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“Haiti–The Politics of Rebuilding”: A Video Report from Avi Lewis of Al Jazeera

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Much of Port-au-Prince remains under mountains of rubble, and Haitian officials say it would take years to clear out the rubble and begin the process of rebuilding the destroyed city. As pledges of billions of dollars of international aid and investment are made, debates over the vision of a new Haiti are already underway. Journalist Avi Lewis was recently in Haiti exploring the politics of rebuilding the shattered country. He spoke to a number of people, including Haitian presidential adviser Patrick Elie and economist Camille Chalmers. His report aired on the program Fault Lines on Al Jazeera English last week. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryAug 25, 2021Haiti’s Villages Continue to Be “Cut Off from Help” More Than a Week After Massive Earthquake
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s been five weeks since the magnitude 7.0 earthquake devastated Haiti. The death toll continues to rise. On Monday, four schoolchildren were killed when a school collapsed in the northern city of Cap-Haïtien, reportedly after a night of heavy rains and an aftershock. At least fifty-four aftershocks have been felt in Haiti since the earthquake last month. Much of the Port-au-Prince remains under mountains of rubble, and Haitian officials say it would take years to clear out the rubble and begin the process of rebuilding the destroyed city.

Where landmarks like the National Palace and the cathedral once stood, a new architecture has appeared. Hundreds of tent cities have been set up, and food distribution points dot the city, run primarily by the United Nations, with support from US troops. These structures might be temporary, but as pledges of billions of dollars of international aid and investment are made, debates over the vision of a new Haiti are already underway.

Well, journalist Avi Lewis was recently in Haiti exploring the politics of rebuilding the shattered country. He spoke to a number of people, including Haitian presidential adviser Patrick Elie and economist Camille Chalmers. His report aired on the program Fault Lines on Al Jazeera English last week.

    AVI LEWIS: One month after the earthquake in Haiti, a new normal is taking shape. The symbols of the old order are in ruins. The new landscape already looks like it’s always been there. More food is being distributed, though never enough. Markets are open, but prices have spiked, a disaster tax on the informal economy.

    In the Haitian government and in the conference rooms of foreign powers, the redesign of the country has already begun. What’s the vision? And who will benefit from the reconstruction? What kind of future is being planned for this nation of survivors?

    According to the Haitian official in charge of clearing collapsed buildings, it would take twelve hours a day for an entire year to remove all the rubble in Port-au-Prince — if the country had a fleet of a thousand trucks. The long project of rebuilding Haiti has barely begun. But with billions of dollars of international aid and investment expected, the debate over the vision of a new Haiti is already in full swing.

    ALAIN VILLARD, factory owner: It’s time to really say Haiti has a red carpet for foreign investments. Please, come in.

    CAMILLE CHALMERS: [translated] There must be another model of industrialization, another model of investment serving the domestic market, and the needs of the people.

    EDUARDO ALMEIDA, Inter-American Development Bank: And Haiti has very low labor costs. So, I mean, there’s an opportunity there.

    AMAZON GERARD: [translated] The first thing we need to do is spend money on agriculture. The people need food now, not aid. We’re talking about money so that we can work the land better.

    PATRICK ELIE: We need to rebuild our state. We need a strong state. And we’re not about to accept a coup d’état.

    AVI LEWIS: With the Haitian government diminished since the disaster, the UN and the US have taken the lead in relief efforts. Delays in the delivery of aid have received a lot of attention, especially when food distribution goes wrong. But in those places where aid is being delivered successfully, there are principles at work that could guide the larger project of Haiti’s reconstruction.

    PATRICK ELIE: Haiti should not be pitied, please. Should be helped, not pitied, not looked down upon, but probably looked at for some new lessons in solidarity, in discipline, in resilience.

    AVI LEWIS: Most of the people made homeless in Port-au-Prince are living in hundreds of ad hoc camps. Many are administered by neighborhood committees that oversee food and water distribution, construction, sanitation and security. Camille Chalmers is an economist with the Haitian Platform for Development Alternatives.

    CAMILLE CHALMERS: [translated] We’ve seen almost one-and-a-half million people in the streets who have been able to self-organize in order to respond to the crisis. And they’ve shared everything they had. They shared their food. They shared their clothes. They shared their blankets. And I think it’s a very significant example that must be used in rebuilding, that must be part of the possibility of a different future.

    CAMP ORGANIZER 1: This is a parking area of the school, OK, but now it’s a house of the people. But the security, we’ve got two in day, two in night, a gate. We make a change.

    CAMP ORGANIZER 2: [translated] If someone is going to come here to give us something, first we organize to get the message out. Once everyone knows that aid is coming and that everyone will get their share, everyone remains orderly, because they know that even if they’re at the back of the line, they’ll still get something.

    AVI LEWIS: As much as Haitians have been fending for themselves, the need for help from outside is massive. Both the UN mission to Haiti, known as MINUSTAH, and the US military, which has been operating the port and the airport, have been under fire for prioritizing security over the quick delivery of aid. Haiti’s Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive told us he worries that the fixation with security could turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    PRIME MINISTER JEAN-MAX BELLERIVE: When I’m in the meetings, exactly what I’m trying to convey to my partners, MINUSTAH or American or Canadians, that I understand your point of view, but my point of view is that there’s some sort of sense of urgency. Until now, the Haitian population is really calm. Don’t wait until you have ready to react and take care of a security problem.

    MAJ. GEN. DANIEL ALLYN, US Army: You’re going to have friction as you have a high-priority need to be met. We work through that very effectively, and I think the people of Haiti feel the effects that are being delivered.

    PRIME MINISTER JEAN-MAX BELLERIVE: They don’t care about the security organization. They just want the water, the food, the medicines to get to them. And they don’t care, and they don’t feel that there is a need of so much security. So they’re just asking why all that food, all that water, is still at the airport or in the storage facilities.

    MAJ. GEN. DANIEL ALLYN: We are out with the people. We are living with the people. We are delivering aid to the people. So, I can’t speak for the Prime Minister.

    AVI LEWIS: You’re not saying the Prime Minister is not telling the truth?

    MAJ. GEN. DANIEL ALLYN: I can only say, you should judge for yourself what you have seen in Haiti. What I see in Haiti when I go about and support our operations here, and that is US forces, where they’re needed, delivering aid to the people.

    AVI LEWIS: We accompanied the US Navy on a recent food distribution to the town of Jérémie. With thousands of hungry people waiting and only a handful of soldiers and US civilians on the ground, it was not exactly a scene of calm. But it was clear that local community leaders were key to getting food in the hands of the people. Prime Minister Bellerive says NGOs and foreign governments are having trouble getting it.

    PRIME MINISTER JEAN-MAX BELLERIVE: We are going to keep trying to explain them, if you want to have some success, you have to work with the Haitians at every level.

    AVI LEWIS: While the disaster has sparked generosity and global good will, it has also magnified a longstanding trend: foreign organizations and governments bringing their own priorities and interests to the job of helping Haiti.

    PATRICK ELIE: For decades, all has been done to weaken the Haitian state, and now everybody is screaming bloody murder, the Haitian state is too weak to handle this situation.

    AVI LEWIS: The state in Haiti used to include major public companies — rice, flour, electricity, telephones. Today, after decades of privatization and pressure from the US and international financial institutions, control of those businesses has moved offshore. Haiti is dependent on expensive imports for food and other essentials. Facing a reconstruction project of epic proportions, the country is poorly positioned to build its own future. Let’s take one concrete example.

    CAMILLE CHALMERS: [translated] There was a publicly owned cement company that was privatized in 1997. Now decisions are being made by the owners of multinationals who are trying to maximize their profits.

    EDUARDO ALMEIDA: We have a company from Colombia. We have a company from Mexico. And so, they are — certainly they will provide the cement. So, cement — we don’t produce the cement here. What we do is, I mean, we import the clinker, and we import, and then we package the cement here.

    CAMILLE CHALMERS: [translated] Haiti’s cement industry is the story of a failure that will weigh heavily on the process of reconstruction.

    EDUARDO ALMEIDA: We’re going to have large construction companies, which already are contacting us, because the investments are going to be huge, so it’s going to be attractive for any company.

    AVI LEWIS: Rebuilding Haiti will clearly be big business, business largely led by outsiders. So now the question is whether the country’s self-sufficiency could be rebuilt at the same time. And that is a debate about the economic plan for Haiti, one that was already in motion before the earthquake hit.

    P.J. CROWLEY, US State Department: Haiti had a plan before the earthquake, and it was inching along on that plan. So they are already focused on how do we come back to that plan, obviously recognizing it will have to be revised because of the devastation.

    AVI LEWIS: Haiti’s poverty reduction strategy is intended to diversify its economy. But the centerpiece is a special relationship with one country and one industry.

    HILLARY CLINTON: To spur the creation of jobs, the United States passed the HOPE Act of 2006 to give garments made in Haiti tariff-free access to US markets. Last October, we did extend this trade preference for another decade. Apparel is one of the largest sectors in Haiti’s economy, and we see great possibility for job creation in this field.

    AVI LEWIS: In the wake of the earthquake, the push is on to increase that business fivefold, boosting employment in apparel factories from 25,000 to 150,000.

    EDUARDO ALMEIDA: The HOPE law is going to go into 2018, so we have a window of opportunity, and we have to create that opportunity right now. It was needed before, and it’s much needed now.

    CAMILLE CHALMERS: [translated] What the workers say is altogether different. Lots of workers we talk to say that although they have lower wages now, they decided to stop working at the factory because of exploitation, because their individual lives were totally ruined, there was no way to have a family life, and because of the indignation caused by the exploitation of women.

    AVI LEWIS: High noon, and a crowd has gathered at the site of the Palm Apparel factory. When the quake hit at 4:53 p.m. on January 12, more than 1,000 people were in this building. According to the factory owner, the only survivors were those who jumped from the third floor. That makes this one of the disaster’s deadliest sites. Although it’s clear from the smell that there are still bodies in the wreckage, the recovery of corpses is over now. It’s t-shirts that are being pulled from the rubble. People begin to scavenge.

    We’ve heard from a lot of employees here today that —-

    Shots are fired overhead. The crowd is chased from the site, and the salvage operation gets back to work. We talked to a number of former workers. They claim that practices at the factory may have contributed to the death toll, because they were routinely kept late to meet production quotas.

    FACTORY WORKER 1: [translated] There is a quota. If you don’t meet the quota they want, they curse at you, beat you, and pressure you to make that quota or more. So there’s a time we have to arrive, but no set time to leave.

    ALAIN VILLARD: They always end up staying twenty, thirty minutes later, sometimes even forty-five minutes. Sometimes you have to tell them, “Get out, don’t stay, go home, go see your family.” But it’s just that these are poor people, they’re making a living, and the job is good for them. This is why they stay and make the extra money.

    FACTORY WORKER 2: [translated] You can’t leave, because you have a supervisor standing over you. They can fire you. Sometimes the boss stands in front of you to keep you from leaving. They even close the gate.

    CAMILLE CHALMERS: [translated] This crisis with the earthquake and the loss of life in the factory illuminate the abominable working conditions in which the working class labors. And there’s a whole process of lengthening the workday to make significant profits. So this points the finger at one of the wounds in the dominant model and the necessity of having another vision of the economy and of economic growth.

    AVI LEWIS: Long before the earthquake, factory pay was a hot topic in Haiti. Last year, President René Préval imposed a minimum wage of three US dollars a day, despite pressure from protests and striking workers. That paved the way for a foreign investors conference hosted by UN envoy Bill Clinton, and plans for new factories followed. This time around, there is no public discussion of raising wages for factory workers.

    HAITIAN MOTHER: [translated] My son is still under there. We can’t do anything about it. He was trapped, and then he suffocated.

    AVI LEWIS: This time around, most Haitians are in no position to debate the economic model that will shape their future.

    HAITIAN FATHER: [translated] He spent three days in there.

    AVI LEWIS: Daybreak in Haiti’s Central Plateau, a fertile land of lakes, mountains and family farms, the Haiti you never see on TV. Thirty years ago, this country grew almost all the rice it could eat. Then trade policies ripped apart this way of life. Farmers lost their price protections, and cheap imports flooded the country. Farming was no longer economically viable for the majority.

    HAITIAN FARMER 1: [translated] There’s no money, but there’s land. Like this land, if you had money, you could get good harvests. But sometimes there’s no money to work the land the way you should.

    AVI LEWIS: And so, farmers left the land en masse, went to the city, swelling the slum population of Port-au-Prince, building houses on hillsides, finding work, if any, in the informal economy or factories, making clothing for export.

    HAITIAN FARMER 2: [translated] My cousin worked in a factory. She led a miserable life. The workers demanded a raise, but the president didn’t allow it.

    AVI LEWIS: After the earthquake, with hunger and homelessness reigning in the city, hundreds of thousands of Haitians are going back to the countryside, reversing the decades-old pattern of migration. As billions of dollars begin to flow into rebuilding Haiti, the question for them is, what kind of future can they hope to find here?

    We travel up into the mountains, two-and-a-half hours by mule, to visit a summit of peasant organizations gathered to discuss their response to the disaster.

    HAITIAN PEASANT ORGANIZER 1: [translated] If there was something for them to do, all these young people wouldn’t have gone to Port-au-Prince and died. They would have stayed here to work.

    HAITIAN PEASANT ORGANIZER 2: [translated] A lot of money has come in for reconstruction. We hear about it, but we have yet to see it.

    AVI LEWIS: Amazon Gerard [phon.] is the president of the federation hosting this meeting.

    AMAZON GERARD: [translated] Farmers are now in a situation where they need to produce much more, because we have all those people from the capital who lost everything and who are coming back to the countryside. Decentralization hasn’t happened yet. We have to decentralize the government’s power to the countryside.

    PATRICK ELIE: The people who’ve hit the road and gone back to their original village or region, these are going to have to be offered not only -— not a refugee camp, but a new community with the opportunities for work, for creation of wealth, that should go with a community.

    AVI LEWIS: But what kind of work? And how should that wealth be created? Haiti’s current plan, backed by international financial institutions, calls for a familiar model of growth through serving foreign markets — tourism, exports of fruit and textiles. But there’s an alternative to these grand schemes, one that builds an economy by meeting the needs of local people. It started with free healthcare.

    DR. MAXI RAYMONDVILLE, Partners in Health: That’s what we have been doing for the last twenty years, you know, working closely to this community and to hear their voice and to see how we can work together. And now they got access to this healthcare, you know, and they got access to some potable water, and then they got access — we try, you know, to help through some social service, like building houses for some of patient.

    AVI LEWIS: Partners in Health began as a small clinic here in the town of Cange in the 1980s. It was co-founded by Paul Farmer, now deputy UN envoy to Haiti. That clinic is now this full-service hospital, which also has a school and programs in art, music and job training. Partners in Health now has ten hospitals, twenty-six public schools, and a huge network of community workers throughout the country.

    DR. EVAN LYON, Partners in Health: Partners in Health is many things. We’re a clinical system. We do education, food, water, agriculture. We’re a broad community organization. But at the root of it, we’re an employment agency. We have over 4,000 employees. A hundred of those are Haitian docs. Two hundred of those are Haitian nurses and nurse auxiliaries. The vast majority are community health workers. Every single one of them is paid at a wage that’s respectful.

    AVI LEWIS: Over time, this health project has grown into a quiet rural revolution that touches every aspect of life. The latest is a pilot project in agriculture. Rather than just feeding people, it helps them farm. Agronomist Stenio Louis-Jeune sees this model as a clear alternative to an economy of factory work in crowded cities.

    STENIO LOUIS-JEUNE: [translated] Sure, you can still have subcontracting, but it shouldn’t be prioritized. Because Haiti is a rural country, it’s essentially agricultural. We have six months of rain a year with which we can perform miracles. And also we have water which is being wasted. We have land lying vacant, and we have farm labor. If we exploited all of that, Haiti would be among the wealthiest countries in the world.

    DR. EVAN LYON: We can create tens and thousands of jobs for people who will do care-giving and work at the bedside, be the leg for somebody whose leg is cut off. If you want to make stimulus and you want to make recovery in Haiti, create jobs, work from the bottom up. That’s what our organization has been able to do.

    AVI LEWIS: Despite this made-in-Haiti success story, bottom-up plans are not high on the reconstruction agenda. Haiti’s government and international agencies look at the 450 self-organized refugee camps in Port-au-Prince and see huge challenges in providing food, sanitation and shelter.

    But these new communities, born of desperation, could also be something else: a source of collective wisdom, a place to hear the voices of the people who want a say in building their country back.

    CAMILLE CHALMERS: [translated] In the camps, people are talking a lot about solidarity, fraternity and mutual aid. They’re thinking about what economies built on solidarity look like, about how people who don’t know each other can live together and organize and resolve basic problems, starting from an exceptional situation that has allowed people to discover that we are all Haitians, that we share elements of the same culture. And on that basis, we can recreate life and take new paths.

    PATRICK ELIE: Even though I’m not a believer in any religion, but I know that every religion believes in the notion of sacrifice. People have to die for people to live. And our dead died for us to live. We have to feed off their spirit, understand their message, understand that they could no longer live in this environment and in these circumstances and these conditions, and they died so that we could pick up that strong message.

AMY GOODMAN: Haitian presidential adviser Patrick Elie in that report on Al Jazeera English from Avi Lewis, produced by Andrea Schmidt.

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