7 October 2019 — Internationalist 360°
Unemployment, high cost of living, misery, exodus, institutionalized corruption, international occupation and hunger unleashed a political and humanitarian crisis in the Caribbean country, which is immersed in a war both fierce and tender against its own destiny.
A girl on her little bicycle cycles smiling through the centre of a wide avenue in the capital Port-au-Prince. Symptomatically, there is no other transport in sight. Her hair, in fine braids, falls from side to side as if her head were a gable roof. Remarkably, she does not wear the brightly coloured buttons that are worn on school days and holidays, which are lived here with the same daily ritual. So cleanly polished, awake from five o’clock in the morning and groomed with patience and skill, the children shine in Haiti. Above all the peasant children: mature, protective, diligent. I wrote shortly after arriving here that three things would save this country, none coming from outside: the memory of the Revolution made by their ancestors, the intense love of their homeland and the enthusiasm of their children.
But Leka -the girl’s name is Leka-, has been unable to go to school for weeks, as she herself explains. She wears a red T-shirt and blue trousers, the colours of the Haitian flag. The colours of almost everything around here. In the background behind her, two men watch her pass. The photo, focused on the girl, doesn’t allow their features to be seen with accuracy, but a small white spot on their black faces leaves no room for doubt: they smile. Perhaps with tenderness. I remember the title of a song by Borinqueño Maelo Rivera: “las caras linas de mi gente negra” (The beautiful faces of my black people).
The photograph of Leka seems to me to be a symbol, or rather an anti-symbol, of these dramatic days of this endless crisis, of the ferocious but tender battles of the Haitian people. Battles against what? Unemployment, high cost of living, misery, exodus, institutionalised corruption, international occupation, hunger. And now also, for the last five weeks, the energy crisis and the shortage of fuel. The “collateral damages” of the United States’ belligerent geopolitics reach here like sargasso, the bad algae that arrives each season in the Caribbean Sea. Ships that used to transport cheap fuel under preferential conditions from Bolivarian Venezuela are now prevented from reaching Haiti, Cuba and other ports in the region. The supportive embrace extended by Hugo Chávez Frias, received here as a hero on March 12, 2007, finds no counterpart. The bankrupt economy of the Haitian state, forced now to seek fuel in the “free market” monopolized by U.S. oil companies, is unable to pay to unblock imports. The useless barrels are waiting in the port terminals.
The images of death, chaos, fire and desolation are spread to saturate the perception by those who believe or want to pretend that these are the very secrets the nation hides. And sometimes we ourselves do the same, dragged along by our own desperation to have Haiti matter. One reporter from an important international agency, with whom I attempt to agree to broadcast social movements’ press releases in French and Creole, the country’s national language, speaks to me with brutal frankness about the criteria for the construction of the transcendent and the irrelevant in this world of selective globalization:
You know, brother, what matters here is the number of dead. The rest is ideology.
This cynical pragmatism – cynics always believe they are more intelligent – also hides another question. What matters is not just the number of deaths, but also their quality. In the fourth or fifth world, a body is down in the news traffic of the international markets, if we compare it with that of an American, a Frenchman, or even an Argentinean. There are bodies that are worth their weight in gold, and others that are worth their weight in scrap metal, like the one that is magnificently recycled by the artisans of John Brown Avenue. As a Brazilian song said: “the cheapest meat on the market is black meat”.
Faced with the reduction of Haiti to its darkest contours, confronted by those who cannot perceive the depth of the human drama and only have eyes for the set, I would like to write about this girl, I would like to write from her perspective. Days after the photo was taken, I realize it is not necessary. Leka was interviewed by a journalist who was covering the demonstrations in Port-au-Prince, and she spoke with her own voice:
– Why are you on the street?
– So that [ President ] Jovenel [Moïse] will leave power.
– Why do you want Jovenel to leave power?
– Because I want to go to school and I can’t, because my parents need to go to work and they can’t do that.
– And here on the street with your small bicycle, aren’t you afraid?
– How far do you want to go with it?
– To the airport junction.
– And what are you demanding?
– School, work, open markets.
– Anything else?
– No, just that.
We are in Cité Soleil, probably the largest misery village on the American continent. An unknown number, perhaps 300,000 or 400,000 souls with their respective bodies, huddle on the 200 hectares of this barren, flood-prone plain that runs into the port area of the capital. The sewage from the more elevated slums flows through its six huge concrete canals. Named Cité Simone by dictator François Duvalier in honour of his wife, the slum quickly became a dubious homage with its canvas and zinc houses covering the landscape as far as the eye can see. But Cité Soleil is much more than its misery. A bastion of resistance and popular organization, life thrives within it and its people and even allows itself to be happy. Because bad living is another way of living, and not even the most degrading situation can degrade us. Resilience, instinct, dignity, life drive: whatever is to be explained, it is about the wonders of this human existence.
Cité Soleil is the headquarters of a specialized body of the National Police, the CIMO. Several dozen young people, spontaneously mobilized and armed with only courage, have attacked the police. The agents, taken by surprise by such boldness, failed to do anything. They retreat, look at each other and finally disperse, derided. The demonstrators seize some of the furniture and carry it over their heads. There is no sign of a dispute over the booty: it will be punctually shared. Someone starts an isolated fire, but there are no actual intentions of burning the place. Soon the demonstrators leave with their precious tires to feed the barricades that multiply all over the city. They are seen down the street, exultant, with 40 or 50 old tires running with the joy of children – because children are children. In fact, the scene is very similar to a favourite childhood game, which consists of pushing small wheels made of tin with a wooden stick. The city is a beehive of boukanes, which is the name given to the immense bonfires with their black smoky clouds that cover the irregular geography of the city.
Every now and then there are days of retreat after the immense mobilizations that take place without a solution of continuity, in this country that defies its own censuses in the streets. How many millions have there been so far? We have lost count. Haiti lives in a peculiar state of siege. The State, with capital letters, is incapable of enforcing itself with its weak and poorly trained security forces. It is self-imposed by the popular classes: young people, women, children, trade unionists, students, residents of the urban peripheries, peasants, vendors. There are also a few petty bourgeoiss-smaller in Haiti than anywhere else-that without hesitation, take to the streets. The plan is simple, and perhaps somewhat immediate. The president must leave. The den of thieves that the parliament has become has to be shut down. That is as far as is reasonable. In the dimension of the imaginary is the idea that the Yankee devil does not rebound.
The tactics are also relatively simple. Collapse the streets again and again. Block everything that can be blocked. Attempting to overrun as many businesses or residences as are identified with political power. The operation was called Peyi lock in February last year, and the expression became popular. Numerous villages would have disappeared long before they could endure the hardship threshold to which the Haitian nation has endured. But the country that survived an electoral coup perpetrated by the “international community” in 2010, a cholera epidemic spread by the United Nations and the most devastating earthquake in its history is not drowning in cotton wool. Demonstrating its unwavering loyalty to life, the country responded with strength, solidarity and… love. Against all odds, in the most precarious of situations, an unexpected baby boom sent birth rates skyrocketing.
Now it’s time for a damage count. To harvest in the field those fruits already past their ripeness, to buy some gallons of naphtha at derisory prices to feed the ruined tap tap and roll the mototaxis, to buy and sell some small things in the market, to assure the money that wrinkles in the pockets for the difficult days to come. To stretch life until the next dawn. It is time, too, to honour and bury the still uncertain victims. Students, taxi drivers, young people once again. The beautiful Jacmel, to the southeast, the unblemished peasant northwest and the peripheries of the capital have been the areas hardest hit by police repression. Irregular groups are also beginning to prowl, as they did around this time last year. This is the darkest face of the neocolonial construction of the “liberal consensus. Here the “legitimate” violence is chaotically dismantled, which does not mean that it is symmetrical, much less democratic. Demonstrators denounce the presence of masked hoods on the terraces of the rich commercial district of Petionville. I’ve seen them in previous days, and I’m not surprised.
I read about those who, instead of mentioning the victims or their human claims, emphasize and condemn the disproportion of forms. The Yankees, at least, no longer disguise their contempt for a country that Trump placed on the grand rank of “shit holes”. This also applies to the fascist forces in the neighbouring Dominican Republic that are mobilizing their troops on the border. A journalist of certain renown hurls a question through the nets: is the Dominican Republic prepared for an irregular war? Its enemy is imaginary, lacks armed forces, and is harmless as far as international security is concerned. The one who is pressing there is really the inner black, the one that white supremacism and the fantasy Hispanic geneaologies have not yet managed to assume. The black Dominican who is projected, with all his demons, to the blackest Haiti, that is so similar below. The French, violent parents of the Haitian creature, deserve a separate mention. Journalists, ongueros, embassy staff and even a French teacher: they all seem oblivious to their own colonial adventures from Haiti to Algeria, from Indochina to Louisiana. They even put on the light and generous cloak of progressivism by pointing out the “excesses of zeal” and the interference of the Americans. And yet, so pathetically evident is his irremediable nostalgia for the snatched “pearl of the Antilles”. Repeatedly pointing out the failure of the Haitian experiment has no other purpose than to point out, tacitly, that the country would be better off being a tame and bent French Overseas Department, like Martinique or Guadeloupe. No creol, no voodoo, no flag, no underdevelopment, no revolts, no national pride. Without blacks, in short.
A little less than a century after the birth of the Antillean Frantz Fanon, we still ignore almost everything about the violence of the wretched of the earth. It is as if we were saying: to die of hunger is admissible, yes, but it is not to lose one’s composure. As if humanity were more defined by the rules of good neighbourliness than by the food that sustains a body, the inevitable recipient of humanity. There are those who will never understand the cathartic dimension of these social revulsions that try to vomit out an entire caste, the administrators and winners of the most unequal and unjust social order built by the capital on this side of the planet. Dechukay refers to this kind of operation that we saw on September 27. The word that applies to the removal of a cancer, to something that must be deeply and radically eradicated, even at the risk of removing healthy tissue with it. Without these recurrent insurrections, the Haitian people would long ago have died of starvation or, worse still, indignity. A peaceful people like very few others, but who remember, from their first Revolution, that freedom is won and that fire kills as much as it redeems. That, as that proverb says, the Constitution is made of paper and the bayonet is made of metal. These are Leka’s people, who want work, schools and their populous open markets. That’s all.
Lautaro Rivara is a sociologist and holds a PhD in History (UNLP). Poet and journalist ad dolorem. Yerba mate smuggler and international brigadist in Haiti from ALBA Movimientos.
Translation by Internationalist 360°