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Haitian Writer Jean Saint-Vil: One Year After Earthquake, Haitian Population Treated as a Threat, Not an Asset

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On the anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, we speak with Ottawa-based Haitian writer and activist, Jean Saint-Vil. “One year after the earthquake, we are seeing the Haitian population being treated and seen as a threat, rather than as an asset,” Saint-Vil says. “That’s the major paradigm shift that must occur if we have to get out of this mess.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring in Jean Saint-Vil and then get your response, Patrick Elie. We’re turning to Canada. He’s in Ottawa, the Haitian writer and activist, his website,

On this first anniversary of the earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands of people, now more than a million — and the country is only 10 million people — and cholera ravaging through the country, Jean Saint-Vil, your thoughts?

JEAN SAINT-VIL: Well, I was listening attentively to Alex Dupuy and Patrick, and they’ve really covered a lot of my thoughts. And I think one of the things that is common in what they’ve said is that there is not evidence that we’ve made that shift. Patrick mentioned that Port-au-Prince is trying to rebuild itself on the same principle that it had built itself before and is — has collapsed. The same thing with the way Alex Dupuy described the international community.

I think that another Haitian author described it pretty well: Edwidge Danticat, who published in the Miami Herald earlier this week an article titled “Haitians Are Tired, But We Are Not Defeated.” I would add that we are sick and tired, but not defeated. As you mentioned, we have lost more than 3,700 Haitians through the cholera brought to Haiti by U.N. troops.

And what we are seeing is, instead of resources being mobilized to deal with protecting human lives, building infrastructures for a new Haiti, instead we’re seeing the international community, which includes the United Nations, mobilizing resources to maintain the status quo. So, my perspective on this is that one year after the earthquake, we are seeing the Haitian population being treated and seen as a threat, rather than as an asset. And to me, that’s the major paradigm shift that must occur if we have to get out of this mess.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you, Alex Dupuy, before we go back to Port-au-Prince with Patrick Elie, about the U.S. official who was in charge of relief efforts following Haiti’s devastating earthquake who has accused a major contractor of shortchanging him for his assistance in securing more than $20 million in reconstruction deals. It was the Haiti Recovery Group he’s suing, and it was Lewis Lucke that the Associated Press was reporting on.

ALEX DUPUY: Well, I don’t know all the specifics of that suit, but what is known is that, of the contracts that have been given out by the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, most of those contracts have gone to U.S. firms. Only two of them went to Haitian firms. And a significant percentage of the contracts that went to U.S. firms went to two firms, according to news reports, with no-bid contracts. So, I am not sure if this is what the suit is targeting, but —

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask — let me ask Jean Saint-Vil. Are you familiar with this case?

JEAN SAINT-VIL: Yes, I have read the report on the web about this. And if I am not mistaken, Mr. Lewis Lucke is actually a former U.S. ambassador to Swaziland, and he was working with the USAID in Haiti. And he’s suing the Haitian company led by Bigio, the Bigio Group [GB Group], which — actually, Bigio is described as the richest man in Haiti, part of the small Haitian elite that controls basically the economic life of Haiti. What’s interesting in this article is that it’s describing that the work that Lewis Lucke has done is really lobbying former U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush for contracts that he was securing for American companies. To me, this is an example of exactly what is wrong with the current model, where non-Haitians have more power than Haitian leaders in Haiti, and the corruption that has been treated in Haiti as if it was, you know, a genetic disease that only affects the Haitian players.

We are seeing that the IHRC, led by Bill Clinton and Jean-Max Bellerive, is actually only led by the international players. People have actually been asking, “Where is the Haitian prime minister, Jean-Max Bellerive?” At the last meeting that took place in Dominican Republic, he wasn’t even there. And that’s where the 12 members of the Haitian participants in this commission were saying that contracts are being signed, major decisions are being made, without them being involved. So, basically, the Clinton Global Initiative and Bill Clinton himself, not to talk about all the conflict of interest being the husband of the U.S. Secretary of State — I mean, Haiti is not being led by Haitians, and that’s basically what’s been wrong with the situation since 2004.

AMY GOODMAN: Patrick Elie, I want to come back to you, as you stand there in front of the Champ de Mars, where so many people remain in these refugee camps. And I was wondering if you could give us a history lesson, for those not familiar with Haiti, in its birth out of a slave rebellion, and then what you think needs to happen right now concretely on the ground, as you say your country is being controlled by foreign interests, by foreign governments.

PATRICK ELIE: It is indeed a huge challenge that we’re facing as a people, maybe as big as the one we did face successfully in 1804. And as for, if you want, the vultures descending on Haiti, I believe we evoked that the last time we met on the Montana. And the only people that can prevent that are the Haitians themselves, with the help of foreign friends that keep their vigilance high, because, you know, things are going on that are beyond the back of the people of the world that were so generous toward Haiti and beyond the back of the Haitian people. And really what needs to be done is not easy to map out. To tell you the truth, there is no magic wand.

A lot of the people you see out in the Champ de Mars, they were not living any better before in Cité Soleil and in the different shanty towns. The difference is that now they’re making their presence known, they’re in your face, so to speak. And I hope that they will be able to show both the world outside and the Haitian elite that things have to change. And in a way — and I measure my words — to see these people in the Champ de Mars right smack in front of the National Palace is a positive message. It has to remind anyone who find itself in this ruin of a building, anyone who is living in a five million U.S.-dollar mansion, that these are Haitians, and they have to be, if you want, enfranchised and that their needs and their demands have to be met. So, you know, as they say in Haiti, ”C’est un bien pour un mal,” we’ve exchanged an evil for a message that had to be heard for years and years.

AMY GOODMAN: What, at this point, do you feel needs to be done? Do you feel that the IHRC, that is run by President Clinton, former President Clinton, and Bellerive, should it continue? Should it be dismantled? You talk about a community organizations that could rise up, a changing of Port-au-Prince, but how will this actually happen?

PATRICK ELIE: I do believe that we need something different from the Haitian state as it is, and as it will emerge from this election, to lead the effort in reconstruction. Obviously, there has to be parliamentary representative of the donors, but mostly the Haitian representation should reflect more the Haitian community as it is. It’s not enough to have big-shot lawyers and technicians. The voice of the communities, both of Port-au-Prince but also in the other parts of the country, which represent our way out of this mess, their voices have to be heard also. And to be frank, I have not heard those voices spoken in the reconstruction. So, for me, personally, one of the very encouraging things that emerged from the earthquake was the birth, or the rebirth, of the neighborhood committees. And many of them, I must admit, you know, just organized so that they could profit for the charity. But some of them have remained, and they are, if you want, sketching their way ahead. And the movement has spread away from Port-au-Prince and away from the cities to what we call the lakou, which are the small peasant communities. In my opinion, there lies the future of Haiti and of its democracy, not up in the fancy hotel or the convention centers.

AMY GOODMAN: Patrick Elie, I want to thank you for being with us, Haitian democracy activist, speaking to us from Port-au-Prince. When we come back from break, we will go to Carrefour to speak with the Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat, the Haitian American novelist. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: On this first anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, the tè tremblé_, the earth trembles, we continue with Edwidge Danticat. She is the Haitian American novelist. She is speaking to us from Carrefour, Haiti. Her latest danticat”>article in The New Yorker is called “A Year and a Day.” Her latest book, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work. Among her other books are Krik? Krak!

Edwidge, I know that we don’t have a great phone line, but we just felt, no matter what, we wanted to speak to you as you return to Haiti. You say, “Haitians are tired, but they are not defeated.” How are you feeling today?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Thank you so much for having me, Amy, and thank you for having this program.

I think [inaudible] people, both here in Haiti and in the Haitian diaspora today, we feel a great deal of sadness, because today we remember, you know, so many people that this country lost, so many people lost to us personally. So there’s the sense of sadness, the sense of commemoration. Today here is a national holiday. Schools and offices are closed. But there’s still — you know, the streets are busy. People are trying to go about their days, and even though there are many religious ceremonies and prayer services planned, small and large. But there’s still a sense that, because people don’t have any choice, you know, they still have to wake up today and go about the daily business of survival.

AMY GOODMAN: You begin your piece in the Miami Herald talking about the Greek myth Sisyphus. Can you take it from there?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, you know, the most recent former prime minister of Haiti, Michèle Pierre-Louis, and this Miami Herald-directed documentary called Nou Bouke —- We Are Tired -— talks about this myth of Sisyphus, of, you know, this Greek myth of someone rolling a rock up a hill and then finding that when you get up the hill, the rocks roll back down again, and it’s a repetitive process. And the most sort of optimistic view of that story is that every time you do it, you think it’s the last time. And she actually says it’s an incredibly apt, at this moment, metaphor for Haiti and what Haitians are going through. But, you know, the upside of that is that — we’ve heard so much this year about it, in part because it’s so true — Haitian people are very resilient. But it doesn’t mean that they can, you know, suffer more than other people. And I think — and that’s what also one needs to emphasize.

A year later, there are a million-and-a-half people still living in tents. There’s these reports of women being raped, and now, at this point, where some of the settlements are on private land and the owners are becoming tired of people being there and are intimidating them into relocating. So, even though, you know, there are still some great symbolic signs that we — for example, the reopening of the open market yesterday — but there’s still a lot of suffering here. A lot of people are suffering. And as we remember the dead today, it’s important to remember that, to this, there’s a long suffering of the living that will continue past this day and to tomorrow and, sad to say, perhaps into next year and the following year. So we have to also remember the suffering of the living which continues here.

AMY GOODMAN: And how cholera is affecting the people there, with some 3,600 people dead of cholera, 170,000 or so infected?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, what’s — there’s been a stall in the conversation about cholera, in part because of the election stalemate here and as the anniversary is approaching, but it remains a very large problem. And potentially, you know, as the CDC and other organizations have declared, is that it can — cholera can potentially kill more people than the earthquake. And cholera can spread quickly, and has spread quickly in this country. And it was borne out of the circumstances that have been discussed, through — you know, whether one believes that it was through these Nepalese soldiers, but it can spread pretty quickly. And it’s something also, as we look at these potential disasters, including the potential for lack of food security, because we have farmers in the Artibonite who refuse to go into the rice paddies, because they are afraid of the bacteria-infected waters there. So, there are a host of other issues also looming ahead, as we commemorate this day.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, the figures are stunning of how little money has made it to reconstruction in this year, of the $9 billion promised. I wanted to play for you a clip of President Clinton. I know he is back in Haiti right now. We were there right after the earthquake, and then Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Nicole Salazar and I, along with Kim Ives, went back for the sixth [six-month] anniversary. It was a ceremony they held, and then President Clinton gave a speech and talked about how important Haiti was to him.

BILL CLINTON: I intend to spend the next seven weeks, except for the time it takes me to marry my daughter off, making sure the donors who have made these commitments give us a simple schedule: when will they deliver the money? How much and when? When they do, then we will get as much as we can for budget support for the Haiti government, and Prime Minister Bellerive and I will do everything we can to then push these projects through the reconstruction commission so the people of Haiti can feel and see them being done.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Clinton in Port-au-Prince, standing in the shadow of the rubble of the palace, which at that point had hardly been touched, right in front of the Champ de Mars, where we were speaking to Patrick Elie today, the big plaza where thousands of Haitian refugees still live. Now less than 10 percent of the $9 billion pledged by foreign donors has been delivered. It’s six months after that speech, a year after the earthquake. Patrick Elie was just talking about the country being run by foreign interests. Is that your assessment, Edwidge Danticat?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, there is certainly a lot of foreign interests here, you know, both, I think, in the NGO sector and the sort of potential inevitable flood of disaster capitalism that follows situations like this. I think we need to keep reminding not just the donors, but other witnesses, about this sort lack of [inaudible] you know, the pledges have been made, but that these have not been delivered, because often there’s this impression that this has happened, and it’s been consumed by corruption. But I think that’s one thing we need to keep reminding other people. The foreign interests, I think, will always be there, but we also have to focus our attention on the Haitian people, as Patrick was just saying, on Haitian men and women who ultimately will be the ones to rebuild the country. And these donors and the NGOs and all the — even the disaster capitalists must remember that, that that’s who will ultimately build this country, the men and women of this country. And they have the will. And sometimes they are portrayed as sort of passive receivers and not active enough. They have the will. They have the ability. All they need now is this opportunity by those both inside Haiti and outside of Haiti who control the purse strings of this country, that they have to remember that these men and women here need to be able, and want to and are willing to, rebuild their country, if they’re given the opportunity to do so.

AMY GOODMAN: Jean Saint-Vil, in Ottawa, your response to President Clinton saying this was his top priority, and also to the election, the Haiti Provisional Electoral Council releasing preliminary results and saying that Célestin is out and the runoff will be between the musician Michel Martelly and the former First Lady Mirlande Manigat, with Lavalas excluded from the election?

JEAN SAINT-VIL: Yes, I think, again, in both of these instances, the key word is “accountability.” If, five years from now, 10 years from now, President Clinton comes on TV and says, “Oops, I guess, you know, I did not succeed,” what’s going to happen? Nothing. President Clinton is not accountable to the people of Haiti. And this is exactly the challenge that Haitians are facing today. We have players who have lots of power, decision-making power, yet zero accountability, making the key decisions about the lives of Haitians, whether it is with regards to the reconstruction money or with the elections.

We had a major scandal at the end of the year, where a Brazilian diplomat, Ricardo Seitenfus, came out and made a couple of interviews where he explained that not only did the international mission in Haiti fail, but that there are illegal things that are being discussed in plain sight. For instance, he mentioned that the day of the election, November 28th, he went into a meeting which involved the head of the U.N. mission in Haiti, Mr. Edmond Mulet, representatives of the donor countries — he didn’t mention who they were —- but they were discussing looking for a plane so they can put the current president of Haiti, René Préval, and expel him from the country. I mean, this is grave accusations from -—

AMY GOODMAN: Five seconds.

JEAN SAINT-VIL: —- the OAS special representatives to Haiti. So I think what needs to happen is that people should play their key role. The U.N. must be forced to mobilize resources to fight cholera in Haiti. Whether they caused it or not, it is clear that the Nepalese camp near Bel Air was not treating their excrements the proper way. And -—

AMY GOODMAN: We must leave it there, but we’ll continue to follow Haiti, of course. Jean Saint-Vil, Edwidge Danticat, Alex Dupuy, thank you so much.

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Novelist Edwidge Danticat: “Haitians Are Very Resilient, But It Doesn’t Mean They Can Suffer More Than Other People”

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