether they succeed or not will depend on whether they are prepared to make this an inclusive prosperity or continue, as in the past, leaving the popular masses on the physical and financial margins – on hillside wastelands or in periphery neighbourhoods such as Cité Soleil, Jalouzi, Carrefour and Caracol.

A note on Camp Acra

The fundraising campaign for Camp Acra failed to reach the $3,000 target, with only $1,115 reached. Nonetheless, I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who donated and supported the campaign. So far, one laptop has been bought, with the intention to purchase two more, plus a printer/scanner and sewing machine for the workshop.

Just before I returned to Haiti this time, sections of the camp were set on fire after threats of eviction from one of the owners of the land. Camp residents were protesting against the fire attacks and the threat of eviction when police invaded the camp and a number of people were beaten. One resident, Civil Merius, died after being beaten while in police custody.

The people of the camp are fearful that they will be next in line for mass eviction. Like so many other camps in the past 12 months, they may face being ransacked by the police or offered $500 and forced to relocate. Many of those who took the $500 elsewhere are now entering their second year of renting property and face a second eviction as they cannot pay their rent.

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