Latin America

Haiti and the role of women in its reconstruction

On the 8th of March this year, which coincided with “Día Internacional de la Mujer” (International Women’s Day), 3000 Haitian women started a campaign demanding the return of Jean – Bertrand Aristide, exiled in South Africa since 2004. According to this group of women, bringing back the ex-president could help towards the reconstruction of their country.

Juan Galbete

During its recent and not so recent history, nearly all sections of society in this Caribbean country have suffered almost chronically due to its general instability, and things were worsened on the 12th of January last by an earthquake that swept through the capital, Puerto Príncipe. As the country is being rebuilt, a task which the authorities have calculated to last over a decade, the Haitians are facing epidemics of cholera which appears to have been brought into the country by the United Nations’ missionaries.

They are of Asian descent and work for the “Estabilazación de Haití” (Stabili

sation of Haiti) (Minustah) which was established by the UN in 2004. According to the most recent information available, cholera has been the cause of death of over 2,000 people and has infected over 90,000 in less than two months. This is a country with a total population of nine million inhabitants and where around 1.3 million of those are obliged to live in large shanty towns and awful conditions.

With these gloomy circumstances setting the general scene and rumours of fraudulent activity surrounding the voting, Haiti celebrated its first round of presidential elections on the 28th of last November. Various groups that observed the election manifested their scepticism of the results towards the “Consejo Provisional Electoral” (Provisional Electoral Advice – CEP). In fact, the candidate of the Fanmi Lavalas Party (which is led by Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Arisitde, currently exiled) was denied to participate in the elections. Due to this, the day ended with 12 of the 18 presidential candidates demanding the election be annulled. On the 9th of December last year, disturbances provoked by the electoral results left 4 dead and 10 injured in the capital Puerto Príncipe, the same day that is was discovered that the CEP was going to form a commission that would oversee the results.

Although the second round of voting will initially start on the 16th of  January ne

xt year, it will be possible to appeal against the outcome up until the 20th of December. Candidates that will participate are Judes Celestin, son-in-law of René Préval, Prime Minister of “Partido Unidad”, which currently holds office, and Mirlande Manigat of the “Coalición de Demócratas Progresistas Nacionalistas, due to the other favourite Michel Martelly, of the “Respé” Party, being eliminated for remaining in disagreement with the preceding events.

Women ask for Aristide to come back

Jean-Bertrand Aristide won the elections celebrated in December, 1990, after the country had been ruled for decades with the iron fist dictators governing over the constantly elected poverty of the Haitian population.

A few months later he was overthrown by a military coup led by General Raoul Cedrás and then in 1994, returned to power. In the year 2000 he was voted back in again with 91.8% of the votes, but then in 2004, the year before his mandate was meant to come to an end, another coup led by the USA forced him to be exiled to South Africa. Aristide was the first president to help towards women’s rights in the country, creating opportunities for their participation in all levels by opening the “Ministerio de Asuntos de la Mujer” (Ministry of Women’s Affairs) in 1991.

At the beginning of 2001, important social programmes for children’s schooling and public health were initiated. As a result, a national schooling programme as well as a public health programme began with th

e construction of public schools and hospitals in different communities across the country.

Due to all of that, a group of Haitian women has got together regularly since the 8th of March this year, in order to try and get Aristide and his family back to the country. Up until June of this year, around 20,000 Haitian women who survived the earthquake had signed the petition.  This party of women believe his return would help the rebuilding of the country and has been organising gatherings since the earthquake took place in order to gain support.

Their aim is to send the petition to the USA, Barack Obama and his wife Michele, citing on behalf of Aristide’s return, Article 41 of the Constitution of Haiti which states that, “No person of Haitian nationality can be deported or forced to leave national territory for any reason. No one can be deprived of their judicial rights or of their nationality for political reasons”.

Their  campaign is receiving the support of Global Women’s Strike, an international group that has been in force for over 38 years, demanding the recognition and remuneration for the unpaid work carried out by millions of women throughout the whole world. It actually took its name from a women’s global strike which was called on International Women’s Day to celebrate the new millennium in 2000.

More specifically, as pointed out by Nina López who has been spokeswoman for the organisation in London since 1976, GWS was founded by Selma James, the widow of C.L.R. James. He was the author of “The Black Jacobins” which was published in 1938 and relates the process of the independence of Haiti (1791-1804).

Nina López is also one of the coordinators of Legal Action for Wom

en, a service which has provided legal help for women since 1982. She guarantees that – from her experience with the group of Haitian women that want Aristide to return – despite the chaos portrayed by the media after the earthquake in the capital last January and the dreadful conditions “imposed on the vast majority of the population by the USA’s coup and the UN occupation, this collective has managed to survive and actually organise itself”.

Haiti came into being after black slaves started a revolution. It was the first country of the American continent to eliminate slavery and the second, after the USA, to gain independence from the European colonies. From 1825 until 1947 it suffered the economic hardship of a huge debt, attributed to it by France for the loss of its slaves at the crux of the Haitian revolution. After the American invasion and occupation between 1915 and 1934, the country remained at the mercy of people fighting for power, successive coups d’état and periodic dictatorships that would follow throughout the 20th Century.

Lost Money

Nina López notes an alarming statistic with regards to the rebuilding process that is taking place: in Haiti, “there are more NGOs than in any other country in the world in relation to its population”, around 40,000 serve in this Caribbean country.

In this sense, she is criticising the work these organisations are doing since “they are implementing American politics and privatisation. The amount of money that people sent to Haiti after the earthquake was incredible, but much of it never got to the people, and there are many NGOs with large funds who have done nothing”. She also adds that these organisations “always claim that it is a very difficult situation and that there is a huge problem concerning security, when what there is, is corruption. And it is not only governmental corruption. It also comes from the USA, the NGOs and a handful of Haitian elites who collaborate with the USA, France and Canada in particular”.

Foto por Jan Sochor

But, is there a possibility that Haiti can come out of such a dire and prolonged situation after being ruled, in so many cases, by corrupt governments? According to López, it does exist, but just as the political instability is rife, the economic base of the country has many weak spots. Haiti is the poorest republic in Latin America, where 70% of the population lives on barely a dollar a day.

“It’s an agricultural country where the people survive thanks to the production of rice. However, this source of income was slashed when the USA began importing American-grown rice which receives enormous subsidies”. Another issue is one that involves American textile companies, which generally take advantage of the cheap labour (minimum wage in Haiti is $1.3 a day and unemployment affects 50% of the population) and particularly that of the female population. The participation of the USA in Haiti has been discussed a lot, not only because of the aforementioned occupation between 1915 and 1934, but also because of the first coup d’état against Aristide in 1991. As a consequence of the coup, Aristide decided to eliminate the army in 1995, “because under the control of the Americans, it was the cause of the prolongation of dictatorships in Haiti”, says López.

As Peter Hallward points out in his article published in The Guardian, “Haiti: one more shameful UN betrayal” (see link “cholera epidemic” further up), the elimination of the army was celebrated by a large majority of his compatriots and seen as a threat to a small Haitian elite and their allies, the USA, France and Canada.

The coup in 2004 opened the door to Minustah, “an occupational force of the UN – in the words of López – , controlled by the USA in order to give credibility to the coup”. To this, López adds that the “USA does not want Aristide to come back because it knows the Haitians will vote him into power again, and the USA would not therefore be able to impose another president”.

The mood that hangs over Haiti is not rosy by any means, especially since the official help that was meant to be guaranteed after the earthquake seems to have turned out to be an illusion filled with false promises. With all of that said, the social movements that have been developing in the different communities of the country on the periphery of the political turmoil appear to be the small light at the end of a very long tunnel, where the woman’s role plays an extremely important part.

“In Haiti, like in many other countries with few resources, there are many families where the mothers raise their children on their own; the mother acts as both the mother and father of their children. The woman’s role has been crucial for the survival of the population, and for supporting the current movement that is encouraging President Aristide’s return”, affirms Nina López.

Despite the complex situation that this country endures, López is certain that there are motives and reasons to stay hopeful. “On the one hand, Haiti’s situation is the worst we can ever imagine, but on the other, the Haitians are an extraordinary people and very aware that they won a revolution in 1804 which was the founding of their country”.

(Translated by Piers Jarvis – piersjarvis@hotmail.com)

dictators governing over the constantly elected poverty of the Haitian population.

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