I lived in Haiti nearly five years and was indignant on a regular basis. Barefoot children peddled for pennies in the street while SUVs carrying foreign VIPs whizzed past. U.N. officials trumpeted peacekeeping success as their troops fired thousands of bullets indiscriminately into slums. U.S. government travel warnings perpetuated the myth that Haiti was violent while embassy employees earned a 20 percent premium on their salaries as “danger pay.” The Haitian elite held court to journalists and diplomats at five-star hotels, while their sweatshop employees sent their kids to school on empty stomachs—$2 a day didn’t cover both food and tuition.
In Haiti, there are two narratives. One is found in press releases and newspapers and on websites and TV. Experts and politicians explain that Haiti is a failed state continually on the verge of slipping into anarchic violence, while its endemically corrupt government hinders the well-intentioned international community from trying to “stabilize the population,” to quote a State Department spokesman. Another story is found in the streets, slums, rice paddies and mountaintops. It’s told by poor Haitians who speak of their struggle to survive in the face of overwhelming hardships, their dreams of building a country that is self-sufficient and sovereign, and their resentment toward foreigners who seem to profit off their poverty.
The differences between these two narratives seem more marked than ever since the Jan. 12 earthquake. Donors and aid organizations have publicly praised their own efforts, with the U.S. ambassador calling our government’s humanitarian aid delivery to Haiti a “model” for responding to an earthquake.
The Haitian people tell a different story. Junior, a 16-year-old boy whose entire family was crushed under their house, has wandered the capital’s streets alone, sleeping on a foot-wide ledge in front of the national palace. He received humanitarian aid once—a packet of high-energy crackers. Occasionally others on the street share their food with him.
Ruth, a social worker, lost her husband and 20-month-old son. She now helps organize displaced people by day and sleeps in a tent city at night. She blames large aid agencies for provoking melees at food handouts by relying on U.N. peacekeepers and U.S. troops while bypassing committees of earthquake victims prepared to ensure that the distributions run smoothly.
Louise Bonne, a 30-year-old businesswoman, fled to the desolate Anse Rouge salt flats six hours north of Port-au-Prince after the house she grew up in crumbled. She sleeps on the floor of the thatched patio of her cousin’s house, rationing water and food with her daughter and 23 family members. Like the other half-million people who left the capital, Louise Bonne has received no humanitarian assistance. She is determined to stay in the salt flats and wonders why aid is being concentrated on imported food distributions in the capital instead of being invested in agricultural production in the long-neglected countryside.
Behind closed doors, the creators of Haiti’s official narrative are drafting 10-year plans, and the representatives of foreign governments and aid organizations are comparing notes. Meanwhile, in camps and villages, I heard the same message over and over again: “Nobody has come to talk to us.” The poor, the primary victims of the earthquake, want a say in determining the policies and programs that are ostensibly intended to benefit them.
They have not been given one. And yet Haitians have banded together in solidarity to survive. As many times as I have felt indignant in Haiti, I have been inspired. I have never seen a people who have suffered so much and been so resilient, who have faced such tremendous indignities yet remained so dignified, who have been so oppressed and continued to struggle so courageously.