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I went back to Haiti on August 15, a year and a half after the earthquake. The place where I had lived on and off since the summer of 1970 was unrecognizable. But the politics were familiar.
At his inauguration in May, President Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly declared Haiti “open for business.” His plan calls for economic restructuring largely supported by massive foreign investment from the international aid agencies set up after the earthquake under the leadership of former President Clinton, co-chair of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission. Meanwhile there is no sign of the permanent housing that Martelly announced for the 630,000–700,000 Haitians who still live in camps without toilets or running water. Instead mass evictions from the camps have begun, sometimes with little or no warning, carried out by police and private security agents armed with machetes and knives. The survivors move on to other camps, live by the roadside, or simply vanish.
There is a reason so many Haitians live precisely where the earthquake struck hardest. In 1986, after a U.S. Air Force C-141 cargo plane escorted the dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier to a luxury hotel in the French Alps, USAID and the World Bank promoted plans to displace farmers in the countryside to provide cheap labor in the cities. Lawrence E. Harrison, director of the USAID mission to Haiti from 1977 to 1979, proposed a version of the American Dream for Haiti: “the establishment of assembly industries employing tens of thousands in the capital city of Port-au-Prince.” The workers in these factories, he predicted, would “learn that a combination of organization, cooperation, technology and work can vault them into the middle class—something the voodoo [priests] have failed to achieve.” Ousted from their lands, Haitians lived in the shantytowns on the hillsides, only to become casualties, decades later, of a natural disaster. Now they are “at a loss,” as a friend told me, kept at risk and under duress, with no sign of improved housing or resettlement.
Thirty minutes north of Port-au-Prince, the only official site for the homeless remains bleak. The huge internally displaced persons (IDP) camp at Corail-Cesselesse, which houses 80,000 people, was touted by none other than Sean Penn, celebrity activist and innovative leader of J/P Haitian Relief Organization, as a model of “something that could be real hope in Haiti.” Yet this 18,000-acre expanse is windswept and dry, without the promised community gardens, kitchens, health centers, and schools—not even water or adequate sanitation. Instead, as always, the provisional rules. The tents and temporary plywood shelters, neatly spaced at the foot of a mountain, remain vulnerable to flooding, landslides, and hurricanes. Rumors circulate that Corail is meant to engineer desperation, an impoverished idleness that can be assuaged by factory work.
Or if they will not work, they can be locked up. During the American Occupation of Haiti (1915–1934), a program of forced labor, known as the corvÃ©e, built roads throughout the countryside. When self-sufficient peasants refused wage work, even after their land was seized, the marines of the Southern Command turned to other methods. Imposing martial law, they used punishment, imprisonment, and the threat of death to transform independent farmers into enslaved workers.
While reconstruction lags, old prisons in Haiti are being refurbished, and new private prisons are going up. It took about one month after the earthquake for the U.S.-based GEO Group to receive a contract in Haiti for “guard services.”
The streets of Port-au-Prince are packed with people, tap taps (vibrantly painted vans or buses), shops, and markets alongside ruins and refuse. The energy in the streets is infectious, the courage and ingenuity striking. Only when I glance off to the side and see everywhere the blue and white tarps of yet another tent city do I realize that these locales of the displaced, invisible in plain sight, shadow the radiant illusion.
There is nothing to compare to this Haiti, nor can I claim now that I have returned, or that any return has been or will be possible.
Colin Dayan is Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Law at Vanderbilt University. Her books include The Law Is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons, The Story of Cruel and Unusual, and Haiti, History, and the Gods and With Dogs at the Edge of Life, a fierce personal enquiry into canine profiling, preemptive justice, and extermination. She has recently published the memoirs Looking for Ghosts and Animal Quintet.
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