My thoughts on what’s going on…
First off I want to preface this with two things:
1) I live in the provinces, not in the cities where all the rioting is happening, so essentially my information is second hand.
2) We’ve made some good friends in the US state department and USAID in the last couple years. When things start rumbling here they’re usually the ones that we call to get the scoop from because they’re closer to the action and have good sources. For example, one of our friends was in a meeting with the Prime Minister at the end of last week after everything went down in Les Cayes. We’re very grateful that they’re able to share with us so we have some idea about what’s happening that isn’t coming from the village, if you know what I mean.
So, that said. I feel sad that the rioting and protesting is happening. Partly because Haiti has been pretty peaceful and not a bad place to be living in the last year or so. We’ve seen improved security, felt more at ease and have just been enjoying life more. Not having to always look over your shoulder or think about things like how long it’ll be before you might be able to make a trip into the grocery store are big. The other reason I feel sad is that with all the progress we’ve seen there has been a hope that maybe Haiti would be able to move forward. To see people revert to rioting, violence and destruction makes me realize that it will take generations to undo what has taken generations to learn.
I know that the food situation and more importantly, the cost of living going up, is a bad situation for a lot of people. In the last year I’ve looked at our grocery bills and cringed at how high they were, wondering if we weren’t being frugal enough and feeling convicted about it. Then I started to realize that even when I was trying to cut back they were still rising. It’s affecting everyone across the board, but those that will feel it most are those that already had very little.
One of the unfortunate realities about Haiti is that people can get very emotional, very quickly, and when they do it’s difficult to reason with them. Generally speaking. I see this on a community level regularly, and we’re seeing it on a country level again. Please don’t interpret this as me speaking poorly about the people here, but rather talking about a cultural norm. It’s not abnormal to try and have a conversation or discussion with someone to try and work out an issue that results in yelling. In my culture we’re taught the importance of stepping back, listening to what the other person is saying and trying to find some middle ground. What I often see happen here is that people stand there yelling at each other with each of them trying to win. No one is actually saying anything productive, it’s all about who has the loudest voice and can stir up the biggest commotion. If you can get others interested and even yelling with you then you are one step ahead. And often, the others that come along don’t know the full story, they just yell because they want to be part of things. I don’t know if it’s something that I’ll ever adjust to.
Because this is so deeply rooted in the culture, it can take very little for the “mob mentality” to come out. Unfortunately this plays well for those that want to use violence and chaos to push their agenda. What I appreciated about the article I referred to in the previous post was that it talked about how this kind of manipulation is often used here.
There is something else that plays into this. That’s the lack of education and high illiteracy rates. If people don’t have the ability to read, or the knowledge and tools to judge good information vs. poor information they are much more easily swayed. Consider that Haiti is a country with a democratic form of government, but a good majority of the population cannot read or write. They make their incredibly important decisions about who they want to lead their country based on what they hear. When the last elections were happening we asked many people who they were going to vote for. Often the response was Preval. When asked why, it was simply because he fixed the roads the last time he was in the presidency. Not based on his platform this time around, but by what they remember from last time. Do you remember the game Telephone? You know, the one where you sit in a circle and one person starts by whispering a statement into the next persons ear, and it goes around the circle where the last person tells the group what they heard, usually to find out that it only partially resembles the original statement? That, is Haiti. It amazes me how fast information can travel here by word of mouth. It also amazes me how far from the truth it can be. The country only gets power intermittently, and when it does those that do have radios may or may not be able to use them for whatever reason. Because of that information is often passed from person to person. And, when they do get news reports on the radio, they aren’t the most accurate reports ever. I mean, we’re not talking CNN here. I would say closer to the National Enquirer. For example, a while back the news station reported that a half-man, half-cow had been spotted in Port au Prince. Our workers heard it and many believed it, because they heard it on the radio.
Knowing all that you can imagine how easy it would be to create a mob here. There are millions of people here that don’t have jobs. Many of them spend time out in the community visiting friends and being social, and waiting to see what excitement might happen that day. What may start out as a group of people with a purpose can quickly turn into a mob where half of the people have no idea what they’re actually “mobbing” about. Then comes the burning and looting etc.
People here don’t necessarily understand that rising food prices are affecting countries around the world. They feel isolated in it and want someone to do something about it, and they go about trying to execute that change in the only way that they know, the only way that has produced change in the past – by storming the palace, burning tires in the street and creating chaos in an already fragile country. But, does it really accomplish what they are truly seeking? In the end does demanding the resignation of whatever president is in power lead to peace and improvement? If we look at Haiti’s past the answer is obvious – NO. But, the people don’t always see that. People here tend to not plan very far into the future or think about repercussions, but rather focus on the immediate. I can understand that in light of life here, but it can be a major contributing factor to upheaval. Sure, the idea of blaming the President and ousting him looks good at the time, but then what? Sure, burning and looting looks good at the time, but then what? It doesn’t even resonate to most people here that their behavior today in a situation like this will affect them down the road. It affects them because instability leads to a poor economy. Who in the international economy is going to want to invest in a country where things can go up in smoke in a matter of days. No one. Where there is no investment there are no jobs. Where there are no jobs, there is no money to live on. And so the cycle goes. We were just starting to see a small swing in the opposite direction because people were starting to look at Haiti as a possibility again. Now, I’m not so sure. All in a matter of days.
Rising food prices in Haiti can be attributed to several things. First, the rise in food prices around the world. Everyone is feeling the crunch as some markets (China and India) are becoming wealthier and purchasing more beef, which requires grains for feeding, something that other markets have relied on as staple goods. If you are producing the same amount of grains, but not distributing them to the same places people will suffer. It takes a vast amount more grain to feed a cow for meat production than it does a human for sustenance. Ethanol fuels are also a big contributor to this problem. Consider how much maize is now going into gas tanks and not bellies. Did you know that what it takes in maize to fill an SUV gas tank is enough to feed a human for a year? Think about that the next time you go to the gas pump.
Farm subsidies are another big contributor. When farmers in the US can produce rice for the import market and it can be sold for less than country produced rice, you have a problem. Haiti has the capacity to produce enough rice to feed everyone, but it cannot be sold for less than US produced rice. Also, Haiti taxes fertilizer. That means that it’s too expensive for your average farmer to purchase here, leaving them with sub-standard crops, and again not able to compete.
Haiti is also having issues in it’s ports. This is a catch 22. The slow down in releasing containers is partly the result of an effort to address major corruption issues. Such things as not releasing containers unless money was received under the table or turning a blind eye and letting drug shipments pass through customs. When steps are being taken to try and eliminate stuff like that I’m all for it. I do struggle with the fact that people are reliant on the food that is now sitting there rotting. I also struggle with the fact that Haiti is so reliant on imported food. I see all the land around me and know the reasons that it’s barren, and it saddens me. Haiti could have so much potential, but instead we see a country that is sitting in wait of other people aid time and time again. Does making people dependent on outside assistance really help them in the long run? I’m very much a believer of the “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for life,” principle. If food imports, things that can be produced here, were slowed down, and things like removing tax from fertilizer and subsidizing propane (to stop deforestation and improve soil quality and water sources) took place, would Haiti be driven to start taking care of itself? I don’t have the answer, I’m just asking the question.
Like many things in Haiti, this isn’t simple. Please pray for the country and it’s people. Pray that they are given wisdom and clarity to see what is going on in the rest of the world and under the surface. Pray that they won’t be easily manipulated. Pray that they will see the progress that has been made in the country and try to support the government rather than destroy it again. Pray that things will calm down. Pray that bellies will be filled. Pray that this will not be a repeat of four years ago and that Haiti can keep moving forward.
My brain is tired. It’s time for sleep.