Monday, January 17, 2011

Baby Doc is Back in Town

Unfortunately, the rumors are true. The dictator dynasty heir, Jean Claude Duvalier - the same man who was thrown out of Haiti 25 years ago for having stolen millions and killed thousands - just landed in country. Last night, as I sat next to my colleague and friend, Marie, in a thankfully still quiet neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, we kept saying the same thing over and over: this is crazy.

Jean Claude Duvalier, back from exile
Everyone agrees that it doesn't make any sense for Duvalier, nicknamed "Baby Doc," to have returned. Perhaps  as bad as his notorious father Papa Doc, who initiated a 30 year era of intimidation and fear through his dreaded gang of "Tons tons Machoutes," Jean Claude is an unwelcome sight. This country just got done mourning one of the worst disasters it has ever experienced. And now, they have to deal with this.

All around the streets of Port-au-Prince, people are asking "what does it all mean." Duvalier says that he has simply come back to help his country in this time of great struggle. No one is buying that, though. An old Kreyol phrase comes to mind: “tout sa ou we, se pa sa,” which basically means, “All that you see right now, it’s not really as it seems.”

Some say that the French let him back into the country in order to have a one-up on the US. Others say that the US masterminded it in order to initiate enough political upheaval to help oust Preval, put in their own hand-picked interim government and avoid having the leading Presidential candidate, Mirlande Manigat, come to power. Still others theorize that Preval is actually behind the surprise arrival, that he is trying to instigate some political upheaval himself in order to help keep himself in power until May. Still others say that Duvalier is sick, now an old man, and has come back to his home country to die. Who knows what to believe, though.

One thing is clear from last night's events: Haiti deserves justice. It deserves the millions of dollars back that it had stolen by the Duvalier family, other corrupt leaders and multiple bad trade and aid policies throughout the years. It deserves a solid reconstruction plan that is inclusive of the actual Haitian people, and built on the needs of the poor rather than the pay rolls of foreign companies. It deserves a robust and stable government that listens to its people, builds sturdy, sustainable infrastructure, and holds fair and democratic elections. And it deserves markets: fair global trade markets and actual physical markets in which to sell goods.

I saw one such market yesterday morning. The cell phone company, Digicel, has invested money in rebuilding the Hyppolite Market in downtown Port-au-Prince. The new market is definitely beautiful, and at least appears to be an example that rebuilding is happening. Yet, the question still remains: is this what people need most right now? What about the 1.5 million still living in deplorable camp conditions? In fact, Haiti needs much more: reconstruction that lifts the people up, creates proper interim and longer-term housing, implements an inclusive agriculture and food security plan and creates sustainable business and income generation.

The new, Digicel-funded Hyppolite Market in Port-au-Prince
One thing that Haiti does not need right now is a resurfacing ghost of the past who will only cause more problems. The country is poised now for the next big surprise. Does Duvalier’s return open the door for the return of Aristide? Can Duvalier actually be tried for his crimes against the Haitian people as Preval has promised? Hopefully history will not repeat itself and a peaceful solution can surface. 

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Food as a Human Right: Haiti's One Year Commemoration

Haiti Food Aid Distribution

For me, one of the most striking images of the 2008 global food crisis was that of a young Haitian man with a mouth full of straw. The man was making a public protest at the astronomical food prices in local Haitian markets, reflecting nation-wide outrage at a food system that has been domineered by cheap imports and food aid dumping. Almost 3 years later, at the 1 year commemoration of the January 12 earthquake, Haitians have even more reasons to protest. Food security stands on a long list of neglected national and international policies that have thwarted their attempts at gaining sovereignty. Yet, the right to food...the right to grow it, to choose it and to earn enough money to buy it, is one of the most basic of human rights. Everyone on this earth has a right to eat enough nutritious food to live well, and to do it with dignity.

With 76 percent of Haitians living on less than $2 per day, 3 million people not receiving enough calories, and over half of all consumed food deriving from imports, this crucial human right is not being met in Haiti. This presents an even greater challenge in light of food price projections. Riots have already broken out in countries like Algeria and Tunisia, where people cannot afford to buy sugar, oil and basic staple foods. Experts agree that Haiti stands on even more fragile ground, ill equipped to absorb the next impending global food crisis.

Despite the unique challenges of today's post-earthquake environment, Haiti's food problem has been a long time growing. Many argue that Haiti was nearly self-sufficient in the 1980's, able to grow enough food to feed its people. Yet, the United States, other international governments and international financial institutions put great pressure on Haiti to liberalize its trade policies. This included cutting tariffs on outside imports like rice, reducing publicly financed support programs for farmers, allowing outside companies to cut down forests and deprioritizing agricultural development. In addition, foreign governments responded to different natural disasters by sending food aid commodities that competed with local markets.

Today, Haiti imports over 80% of all its rice. This is a direct effect of US food aid policies. At the March 10, 2010 Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing, President Bill Clinton publicly apologized for his contribution to these policies and Haiti's current food dependent state. "It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake...I have had to live everyday with the consequences of the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did." See full article.

Understanding Haiti's food and agriculture history and our own role in that history is an important step towards helping to correct the past. Multiple Haitian organizations and civil society platforms exist, like CROSE, MPP, Tet Kole and PAPDA, that have the expertise and people power to help change Haiti's food reality. These groups have been actively working with my own organization, ActionAid, to improve agricultural development and food security policies in country. They have protested foreign quick fix solutions, like Monsanto GMO seeds, and have promoted local production and food purchase. They have denounced food aid dumping and agricultural development contracts that are domineered by foreign firms, and have offered powerful alternatives that can help to lift the Haitian people into a new era of food sovereignty. If we truly want to help the Haitian people to feed themselves, then we must listen to these voices and challenge our own decision-makers to do the same.

Elise Young
Senior Policy Analyst
ActionAid USA