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Nicole Lee: Stability of markets depends on countries like Haiti remaining poor, Europe, US’ commitment is to their own subsidies only

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. One year ago, Haiti was rocked by a terrible and tragic earthquake. Now joining us to talk about the conditions on the ground and what may be the future of Haiti is Nicole Lee. She’s the president of TransAfrica Forum. She’s also worked as a human rights attorney in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Nicole worked for a human rights organization in Haiti that investigated and prosecuted violations committed by the military during the coup. And you have a full-time person in Haiti. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So tell us first of all, really quickly, what’s the conditions now on the ground for people.

LEE: Well, you know, everyone talks about what happened on January 12, 2010, and so often you hear people discuss what Haiti looked like on January 13, the next day. Well, I’m sad to report that, frankly, Haiti looks about the same as it did a year ago. Shelter is still a non—is not possible for most Haitians. There’s nowhere for people to stay. There’s nowhere for people to build. One big difference is cholera has now hit Haiti. And that’s–any humanitarian aid agency, any humanitarian aid expert would know that without proper sanitation, without shelter, without removing the rubble, without removing the bodies from buildings–bodies that were in the buildings on January 12 for the most part are still there. So without that sort of progress in the removal, Haiti is in some ways worse off than it was the day before the earthquake.

JAY: So what’s the obstruction?

LEE: Well, a part of it has to do with political will. And it’s not the political will of the Haitian people, because the Haitian people have taken this process as far as they can. The day after the earthquake, people were digging people out of the rubble with their bare hands without any sort of machinery, without any sort of assistance. We certainly did see assistance come in from all over the country [inaudible] the United States. We saw rescue personnel going down. But for the most part, they were rescuing Americans, they were rescuing aid workers. It was Haitians really rescuing Haitians. Now, a year later, unfortunately, the Haitian people have done just about all they can do on their own. They’re expecting the international community to step up. What is so tragic in this situation is people–regular people within the international community did step up. People in the United States, all over Europe, all over Africa and in Latin America sent $5, sent $10, whatever they could to support the people of Haiti. And, unfortunately, much of that money has not gotten to Haiti.

JAY: So where is it?

LEE: Well, some of it is still sitting in coffers, if you will. The international community, when we talk about governments, so many governments pledged money to Haiti, billions and billions of dollars, yet only hundreds of millions has actually gotten to Haiti.

JAY: I saw a number. Something in the range of about 63 percent of the money has actually arrived in Haiti.

LEE: Sixty-three percent of the money has arrived in Haiti? No. I would say, actually, that would be an incorrect estimate. When you talk to the government of Haiti, and even when you talk to NGOs or the Clinton Foundation, they’ll tell you that only $473 million has hit the government of Haiti. Now, that might seem like a lot of money, but in all honesty, $5.7 billion was supposed to arrive in Haiti in 2010 to deal with this earthquake. So you see the disparity is huge. Then when you start talking about international NGOs, most of those NGOs report–the Red Cross was reporting that they’ve only spent 30 percent of the money that they receive for humanitarian aid in Haiti thus far. It’s shocking, it’s just absolutely shocking, with the fact that the humanitarian situation has not abated. We have heard that people have food, people have shelter. What passes for shelter in Haiti right now is basically lawn-and-leaf garbage banks. Really. Garbage banks. So people are getting sticks and they’re putting up these so-called tarps. We wouldn’t even let our pets in the United States live in the conditions that people are living.

JAY: So what’s stopping the money from being spent?

LEE: Well, I think a part of it is that many charitable organizations and even governments are saying, we don’t want to spend money in Haiti on the humanitarian relief, we want to spend it on rebuilding. Well, unfortunately, if we don’t abate the situation right now in Haiti–the cholera, the lack of shelter, the lack of infrastructure–there is not going to be an infrastructure renewal. There’s not going to be the ability for Haiti to grow and to build itself back up again, because we’re not dealing with the core issues, we’re not dealing with the core problems of today. And, unfortunately, there is a certain amount of misery that the international community believes that Haiti can exist with. So instead of bringing Haiti up to just abject poverty, we want to leave them in absolute misery. In part–and you hear this in–both in the halls all around Washington, at NGOs, and in the halls of government you hear that Haitians were poor before, so why lift them up out of poverty. Well, unfortunately, we see what happens when you leave people after a humanitarian disaster in this sort of misery: you’re going to get disease; you’re going to get violence; you’re going to get all of the things that we have seen in Haiti. And, unfortunately, I don’t think we’ve seen the worst yet.

JAY: Now, one of the things we’ve heard from Haitians we’ve interviewed previously is that one of the strategies that certainly some Haitians were calling for was to revitalize agriculture in rural Haiti, allow people to get out of the cities, go into the rural areas, and start growing food for themselves and creating a more sustainable form of life, versus people staying in the cities and someday perhaps again becoming cheap labor in textile factories. Where is that at in terms of what strategy might be executed on?

LEE: Well, this call for what they call in Haiti “decentralization” is huge and it’s all over Haiti. It’s not just the rural areas where people want decentralization; people also want it in the urban areas. Most of the money that the Haitian government has spent on revitalization even before the earthquake was really in Port-au-Prince, because there’s a concentration of people there. Why is there a concentration of people there? Because that’s where the money is spent. It’s a vicious circle. So this notion of decentralization was even before the earthquake. Now, after the earthquake, everyone knows it’s vital. But there are several obstacles in the way of this. And most Haitians will tell you a big part of the decentralization debate is agriculture. It’s not going to be just Haitians, though, that are going to be able to change this paradigm. Right now, a Haitian farmer–most Haitian farmers can barely afford to grow rice or to grow any vegetables, because they have to meet the market demand, and the market demand is really set up, if you will, [inaudible] rice and /baI/ US vegetables and /baI/ US exports. So there’s–.

JAY: Much of which is subsidized.

LEE: Much of which is subsidized. And, unfortunately, the Haitian farmers don’t have that sort of subsidy, so they cannot compete. So it’s not just going to be about Haiti and Haitian farmers or Haitian people making changes. It’s going to be about the international community making a commitment to a sustainable agricultural system in Haiti. And right now we don’t have that commitment at all. The commitment is to our own subsidies in the United States and in Europe. And also there is a commitment to ensuring that worldwide the market stays stable. Unfortunately, the stability of the market depends upon countries like Haiti remaining poor and not being able to sustain themselves through their agricultural production.

JAY: One of the critiques we heard was that US troops, UN, other outside forces seem far more interested in kind of, quote-unquote, “restoring order”, which seemed to me not just restoring, you know, peaceful circumstances for the people but restoring the former order in terms of who was in power. What’s the current situation?

LEE: See, to me this argument is always shocking, and being a human rights lawyer working in Haiti before, it always surprised me. I would hear people talk about, oh, there’s going to be violence in Haiti. And so often when there would–in the United States, where we would automatically have a violent response, Haitians don’t have that response. When the earthquake happened, there was no police on the streets, and yet people organized themselves because they knew, frankly, that they were going to have to save each other, there was–no one was coming to save them. And so they knew that. And so Haitians were able to organize themselves in ways in which, frankly, I don’t believe we would have the fortitude to do in the United States. And so this notion of order in Haiti so often is code, and it’s code for making sure that Haitians don’t rise up and, if you will, take their rights, take back their rights, whether it’s the right to vote–.

JAY: ‘Cause I think it’s important for people that don’t know Haiti and see it just through images on TV. It looks like you have these sort of victims and they don’t know what to do with themselves. In fact, Haitians are very, very political people, very conscious, engaged people.

LEE: It’s shocking. And I always say, when people–when I talk about these foreign policy issues, I always say the person who taught me the most, even when we talk about agricultural subsidies, was a woman selling mangos in Haiti. She sold mangos right outside my home, and I would talk to her every day, and she would explain, literally, the world markets. She was probably illiterate, she certainly had never been outside of Haiti, yet she understood. And Haitians understand in a way that I think many people in the United States and Europe don’t understand these issues, because they live them every day. They live and die by the decisions we make in the international community about things like law and order, about things like economic development. And so they have a lot at stake. So, absolutely they are going to be educated. And so often you see pictures of Haiti and you see people gathered together. And I think there is, unfortunately, in our country, a undercurrent of racism, that when you see people in Haiti, you think automatically that they’re victims, that automatically they don’t know what they’re doing, that automatically they should not be listened to. And, unfortunately, that has absolutely trickled down and up through our international foreign policy making here in the US, and that is why we get it wrong every time.

JAY: So what should US policy be towards Haiti now?

LEE: Well, first of all–.

JAY: What do you want to see next?

LEE: Yeah, I think we’re going to have to make a shift. If we do not want to see people in abject poverty, if we want to see democracy in Haiti, if we want to see all the things that we hear our politicians talk about in their talking points, then first of all we have to put Haitians into the process. And this is not just about allowing a few elites that speak English or speak French into our meetings and let them into our strategy sessions. This is about understanding what the needs of the Haitian people are and allowing them to come up with solutions. So often they say, well, you know, people in Haiti, they don’t care about their destiny, so why should we. It’s absolutely the opposite. They do care about their destinies and they have plans for their futures, yet we don’t listen to them because we’re not hearing them.

JAY: And what’s the number-one demand?

LEE: Well, I think the number-one demand has to be that they are able to chart their own destiny, whether it be through a democracy–.

JAY: Well, what do they want? If they chart their own destiny, what do they want?

LEE: Well, it has everything to do [with] ensuring that their votes, for example, are respected. We just had an election in Haiti. No one voted because no one was on the voting rolls. And yet that passes muster to the international community. That is a huge problem. So when we talk about self-determination, it is both democratic, it is also economic. We need to allow people to chart their own destiny in Haiti. And until we do that, we will continue to see the same cycles of absolute abject poverty in effect.

JAY: Thanks for joining us.

LEE: Thank you.

JAY: Thank you for joining us The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Nicole Lee is the President of TransAfrica Forum. She has worked as a human rights attorney in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.Nicole Lee lived in Haiti where she worked for a human rights organization that investigated and prosecuted the human rights violations by the military during the 1994 coup.