Rebuilding needs a solid foundation of governance: Part 4, the Tralfamadorian optimist
By: David A. Smith
Ever since Haiti’s earthquake, I have tried to avert my gaze from it. Like Kurt Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians, I avoid thinking about tragedies past and focus on triumphs present and potentially future. From the moment the first images hit, I despaired for Haiti, but held my tongue – there is little point ruining the aspirations of others who may after all be right. So I silently hope, and look away, and feel morally ill.
“There isn’t anything we can do about them, so we simply don’t look at them. We ignore them. We spend eternity looking at pleasant moments – like today at the zoo. Isn’t this a nice moment?”
“That’s one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones.”
– Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five
Not very good at following his own advice: Kurt Vonnegut
Yet reality intrudes, as we’ve seen over the last few days of this depressing post, and the MSNBC story showed Haiti’s cycle of tragedy recurring yet again:
You don’t see them until you come up the road. First just one. Then a hundred. Then fields of them. Sweating through their secondhand T-shirts, clutching wooden poles, plastic sheets and tools, 10,000 or more have set up tents.
When you have nothing but your children, your chattel, and your spirits, you will walk forever on the slenderest of hopes – because really, what other choice have you?
In the immediate aftermath, Port-au-Prince
Maxo Jean-Charles, 26, lost both his children, 4-year-old Claudia and 3-year-old Marco, in the quake. He lost his home in the densely packed Delmas 32 district of Port-au-Prince.
The poor have so little, and what they have can be so easily destroyed.
He’s desperate for a place to start over.
Desperate and with no one to protect him.
His cousins and uncles pound a stake into the ground while a woman rests in the dirt. Each family is claiming their square of land, they explain.
In countries with a people-responsive government, the claims of occupancy and desperation gradually acquire a judicial force. I learned that in India, where pavement dwelling is common in the major cities, and where self-built hovels are tolerated because they exist in so many millions that it is palpably impractical for a democracy to sweep them away. Not so in agrarian countries, nor in dictatorships, autocracies, or oligarchies – there one can see the poor simply as literate vermin, and give them no more consideration than we do pigeons.
Time, hope, patience, and buckets
“This is where they’re sending everyone to live. That’s why we’re building our tent here,” he said.
Who “sent” them? No one can say. But the landowners suspect the government is populating the land with squatters, so it can be taken for the “new Haiti” at a minimum price — or for nothing.
Who knows? Distrust among thieves is certainly a plausible explanation.
Land ownership has been a sensitive issue since Haiti’s 1804 [1793 through 1803 – Ed.] slave revolt, when it was wrested from French planters –
Haiti had that one brief burst of promise. Emperor Napoleon was resting between wars, and while he was able to sell Louisiana before he would have lost it (to Britain), he had nothing to gain from the Hispaniolan gentry, so he cut them loose. Not for the first time in world history, nor the last, the power of freedom as an ideal seized the populace, led by the remarkable Toussaint l’Ouverture [A nom de guerre, like Stalin or Ataturk, in this case meaning 'one who finds an opening' – Ed.], the black Jacobin.
The self-made George Washington of Haiti: Toussaint l’Ouverture
But l’Ouverture died – enticed to parley and then clapped into irons, shipped to France, and killed by exposure and deprivation in a Napoleonic prison – before democracy could take hold among his ill-educated people, and Haiti reverted to its old ways.
– and distributed among the people, only to fall back under the ownership of a few powerful families — the “grands-hommes” (big men) in Haitian parlance.
Basically, one imperial class supplanted another. Exploiting natural resources has thus enabled Haiti’s rich to prosper without investing in their country.
The land registry hasn’t been updated for decades, and many of the records that did exist were lost in the earthquake.
Without legal records, without judicial administration, power grows from a gun barrel and a machete blade.
People who claim to be the landowners say it’s worth $50,000 a hectare ($20,000 an acre).
Worth to whom? For what? These figures are just numbers designed to extract more go-away money from government. It makes me angry to contemplate.
“My fair price is a negotiation between the market price and the price the owner declared to the income tax,” Voltaire said.
‘Declared to the income tax’? That matter-of-fact algebra bespeaks corruption at both ends, first in the assessment of public responsibility, second in any transacting with government.
“And it’s always very low.”
Bellerive said landowners will be compensated, but that housing the homeless takes priority.
“Housing the homeless takes priority”: Clinton and Bellerive
I’d like to believe in his good intentions, but I can’t.
“If we take the time to resolve it one by one, the people are going to stay on the streets,” he said.
He could have a strong ally — Clinton, who has said he’ll plunge into the bargaining himself, if necessary.
“I’m not above doing that,” Clinton told The Associated Press on a recent visit. “I’ve been known to make a deal or two in my life.”
Still politically electric after all these years
Mr. President, I rtespect your dedication and admire your self-confidence, which you have never lacked, but the only deals you made that endured were with counterparties who could be held accountable. Deals you broker when you have no leverage are so much shadow play. Say Yes while the cameras are present, say No five minutes after they are gone.
The landowners say if they’re not compensated, the “new Haiti” in Corail-Cesselesse will end up making the violent slums of pre-quake Port-au-Prince look tame.
That is a poorly-disguised threat of gang violence.
Every squatter seems to have had an encounter with gangsters they believe are sent by landowners.
Who else would have sent them? Means, motive, opportunity, and the absence of other plausible suspects.
Who controls Haiti’s guns?
They say if anyone builds there without their consent, they will sue to get the land back.
Fine, and how will that undermine the community? Unless, that is, you send in the machete-wielding goons.
Sadrak Abane, 60, said they beat him with a rifle. He refused to go.
Haiti represents not rebuilding but institutionalized structural violence.
Landowner Jean-Claude Theodore calls the squatters invaders who are attacking private property.
They are invaders that were encouraged to invade, a crusade of the poor.
But they believe they have government behind them. “Don’t forget! Don’t forget! Don’t forget!” said Daniel Paul, a 35-year-old member of a squatters’ committee. “The state has declared it is public land. Nobody can go above the state.”
Theirs by right of occupancy?
Contrast that description with six months ago, when it was only the US army acting as benevolent dictator:
Yesterday, the troops made their initial aid drop. They tried at first to move into the survivor camp to deliver the food, but the handful of troops, led by Foster, quickly became engulfed in a sea of screaming survivors. At the sight of some relief, the crowd became excited, and it was clear that the food could not be passed out in the camp. The troops were forced to retreat up the hill, behind their makeshift perimeter lined with white plastic lawn chairs.
U.S. soldiers stand guard as earthquake survivors gather for supplies.
Despite the initial chaos of the event, Foster called it a success. Haitian volunteers came forward to organize the distribution and to help in providing security.
People will self-organize if they have a rule-of-law framework that creates space for self-organization.
“They were ones who got all of the kids up the hill and brought them first, not us. I think that’s an enormously positive step,” Foster said. “The handful of times you may have seen a guy or two want to get rowdy, they policed those guys up themselves. I think that is very, very important to how this continues to flow.”
People wait in long lines for crackers and water in Port-au-Prince.
Versus the situation today:
“Any time we pick a spot to build a place there’s always the ‘grands-hommes’ claiming the land is theirs,” said Wisner Jerome, 37.
Whether the government was indeed corrupt or merely incompetent, the situation has not been bollixed up to a fare-thee-well. There is no plan, there is no order, there is no rule of law. There are only desperate people, newly settled land without infrastructure or income generating opportunities, and an accumulating pile of conflicting claims.
Rebuilding after disaster requires an infrastructure against corruption: genuine transparency in governmental dealings, public officials with provable integrity, and accountability that is enforced from without until it can be sustained from within.
And the greatest of these is a government of integrity.
As far as I can tell, Haiti has none of them.
“You have to stop him. If you know this, can’t you keep the pilot from pressing the button– ”
“He has always pressed it, and he always will. We always let him, and we always will let him. The moment is structured that way.”
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five
A statue of Toussaint l’Ouverture, Port-au-Prince