Brazilian anthropologist Omar Ribeiro Thomaz was in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12. He’s spent long periods of time there as a teacher over the last ten years. Despite being white and foreign, he speaks Haitian Creole and interacts with Haitians as an equal. His vision of the country after the earthquake and of international aid challenges ideas and images propagated by the media.
“I fell in love with the dignity of these people,” says Ribeiro Thomaz in front of a cup of coffee. In recent decades he has combined his work in the Universidade de Campinas in Brazil, where he was born 44 years ago, with post-conflict anthropology in southern Mozambique and Haiti. He spends his time on the island studying how the population experiences lengthy social and political conflicts, focusing in particular on how people perceive poverty and inequality.
“We quickly became aware of the magnitude of it. Everyone was very conscious of the fact that something very serious had happened. The city came apart. Luckily we were on the street. It was almost five in the afternoon. The first thing that happens is that you can’t see anything through the curtain of smoke and dust from the fallen buildings. The sounds and explosions come later, as does the people’s desperation”, he says, laying out memories and feelings.
– Why have there been so many deaths?
– There are many reasons, but above all is the social catastrophe, the abandonment. For a long time now Haitians have lived without a reasonable state apparatus, because that apparatus was destroyed one day and the institutions which have the international mandate to reconstruct it aren’t doing so, nor are they protecting Haitians. That’s why Haitians could only react to the catastrophe with traditional mechanisms, which are important but limited. If a house falls, the people have to be rescued from the ruins by hand. The solidarity of families and neighbors was very important, but isn’t capable of doing everything.
– How was the Haitian State destroyed?
– It has always been precarious, like the rest of the counties in the region. Up until the sixties, Haiti could be compared with any other country in Central America or the Caribbean; it wasn’t very different from Honduras or the Dominican Republic. The destruction happened for various reasons, one of which is the unrestricted support of the United States and France, after the fifties, of one of the most brutal dictatorships of Latin America which literally destroyed the country. Additionally, since the seventies, economic management has been disastrous. This brought about an enormous rural exodus and the destruction of agricultural production. Finally, in the eighties the international aid community created an agenda for Haiti in which it was considered one of the poorest countries in the Western hemisphere for which aid was undeniable. But all this aid did was consolidate precarious conditions and poverty, which is a paradox, but that’s how aid works, because it’s oriented toward reproducing itself, not toward overcoming poverty. This happens because aid groups don’t associate with local organizations, they don’t create dialogue with Haitian people and their organizations. Instead, they look down on them and, above all, on young people and their ability to come together and organize.
– The first democratic government, which came into power in 1990 with Jean Bertrand Aristide, was also boycotted by the United States.
– I think it’s a little more complex. Aristide came at a time when the country was destroyed but the people had very high expectations, to the extent that they considered him a Messiah. In 1991, there was a coup d’état from the extreme right which had tremendous consequences. The U.S. didn’t support it, but didn’t frontally oppose it either, but the worst effect was the international blockade and the brutal repression of leftist groups. If an organized country like Cuba is faced with an embargo, the consequences are very serious, but this same embargo in Haiti was extremely destructive. There was no medicine or flights, no fuel, nothing. The only source of energy was charcoal, which led to the complete destruction of forests. When Aristide returned in 1994 with the support of the international community, it created a very dangerous combination. The fear of another coup prompted him to arm the young people and form militias. It’s important to recognize that young people were predisposed to become armed because youth organizations, which generally came from ecclesiastic grass-roots groups, have been the main target of repression ever since the last part of the eighties and especially during the coup. These young people, who are very committed to their country, were criminalized and became armed to defend themselves. The problem came when, around the last part of the nineties, Aristide didn’t know how to contain them and this led to an uncontrollable level of conflict, everyone was against everyone. Around 2002 and 2003, every local leader had a personal militia, from business people to neighborhood leaders. The militias began to control basic resources like water and this process led to the creation of gangs.
– What is the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) doing?
– What we anthropologists always say is that there is some truth in the people’s discourse. And in Haiti people call these people Turistah. They’re tourists. International technicians have a reputation for living la belle vie, the good life, because Haiti is by no means disagreeable for a foreigner. Living in Port-au-Prince can be very nice, before the earthquake, obviously. There are lots of good restaurants, though they are expensive, and every two weeks one can go to a lovely beach in Haiti or the Dominican Republic. The MINUSTAH haven’t done anything because they can’t do anything. Because if you don’t have real contact with local people, you’re not going to construct anything. What is being created in Haiti today is nothing but aid organizations, the UN is concerned with reproducing the presence of the UN and each of its actors. There is no real association with civil society or the state. The relationships are external.
– The international aid organizations don’t interact with Haitians?
– There is little interaction, and when there is it comes with unbearable levels of inequality. A foreign aid worker or technical expert earns US$2,000 and a Haitian technical expert with the same qualifications doesn’t earn over US$200. This is a colonial reality, because foreigners in general don’t speak Creole (French is spoken by members of elite groups and very few Haitians) and so they aren’t able to communicate with people. In a city like Port-au-Prince French is a language which denotes status and only a small part of the population has a limited comprehension of French. For many foreigners, Creole is poorly spoken French. The whole structure of aid works like an external group which reproduces colonial patterns. The people see them as chupacabras, as vampires who come to suck out their energy.
– Why are foreigners there?
– That’s a complicated question. I would say that it’s a profoundly historical issue, which has to do with the fact that the West never accepted that in 1804 a black country started a revolution and won independence. It was never accepted that elite Haitians, in the 19th century, had a project for their country and that among all these elites were sophisticated intellectuals. The bicentennial of what the Spanish creoles did is celebrated, but neither the Haitian revolution nor the Andean rebellions are represented in these festivities. Even today, the West acts in a racist way toward Haiti. A country of proud blacks is considered unacceptable. Any normal Haitian feels proud of Haitian history and knows who Jean Jacques Dessalines, Toussaint Louverture, Alexandre Petion and Henri Christophe are. History is in the body of Haitian people, it’s in their proud gaze. And that is what international aid organizations can’t tolerate, because they’re looking for people on their knees begging for charity, but when a black Haitian looks at them in the eyes they can’t stand it. The French can be proud of July 14 and the Latin Americans of our independence struggles, but Haitians are not allowed to have this pride.
– How is this history transmitted?
Orally, because the schools are terrible, they’ve deteriorated as the other institutions have. Haitians are obsessed with dates, so this means everyone knows the dates of their independence. Jan. 1, 1804, Independence Day, is the most celebrated date.
– And who is the most well known of all the Independence leaders?
For the common people it’s Dessalines, above all the rest. And that has to do with what’s happening right now because Dessalines expelled the white people, he killed whites because he realized that it’s impossible to negotiate with people who look down on you. Today young Haitians say that Haiti’s problems can only be solved by a new Dessalines, that is to say, by expelling all the whites, because they say that they are making us sick. They perceive the white community which has installed itself in Haiti as a community of vampires that reproduces the colony. They maintain that the war for independence which began two hundred years ago isn’t over yet.
– But wasn’t there a demand for help after the earthquake?
There was, but what predominated was dignity. If you walked down the street you saw organization and solidarity. Women took care of the food, the young people of rescuing the wounded and the dead; there were teams of doctors in the streets, nuns working. I had never seen so many people helping so many other people. The orphaned children were taken care of by their neighbors and friends, because in Haiti that’s a moral obligation. The story that there was a demand for adoption is proof that there was media manipulation. Of course if US troops come to a place where there are thousands of people with a little bottle of water, it’s obvious that people are going to make a mad dash for the water. But that only happens in a situation where there are these kinds of ‘aid’.
– How could efficient international aid be established?
International organizations must have a relationship of equality with their counterparts. Local organizations have to be taken very seriously. Today aid competes with local organizations instead of supporting them and collaborating with them. NGOs compete with Haitian groups and lots of times are under the impression that there are no organizations in Haiti or that they don’t need to be taken into account or they don’t try to work together. During the first days after the earthquake, agencies said they weren’t able to distribute food, but they said that because they didn’t have any sort of dialogue with local people. Aid worker and aid receiver should have a closer relationship. What is happening in Haiti is very peculiar. In South Africa, there are international aid groups, but they don’t have the same attitude as in Haiti, so it’s not just a matter of racism, but of the fact that the Haitian people are invisible to them.
– And the Cuban doctors?
There are hundreds and they’re doing very good work that should inspire international aid groups. They speak Creole and are all over the island, even in the most remote villages where no one goes. In the days after the earthquake, they were the only doctors you could see on the streets, and the people recognize their contribution.
Raúl Zibechi is an international analyst for Brecha of Montevideo, Uruguay, lecturer and researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and adviser to several social groups. He writes the monthly “Zibechi Report” for the Americas Program (www.americas.org)
Translated by Jenny Marie Forsythe
For more information
Of Donors and Disasters
Earthquake and Tsunami in Chile: The Militarization of Natural Disasters
Firsthand Account of Haiti’s Hurricane Suffering: A Call for Help