Money flows uphill: An update from Cité Soleil

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Haitians in Cité Soleil queue for food after the earthquake, in January 2010. Photo: The United Nations

We are organizing a fair trade enterprise connecting Canadian consumers and Haitian workers. Joegodson lives in Port-au-Prince; Paul in Montreal. Without pretence or illusions about our influence on global affairs, we believe our work is the most moral response to the current crises that face all of us. However, we must be careful. To establish this business, it seems most prudent to promote it as a straight-up exploitation of Haitian workers. If we acknowledge that our enterprise is a co-operative and that Haitians enter as something other than labourers valued at $3 a day, we will have corporate interests, three states, and their thugs on our backs. [A few very poor young men of Cite Soleil that the sweatshop owners buy to foment chaos are characterized in our culture as thugs. In reality, they don't hold a candle to Clinton, Bush, and Harper as thugs-for-hire.]

As soon as Haiti began to tremble, we knew that humanitarian aid would be a cover for "development." Haiti will not develop except on the backs of the poor. Almost all Haitians are poor. However, three months after the earthquake, Joegodson's father Deland asked him, "Can't Paul help?" He was talking about the desparate situation in a neighbourhood in Cite Soleil called Simon. It hit me like a brick I should have seen coming. I once lived nearby and know some of the people intimately. Over the years, Joegodson and I have become intimate friends.

At first I had very little hope that we could successfully petition Canadian NGOs for help for Simon. But, as we began to advocate in favour of allowing Simon's local community organizations to control the funds that Canadians had donated, I became surprised at two things: the number of people who took an interest and the almost total lack of response. I wasn't surprised that NGOs didn't respond. But I was surprised that Canadians didn't. I suspect that Canadians prefer to live with myths than reality. That is not intended as an insult. Reality is too complex to control. It is more comforting to believe that you understand the world. In that world, your actions have meaning. It is easiest to accept Haiti -- and everything else -- the way the media and our culture offers it to us. Real Haitians cannot be cast because they might interfere with the plot as written. Even knowing that the state and corporate media are mendacious does not bring you much closer to the truth. It simply positions you in opposition to them.

Joegodson is also confronting the hypocrisy and outright lies in the very poor communities where he has always lived in Port-au-Prince. For years, we have been witnessing the structural and conceptual barriers that would divide us. But we have found that truth is more interesting than lies and that myths are most fascinating when we probe their purpose. We tentatively define truth as the thing you don't want to see, you don't want to say. It can also be the door you are afraid to open. Both of our societies rest on a mixture of lies and myths. Nothing can be assumed in intercultural or transnational relations.

The relations between Canadians and Haitians (as with relations between rich and poor nations in general) are controlled by the media, state, and, especially, capital. Anyone who thinks that they understand what is happening in Haiti by watching the news or listening to the minister of foreign affairs has to go back to the drawing board. Rather, allow Edward Said to open a door to a mature view of intercultural relations. For instance, very powerful interests will not allow even a cursory discussion of Haitian working conditions. As we began to work towards our goal, Joegodson could not understand why Canadians had donated so much money for Haitian victims of the earthquake if they didn't want to help the poor workers in Port-au-Prince

"They do want to help you, but as Haitians, not as workers," I answered.

"But Haitians are workers," Joegodson countered.

"That's a contradiction that Canadians are willing to live with."

Next door to Haiti, multinational corporations who employ Cubans must negotiate their salaries with Fidel Castro. The foreign enterprises are forced to pay wages considerably higher than the other Caribbean islands. However, the Cuban workers receive only a proportion of the salaries paid. The rest is used to fund hospitals, schools, and social programs so that all Cubans may live in dignity. To the Haitian poor, Cuba is paradise. In Haiti, the state assures that multinational corporations humiliate workers with a wage that the paternal Castro would never allow. Consequently, the Haitian poor have produced the most millionaires in the Caribbean, precisely because the poor earn next to nothing for their work. Taxes do not diminish the windfall that follows from the simple exploitation of the workers and peasants. So the state doesn't provide services as it does in Cuba. The current reconstruction plans intend to lock this system into place.

Enter the foreign NGOs. The Haitian oligarchy has absolutely no interest in the poor once they leave the sweatshops. However, they don't mind if a bunch of humanitarian suckers want to come to the island and immunize a few. Build a hospital, a school, feed them if you feel like it. Anyone with a few dollars in his pocket is welcome into Haiti to do whatever he likes as long as it doesn't interfere with the wage or working conditions. You can't get near that. No NGO that wants to remain in business is able to say this.

A few months ago, producers from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's investigative program The Marketplace contacted us to arrange our co-operation in a report documenting the conditions of Haitian workers being exploited by Canadian apparel companies. A few of those workers discuss their conditions on our site. We agreed in principle. Then, without any explanation, the producers ended the discussion. Hopefully, they have found better sources than our friends who were offering to collaborate. I think they made a mistake in not calling Joegodson after I passed along his number and encouraged them to call. There could not possibly be a better contact in all of Haiti to mediate this issue. Canadians can keep their eyes on the program this fall to see how -- if -- The Marketplace has decided to follow up on that story.

People should think of which way money flows. Whether the NGO funds come from private donations or government revenues, they are going from the public to -- at least in theory -- build some kind of infrastructure in Haiti. How much of it ever gets there and how it is used is an important issue. What is more important still is what happens to the wealth created by the Haitian workers and peasants. It goes into the pockets of a few wealthy Haitians and, especially, multinational corporations. Those players give back, at best, token amounts for show -- public relations. Haiti is a small player in this global process; however, because of its size and destitution, the effects are devastating. Haiti is becoming increasingly important to the United States as Chinese workers continue to refuse the conditions under which they slave.

Haiti's fate was sealed when North Americans decided that they were responsible for the Haitian poor. Of course, it can be evidence of a generous and compassionate response to suffering. That is nice. But the debate over the reconstruction should not proceed without a clear sense of how money flows into and out of the island. Both the success and ultimate defeat of Canadian labour were the necessary conditions for the exploitation of Haitians. (The stronger Canadian labour became in its historic struggles with the needle trade industry, the more it put itself at risk to lose everything to more vulnerable workers elsewhere.) It's simply extraordinary to see how corporate power continues to profit at every turn. Canadians are now being flattered that they have demonstrated their generosity by donating to the victims. But they haven't, of course. They have donated to the exploiters. In every direction, the money is transferring from the public for the benefit of private, often corporate, interests.

Haitians do not enter into real relationships with North American helpers in the cultural realm. From left to right, Haitians are barely recognizable as human. They are angelic victims waiting to be helped. They are a mass of goodness held under the thumb of evil imperial powers. These can be strategically helpful myths, but still myths. A mature analysis (towards which we aim) distinguishes myths from lies, but can see both. Moreover, the myth of the good, community-spirited and solidarity-seeking Haitian only lays the groundwork for the foil: the barbaric rapist that the MINUSTA troops will extinguish. Scour the media to learn about the working conditions of Haitian workers -- the same people whose living conditions are thoroughly documented.

And so Canadians write both sides of the story before it goes to print or is aired. Politicians, diplomats, journalists, activists, humanitarians -- it doesn't really matter whom you look at. Whatever is missing, whatever is suppressed, will someday demand to be recognized. Chalmers Johnson calls it blowback. Why not table what you see up front? Because the groundwork has not been laid for honest discussion. If you want that, you are on your own.

Our work and friendship are partly based on a commitment to understand how Haitian and Canadian myths and lies function strategically in maintaining the international division of labour and profits. And so we can't pretend that the people of Cite Soleil are whatever Canadians would like them to be. That game is played to the point of nausea by NGOs and some advocates of grassroots organizations. It is a political ploy that ultimately serves to dehumanize Haitians and undermine all real progress. How do Canadians buy these images of people starving, exploited, and just very thankful for the generosity? What world do they live in?

Vilmond Joegodson Déralciné lives in Port-au-Prince and Paul Jackson lives in Montreal. A version of this story was published in Canadian Dimension

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