Tamara Lajtman is a Brazilian politologist who studied in Argentina. She went to live in Mexico. From there, she travelled to Haiti. She is so Latin American that it is worth asking her what she saw while traveling to the American country that asked to be part of Africa. “Haiti? These nine things I tell you”, she answered. These are:
January 12th, 2010, 16:53, the earth shaked in the poorest country of the most unequal region.
When the earth shakes in the poorest country of the most unequal region there are 200.000 fatalities and a million and a half people lose their homes.
And then, goudou goudou.
Goudou goudou is the sound the earth did while breaking. It’s the onomatopoeia to name the time split, the moment when the night comes while everything is already in the dark. Goudou goudou is an echo, the aftershock of a catastrophe seven years later in Haiti, the poorest country, but also in Latin America, the most unequal region.
It never crossed my mind to go to Haiti, until I saw a call from the Latin American Council of Social Sciences (CLACSO) for an International Postgraduate School “Policies for Equality: Social Crossroads and Discussions on Futures”, which would be held in Port-au-Prince at mid-June 2014, in an agreement with the State University of Haiti (UEH).
I was in Mexico, studying for a master’s degree. I didn’t know anyone who had been there, except for my military cousin who participated in the famous UN peacekeeping missions with his little blue helmet. When I saw my name on the approved list, I couldn’t believe it. In fifteen minutes I was packing my bags.
The ticket they sent was: Mexico City-Bogota-Port-au-Prince. There are no direct flights from Mexico.
I made a list of everything I knew about Haiti:
- The earthquake
- Voodoo is practiced, which is something similar to Brazilian candomblé or Santeria.
- The chorus of a song by Caetano Veloso (I’m Brazilian) that I love: Pense no Haiti, reze pelo Haití… o Haiti é aquí, o Haiti não é aquí.
- The first revolution in America and the most radical, black.
- The Kingdom of this world, by Alejo Carpentier.
The general objective of the school was to carry out a multidisciplinary and critical approach to public policies in Latin America and the Caribbean, with emphasis on the Haitian case. It was six days of work in the Directorate of Postdoctoral Studies of the UEH where 60 Haitian students and 30 young researchers from different Latin American and Caribbean countries participated.
We stayed at the Hotel Le Plaza on Rue Capois. The organizers’ first recommendation was that we drink “only bottled water so as not to catch a disease for life”. The same went for brushing your teeth. Industrialized food only, prepared by the hotel or the university. My sole food transgression was having a plate of lobsters with fried bananas that cost me less than a cheese bread in Rio de Janeiro or a taco de canasta in Mexico City.
Before classes started, we formed a group of about five people and went for a walk in the center of Port-au-Prince.
We were in the middle of the soccer World Cup. On one side of the square they shouted for Neymar, on the other for Messi. Later I found out that many of the Brazilian team T-shirts were gifts from soldiers of this country. I suppose the same thing happened with those of Argentina.
The merchants bring the clay from Hinche, a town in the center of the country. They process it and then sell it in the markets of the capital’s poorest neighborhoods, such as La Salines, Fort Dimanche or Cité Soleil.
In a corner I met Josette. I found it striking what she had in her basket: a kind of whole grain oatmeal cookie or something similar. But it was mud, mud cookies.
Josette is 25 years old and has four children, three boys and a girl. She is tall, skinny, and wore an impeccably clean white dress. Her husband died in the earthquake and her daughter was sick with cholera. Every morning she buys mud at the market and prepares cookies made from a mixture of water, salt and vegetable butter. While they dry in the sun, she goes out to sell on the streets those she made the day before.
When Josette and children have a good sales day, they eat rice; if not, dinner is the leftover cookies.
In Haiti I had the most profound magical-religious experience of my 27 years in this dimension. We went to a kind of ritual concert at the Olofsson Hotel, a 19th century mansion in the middle of a tropical garden. They say that it is the city’s oldest emblematic structure that has remained standing after the earthquake. From time to time there are rasin music parties, a mix of traditional voodoo ceremonial music with folklore and rock.
Everything in that place seemed incredible to me. The women’s hair, the clothes, the sound, the colors. I do not practice a specific religion nor am I a believer in anything in particular. I believe, for example, that when I am climbing the rock it passes positive energies to me. Things like that. So I got in, in front of everything, and after a while I kind of fainted. They took me outside. When I woke up I had a strange feeling of happiness, of fulfillment.
The musical references they gave me were: Racine Mapou De Azor, Boukan Ginen and Boukman Eksperyans.
My French consists of “bonshur” and “bonsuá”. Only a few colleagues spoke English. However, the fluidity of the communication impressed me from the beginning. I mentioned this to someone from the workshop, who replied that his everyday language is Creole: Creole is spoken among friends and family, French was just a tool for him: “When those from France come they say that we speak their language badly and I’m ashamed”.
Haiti was punished by the West. How does a black slaves island dare to make a revolution while the Revolution, with a capital “R”, was taking place in France? The compensations Haiti had to pay to French plantation and slave owners weren’t completed until the mid-20th century. Thirty years of dictatorship at the hands of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude, “Baby Doc”: international cooperation supplanted local production, making the country its laboratory par excellence. In those years it is estimated that the number of civilians killed mainly by paramilitary forces, the Ton Ton Macoutes, was between 40,000 and 60,000. Papa Doc’s rule of terror inherited by his son was based on the construction of the myth, based on ancestral superstitions, that Varón Samedi (Satan) had granted him the power to know what each Haitian had inside their mind.
Colonized by France until 1804, the country was occupied by the United States from 1915 to 1934, and intervened by the UN peacekeeping missions in 1991 and 1994.
The contemporary recolonization of the country is largely done through NGOs that, with their recipes, inhibit community participation, the well-known germ of rebellion. The United Nations imposed the presence of troops in Haiti since 2004, despite the fact that the country is not experiencing a civil war or posing a danger to international peace.
MINUSTAH, installed in the framework of the illegal removal of a democratically elected president, did not fulfill its objectives of stabilization and the promotion of human rights. In addition to countless reports of rape, repression of protests and interference in the electoral process, the blue helmets introduced the cholera epidemic in 2010. It has killed more than 9,000 people and infected more than 700,000.
The issue of building knowledge from and for Haiti is urgent if what is envisioned, which is the “reconstruction of the country”, is done in favor of the Haitian people instead of foreign interests. According to the policies promoted by organizations such as the IMF and the World Bank, universities and postgraduate degrees are considered luxuries. Fritz Deshommes, vice-rector for research at the Haitian State University, argues that the best experts and intellectuals, according to these policies, come from abroad and, therefore, Haiti would not be able to invest in higher education. But the consequences of the policies of these organizations are deadly: “Their experts do not bring solutions, but rather complicate the situation and keep us trapped.”
A Haitian colleague commented on the occasion of the closure of the School that the way in which our event was developed was totally different compared to other activities with foreigners in which he had participated. “People come from outside to tell us how to do things, they come with their manuals. But you came to think together with us.”
“Haiti had its independence in a colonialist, racist, slave world order. Haiti independence was seen as subversion”. The existence of a successful slave revolution was unacceptable.
“A country of blacks with social, political, and economic success would be a bad example.” For France, for instance, which until today has colonies called “overseas departments”, it is necessary to guarantee the failure of Haiti and even pass it on as a country project. For Martinique and Guadeloupe to accept their condition, Haiti must not be successful.
A dog wanders on an empty street in Port-au-Prince. Photo: Alejandro Saldívar.
In Canaan, one of the largest refugee camps built in the country after the earthquake, the international cooperation spectacle is grotesque. USAID tarps used as tents next to a Brazilian evangelical church. White vans with logos of countless international organizations and NGOs circulated as part of the landscape. There, a very simple fact seemed to be an illustration of what my classmate commented. We were a group of about thirty foreigners walking through the huge settlement with our cameras, notebooks and, even inadvertently, with expressions worthy of a safari.
An Argentinean from the group takes his camera out and takes a photo of a poor young black boy, like everyone else who lived there. The boy takes his cell phone out of his pocket and takes a photo of the Argentinean.
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