N’ap bat dlo pou l fé bé (We’re churning water to make it into butter)
—a Haitian proverb
Why do I keep going back to Haiti? My son—a more practical person than I—suggested, with perhaps a hint of sarcasm, that if I wanted to write about poor people in a dangerous place, I could take a field trip to Richmond or even to nearby pockets of poverty and violence in Berkeley.
But, for me, writing about Haiti isn’t just describing an impoverished people, although I do that, since most folks encountered are desperately poor and hungry.
And it isn’t simply that I want to write about injustice in Haiti, though I do write about political prisoners languishing in jail and an out-of-control “peacekeeping” force. (For my story on a political prisoner jailed for almost four years, please see the Sept. 2 www.counterpunch.org.)
In Haiti, I find everyday people display a life force or spirit that somehow carries them through hunger, imprisonment and tragedy. It’s this spirit I imagine propelled the people two centuries ago to face Napoleon’s army, throw off the yoke of slavery and win freedom against huge odds.
It’s that spirit—and some forces that seem to act against it—that I’ll attempt to share with you.
• • •
Going up to Jeanette’s takes longer than planned. There’s just one way by car up the narrow, steep, dusty street, and that’s blocked by a truck trying unsuccessfully to claw its way up the hill. The driver tries again and again and again, each time lurching slightly forward, but in the end the truck’s wheels spin uselessly in the dust.
More than a dozen people emerge from the small homes in the neighborhood—it’s a party, people laughing, joking, giving advice—lots of advice.
The truck backs down to the intersection to let a pickup pass that is going downhill. The street is wide enough for only one vehicle.
We wait at the crossroads as the driver and his advisers—the number grows as more people come to watch or help—return to the task at hand.
A running start might get the vehicle to the top. But the truck gets stuck at exactly the same place it had before. Perhaps the answer is placing blocks behind the wheels and gunning the engine.
Try mounting the hill in a zigzag.
On one of its many descents the truck backs into the intersection, grazing a parked car. Hoots of laughter and a half-dozen men among the watchers physically move the automobile out of the way.
The driver tries again. And again.
We—another American reporter and I—want to get our friend Jeanette home. We have appointments to keep, people to see. It’s hot. Our water supply’s low. We seem to be the only cranky folks on the block.
We shut off the engine burning the $6-a-gallon gas, having given up the fiction that we would soon be on our way. Jeanette gets out to help advise and disappears into the crowd.
Now several more cars appear in front of and behind us at the intersection, all intending to mount the hill at some point in time. We’re all blocked by the truck, which has again descended near the spot where we are all waiting.
Drivers emerge from the vehicles. More laughter. More advice, more opinions. More tries to make it up the hill.
After more than an hour, with cheers and waves from bystanders and advisers, the driver decides retreat is the best course and backs his truck past the intersection and down the hill.
Engines fire up among the cars better suited to mount the hill.
No curses. No obscene gestures. Road rage, apparently, has not struck Haiti.
• • •
Tropical storm Fay’s torrential rains pound Port-au-Prince. People take advantage of free water by filling buckets and every container at hand. They laugh and sing in the rain.
When the downpour lightens up on the edge of Cité Soleil, an impoverished shantytown, people wade into putrid water in nearby ditches, some with boots, most with street shoes. The rains have unearthed treasure: plastic bottles, metal scraps, pieces of wood float up to the scavengers who sell the bounty for pennies they hope will add up to a cup of rice or a few bananas.
It’s rare to see idle people in Port-au-Prince. The bustle begins with the roosters around 4:30 a.m., followed by chatter that echoes through the streets mixing with music from radios. Buying and selling is the most visible occupation. The more goudes you make, the larger bulk you can buy and the closer you get to feeding your family two small meals a day with a little something left over to purchase produce for the next day. If the family has a goat or a couple of chickens to take to the slaughter house, they’ll likely sell them around this time of year for school fees, though many people said that fuel and food were so high they didn’t think they could pay for school this year.
Some of the busiest people are the motorbike taxi guys who whiz by the tap taps bursting at the seams with passengers. In front of one shop, someone’s at work on a pedal-operated sewing machine and another is selling a few minutes’ time on a cell phone. Street kids wipe car windows. A man will shine your tennis shoes.
• • •
The United States recently built a massive $75 million embassy, taking some 10 acres of agricultural land out of production.
Venezuela constructed a spectacular new marketplace with easy-to-clean tile stalls and concrete floors that can be hosed down. Public toilets, under construction, are part of the mix. Venezuela’s also cleaned up a garbage dump, transforming it into sports fields.
I’d tell you what projects the United States is doing, but the embassy official interviewed made me promise not to quote her on anything she didn’t pre-approve. So, dear readers, I’ll just let you guess.
In case you were worried, I can assure you the embassy is secure. To get to my appointment, I entered the building, gave the guard my ID, my camera and my recording equipment. My remaining stuff and I went through an airport-type security screening. That earned me a preliminary visitor’s badge. I then proceeded to the second screening area, this one manned by two unsmiling Marines. There I handed over a second ID, went through a second screening and traded my first badge for a second.
Why do they hate us, anyway?
• • •
The U.N. has no such process. We told the gatekeeper our appointment was with Sophie Boutaud de la Combe. That was confirmed and we entered without showing IDs. Sophie took us to her office for a briefing on all things MINUSTAH, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti. That’s the “peacekeeping” force that replaced U.S. Marines in June 2004 after the United States forced President Jean Bertrand Aristide out of the “sovereign” country and into exile in February 2004.
Among the things we asked was why the U.N. teargassed a market woman we had met in Cité Soleil—Sophie would get back to us on that—and why there had been no compensation paid or apology made to the man whose wife, unborn baby and two young children were killed in a 2005 U.N. incursion into Cité Soleil.
An ace PIO, Sophie said she hadn’t heard about either incident and asked if the victims had filed complaints. They should have, she said. These two people and other victims of U.N. abuse told us they didn’t know how to make complaints.
The process is spelled out on the MINUSTAH website, Sophie said. (We’ve been unable to find it.) When we noted that most Haitians have no Internet access, Sophie had an idea. She’d look into making posters to detail the U.N. complaint process and would have them placed in strategic Cité Soleil locations.
Even after asking lots of questions, quite frankly, I’m still not sure where the $575 million annual budget goes. Some of it, of course, is play money for the 9,000 soldiers. One sees U.N. SUVs parked in the lots of air-conditioned European-style stores, in front of bars and restaurants in the hills and in front of homes the U.N. rents in the gated Bellevue neighborhood or in front of the mansions in upper Pétionville.
Sophie says the U.N. has cracked down on soldiers paying 12-, 13- and 14-year-old girls for sex. “We have zero tolerance,” she said.
And I’m sure Sophie would like you to know that the prisons are overcrowded—3,800 at the National Pen. built for 1,200—in part she says, because of MINUSTAH’s work “professionalizing the police,” putting more alleged criminals behind bars. (Many will sit there for years without seeing a judge.)
• • •
The good life of a U.N. soldier is quite a contrast to life in Cité Soleil. Yet a friend who grew up in the slum, where news reports dwell on stinking sewers and gang violence, says he thinks fondly of his childhood there. He remembers helping his mother, who sold water to put her children through school.
Even as he is building a concrete block house in a nearby suburb, the friend said he begged his wife for a tiny part of the house to have a tin roof.
“I want to hear the raindrops falling like I did when I was a child,” he said.