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The Battle for Haiti

June 5, 2011

To those who find my incessant ruminating on the political, economic and social circumstances here in Haiti tedious, I apologize.  I ask them to understand that this is my way of trying to come to terms with the situation in which I now live.  As I pointed out in a previous post, I have a deeply ingrained sense of justice that renders being surrounded by injustice a bit crazy-making.  To add fuel to this fire I live with the legacy of having been reared in a family where interest in politics and having opinions were encouraged.  I have always found that speaking, or more so writing, my thoughts helped to order them, to align my experience with my reasoning and beliefs, and to solidify my ideas.  So please bear with me as I work out my own salvation.

On Friday Chris downloaded the recent Frontline US documentary The Battle for Haiti and he and I watched it after supper.  This is not your run of the mill tug at your heartstrings “look at poor Haiti” tripe.  It is a serious work that does not resort to sensationalism and that I believe succeeds in remaining honest and objective.   It does a reasonable job of addressing a staggeringly complex situation in a hopelessly inadequate one-hour format.  If my commentary piques your interest, you might consider downloading this documentary.

Characterizing Haiti’s core problem as lawlessness, much of the documentary focused on the Haitian National Police, the impossible job they face and the unreasonable expectations placed upon them by the international community.  Some of their methods seem brutal and arbitrary, but as the police chief, Mario Andresol, pointed out, if they are held to the standards of powerful, wealthy nations that have well-developed systems built over many, many years, they will be able to do nothing.  Haiti’s police enjoy neither the support of such systems nor the resources to live up to those standards.

The commander of the seven-man unit charged with apprehending the 4000 men who escaped as prisons collapsed in last year’s earthquake emphasized that it is only these seven men who are actively looking for the escapees.  They are an extremely dedicated bunch.  At one point the commander explains that he has paid for gas for the police vehicle so that his unit could make arrests.  When this hopelessly undermanned force believes it has located its quarry, it often enlists the manpower and firepower of UN forces to execute arrests.  However, since photos and fingerprints of criminals were never integral parts of either the police or prison systems here, and most of the records that did once exist have been destroyed, they must rely on informants and hearsay to make identifications.  There is rarely enough reliable evidence to hold those they capture.

Many of the escapees disappeared into the tent camps that mushroomed in Port-au-Prince in the wake of the earthquake, coalescing into gangs that engage in a reign of terror.  Gang members fan out into the Port-au-Prince area every day, armed to the teeth, to rob, murder and kidnap.  Within the camps brutal beatings and rapes are a daily occurrence.  Camp residents are reticent to point out their tormentors lest they face the unbridled wrath of these gangs.  The physical complexity and the dynamics of the tent camps make the element of surprise in police operations almost impossible.  These warrens provide innumerable hiding places and countless avenues of escape.  Any police presence can be telegraphed like wildfire.

Those arrested are detained in Haiti’s haphazardly repaired prisons, so overcrowded prisoners must take turns sitting down.  Here they languish, often for years, often without charge.  Haiti has no bail system.  The wheels of the justice system turn exceedingly slow here, and its broken millstones dispense a very inequitable justice.  The judges that make up this totally ineffective justice system are ill-trained, underpaid and at the zenith of Haiti’s corruption.  The system moves on bribery.  Virtually nothing happens without money changing hands.  As was suggested in this documentary, the murderer flush with ill-gotten gains will likely spend far less time incarcerated than the indigent chicken thief.

A former justice minister talked about the impunity enjoyed by the Haitian government, the justice system, the civil service and the criminal element in this country.  Those involved in Haiti’s web of crime and corruption know that if caught they can use their money and their connections to buy their way out of the justice system.  He pointed out that all Haiti’s elected politicians come from a small class of men who are wealthy, connected, only concerned with their personal interests  and who are willing to kill to maintain their privilege.  Tragically, only these men have the power to address the Haitian society’s endemic corruption, and they have no interest in doing so since it is that very corruption that is the expedient to their wealth and power.  It is only they who can effectively crush the criminal gangs that murder, kidnap and terrorize Haiti, but since those in power have formed an unholy alliance with these criminals in order to achieve their ends, any moves on their part to bring those criminals to justice would both curtail their own power and expose themselves to the risk of prosecution.

Haitian entrepreneurs striving to improve the lot of their country and its people spoke of how in doing so they and their families have become targets for kidnappers.  They and others pointed out that Haitians can only achieve dignity by having jobs by which they can support themselves and their families.  As long as they cling to a welfare mentality, dependent on international aid, they will never be able to achieve self-determination.

Those who remain focused on relief rather than development are only exacerbating the situation.  Feeding programs have encouraged the poor from Port-au-Prince’s slums and from rural areas to move into the tent camps and remain there.  These programs fix the attention on today rather than looking to the future.  Many of those engaged in establishing systems to meet perceived needs are also hurting more than they are helping.  Haiti does not need more parallel systems created by NGOs.  It needs the world to come alongside to assist Haitians to improve the systems they have and to create the systems they lack.  Haitians, not outsiders, must take the lead.  Foreign governments and NGOs must be relegated supporting roles.  The systems created cannot always mirror those of developed countries.  They must provide made-in-Haiti solutions designed to address Haiti’s unique situation and needs.


Chris and I discussed how trying to focus on the big picture in Haiti only makes your head hurt.   The only barely sane thing we can do is remain myopic, in the sense that we keep our focus on what is near to us, the small picture, what we can effectively do for the few.  Haiti being for the most part incomprehensible, the big picture we must give to God.

But as is my nature, I would so love to understand.

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