Paradise Lost – Part 2 in a series on failed states

Slum in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince
Slum in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince (© Eric Beauchemin)

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. It’s gone through several decades of dictatorial rule followed by civil conflict. Haiti is also considered a classic example of state failure, a country that’s unable to control its territory or provide the most basic services to its people, even in the capital Port-au-Prince. Justice, education, water, sewage and electricity are virtually non-existent. Many of the capital’s slums are controlled by armed gangs. Elections were held earlier this year, and a new government is now in place. For the first time in many years, there’s hope in Haiti.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin
Broadcast: September 13, 2006


Radio Netherlands Worldwide presents “Paradise Lost”. It’s the second programme in “The Abyss” a four-part series on failed states produced in collaboration with the Ford Foundation. It’s presented by Eric Beauchemin.

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. It’s gone through several decades of dictatorial rule and then civil conflict.

There’s large scale violence. There’s lawlessness. State institutions do not function, and if they function, they only function partially.

If in Port-au-Prince, you have a problem, a serious health problem, you die. It’s so simple as that.

We’re getting in and getting the first little bit of sanity going.

Haiti is the world’s first black republic. It obtained independence over two centuries ago, but today it’s often mentioned as a classic example of a failed state, a country which is unable to control its territory and is unable to provide its people with the most basic services, such as water, electricity, education, health care and justice.

Even in the capital, Port-au-Prince, the roads are full of potholes. Many parts of the city are no-go areas, particularly in the slums. They’re controlled by rival armed gangs. No one is safe in the city. Blacks, whites, adults, elderly people and even children leave their homes at their own peril: up to 30 people a day are kidnapped. Their relatives or friends have to pay thousands of dollars to secure their release. I too was almost abducted.

The roof of the St. Jude hospital
The roof of St. Jude hospital (© Eric Beauchemin)

To understand what this state of virtual anarchy means for ordinary Haitians, I went to the Jude Anne Hospital. It’s run by the Dutch branch of MSF or Doctors without Borders. You have to go through a metal detector to get into the 4-storey building. Gang members and other people with arms can store their weapons in lockers near the entrance.

Like most places in Port-au-Prince – a city of 3 million people – the hospital relies mostly on generators because the city’s power supply works only intermittently. Water too is a problem. The hospital is located near some of the some of the most violent slums in the capital. It specialises in obstetric care, seeing 700 patients a month and carrying out 500 deliveries. Haiti has the highest rate of maternal and infant mortality in the Western hemisphere. Without the hospital, says Petra Reijners, the head of the Dutch branch of MSF, the lives of mothers and their babies would be at risk.

Petra Reijners, head of the Dutch-branch of MSF in Haiti
Petra Reijners, head of the Dutch-branch of MSF in Haiti (© Eric Beauchemin)

If they have no money, they cannot access medical health care. And the hospitals here of the Ministry of Health, you have to pay, and often there is a lot of corruption, so they ask you more than the normal prices. And also, as the system is not working, often doctors are not there. There’s no anaesthetist. So I know of cases of women who told me that they put her already on the operation theatre and told her you need a Caesarean section. If you don’t get it, then you might die. Your baby will not be able to come out normally, and she was put on the operation theatre, was asked $1000. She said ‘I’m sorry I cannot pay’ and then they told her ‘well then another solution, but we are not going to help you’. So if in Port-au-Prince you don’t have money, and you have a problem, a serious health problem, while being in labour, you die. It’s so simple as that.

Women in the capital often wind up going to three or even more hospitals to deliver their babies. Some reach the Jude Anne Hospital simply too late: they and their babies simply arrive too late. Christina Jean is 19. She told me through an interpreter that she was fortunate: after going into labour in Jacmel, a city in the south of the country, she had to travel several hours by car to go to Jude Anne.

Maternity ward
Maternity ward (© Eric Beauchemin)

She delivered 2 baby girls, she says. She’s not surprised that the hospital there couldn’t treat her. She spent 4 days at the hospital in Jacmel, but they did nothing for her, even though Chistina had to spend 2500 Haitian gourdes or ever €50 euros on drugs, a huge amount in a country where most people earn less than a euro a day.

The slums of Port-au-Prince highlight the failings of the Haitian state even more clearly. Here in les Salines, there are no paved roads or sewage systems. People just dump their trash in wasteland near the sea. The stench is overpowering. The filth is even worse than what I have seen in the poorest countries in Africa. Poor hygiene is one of the reasons why Haitians have some of the lowest life expectancies in the world.

Until recently, the rest of the capital was also becoming submerged in garbage. But then came the Clean Streets Project. It’s run by an international aid organisation, the Pan American Development Foundation or PADF. 30 trucks and 1400 people head out onto the streets of the capital every day, wearing bright yellow T-shirts with the slogan “Respect yourself. Clean your country”.

Clean Streets Project
Clean Streets Project (© Eric Beauchemin)

There seems to be a correlation between clean streets and the perception of good government. John Currelly is the country representative of PADF.

John Currelly, country director of PADF
John Currelly, country director of PADF (© Eric Beauchemin)

We only pay two dollars a day equivalent, US two dollars a day to these folks that work from about 7:30 in the morning until 1 o’clock in the afternoon, sweeping streets. And they only have a two-month cycle because we are trying to get as much employment, as widely distributed as possible. So you’re making very little money. What would that be $120, $130 or something that you would make. And yet the response to that is extraordinary. People are actually moving back into the slums, based on that small amount of money, sending their kids to school, going back into their homes. What they’re basically doing is in a small way recreating a society back in those slums that have been hollowed out quite severely by the banditism. It’s a small step. By itself, it would not be sufficient, but we as sort of the thin edge of the wedge, as an NGO or several NGOs, doing this sort of thing, we’re getting in and getting the first little bit of sanity going, if you will.

Odyll is 40-something. He tells to me that he’s been working for city hall as a street sweeper since 1997, and that’s how he got this job. He’s still working for city hall, but since it hasn’t been able to pay his salary, he joined the Clean Streets project.

What we do is we go to the mayor’s offices and in some cases to other folks, notably not to the bandits. They choose the people in their communities that they know well, intimately, who are really in need of this kind of work, I mean, because it’s largely self-selecting. Not anybody who has a job is not going to want to work for $2 a day in the hot sun. But they select the people who really need the work, and it’s often I would say 40% women, 60% men, usually older. People who are real need. They are selected for a two-month time. They get the brooms and the wheel barrows and the T-shirts and the caps that they need. They’re given courses in hygiene, in civics, and in garbage management, effectively, the dangers that garbage pose, and so on. It’s not a lot but it’s something, and become agents of change in their community, talk to people about not throwing garbage on the street, and so on.

Moïse Ariot, who’s in charge of the Clean Streets project, explains that it’s designed to help strengthen government institutions. Since city hall can’t pay the salaries, the Pan American Development Foundation gives funds to the local authorities to pay the salaries. Odyll says he earns more nowadays. He has to work longer hours, but he doesn’t mind. Life is still hard for his family, he says, but things are better, and he’s happy that the streets of Port-au-Prince are cleaner now. The change has been remarkable, according to John Currelly.

Oh, it’s night and day. I have lived here for 25 years. I’ve lived from Duvalier on, through all the other governments, right up to the present. And I dare say, they have never, ever been so clean. In theory, if you go by international norms, we’re only picking up 10 or 15% of the garbage which should be produced. But there are no statistics in Haiti, and it’s a very poor country, so I’m sure we’re not producing as much garbage as anybody else. But it looks like we’re picking up 90% of the garbage. That’s what it looks like. And this is something that the government would not have been able to do on its own? This government only just took the reins of power. So they’re not responsible for the state of any of the departments that they inherited. But the garbage is picked up by an organisation called SMCRS, and SMCRS is under the tutelle, under the management of the Ministry of Public Works. And it is not working very well. They don’t seem to be able to get their act together. They have many trucks, but very few of them work. It’s not working very well.

Constitution Monument in Port-au-Prince
Constitution Monument in Port-au-Prince (© Eric Beauchemin)

The reasons behind the failure of the Haitian state are numerous, among them civil conflicts, dictatorships and extreme poverty. Michiel Baud, the director of the Centre for Latin American Research and Documentation in Amsterdam, believes that they actually date back to Haiti’s independence from France in 1804.

People who want to defend Haiti and defend Haitian politicians always point at the very large sums of money that the independent Haitian state to the former colonizer. That really depleted the nation’s treasury. That’s one thing. The violence and the civil war, that was the cause but also the effect of the wars for independence of course were very important also. The imperial control of the country and imperial domination, especially by the United States after its independence, that are all longer-term factors that can explain the difficulties of Haiti. On the other hand, it’s also the nature of the state and the way it came into existence that also should be taken into account. Haiti was a nation or Saint Domingue of slaves that were sometimes imported very recently into the colony. When independence came, the whole elite and administration and the whole institutions that existed were wiped out or were chased away. So it was really a state that had to begin from scratch.

Jean-Baptiste Chenet
Jean-Baptiste Chenet (© Eric Beauchemin)

Jean-Baptiste Chenet, a human rights worker and member of the Peasant Movement in Haiti, disagrees. He believes the failings of the Haitian state date back to the first American occupation of the country in 1915.

The foundations of this state are based on that event, and today, that structure is in crisis. There are two issues here. The current oligarchy can’t carry on like this. This oligarchy was imposed on us by the United States, but now because of economic and social demands, it’s worn out. The second issue is foreign intervention. Ever since the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship in 1986, Haitians have never been allowed to decide their own future. You can speak about a failed state, but it was the oligarchy and foreign domination that failed. What needs to happen now is for the Haitian people to regain control over their own destinies, and then you will see that we are in a position to find an alternative to this state in crisis.

But why hasn’t that yet happened? It’s a question that I put to Ernst Abraham, the executive secretary of Christian Services-Haiti, an organisation that has been operating in the Caribbean nation for more than half a century.

Ernst Abraham
Ernst Abraham (© Eric Beauchemin)

Maybe we are too patient. There is other explanations. In this country, we are long history of violence, of government against the citizens, violence of army against the civilians, violence against the peasants, so maybe this history have created some kind of fear of the citizens to really make a revolution or a movement against the situation.

In 1957, the violence became even more ingrained in Haitian society with the election of François Duvalier. “Papa Doc” as he was known, soon started terrorising the country. Two years later, he set up a paramilitary force, to prevent any assassination attempts. But later, these militiamen were ordered to control public discontent and political opponents. When François Duvalier eventually died in 1971, he was succeeded by his son, Baby Doc, who continued the same dictatorial rule. He was finally forced out of power in 1986, allegedly taking billions of dollars along with him to live in exile in France. For the first time in decades, there was hope that the things would finally change in Haiti, and that the government would respond to people’s desires, says Maggy Mathurin, who’s in charge of the Haitian Group for Research and Pedagogical Activities.

Maggy Mathuren
Maggy Mathuren (© Eric Beauchemin)

After the fall of the dictatorship, there were intense social conflicts, with demands by all social sectors for a new type of state. This call for democratic ideas was misunderstood by some foreign powers, particularly the United States which thought at the time that there were fires that had to be put out in the Caribbean, notably in Haiti and Cuba. I think that Haiti had the possibility to rebuild itself, but they did everything to stop major reforms. I’ll give you an example: structural adjustment programmes. Christian Aid has just carried out a study which shows that blowering of import tariffs to virtually zero between 1994 and today led to a loss of nearly 800,000 jobs in the agricultural sector, which in turn caused a mass exodus towards the urban areas. This happened during a time of a deep political and social crisis. The governments weren’t able to deal with the consequences of this exodus.

You’re listening to “Paradise Lost” from Radio Netherlands Worldwide.

Cities like Port-au-Prince grew exponentially. In the past two decades, the capital’s population has gone from 1 million to 3 million. Most of the people who arrived there have little or no education: after all, 70% of Haitians are illiterate. They wound up in filthy, overcrowded slums with almost no job opportunities. Crime surged. And then the United States started deporting American criminals of Haitian origin back to their country. They began forming gangs, which now terrorise the slums and much of the rest of the capital.

The real issue is in the poor areas of Port-au-Prince. And that’s where there’s a lawlessness. These are controlled by armed gangs, who are completely ruthless. They carry out criminal activities. They support drug trafficking. They engage in kidnapping and they’re extremely brutal with each other and with civilians, and that is the main security issue how to sort out the problem of the gangs in the slums of Port-au-Prince.

UN peacekeeping force in Port-au-Prince
UN peacekeeping force in Port-au-Prince (© Eric Beauchemin)

David Winhurst is the spokesperson for MINUSTAH, the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti. The UN Security Council sent MINUSTAH to Haiti in 2004, following 20 years of further political upheavals, including what many experts regard as the catastrophic rule of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former Catholic priest. He was extremely popular among the poor, and he became Haiti’s first democratically elected president. He armed many of his supporters, but nonetheless was overthrown twice, and now lives in exile in South Africa. He helped exacerbate the state of anarchy which now exists in Port-au-Prince and other cities.

One of the problems, if we look at the crime situation in Haiti at this moment is the availability of small arms. Many of these arms were distributed in the times of the Tontons Macoutes. The networks that were on the basis of this organisation are still there. When Aristide came into power, alternative networks were created. His political party was not only a political party. It was organised almost as a decentralised repressive or controlling institution. These people are still there. Aristide of course came into power also on the basis of the Petite Église, what started out as the liberation theology movement, the base communities. These communities still exist and many of them have supported Aristide. Others have taken distance from him and his political project. So if you want to repeat the failed state of Haiti, you need to look at all these actors that perhaps have lost their label or lost their centralised control but are still existing in the very complex and almost anarchic situation that Haiti lives today.

The violence is having profound effects on the entire country, says Maggy Mathurin.

The lawlessness is destabilising the government. If the government manages to get a handle on this, there could be just some hope because the violence has had an impact on our economic and social life. Many Haitians who had invested in the country have left. Educated people who were still willing to fight to help develop their country are now leaving because of the violence. So I think one of the major challenges of the new government will be to come to grips with the lawlessness and to restore peace to the nation. This will help restart the economy and our society.

Jordanian peacekeeping soldier
Jordanian peacekeeping soldier (© Eric Beauchemin)

The UN peace-keeping force has been actively trying to stop the gangsters, but with only very limited success, believe most Haitians. Part of the problem, says David Winhurst, is that this is not the normal role of blue helmets.

Traditionally peace-keeping has been to deal with armed conflict that takes place within a single state between different groups, often a government and rebels. And the rebels and the insurgents are usually organized and have a political agenda, and we can negotiate with them and we can bring them to the table and get them to sign peace agreements and ceasefires and then we can go through the process of disarming and reintegrating them into a political process. In Haiti that’s not the case. In Haiti it’s a question of criminality, and to deal with these sorts of crimes, we need specialized resources. We do have an anti-kidnapping squad and we do work closely with the Haitian police in resolving kidnapping cases. And we are pro-active in terms of our military deployment in the poorer areas to contain and gradually encroach into the areas controlled by the gangs and that’s an ongoing operation, but it will take some months. There’s an area in Port-au-Prince called Belair which was rife with gangs last year, and it took the Brazilian contingent I think four months to move in slowly, clean it out, and take it over, and allow the citizens to come back to something like a normal life. That’s an ongoing process.

To see what is happening on the ground, I went out with a MINUSTAH contingent of Jordanian soldiers. They man checkpoints near the airport, one of the most dangerous places in the city. MINUSTAH is helping to provide security in the capital, a task which the Haitian police are unable to do on their own. But the Jordanians, like the other 15 nations taking part in the stabilisation force, face constant threats, says Colonel Dalbeeh, the head of the Jordanian force.

Colonel Dalbeeh, the head of the Jordanian peacekeeping force
Colonel Dalbeeh, the head of the Jordanian peacekeeping force (© Eric Beauchemin)

Sometimes we have an attack on our camps. We had one last month. EB: Can you tell me what happened when they attacked? We had a big fight between them and the Pakistani FPU. Then they attacked the camps and then they changed their way. They go out in other directions. EB: So did you fire back? Yes, sir. Yes, we fired back, yes. EB: Were many people killed? I think they have 5 injured from the gangs. Do you regularly have problems with the gangs here? For sure, yes. Our presence in the streets has reduced the gangs’ activities. If we are not outside doing our CPs – checkpoints – they will be on the street. But while we are on the street, they will never be a shot. EB: So as soon as you arrive, the gang members started disappearing? Yes because they are wearing civilian clothes. You never know them and he just throw his gun away and now he’s civilian, and you can’t act with him until he has his gun in his hand.

Other MINUSTAH forces regularly confront the armed gangs. They have suffered nearly half a dozen fatalities and many more injured, but David Winhurst downplays these incidents. The Haitian authorities, he says, are slowly getting their act together.

Things function in Haiti even if badly and poorly. There is a central government that has just been elected. There is an elected president. And there is an elected houses of parliament, right, a senate and the lower chambers. Obviously the parliament needs reinforcing. Many of the parliamentarians are brand new and they don’t really know too well what their functions are and there are programmes there to support them. So in many senses it’s very weak, but it’s sort of limping along. I wouldn’t say it’s a failed state in the sense that Somalia is a failed state, completely fallen apart with no central authority and warring gangs and so on. But on the other hand, it’s not able to exert control over many parts of the country, both in the capital and outside. Yeah, but that’s typical of many post-conflict situations where you have not as in the case of Haiti, but you have a central government that’s weak and then you have some sort of rebellion or insurgency which challenges the central authority. Often you have dual power situations in areas where nobody is control. But the fact that the police force is extremely weak, and we’re supporting the rebuilding of that police force and the re-training that police force. The justice system is extremely poor, and where it exists, it’s often corrupt. And people are thrown into prison and held there without charges for up to 2 years. These are gross violations of human rights. So all of this makes Haiti a very problematic place.

UN peacekeepers
UN peacekeepers (© Eric Beauchemin)

Many Haitians are extremely critical of MINUSTAH, as they have been of the other half a dozen or so other UN missions. They charge that the foreign troops are earning a great deal – by Haitian standards – and doing little in return.

The presence of these peace-keeping missions has not really led to a decrease in violence. I think we need to ask ourselves about the real causes of this violence. We also need to realise that the violence is limited to certain neighbourhoods in the capital. Most Haitians live in rural areas where there is no police. Yet there’ve been no kidnappings or violence in those areas. So there is a mafia which is dominating the Haitian economy and they’re trying to co-opt the poor people in slums to create chaos and foment violence. These mafia members are linked to the drug trade and drugs traffickers. They’ve also allied themselves with politicians. It’s been found that certain members of Lavalas, the party of the former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, are colluding with the mafia. But what’s important is this: that the elite in Haiti understand that they country can no longer continue to belong only to them because the poor people in the slums have been left out of the country’s economic, social, political and cultural life for more than half a century.

The increasing violence is affecting not only the wealthy, but also slum-dwellers, says Petra Reijners of MSF.

Port-au-Prince slum
Port-au-Prince slum (© Eric Beauchemin)

Populations do not want anymore to stay in their own houses. They don’t feel safe in their houses. They have seen too many people being shot at. Also I hear stories of simply women who were cooking in their own kitchen or children sleeping in their own house and because these are very thin houses, metal shack houses with no real protection, they were hit a bullet, just sleeping in their own house. They don’t want to stay there any more. It’s too unsafe. We see people coming out of these areas and settling into churches, into community centres. We think it might increase because the violence currently is increasing. This city will face another humanitarian crisis and that is a crisis of displaced people. This is a very dangerous phenomenon. As soon as you will give food and shelter, people will come out of many more violent areas, and we think that about 800,000 people live here in violent areas. If all these people come out of their own areas and settle in others, you will face another very big humanitarian crisis.

200 years ago, Haiti was a beacon for black slaves. Today it is a country in crisis, a paradise lost. But Michiel Baud of the Centre for Latin American Research and Documentation in Amsterdam doesn’t believe that Haiti is doomed to stay like this.

I think at this moment there are small rays of hope in the sense that we now have a democratically-elected government that wants to improve the situation in Haiti. I would say if this government or future governments succeed in establishing some kind of stability and some kind of security, not only for their own citizens but also for international actors and donors and NGOs, then perhaps because of the failure…I mean, it is a paradoxical process, but perhaps because of the failure, these actors can work together and solve some of these pressing issues. Often in societal development that countries and elites and political actors in general need to really face the problems at their worst so to say to be able to and to accept that the little steps forward are worth working for together.

Whether that will actually happen is anybody’s guess. There are Haitians who agree that their country is a failed state. Others say it’s simply a fragile state. Perhaps it’s nothing more than a question of semantics. Some Haitian intellectuals, like Ernst Abraham, have their doubts about characterising his nation as a “failed state”. After all what does the term mean for the present and more importantly, for the future?

The country is passing through a situation in his history. This is a passage, a getaway through something else, through something else that we are looking for, that we are seeking. Maybe we cannot see or we cannot say exactly what are we seeking now, but we are certainly seeking for something better than what we are living now.

“Paradise Lost” was presented by Eric Beauchemin. It’s the second programme in “The Abyss” a four-part series on failed states produced by Radio Netherlands Worldwide in collaboration with the Ford Foundation.