x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Voices of change

After the worst year in the history of their troubled nation, the Haitian people are tentatively demanding a say in its future.

Relatives carry the coffin of eight-year-old Monitha Silney, who died of cholera in the Cité Soleil slum in Port-au-Prince.
Relatives carry the coffin of eight-year-old Monitha Silney, who died of cholera in the Cité Soleil slum in Port-au-Prince.

There is a saying in Haitian Kreyòl: lane pase toujou pi bon, or "last year was always better." It is a wry testament to the country's declining fortunes - Haiti's situation has for years seemed in inexorable decline - but also a warning. Things could always get worse.

It is hard to imagine that life in the country could deteriorate any further than it has this year. Even for a people accustomed to trauma, the horrors 2010 visited upon Haiti strains credulity. It is a horror when the ground rocks like a ship on a violent sea, when buildings sway, then crumble and flatten. It is a horror to see people staggering and screaming, bleeding through the concrete dust on their skin. It is a horror to try to tend those who have been crushed - bones jutting from skin, heads gushing blood - with hand sanitiser and rubbing alcohol. And it is a horror to have seen, in the days that followed, bodies piling up on pavements, a father weeping over his children's corpses, a child suffering an amputation while fully conscious.

Butthe 7.0-magnitude earthquake on January 12, which killed hundreds of thousands, levelled the capital, and left more than a million homeless, was just the beginning. Like a lougawou, the Haitian werewolf, the terrors of this year then shifted shape. Next came the torrential rains that flooded the tent camps where a million people still live. Then came cholera, which so far has killed at least 2,500, according to the government.

"Please, let 2010 end," an advisor to the prime minister whispered to me in early November. He was back from a tour of provinces, where the passage of Hurricane Tomas had ruined thousands of homes and wiped out the livelihoods of rural communities. "We just can't take any more." A few days later, cholera-ravaged corpses appeared on the street outside the advisor's temporary office. The victims' caretakers, if they had any, presumably feared contamination or were turned away from the morgues. Later that month came a general election that many Haitians believe the advisor's employers tried to steal via ballot fraud and massive disenfranchisement in areas where the ruling party is unpopular.

As I write, Haiti is in the midst of a political crisis that this month led to violence all over the country. It is doubtful that the new year will bring resolution. This month, in addition to the millions of cubic metres of uncleared rubble blocking the roads, there have been burning tires and barricades. A million people still live in torn and tattered tents. And at the body-dumping site north of Port-au-Prince, the mass graves are filling again - this time, with Haitians killed by cholera.

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Against the mounting calamities, it is jarring to remember a brief sense of hope after the quake. Despite the economic crisis, the wars and disasters competing for the world's attention, Haiti's plight elicited universalsympathy. The feeling in the rest of the world appeared to be that Haitians had already borne so much man-made suffering and neglect; must they endure a natural disaster, too?

That sense of cosmic injustice inspired big promises. On January 14, Barack Obama said, movingly: "To the people of Haiti, we say clearly and with conviction, you will not be forsaken. You will not be forgotten." UN Special Envoy Bill Clinton argued, "This country has the best chance to escape its past that it's ever had… As horrible as this is, it gives them a chance to start again." Even the laconic president, René Préval, all but invisible to a people that ached for a leader, managed to work in the phrase "new Haiti" in a rare speech. His government quickly came up with an ambitious, if vague, reconstruction plan lauded by international donors who had pledged some $10 billion in reconstruction funds.

In the weeks after the quake, I hoped, too. If ever a country needed a rebirth, it was Haiti. Could the earthquake be Haiti's second revolution, a sort of warless reset?

The destruction of the congested capital could lead to investment in the long-neglected countryside and steps toward food security. The attention Haiti had won from the world might engender massive investments in social services - maybe even the Marshall Plan for education Haitians fantasised about. All the shanty towns that cascaded down mountainsides surely would prompt the government to create and enforce building codes, perhaps even redistribute land. And by putting an end to the vicious cycle of donor unaccountability and state incapacity, the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission (IHRC), led by Haitians and donors, might turn the nation from a Republic of NGOs into a real country.

Sadly,when the journalists parachuted in for their "Haiti: six months later" stories, they saw that only two per cent of the rubble had been removed. Meanwhile, the IHRC had yet to hire a director and the hundreds of thousands of displaced people who initially went to the countryside had returned to the capital's tent cities, finding neither jobs nor investment there.

Off the record, aid agencies lambasted the government's failure to decide where and how to relocate the displaced. On the record, government officials complained that they had no money. The vast majority of financial aid pledged to Haiti by international donors had yet to be honoured. Supposedly the donors were waiting for elections and a new government, one with a broad mandate to lead the reconstruction.

Shortly after the quake, a slogan appeared on T-shirts, the radio, even a banner in front of a displaced-persons camp: Ayiti Pap Peri, or "Haiti Will Not Perish". In late October, amid the cholera epidemic, this read as protesting too much.

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Hardly any Haitians were actually protesting, though. Six months, eight months, nine months under tents and hardly a murmur. Haitians' private complaints about the government had gained intensity after the quake - they no longer called Préval ineffective, but evil. They accused him of spreading aid money among his friends in the elite, but not even this fury translated into political action. With hundreds of thousands living in the public squares, demonstrations were curiously rare. "We're not voting while living under tents," group of 100 displaced people chanted in September, near the remains of the National Palace. "But isn't the point of voting - to elect a responsive government?' I asked one of them. "Not in this country," he replied.

Something changed, though. Maybe it was cholera, a disease whose grotesqueness and suddenness terrified Haitians. Maybe it was the vigorous campaigning of a charismatic presidential candidate, the former music star Michel Martelly. Or maybe life had finallybecome untenable. Whatever the case, by election day on November 28, it was clear that Préval's Unity Party had misjudged the Haitian people.

For two months preceding the election, the gleaming grin of Préval's candidate, a heretofore unknown engineer named Jude Celestin, had blanketed billboards across the country, rained down from low-buzzing aeroplanes, and splashed acrosscolour ads in newspapers. Haitians suspected the campaign funds came from an unaudited pot of Venezuelan aid money. They wondered why the government wasn't spending that $197m - everyone knew the figure-on rebuilding their country, and concluded that the government was trying to ram Celestin down their throats.

The unfolding events accorded with their theory: the disenfranchisement of countless Haitians, whether by disorganisation or conspiracy; the stuffed ballot boxes and trashed polling stations; the incredible and likely corrupt advancement of Celestin to the second round; the ensuing demonstrations. At December's end, the electoral drama is far from over. In the unlikely event that Haiti follows its constitutional calendar, the country won't have a new president until February. In the meantime, it is unclear how far the governing party will go to ensure that its aid-siphoningsystems are in place for when the long-promised moneystarts to flow. It is also unclear how much fraud and corruption the international community will stomach.

So far, the wider world has shown much more deference to democracy's forms than its substance. The Organization of American States, for instance, said that the irregularities on voting day were not serious enough to invalidate the election, although countless Haitians were disenfranchised, four per cent of polling stations were ransacked and the Observer Mission withdrew its staff, fearing for their safety. Haitians argue that the only way to restore faith in democracy is to hold the elections again, with a new electoral council that is independent from the ruling party. That seems unlikely, though - mainly because the international donors who bankrolled the contested election will not pay for another one.

Now, as one of the most disastrous years in the history of this troubled nation draws to a close,we would do well to hope that the voice of its people is finally heard and that they are allowed to play a part in itsreconstruction. Otherwise, as unlikely as it may seem, the last year will indeed have been better.

Pooja Bhatia is a writer based in Port-au-Prince and a fellow at the Institute of Current World Affairs.