Ethan Casey is a Seattle-based international journalist, frequent public speaker, and author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004).

Monday, February 13, 2006

Haiti: An ungovernable rage

As Amy Wilentz put it in her flawed but important book The Rainy Season: Haiti since Duvalier, in Haiti a people's victory is often not what it seems, and if you wait a while things look different. (She said it more eloquently than that, but I don't have her exact words to hand.) I awoke Monday to the news that former president Rene Preval, who through the weekend seemed to have won nearly two-thirds of the vote in Haiti's February 7 election, is now below the 50% he needs to avoid a runoff, with 75% of the votes allegedly counted.

The New York Times reports the story in its inimitably disingenuous, poker-faced way. Charles Arthur's Haiti Support Group is blunter:

"13 February - In results that critics slammed as fraudulent, René Préval, a former president and champion of the poor who is the front-runner in key presidential elections here, appeared last night to have lost the majority he needs to avoid a runoff with his closest rival. Thousands of enraged, slum-dwelling Préval supporters took to the streets of this capital city to blow horns and bang drums in protest as they shouted, 'Préval on the first round!' Two members of the provisional electoral council overseeing the count from Tuesday's vote said they believed the results were being manipulated."

In her book and throughout her long involvement with Haiti, Amy Wilentz wrestled with her own leftist political faith: there should be popular democracy, so therefore there will be. This dilemma is not unique to Haiti; in Haiti it's only uniquely stark and in your face. I and many others - such as David Horowitz (see my Feb. 12 review of his book The End of Time) - have tried to square the same circle in the world at large.

Regarding Haiti in particular, as I consider the book Reed Lindsay and I are planning to write, I find myself reaching for a vocabulary that will frame the Big Questions that are universal but, as always, most starkly posed in Haiti, in some way that's not utterly stale. I suppose the best m.o. will be to remain as close to the ground as possible, to narrate what we know or believe to be facts, and let them tell the story. Meanwhile, it's too easy to say things are murky and complex in Haiti. In some important ways, the issue is very simple and clear indeed: there is a chronic, low-level war between the rich and the poor (and not only in Haiti). No writer has articulated this better than Brian Moore, in his prescient 1993 novel No Other Life:

It is now ten years since that day when Jeannot [the character based on Jean-Bertrand Aristide] seemed to disappear from this earth. There has been no revolution but, to the dismay of the elite and the Army, an ungovernable rage and resentment consumes the daily lives of the poor. Nothing has changed. The system is, as always, totally corrupt. The poor are its victims. His name is never mentioned among the elite but the mystery of his disappearance sits under the arrogance and privilege of their lives, like a dangerous earthquake fault.

1 comment:

Robin said...

Ethan, great to have you back online. A couple of thoughts in response to your post. Your attribution of Haiti's desparate situation to a "chronic, low-level war between rich and poor" resonates far beyond Hispaniola. In yesterday's New York Times, Michael Slackman restates eloquently the argument that significant responsibility for radicalization in the Middle East lies with entrenched elites who bleed the poor and distract them while syphoning off billions by dangling the bogeyman of the west (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/12/weekinreview/12slackman.html). In the US, putative "compassionate conservatives" push domestic agendas "starving the beast" of government in areas supporting the poor (medicaid, food stamps, child welfare, etc.) while feeding the parts of government beholden to the military/industrial machine. What suffers on all fronts (other than the poor, of course) is moderation, reasoned discourse, collaboration for long-term gain, imagination, everything needed to reverse downward spirals of despair, violence, self-destructive behavior, extremism. Solutions? It seems that the more hair I lose, the less radical I become. In my day job I work to embed positive change in organizations by helping leaders do hard, long-term, slogwork in the following interlocked areas that we believe drive effectiveness: trust, values, performance capacity, knowledge management, and service delivery. Like organizations, states are collections of people, all working toward their own ends and wrestling with their own demons. While it may need to be kickstarted by revolution that sweeps away previously insurmountable barriers, lasting change comes through an accretion of small successes that builds reservoirs of trust, values and knowledge; builds human and material capacity; and drives effective action. No shortcuts possible. And when an individual/group/class/etc. of people sacrafices small collective successes for personal/group gain, the base for lasting change is eroded, one injustice at a time.