Why are Haitians still eating mud cakes?

The TV cameras have long departed, but four years after the earthquake, Haiti remains a country in crisis. Brian Fitzpatrick and Michael Norby report from Port-au-Prince.

A youngster sits outside the headquarters of the Movement for Liberty and Equality of Haitians for Brotherhood (MOLEGHAF) in Fort National, Port-au-Prince. The grassroots group has been vocal in its criticism of the country’s UN mission.

Brian Fitzpatrick and Michael Norby

In a junkyard at sundown, rusted trucks rest among the bushes and a fire crackles in a clearing. A man in his early twenties approaches, closely watched by a few others, who seem in awe of him. He pulls a handgun from his waistband and tries his best to carry the swagger of a hardened militia leader.

‘We’re ready to give them a lesson,’ he says. ‘And once we do, it’s going to be a lesson to remember.’

These young men, some still in their teens, form one of the many street gangs in Cité Soleil, the most hellish corner of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital. The ‘lesson’, they say, awaits the government of President Michel Martelly and Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, which stands accused in these parts of overseeing what has been a disastrous recovery from the 2010 earthquake.

‘They never want to sit down and talk to us,’ he continues, ‘so it’s only right that we’re armed and ready to do everything that has to be done.’

As the rain pours down, the boys share cigarettes and shift from foot to foot, nodding in agreement with their leader. A social awakening, he says, has brought solidarity to once warring factions in the slums. They claim to have access to large amounts of weaponry, which is being distributed by political higher-ups.

‘We’re fighting for a change,’ he promises. ‘Every revolution has to be armed, and we’re ready to do that. I want my kids to be able to go to school, become somebody and move on with their life, instead of having to hold on to a gun to get what they want.’

Cité Soleil’s population remains unknown – most estimates range between 300,000 and 400,000 – but for those crammed within its limits, life is utterly miserable. Employment opportunities are almost non-existent, there is little sanitation, and proper education and food are luxuries beyond the reach of the vast majority.

At the sea’s edge, toddlers play naked among wild pigs, and people rummage across mountains of rancid trash and human faeces. Most housing consists of ramshackle huts, like ovens under the Haitian sun. When it rains, an ankle-deep soup of sewage fills the interiors. Years after the earthquake, the famous mud cakes of Cité Soleil are still being sold at the side of the street: discs of baked dirt, water and salt eaten by starving families to stave off hunger.

Fuelling the frustration

The TV network cameras left long ago, but the suffering remains acute. Only Somalia and Afghanistan have a higher per-day calorie deficit than Haiti, and the poorest are at the mercy of international aid groups that have led the disastrous humanitarian effort.

In a March statement, Amnesty International outlined how some 146,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) still live in tent cities, with most of those who have been relocated not offered long-term housing solutions. The group also spoke out about ‘a pattern of forced evictions of IDPs, condoned if not carried out by the authorities and often with excessive use of force by the police’, which has affected an estimated 60,000.

Long-delayed elections and the violent suppression of protests are fuelling a frustration that many believe could snowball. Tension has risen as, despite repeated government promises, 99 Chamber of Deputies seats, 20 of 30 Senate seats and 140 municipal positions have yet to be voted on. Some votes have been overdue since 2010, and hand-picked appointments have caused public fury.

In a recent UN report covering August 2013 to March 2014, it was pointed out that the period towards the end of 2013 saw a 57-per-cent increase in demonstrations, most of them triggered by ‘socio-economic grievances concerning inadequacies in basic services’.

‘I want my kids to be able to go to school, become somebody and move on with their life, instead of having to hold onto a gun to get what they want’

June marked the 10-year anniversary of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (Minustah), a mission best known for a cholera crisis that the UN is widely accepted to have brought to the country via Nepalese troops, and which has killed some 8,500 people.

In Port-au-Prince’s shantytowns, some of which have seen violent incursions by Minustah forces over the years, the blue helmets are looked upon by many as enemies: occupiers who locked in place the US-backed coup that overthrew the hugely popular Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004; an army of ‘tourists’ propping up a current government seen as increasingly autocratic.

In Pétionville – the ‘other’ Port-au-Prince, where the luxury hotels cater to NGOs – Patrick Elie, long-time activist and former member of Aristide’s cabinet, is withering in his criticism.

‘When Minustah [first] came they went to Cité Soleil, Bel Air and Martissant, the areas where Aristide was most powerful. They stigmatized people; they called them bandits, thugs, so that they could react towards those people.’

He’s not surprised, he says, at some of the hatred aimed at the force.

‘I think it’s to protect the “haves” and the system,’ he says. ‘They’re here because they sense that this incredible inequality is going to lead to some manifestation of anger.’

Old villains return

Since coming to power in the chaotic post-earthquake elections of November 2010, President Martelly, a former kompa singer, has lurched from crisis to crisis. Elected only after the leftist Fanmi Lavalas party – the huge support base of Aristide – was barred from running candidates, his credibility was further eroded by a turnout estimated by the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research to have been no higher than 22.9 per cent.

Long linked to the clique of former Haitian dictators François and Jean-Claude Duvalier, and aligning himself with many of those associated with the 2004 coup, Martelly has faced accusations that he is looking to restore a version of the Duvalier model. Jean-Claude Duvalier returned to Haiti in January 2011 after decades in exile, but though he faces human rights abuse charges, he is a regular on the Port-au-Prince social scene.

A glance at those the president has gathered around him reveals strong ties to darker days. Youri Latortue, a power broker of the 2004 coup who has been referred to in leaked diplomatic cables as a ‘drug dealer’, is an adviser.1

Speculation has mounted that Jean-Claude Duvalier’s son François-Nicolas – whom Martelly has also kept close – could run for office. The political group founded by the first Duvalier dictatorship, the National Unity Party, recently announced it will field candidates ‘at all levels’ should elections proceed.

Haiti’s infamous mud cakes are still being eaten by the poor.

Brian Fitzpatrick and Michael Norby

Perhaps most disconcerting of all, however, was the re-emergence of the infamous death squad leader Louis-Jodel Chamblain, who was pictured running security for Jean-Claude Duvalier upon the latter’s return to Haiti.

‘It’s a project of restoration,’ says Elie. ‘He’s building a regime that is a cross between François Duvalier and Jean-Claude Duvalier. François, in terms of the total control, and Jean-Claude in terms of the pillaging of the resources and having fun.’

Further frustrating the masses is the government’s failure adequately to press the UN regarding culpability on cholera. With the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti leading the effort, suits have been launched seeking reparations, but the UN has refused to consider any compensation deal, claiming immunity. The world body is pushing a 10-year plan launched by Haiti’s health ministry to tackle cholera in Hispaniola (the Dominican Republic and Haiti), but as a recent New York Times editorial pointed out, the UN’s denials mean it is now ‘a tarnished advocate’ and donors are steering clear of the effort.

Though in the middle of a gradual drawdown, Minustah’s staff in Haiti as of March stood at 7,980 in uniform, including 5,570 troops and 2,410 police. Many say it’s unnecessary in a country that has never had anything approaching a high-end conflict. With a force this size, Minustah has long faced allegations of being over-eager to justify its existence.

Heavy-handed crowd control

In Bel Air, as he displays a gaping chunk taken out of his elbow by what he claims was a Minustah bullet in 2005, Bertho Jean can’t hide his anger. ‘I was sitting in front of my house,’ he says. ‘Minustah came and just started shooting. There was a group of people playing soccer on the street and they just came and opened fire.’

‘Nobody likes them,’ he continues. ‘We aren’t working, we just want to come out and enjoy ourselves; but when Minustah come they smack you up, they throw teargas.’

‘Such a make-believe operation,’ says Patrick Elie. ‘This country has not been in a civil war, yet these guys came to stabilize it? Ten years later, they’re still here.’

‘I don’t want to be a Cassandra,’ he adds, ‘but I think the stability [Minustah] brought to this country is going to unravel seriously in the coming year.’

Despite strong opposition, Martelly is pressing ahead with plans to recreate the Haitian Armed Forces (FAd’H), which killed thousands under the Duvaliers but was disbanded by Aristide in 1995. After he announced his plans, large numbers of uniformed paramilitaries – many of them ex-FAd’H – began to roam Port-au-Prince and other areas undisturbed, and in full view of Minustah personnel. Though later scattered by the UN, they remain on the periphery.

Years after the earthquake, the famous mud cakes of Cité Soleil are still being sold on the street: discs of baked dirt, water and salt eaten by starving families to stave off hunger

In the absence of an army, United Nations Police (UNPOL) has been tasked with training the Haitian National Police (PNH), and a development plan will see numbers raised from just over 11,000 currently to 15,000 by 2016. Of late, however, the use of militarized special units to handle crowd control has raised eyebrows.

Heavy-handedness is nothing new in Haiti, where protests regularly spill over into violence, and roadblocks are the traditional way of making a point. But UNPOL Commissioner Luis Carrilho says the PNH has, by and large, responded appropriately.

‘Are all the police actions correct?’ he asks. ‘I’m not saying so. For sure there is scope for improvement. The police will continue in its capacity-building.

‘Demonstrations are a sign of democracy,’ he adds. ‘People should feel free to express their opinions within the limits of the law.’

In the slums, distrust of all forces is deep-rooted; in the few years directly following the 2004 coup, the aforementioned Minustah raids into Cité Soleil and Bel Air – often accompanied by the PNH and special units like Company for Intervention and Maintaining Order (CIMO) – killed many civilians.

CIMO, modelled after SWAT teams in the US, has long been accused of human rights violations. After the army was disbanded, ex-army and paramilitary infiltration of the police and specialized units occurred; the same went on after the 2004 coup, but this time ‘on steroids’, as Jeb Sprague outlines in his book Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti.

Although obvious improvements have been made in recent years, and the UN now stresses its tighter police-vetting process, the fear remains. When pressed on the alleged aggression, however, Carrilho is animated in defence of the UNPOL trainees.

‘I’ve never heard that the PNH is “overly present”,’ he says. ‘What I have heard [from the people], in my visits to the departments, is “we need more police officers”.’

Bones don’t fry

Yet if people have problems with the government, the police, the aid agencies and the UN, the viable alternatives to the present situation aren’t quite cut and dried.

This is made clear after an encounter with two of the government’s fiercest critics. Senator Moïse Jean-Charles and Deputy Arnel Belizaire are the main attractions at a meeting of the Patriotic Force for the Respect of the Constitution (FOPARK), a grassroots organization with ties to Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas party and made up of political militants from the poorest areas of the city.

A genuine hero among much of the Fanmi Lavalas base, Jean-Charles was said by coup leader Guy Philippe to have stood firm in the face of Philippe’s paramilitary insurgents as they made their way from the north towards Port-au-Prince in 2004.

Belizaire has a less straightforward past. A one-time army man famed for his violent outbursts, he is in fact said to have had ties to Philippe’s clique and had once been known as an enemy of Aristide.

Yet now an alliance of necessity sees these two in the middle of the power struggle for the voice of Haiti’s opposition. Though both have often been kept at arm’s length publicly by the Fanmi Lavalas leadership, owing to strategic disagreements, it’s clear they have considerable influence.

If people have problems with the government, the police, the aid agencies and the UN, the viable alternatives aren’t quite cut and dried

‘I don’t know what it’s going to take,’ says Belizaire, a ball of energy. ‘But we have to organize all the ghettos together to fight against the government.’

He rails against what is often described as a sign of ‘progress’ in Haiti: the thousands of low-paid, insecure jobs at factories which turn out clothing for export, at huge profits.

‘He pays you 88 gourdes [$2] for each dozen t-shirts you make, but you pay me one gourde for each dozen I make?’ he asks in exasperation. ‘That’s what I call slavery. I agree: you spend money, you have to make money. But don’t kill me.’

‘Right now, we’re saying we’re tired, and we’re going to take our destiny into our own hands,’ says Jean-Charles as people crowd around him.

‘This government symbolizes hunger. The only thing we can do is fight to get them out.’

Jean-Charles says the battle they are taking to the government is many-pronged, with a central theme being an information war.

‘The first fight is a fight against the international community, to make them understand what’s going on exactly,’ he says, before hinting at the fissures in the opposition.

‘We will fight against any political party which claims to be serving us but which is not really with the Haitians.’

Though agreeing something needs to be done, Patrick Elie is disgusted with the chaotic make-up of the opposition, saying there’s a lot of anger but no real plan. It’s a far cry from the highly organized mobilization which first brought Aristide to power at the start of the 1990s, he feels.

‘While the opposition was going wild about why Martelly has to go, the man has laid down a whole network to control the minority that will eventually vote,’ he says.

‘It’s all “We gotta get rid of Martelly so that I can become president”. This is not a political programme and it is not one that will mobilize the people.’

Back in the junkyard in Cité Soleil comes another glimpse at what Elie is getting at. The youngsters are talking about revolution and violence, but you sense they don’t quite grasp the realities of the decisions they are making.

When asked for his name, the leader declines to give one, before asking his friends what they think. They all agree they have been left with nothing, forced to live on the scraps, the unwanted bones falling from the table of the privileged.

‘Just tell them we said “zo pa fri”,’ he says, and the others laugh, agreeing on the aptness of the phrase. In Creole it means ‘bones don’t fry’.

‘In Haiti, don’t believe anything you hear, and only half of what you see,’ one veteran analyst later remarks. This would be wise advice for the young pawns doing the bidding of the real power players in Cité Soleil.

  • 1 In a leaked 2006 cable, former US Ambassador to Haiti Janet A Sanderson detailed how then UN Special Representative of the Secretary General, Edmond Mulet, had described Youri Latortue in diplomatic briefings as a ‘drug dealer’.
  • Brian Fitzpatrick and Michael Norby are freelance reporters with a focus on Latin America. Their previous work for New Internationalist looked at land rights issues in Colombia, from where they have also covered trade, organized crime and human rights issues. They have previously reported from Haiti for a range of publications, with a focus on paramilitary activity.