Trinidad & Tobago Review Column, July 2012: “Nou Bouké!!!”

This column appeared in the Trinidad & Tobago Review, July 2012 (pp. 24-25) – this is the first of a monthly running by-line column in the T&T Review.

Nou Bouké!!!  (We’re Tired)


Photo: “Nou bouke!!!” – Street graffiti, Port-au-Prince, 2011 ©MJA Chancy

                  Nou bouké!!!  It didn’t take long in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake for these words to appear in the street graffiti of Port-au-Prince and other towns in Haiti hard hit by the devastation.  Two years on, half a million remain displaced in the capital in IDP camps, or hastened by the spread of cholera back to unstable structures or to newly erected squatter camps that remain ‘off the grid’ of most NGOs, and thus of any limited services that these might still be receiving.  Most remain without jobs even as the capital bustles with activity, legitimate and illegitimate, the industry of perseverance not lacking for expression across all sectors of society from the market stall to the establishments filled with foreigners who can eat ‘the best sushi they’ve ever had’ alongside smoked conch in restaurants reserved to satisfy their tastes while Haitians of the lowest orders scuttle along the streets in search of their daily bread.  Outside of the Deschamps bookstore, a young man extends a toothbrush to me and I think he’s asking me to purchase it but then he tells me, no, he wants to buy toothpaste for himself.  All manner of ingenuity exists, but not the progress that Haitians deserve, not the understanding from the influx of outsiders or from Caribbean neighbors.

While it opened its borders to allow international aid to flow into Haiti while also allowing Haitians fleeing devastation in the capital and in Léogane to enter into the border zones, the Dominican Republic was divesting its Haitian-Dominican citizens of their rights, passing, within months of the earthquake, a law that revoked citizenship for Dominican-born Haitians, and proceeded to undertake massive sweeps of Haitian-Dominicans for deportation to Haiti, counting among those swept away non-Haitian Dominicans and long-established Haitian-Dominicans with no ties to their country of origin.  These deportations have only increased in fervor the more distanced the earthquake but few people outside of Hispaniola know about them, focused as they are on the possible money to be made from Hotel chains and factory schemes, the plan for Haiti’s future, a plan (minus the hotels) that had already been put in place by UN-envoy Bill Clinton in the months previous to the cataclysm.  Recently, a director of a women’s NGO based in the Dominican Republic told me that there were reports of Dominican military resorting to the “parsley” test to tell Haitians and Dominicans apart during their sweeps.  The “parsley” or “perejil” test is a leftover from the 1937 massacre of Haitians (and of Afro-Dominicans) in the border zones ordered by President Trujillo in an attempt to de-Africanize the Dominican Republic.  The massacre left 40,000 Haitians and an unaccounted for number of Afro-Dominicans dead.  Some Caribbean people outside of Hispaniola still do not know of this historical tragedy, as I found out recently while visiting Trinidad, as a visiting playwright from Dominica and a Canadian-Tobagan hotelier confessed to me on separate occasions.  Yet, something like it is re-appearing today under the guise of national security in the DR while human rights for people of Haitian descent on Dominican soil are being denied. It can re-appear, stealthily and without much response precisely because of what we do not know about our histories, but also, more precisely, because of what we refuse to know about Haiti.

The Dominican Republic is not the only island responsible for such about-face in the aftermath of the earthquake.  Just a few months ago this year, CARICOM signed an agreement with President Martelly by which it finally has included Haiti as a trading partner in the greater Caribbean.  In a press-release provided by CARICOM after the February 2012 signing of the accord, it was agreed that CARICOM would provide support in the following areas: “capacity building in government agencies for investment; technical assistance in education, agriculture, public health, transportation, tourism among others and youth exchange initiatives.”  Such support is laudable, especially since it focuses less than do other international initiatives on projects that will result in high economic returns for investors but provide little sustainable growth for Haitians themselves.  Yet, CARICOM could have made this decision many years ago.  I cannot help but be cynical as I read this announcement.  For decades, both CARICOM and the now defunct Federation of Caribbean States refused to admit Haiti as a partner arguing that Haiti’s poverty would adversely affect other Caribbean nations united under their umbrellas.  What has changed? Certainly not Haiti’s poverty despite the fact that, by 2005, Haiti had repaid its arrears to the World Bank and received debt forgiveness in mid-2009 (CIA Website).  What has changed is that the flow of international dollars into Haiti has been unrelenting since January 10, 2012.  What few seem to understand in the Caribbean region, however, is how little of that money has trickled down to the average Haitian, if any at all to the lowest of the poor.

For reasons unknown, the CIA lists Haiti’s per capita GDP at a stable $1,200 US since 2009 through 2011.  More reliable sources (the World Bank and committed NGOs) show that if the per capita income had risen to approximately $1,500 by the end of 2009, it fell precipitously to about half that after the earthquake.  Today, reports on per capita are split between the figure of $1,200 and $600.  I imagine that the differential in reporting is an attempt on the part of some to bring to light that 48 % of the population lives not just below the poverty line but in abject poverty.  Regardless of which figure might be the more accurate, what is clear is that despite the influx of millions into the country through NGOs and foreign investment, there has been no appreciable increase in income for the majority of the population.  So who, exactly, is the money flowing to?

According to numerous sources (including UK’s Guardian), as of January 2012, the Haitian government itself has received only 1% of pledged international governmental aid (this is not to say that it has not been receiving funds through private donors and contracts).  What is particularly disheartening, is that against claims that the Haitian government is too corrupt to be trusted, there is evidence that when the government has been in charge, even of NGO operations, that they have been more successful than when excluded.  Anthropologist Mark Schuller, for one, has demonstrated that the overseeing of IDP camps run by NGOs in Cité Soleil, the worse-off shantytown area in Haiti, by the Haitian government resulted in monitored latrines, thereby curbing further outbreaks of (and death by) cholera.  The majority of the camps do not have such reliable services and some exist haphazardly in open fields, like the one I spotted next to the suburb of Bel-Ville which houses middle-class Haitians and a bevy of UN and NGO officials.  Several feet away from the camp, and divided by a trash heap, stands an inhabited “HabiHut” which appears to be the home of the camp manager, yet none of the other camp dwellers have access to what seems to be a ventilated, mosquito-free structure, making me wonder if the trash-heap is the camp dwellers’ way of signaling what they think of the Hut and its inhabitant (HabiHuts are the invention of a Montana, US-based group, operating primarily in the Kenya; the Hut comprises solar panels, a sanitation unit, and shelter from heat and mosquitos; although it is unclear how this HabiHut arrived to this location, it does not appear from the company website that HabiHut has an active program in Haiti).


HabiHut, BelVille, Pétion-Ville, 2011 ©MJA Chancy

What is perhaps even more disheartening in the movement towards regional solidarity, is to note that no Caribbean nations pledged aid for reconstruction towards Haiti but that far-flung countries with modest GDPs, who made modest contributions, such as the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Estonia, fulfilled 100% of their promised pledges.  Of advanced, developed countries, only Japan and Finland have also met their contribution goals, not only providing 100% of their promised pledges of 100 million and 6.5 million respectively, but exceeding these with further contributions.  Still, according to the Center for Economic Policy Research, of the collective funds provided for reconstruction, .02 % have been awarded to Haitian firms while contractors based in Washington, D.C. received 39.4 % of awards.  Isn’t there something wrong with this picture?  It also isn’t very clear for whom Haiti is being rebuilt.  Though some housing developments have committed themselves to rebuilding particular communities, villages, towns, or areas, with Haitian cooperation, a number are being built for purchase at amounts that will lock out the vast population, most of whom are renters (the most modest developments I have read about put housing at the $11,000 US dollar mark per unit; compare to the per capita income per year figures above).  Plans are currently underway to open up a five-star Occidental Luxury Hotel as well as a Marriott in Port-au-Prince.  Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, which has been landing in Labadie, Haiti for at least twenty five years, while usually not telling its passengers that they were setting foot in the Republic, opened a school in Labadie, post-earthquake.  What wonders what exactly will be taught to the 230 students of the “École Nouvelle: Royal Caribbean.”  The question is, why weren’t these investments made prior to the earthquake?  Where was all this development the last several decades, as Haiti and Haitians resurrected themselves from the Duvalierist era, ended in 1986 with the déchoukaj, and followed by years of struggle to maintain a democratically elected government?  Even the Port-au-Prince Cathedral, fallen but its remains still gloriously testifying to its glorious past, is now up for sale.  Instead of rebuilding it so that it closely resembles its original, an international competition has been launched for its redesign.  It’s difficult to imagine what Haiti will look like post-reconstruction.  What’s clear is that Haitians themselves will have little say in what will be created from the rubble.


Port-au-Prince Cathedral Ruins, 2011 ©MJA Chancy

Two years on, I am still being asked about Haiti’s “curse,” about vodou, about why Haiti is so poor.  Mwen bouké. Sa poum di?  This is what I say: Haiti may be poor materially but it is rich in every other way, culturally, spiritually, artistically.  It has created such riches out of deprivation and isolation, in spite of marginalization and denigration.  Haiti is “poor” because its nearest neighbors and the world has refused to understand the consequences of its, yes, successful Revolution, and will remain so as long as Haiti and Haitians are positioned as willing participants in their devolution.  Haiti’s history since 1804 must be re-learned, especially by those, well-intended, who persist in visiting her shores in relative luxury and insulation: the 1824 indemnity paid (over several years) by President Boyer to the French government for access to global trade (the equivalent, today of 22 billion US dollars); the 26 invasions by the US from 1849-1915; the US Occupation from 1915-1934; the US backing of the Duvalier régime which lasted from 1957-1986; the US “intervention” of 1994; the US/French/Canada removal of President Aristide in 2004, the 200th anniversary year of the Haitian Revolution.  One has to wonder when Haiti was ever given the opportunity to develop the “New World” structures that that Revolution portended; the litany of interferences since the early 1800s weakened the state and reduced its economic power, one that had once made it the richest colony in that New World, supplying the direct and indirect economic support for 1/7th of France’s population in the early centuries of the colony.

Today, new waves of people are making their way into the fabric of Haitian society, mostly from the US, some from other countries.  Many return from their travels marveling at the ways in which they have witnessed Haitians survive their ordeals, or at their cultural fortitude.  Many, however, make no attempt to link the communities and individuals with whom they have created new pathways with Haitians they meet outside of Haiti, or of their own class status, as if all or any Haitian who has acquired an education or class mobility is a “bourgeois” with no ties to home and country, with no concerns for Haitians still in Haiti struggling along, many of whom are their relatives.  What these new itinerants should realize is that most Haitians they will encounter outside of Haiti have had to suffer tremendous loss over their lifetime, and, sometimes, generationally, that many reside outside of Haiti either because of political exigencies created under the Duvalier regime, or because of lack of options within Haiti and most cannot afford the cost of going back and forth between nations.  For others, return is too painful.  René Depestre returned to Haiti only once since is several decades long exile; Dany Laferrière took twenty-five years to return; neither are considered not-Haitian.  Some Haitians in exile/the diaspora are from working and middle class backgrounds; some were once boat-people.  Most all dream of a liberated Haiti.  Most all dream of some kind of return, even when they realize that the Haiti they knew, especially post-earthquake, no longer exists.  When people ask me when I left Haiti, I respond, “I never left.” But today, when I’m asked this by foreigners who only turned to Haiti in the post-earthquake situation, what I really want to ask in turn is, “where were you?”  Were were you when reports flowed out of Haiti about the excesses of the US marines during the 1920s, of the Tontons Macoutes during the 50s, 60s, 70s, of the military junta in the early 1990s? Were were you when Enfofanm, a women’s group, reported on the militarization of the State and the rapes and mutilations of women from 2000-2004? When reports emerged of abuses of Haitians at the hands of UN forces from 2003-2006? Where were you when impoverished Haitians took to the seas from the 1980s on? When the US implemented differential treatment for Haitian boat people as opposed to Cuban dissidents?  Where were you when I was taught to speak in code over telephone lines because these were tapped? When we waited to hear about the release of a jailed family member who had dared to oppose the regime? When we received news of who had disappeared or been killed on this or that street corner during the 80s, 90s? Of who did not make it out of the rubble in 2010? There are 8.5 million Haitians in Haiti and approximately another 4 million outside of it (mostly in the Dominican Republic, the US, Canada, France and the Bahamas).  Remember that each of us has a name, and a story, most of it intertwined, most of it uneasy.  Remember that Haitians in exile (or in the diaspora, depending on your generation and inclination), provide over half of Haiti’s national income, a little under 2 billion US dollars a year, in remittances to friends and family members.

The truth is that the real poverty resides in the atrophied consciousness of a world turned towards capitalist expansion and postcolonial inclusion rather than to modes of cultural plurality and parallel manners of being.  We have more to learn about cooperation and progress from the women in their market stalls than from ex-President Bill Clinton’s too late mea culpa for destroying Haiti’s rice industry to benefit Arkansas rice growers when he implemented free trade practices to cripple the former and benefit the latter during his presidency.  We have more to learn from the 48% of the population in their means of survival, as well as from those at other class levels below that of the elites, who comprise another 30% of the population, who have chosen to make Haiti their home and to contribute to their society, sometimes working long hours as nurses and accountants only to receive no paycheck from one month to the next; and we owe it to the thousands forced out of Haiti, including the leftist intellectual class destroyed and exiled under the first waves of the Duvalier regime to remember (and read) their literary and intellectual contributions which kept the ideals of a nation alive, their works creating continuity with earlier periods of resistance, back to Jean Price-Mars, father of indigénisme, back to the Antenor Firmin’s 1885 tract denouncing the racialism of the 19th century, back to the 1805 constitution that created a Republic of Black citizens, whatever their background, in the midst of an Americas where vast populations of people of African descent and indentured Indian, Irish, and other servants, could still only imagine their days of liberation.

If Haiti and Haitians are to be assisted today, it should not be for easy gain, or for the promises of intellectual capital within the academy, because this is where money and interest is flowing today, to line our own pockets with shiny dollars or for a quick feel-good moment which will be a nostalgic memory ten years from now recounted to children and grandchildren in some far off land; it is because Haiti is owed a debt for what it has withstood and withstands still, for what it achieved in 1804, for which it is still, today, paying the cost.


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