Haiti, March 13-23: Perspectives from the Ground
by Deepa Panchang
Wine flowed, biscuits and cheese were near at hand on a maroon tablecloth, the low hum of people mingling and munching drifted through the small room at this week's book club meeting. The quaint lending library was part of a historic country club on top of a hill, trees on the parking lot periphery. Through them I could barely make out the orange and blue tarps fluttering; only in approaching the lot's edge did the vast tentscape of the Petionville camp emerge, endless tarps and muddy pathways snaking down the hill into the valley. While waiting for a local youth leader to meet us in the parking lot to show us his work in the community, we'd peered with curiosity into this strange library of escape in the middle of the largest camp for the internally displaced (IDP's) in Port-au-Prince. A woman informed us, with pride, that the lending library was started by wives of US Marines during the occupation of 1915-1934. This isn't the first time that the US military has been in control of the Petionville Country Club, a symbolic Port-au-Prince landmark. Later that night, while wandering through those snaking muddy paths deep in the camp, people slipping and gripping - an arm here, a post there, for support - the memory of that white oasis on a hill flashed into my mind, like a replica of another such center directing aid, troops, and American rice that flowed down into Haiti, snaking their way to contractors and consultants, cameramen and camps. I thought, for a second, I caught a whiff of neocolonialism.
The presence of that controversial scent in the Haitian air was confirmed later in the week, when I attended a UN Cluster meeting on child protection at the UN logbase. A conference table of mostly white faces was dotted with two Haitian-Americans. The French cluster leader directed the discussion, translating between French and English for the foreigners planning out the future of Haiti in languages unknown to the majority of the country's citizens. Several sources later provided me an explanation of what I saw: obtaining entry to logbase as a Haitian ranged from difficult to impossible. That evening I sat at another conference table, a makeshift wooden slab in the headquarters of the grassroots organization I was working with. We sat with members of a Haitian community-based organization from Cite Soleil, the large slum of Port-au-Prince, notorious for its gangs, poverty, and explosiveness. The organization's representatives had a plan: youth empowerment through urban agriculture in the slum. Holistic and homegrown, their plan would combat food insecurity and malnutrition, teach youth the value and methods of food production, enrich the land and beauty of the area. We listened to the details and the dreams, and their contagious hope began chipping away at the doom within me. It was this Cite Soleil that had collectively, explosively, propelled an underdog liberation theologian to the presidency -- and been rewarded with UN peacekeeping troops. It was this Cite Soleil's explosiveness that came up with urban agriculture and youth empowerment in the face of not only the usual prejudice, but also the quake, and the gift of more troops that it brought. They were only one example I witnessed of communities mobilizing. We met with other Cite Soleil leadership that outlined in clear and practical terms their need for microfinance services, we met camp residents struggling to connect their overlooked communities to aid, we talked to animators organizing community-planned food distributions as an alternative to the usual mechanized processes run by large agencies.
Communities do recognize that without the large agencies, hundreds of thousands would not have food or shelter. But meeting these short-term needs does not mean free license to promote Western economic interests over human rights, dignity, and self-determination. A sweatshop job now for economic dependency in the future, Monsanto hybrids today for farmer debt next year, militarized food distributions for antagonism tomorrow: these are the tradeoffs the country faces.
Haiti has filled my head and my heart in the days I've been back. My newfound relationships with people on the ground bring me daily, sometimes hourly, news that doesn't make the mainstream press. As I'm writing, camps just a few streets down from where I stayed are facing forced and unwarned evictions, reporting bulldozers on tarp houses, police with guns and batons. For reasons of history, economics, and class, thousands of IDP's find their human rights threatened by coalitions of landowner, government, and foreign agents whose interests tend to be a bit too intertwined. This persisting power differential means that reports of forced camp relocations are isolated to alternative news websites and blogs.
I'm awed by the support and action for Haiti that sprung forth from our Harvard community; it was largely this that propelled me to go. To continue to act in solidarity with Haitian people as relief becomes development, we must ensure that an understanding of history, economics, and power informs our actions. Our power as Harvard lies not only in our money but also in our voice. Can we channel the needs of IDP's? Can we advocate for Haitian participation at all levels? Can we demand accountability for human rights? We must come together and have these tough discussions, keeping our ears and eyes open to the pulse and to the people. Supporting Haiti will not be an easy task, but I believe we have the hearts and the minds it will take.
Deepa Panchang is a first-year student at the Harvard School of Public Health. She spent March 13-23 working with the Haiti Response Coalition, a grassroots organization based in Port-au-Prince.