By Garry Pierre-Pierre
The headline in the Miami Herald was stark. “If Haiti’s government does not confront poverty, corruption, more unrest will follow.” I will add another combustible to the mix — social inequity. Let’s unpack this loaded headline and see why its prediction of more violence will come true.
On the issue of poverty it seems to me that this and the preceding administrations in the last 30 years, have parsed out this responsibility to different players. The Diaspora sends nearly $2 billion a year to help friends and family eke out a living. So that box is checked. The international community, particularly nongovernmental organizations and missionaries, provide some aid relief to the destitute rural poor and the state machinery is funded by tax-levied money and other direct foreign aid to pay civil servants. If you don’t fall into any of these categories, too bad, do your best to climb into one of these categories, the government can’t help you.
Haitians don’t have a monopoly on corruption. There are corrupt people in government the world over. Just the other day, Dean Skelos a powerful New York state senator was found guilty of bribery, extortion and conspiracy. That was the fourth major corruption case in New York won by federal prosecutors in the last five months. There are similar cases in other states in the U.S.
But the difference in Haiti is that corruption is so systemic and endemic that no one pays a price for it. In my years covering Haiti, I don’t remember one person going to jail for pillaging the country’s coffers. For instance, everyone who is in the know agrees that much of the $1 billion low-interest loans from the Venezuelan government has been misspent or outright stolen. Yet no one has been held accountable. A journalist who had the temerity to ask former president Michel J. Martelly was ridiculed, humiliated and cursed by the musician turned politician.
Martelly hasn’t accounted for millions he collected – without the approval of parliament – from a $1.50 fee he levied on money transfers to Haiti. He said ostensibly the money would go to building schools in Haiti. That’s a notable goal in a country with a high rate of illiteracy. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a building boom in the mountainous nation and no one knows where that money has gone. The Diaspora is too timid and disorganized to make a fuss about the money coming from its pockets.
Martelly left office nearly two years ago without any explanation, not that anyone dared to make a ruckus about the provenance of a fund that future generations will have to repay. Just a couple of days ago, it was publicly revealed that the government was on the hook for $13,000 to pay the rent of a palatial villa for Senate majority leader, Joseph Lambert. I say palatial because that kind of money will get you a swanky joint even in Manhattan, let alone in Haiti. I don’t even think the U.S ambassador’s residence in Haiti costs that much.
The private sector is no better. They bribe tax officials, electricity officials and many other public servants in order to avoid paying their fair share. The business class is monopolistic and mercenary. They don’t take kindly to competition and will do whatever it takes to crush it.
Haiti is known as a “black” country, because more than 90 percent of the population is of African ancestry. But at home, the lighter your skin, the higher social and by extension economic privilege you enjoy. The business class is made up largely of Haitians of Arab ancestry. There is a tiny bit of others who traced the lightness of their skin to the European presence in Haiti before 1804, when they left following the successful slave revolt for independence. Combined, they make up less than half a percent of the population. Dark-skinned Haitians are discriminated against sometimes subtly and at times overtly. In short Haiti resembles Apartheid South Africa.
So what does any of this has to do with social unrest, looting and violence? Everything. For instance, many observers were puzzled as to why looters were pillaging stores, the ridiculous gas increase notwithstanding. Their argument is that looting is only hurting those at the bottom. I’m no way condoning violence or lawlessness, but these people don’t own any of the things that they were destroying. So in their minds, they have nothing to lose. In fact, they were getting something. They probably had a good meal that night for the first time in a long time. Will they be able to eat tomorrow, they don’t know and don’t care.
In the past the government and business elite have gotten away with this because they could easily dupe the population. Unfortunately for them, we now live in an information age where people anywhere can find out what’s going on in the world. Most Haitians own a smart phone and they know what’s happening in New York, Paris and Beijing as they are of the going on in their troubled homeland.
The digital revolution will make information even more readily in the future and Haitian leaders need to take note because the Haitian people understand best practices and what they will and will not accept. The jig is up. Time for real leadership is around the corner.
The challenge for the leaders is that they have to bring their A game or go home. The people have had enough of the corruption, the nepotism and the greed that has defined this beautiful land for too long. Right now Haitians are becoming a people of drifters. There are large exodus to Chile, Brazil and other parts of the Caribbean. They are not welcome with open arms in any of these places. And these places will surely tighten their lax immigration laws to prevent more Haitians from coming. When that happens what would be the safety valve for those left in Haiti.
We cannot send the whole population away. At one point leaders will have to provide basic human rights like education, health care and security. Otherwise, the country will be unlivable for everyone., rich, poor, dark, light skinned.