T&T Review Column: What Dreams Are Made Of: Haiti Kanpé. (Sept. 2012)

Trinidad & Tobago Review Column, Sept. 2012


What dreams are made of: Haiti Kanpé.           


Prince Luc, artist, Director, FOSAJ, w/Papier Maché Carnival Puppets, Jacmel 2012©MJA Chancy

Who has never dreamed? Of a desired object, person, or state of being? Who has never dreamed? Who has never dared to dream?

A week ago today, I sat in Cyvadier, on the outskirts of Jacmel in southern Haiti, and listened to Guerda Constant tell me the story of her ad-hoc work with rural youth, work she does in addition to her full time occupation working with NGOs.  I listened to her telling me of how she speaks with young Haitians, especially in rural areas, hoping to raise in them an awareness of their own gifts, of the beauty of their country, despite all evidence to the contrary.  Guerda told me the story of one little girl gifted with a beautiful singing voice.  She asked the girl what was her dream and the girl responded that she had none.  Guerda pressed her, asking her what she thought of when she let loose with her friends, what she wondered about.  The girl responded that she did not wonder about anything.  And when you are alone? Guerda asked, what do you think about.  And the girl answered that she did not think about anything in particular but that, occasionally, when a day, or two had gone by and she had not eaten, she would make her way to the side of a river running close to her house, find a spot, and sing there, alone, until she felt better, until the pangs of hunger left her and the song lifted her beyond the pain and despair.  This gift, this song, Guerda asked, thinking of the long history of Haitian troubadours, don’t you dream of doing something with it, of singing for others?  No, the girl answered. Here, I can’t afford to dream.  Guerda is one of many Haitians working to restore the capacity to dream and to hope to the youth of Haiti.  But we may well wonder what it means when a generation of children cannot dare to dream, refuses to dream, because they have already seen too much, or too little, to warrant what must strike them as reckless optimism.

Visiting “FOSAJ” Studios, Jacmel, Haïti 2012©MJA Chancy


This is a not a unique story; it is one shared by millions of Haitians throughout the country but most by those who are without enough to eat within any given day or week, a condition, you may be surprised to know that stretches from the poorest of the poor into the working-middle classes.  I meet young, working Haitians that I would mistake for middle-class were they in the United States, only to find out that they often cannot make their salaries stretch to meet the costs of one week’s food or rent; often, they are feeding others with the money they are making.  More often than not, time “off” from work is spent picking up odd jobs to try to make ends meet.  While doing that, they might feed others more vulnerable than they but not themselves.  Some might dare to dream a little dream, owning a business, being able to go a week without scrambling, but the dreams I hear of are always practical, about moving out from survival mode to just living, about meeting the most basic of needs.

Elsewhere, in a parallel world, not so far away, in bustling Port-au-Prince, contrary to recent reports that four and five star hotels were in the planning stages, multi-room, state-of-the-art structures already rise into the sky in Pétion-Ville and downtown.  Those I’m shown will house a Best Western and a Royal Oasis hotel, chains originating in the US and Mexico respectively.  A Marriot is also planned and the Montana is being steadily rebuilt on the same site, a small memorial to the dead having been erected to the immediate right of the parking lot as one arrives at its base, a vast hole with a lone palm below where a complex of stores used to sit.  The size of these hotels suggests that an influx of large numbers of visitors to Haiti, moneyed visitors, is expected in the years to come.  In general, that there is a building boom in the tourist industry might be a positive turn for the economy but it does not explain how there are funds for these yet uninhabited buildings and no funds for housing for the regular Haitian, almost half a million of whom, earthquake victims remain under tents.  A new governmental agency, L’Unité de Construction de Logements et de Bâtiments, is largely responsible for the relocation of IDPs from camps and though the numbers have dwindled from the 1.7 million of a year ago, it is not clear that the “16/6” plan by which IDPs were to be relocated to 16 housing developments or paid a flat, one-time, annual fee of $500 US dollars to supplement the purchase of land, new housing on already owned land, or the cost of rental housing has resulted in secure housing for those that have chose relocation while others were forcibly evicted from the camps.  The housing developments announced have not been built and there is, in fact, a campaign underway to secure fair housing for all Haitians regardless of their class status, called the “Under Tents campaign” formed to encourage the “Government of Haiti, with the support of its allies and donor governments in the U.S., Canada, and Europe [to] move quickly to: (1) designate land for housing; (2) create one centralized government housing institution to coordinate and implement a social housing plan; and (3) solicit and allocate funding to realize this plan” (http://www.otherworldsarepossible.org/another-haiti-possible/under-tents-international-campaign-launch-housing-haiti; to support the campaign and sign the petition, go to: http://undertentshaiti.com/). It may surprise you to learn that not only private investors are supporting the booming hotel business in Port-au-Prince.

In July 2012, AP reports surfaced revealing that the Clinton/Bush Initiative has invested 2 million US dollars into the building of the Royal Oasis and that the Red Cross/Red Crescent has utilized 10.5 million US dollars of their reconstruction funds to purchase a parcel of land in a slum area (where people are currently living) in order to build a luxury hotel (www.youphil.com/fr ).  Luxury hotels to “eco-tourist” schemes such as mountain biking races and trails (see http://mtbayiti.org/about/), are currently in development, and, though some, like the latter, are well-meaning, they fail to adequately ascertain local impact or include the least wealthy Haitians in their plans.  This is trickle-down economics at its best yet those involved in these enterprises do not seem to have learned much from the current global economic meltdown, clinging as they are to the delusion that capitalist expansion will somehow “save” Haiti.  Tourist schemes, along with massive factories like the Caracol Industrial Park, only recently reported upon but being implemented since shortly after the earthquake in the North Coast zone between Cap-Haitien and Fort Liberté, are the plan for Haiti’s future with little regard for essentials needed in the present by the poorest of the poor and those struggling for a better quality of life.

Caracol is little-known to outsiders but it is actually a premiere historical site for all of the Americas.  It is here that Christopher Columbus first landed the Santa Maria on Dec. 5th 1492, thinking that he had discovered the “Indies.”  Interestingly, rather than exploit this history for eco-tourism, the Haitian and US governments, along with the Inter-American Development Bank, without conducting the proper site evaluations, have developed an industrial park, promising 20,000 jobs to locals that have yet to materialize while evicting area farmers from lands they have tilled for generations (this figure has now ballooned to 60,000).  The ecological importance of Caracol cannot be under-estimated.  Just prior to the earthquake, this area was selected as Haiti’s first marine protected area; shortly after, it was selected to become yet another industrial park, similar to the Métropolitain Industrial Park in Port-au-Prince which has had the effect there of turning Cité Soleil into a vast slum, the largest in the hemisphere, where life is stark, violent, often impossible.  Locals fear the “slumization” of their town, currently home to divested farmers, and local fishermen who pull enough from the clear waters of the mangrove and ocean, not yet polluted by factory refuse, to make up to US $32 dollars a day.  As factory workers, they stand to make the minimum wage of US $3.75 a day, in reduced living conditions.  Is this the stuff dreams are made of?  Billboards erected in the area would like us to think so.  One, showing a fashionably attired and coiffed Haitian woman states: “Opotiniti yo nan wout” (Our opportunities are on the way).  Above her head, in a dream cloud, several photographs are positioned from left to right showing first the park, then an industrial caterpillar above a sign for a restaurant and, finally an office worker in a clean, well-lighted space in front of her computer terminal.  The message is clear: this young woman’s only hope for a desk job is the opening of the park which will also bring an influx of manual jobs and service opportunities.  Of course, it’s clear that it won’t be the factory workers with their $3.75/day wage who will be frequenting the planned-for restaurants.  One wonders who will.  Another billboard shows an industrial worker, a female plumber in uniform, a chef in chef whites and another female office worker, all smiling, a caption running beneath them stating “Pral gin anpil bizness.”  Yet, current plans for the development of this area does not include an educational plan for area schools nor does it include area-wide training for positions for locals for jobs above the factory floor.  It’s clear that locals will not only lose their jobs but that most jobs coming to the area will be staffed by individuals beyond the immediate area; some office jobs may go to trained Haitians but the majority will most likely go to foreigners. USAID had promised to build 750 homes for homeless earthquake victims to be relocated to the area but, as of June 5, 2012, when Brent MacDonald and Deborah Sontag reported on the situation for a New York Times video piece,[1] none of these homes had yet to be built though the factory itself is nearing completion. Unemployed farmers now watching the building of the factory were promised relocation and new lands but state, “We’re still waiting, because they have haven’t given it to us yet.” Another farmer in the MacDonald/Sontag piece states: “The best land for growing, the land we grew up on, is the land they took from us.”    Sewing factories in the park are set to operate tax-free and will supply US-based companies such as WalMart, Target, Coles, and the Gap (boycott anyone?).  The developing situation eerily resembles that of the 1994 embargo period when US apparel companies continued to operate in Haiti making untold millions in a few short months.[2]

Caracol Industrial Park is the flagship project for Haiti reconstruction; the US government is sinking ¼ of its reconstruction funding in the park that comes at a total cost of 260 million US dollars.  It is, however, well outside the earthquake disaster zone.  José Agustín Aguerre, the Inter-American Development Bank’s Haiti department manager, argues that environmental impact studies would have taken up to 10 years to conduct; yet, it is evident to locals that their food supplies and natural resources will be immediately impacted as soon as refuse from the plant overflows into the ocean and connected waterways.  The major Korean stakeholder in the Park, Sae-A, is a known violator of labor norms and human rights.   The Caracol site is also notable for two more historical facts: during the US Occupation, a brutal prison labor camp called Chabert Post run by US Marines was located here; in 1919 it served as the gravesite of the Haitian anti-occupation crusader, Charlemagne Péralte, killed by US marines.  These historical notes seem to suggest as Laurent Dubois has argued, that, “Haiti was founded by ex-slaves who overthrew a plantation system and people keep trying to get them to return to some form of plantation….There have been cycles of this type of project, where the idea is that foreign investment will modernize the country. But things have gotten progressively worse for Haitians” (qtd. in Sontag, “Earthquake Relief Where Haiti Wasn’t Broken”).[3]  The park planning actually pre-dates the earthquake but the earthquake crisis was seen by global investors as an opportunity to capitalize on the need for an influx of jobs.  But were Haitians then or now asking for more factory jobs, especially after decades of factory exploitation leaving them worse off then before? No effort was made to bolster local production and to encourage increased agricultural capacity with locals who have generational knowledge of the land and its capacities.

Hotel Montana Memorial Site: “Passer-by, remember, bow down,” Port-au-Prince, [email protected] Chancy

            It’s difficult to say how many projects of this kind exist today in Haiti, the Republic of NGOs, where upwards of 10,000 such organizations operate, most unregulated and working within the country with little to no accountability to the Haitian state or its people.  Some have been operating in the nation for decades in this way, such as the Northwest Haitian Christian Mission St. Louis du Nord, which was brought to my attention only recently when I learned that undergraduate students where I currently teach were participating in a study abroad program in Haiti called “Restoring Hope” under its auspices.  The mission offers medical services and food to area locals, many traveling long distances for assistance. The program does not inform students that the the mission is, like the Caraco Industrial Park, situated in a northern zone unaffected by the earthquake, that they will be “reconstructing” nothing.  What the students, along with locals, learn instead, from the mouths of US missionaries delivering twice-daily sermons is that their poverty is “the wage of sin,” and à la Pat Robertson, that the earthquake and accelerating degradation of Haiti is the result of “devil-worship,” i.e., vodou.  Salvation is to be found in “Jesus,” a Jesus without care and without solace, a judgmental Jesus who would never have befriended Mary Magdalene, thrown the merchants out of the Temple, or forgiven Judas in advance of his betrayal.  Theirs is a Jesus without empathy and without reason.  But not all missions are like this, nor development schemes.  Food for the Hungry, based in Florida, operates a faith-based mission that “helps both the materially poor and the poor in spirit.”  Interestingly, their website reveals that they consider not the poor those poor in spirit but those that go to service them: “The poor in spirit are renewed by their relationship with and service to the poor through our direct ministry of teaching, encouragement and prayer.” In Haiti, and especially on the North Coast, in the area that includes the protected ecological area which includes Caracol, Food for the Poor has assisted locals in rehabbing 41 fishing villages, providing new boats for deep-sea fishing, nets, and other needed supplies so that fishermen can continue in their tradition while raising their yield in a continued ecologically sound manner.  There is cost in supporting sustainable Haitian projects truly working towards rebuilding fragile infrastructures and shattered lives at the local level; it means working with local groups, the most needy, and listening; it means swallowing hubris, extinguishing ego and accepting that in the exchange it is not the poor but you who will be enriched in an invisible way.  One does not have to be religious to understand that this is an essential, necessary paradigm shift.  Without it, then, yes, why indeed dare to dream a little?  Singing by the lonely river of your hunger, by a contaminating stream of do-gooders who could care less about the pit in your stomach, the sanctity of your blood, your right to clean water, a clean mind, the right to believe in the beauty of your soul, your land, your history.  Why dream?

Caracol Industrial Park and the Northwest Haitian Christian Mission St. Louis du Nord are both located in the North; at first glance, they seem to respond to calls to decentralize the overpopulated capital to the South.  In actuality, though the North needs development, what these two examples show is that the North is rife for exploitation because of its relative isolation.  Its local populations don’t have much of a choice and they do not have the numbers to execute a popular resistance movement; those that could join them are either far away (journalists and scholars) or, if in the capital, too bound up in the real crises facing that area to be able to mobilize in other directions.  The North is therefore simply undergoing another phase of colonization, neocolonialism disguised as development, reconstruction or charity.  But this is not the only area affected by a seemingly single-minded effort to divest Haitians of basic human rights, rights that flow from having the basics taken care of – housing, food, clean water, education — that consequently result from informed consent.  For decades now, Haiti’s “comparable advantage” in global economics has been its cheap labor force.  This means that Haitians are seen not as a culture but as a commodity.  But some are fighting against this trend, even against the odds.

“We don’t ask for money,” Luc, the 27-year old director of Jacmel’s Art Center, FOSAJ, tells me.  “It’s not that we don’t need money, we do, but we prefer partenariats [partnerships].” FOSAJ’s mission, as Luc explains to me, and as is set out on their website (www.fosajhaiti.org) is “d’émanciper le peuple haïtien par le biais de l’art et de la culture. En libérant le vaste potentiel créatif d’Haïti et en favorisant l’esprit critique, notre but est de contribuer au développement économique au travers d’actions conduisant à un changement positif et durable. Par la mise en relation et l’échange, nous cherchons à faciliter le dialogue et un discours commun [to emancipate the Haitian people by means of art/culture.  In liberating the vast potential of Haitian creativity and in fostering a spirit of critical skills, our goal is to contribute to economic development through actions that lead to positive and durable change.  Through networking and exchanges, we intend to facilitate dialogue and to establish a common discourse; translation mine].  In so doing, FOSAJ provides artists with access to education, artist exchanges, marketing information, and provides the artists with what they call the “social, psychological and economic benefits of the arts.”  I stumbled into the FOSAJ gallery because I had come to see a photographic exhibit by Haitian youth sponsored by Fanmi Lakay, another local organization working with street children.  Following FOSAJ’s philosophy, in exchange for space, another group sponsoring the photography exhibit agreed to build FOSAJ’s website.  By chance, I meet Luc who explains further and guides me accompanied by my father, on a visit.  Here, he tells us, you can take any photo you want, We share everything.  The walls are adorned with paintings.  I read the artist statement of one artist, Sevenson Joseph.  On his experience of the earthquake, he writes: “Je suis revenue vivre dans ma maison, c’est la qu’est ma vie, je suis vivant….[c’]est vrai…qu’il n’y a plus de mur, c’est just un rideau maintenant, mais c’est une façon de vivre quand même [I came back to live in my house because that’s where my life is; I am alive.  It’s true, the wall is gone, it’s just a curtain now, but it’s just another way to live].”  Sevenson’s illustration of the earthquake is energetic, colorful, turbulent strokes that nonetheless speak of hope, because he is alive, because life remains.  In the shop next door to the gallery, I find more evidence of Sevenson’s optimism: small shards of debris from buildings toppled by the earthquake are painted with vodou themes in colors that suggest not death but rebirth.  In the back courtyard, a stone’s throw from the ocean, artisans converse and work.  That day, one man is creating papier-maché birds for mobiles.  In a covered workshop, larger-than-life carnival puppets are being constructed, surreal, magnificent creatures.  Finished statues sit at attention on the second floor of the building which has lost its back wall and some of its walls, open to the air.  The puppets stare us down: master of ceremony and the devil.  Dancers and revelers.  They are quiet now, waiting for the next time they will be taken up and through city streets, here or elsewhere.  In one corner, a red door announces a library.  In another, a dance troupe rehearses their latest choreography.  In yet another, ceremonial drums are stored waiting their turn.  On a moveable board dividing one large space, letters of invitation and visitors, partners in art and creativity, as far as France and as close as the US, are pinned up, their lettering fading.  No shortage of hope here.  No shortage of dreams.  The building currently housing FOSAJ, partially destroyed during the earthquake but still alive and humming with activity, is slated to be razed by developers who have bought out most of the land and buildings in Jacmel’s historical district, prime land that adjoins the local harbor.  FOSAJ is fighting their looming expropriation, but, if the tale of the farmers of Caracol is cautionary, then they are likely to lose that fight.  FOSAJ is not the only organization fighting for its life.  The historic district is teeming with galleries and craft shops.  One announces that the products are the cooperative labor of a women’s craft guild; next to them, in the next store, young men are selling their wares, a poster of men’s solidarity for women’s rights on their door. Art, solidarity, cooperation: there are groups like these all over the country, usually in hidden hamlets, some working to satisfy tourist thirst for “naïve” Haitian art, others developing their own complex artists’ visions and aesthetics.  Yo mèt tèt ansanm – they are putting their heads together for the whole.  Not far from Rue St. Anne, on a street due South, a wall of mosaics built by the children of a US-supported NGO, Art Creation Foundation for Children (ACFC), stretches towards the ocean to commemorate the dead of January 12th.  Hands working together, children’s hands, the hands of the future.


Commemorative January 12 Mural Wall, ACFC, Jacmel 2012 ©MJA Chancy

Made of Children’s Hands, Papier Mâché Bowls, ACFC, Jacmel 2012 ©MJA Chancy

            Tourism and factories – these are the only plans for Haiti’s future.  Service jobs and manual labor.  There are no plans to revamp the educational system from top to bottom even within the current governmental scholarization project said to send untold thousands of school aged children without prior access to elementary schools country-wise (current numbers stand at 908,000).  Even Jacmel, a favored site for tourists, artists, student exchanges, and NGOs, because it resembles a Haiti of yesteryear, where one can still quietly walk the streets and neighbors know and visit one another, where the crushing poverty found in the capital is not yet to be found on every street corner, where doors to buildings, hotels, and private homes can still be left unlocked in safety, is slated to be “reconstructed” for foreign investment.  The small, local airport is to be rebuilt and a direct flight bypassing Port-au-Prince altogether is being planned.  Locals, like those in Caracol, welcome opportunity, but not at the cost of losing their lands, homes, and connections with one another.  I asked a middle-class youth working in hotel management how he felt about the impending developments.  “I don’t know,” he said.  “There’s a lot of things we don’t have.”  I didn’t have to ask what he meant.  Jacmel has more services than Port-au-Prince, owing to the socialist bent of its elite and business class in prior times; here, electricity runs most of the day; most have some form of running water.  But there are still food shortages, lack of common services, health care and the like.  The community wants to subsist, retain its calm existence.  Over-run by tourists who won’t have to endure a 2-3 hour journey by car on the “route de l’amitié” (road of friendship) running between Port-au-Prince and Jacmel means that any kind of person might land there, the kind of tourist that Jamaica Kincaid once depicted as having the run of the 9 x 12 mile island of Antigua: “[A]nd so you needn’t let that slightly funny feeling you have from time to time about exploitation, oppression, domination develop into full-fledged unease, discomfort; you could ruin your holiday.”  Discomfort: that thing that the tourist, the outsider, cannot risk consuming.  If they did, they might change their plans, become an insider, understand that the luxury (yes, luxury) of discomfort is every day life for the local person who cannot escape, who cannot become a tourist elsewhere.  Money helps, but it isn’t everything.  As the mission of FOSAJ demonstrates, there are some things more valuable than money that can still lead to economic wherewithal – pride of self, knowledge and cultivation of culture and of the imagination which is art’s lifeblood, which in turn feeds the capacity to dream.

“Building capacity,” is a term I’ve heard a great deal lately.  It’s used in the NGO world to describe the building of skills set among local populations who may not have had any previous training in a given field.  But building capacity must mean, in Haiti as elsewhere, doing more than creating what Kincaid called, in the case of Antigua, “good servants,” or base labor.  It must mean building (on) the capacity for self-awareness, cultural preservation, political efficacy and a world in which to dream becomes not only possible but expected, a reality in which the dream might, someday, become reality.  A reality in which a little girl once singing against hunger pangs hidden by the side of a winding river, might become a voice of her people, shaking awake dreams in all who hear their story in the threads of her song, for a future Haiti, not dreamless, but kanpé, standing strong.



[1] Most of the information above is taken from the Macdonald/Sontag piece.  See : http://www.nytimes.com/video/2012/07/05/world/americas/100000001632553/a-factory-grows-in-haiti.html

[2] See James Ridgeway’s The Haiti Files (Azul Editions, 1994).

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/06/world/americas/earthquake-relief-where-haiti-wasnt-broken.html?pagewanted=all


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