Our little experiment is over for the moment. It began when Joegodson’s father Deland asked him four months ago, “Can’t Paul help?”
Joegodson and I were busy with two other projects: one literary and the other commercial. We still are. Moreover, we both have other commitments. But given the situation in Simon, Deland’s suggestion hit me like a brick that I should have seen coming. I lived close by once and know some of the people intimately. Over the years, Joegodson and I have become best friends.
At first I had very little hope that we could successfully petition Canadian NGOs for help for Simon. Some of the reasons are outlined in our postings. But, as we began to advocate in favour of the logic 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 enjoyed reading about it and the almost total lack of response. I wasn’t surprised that NGOs didn’t respond. But I was surprised that Canadians didn’t. For the moment, my only answer is that Canadians prefer to live with myths than reality. That is not intended as an insult. Reality is way too complex to control. It is far easier to act on the basis of what you already believe. There is a comfort in believing that you understand the world and that your actions have meaning. The only way a donation to help the victims in Haiti (or anywhere else) can be meaningful is that you have some sense of the good that followed from your donation. To achieve that, you accept the media representations of Haiti, the aid, and the reconstruction. Real Haitians cannot enter because their frustrations, culture, expectations, and myths cannot be fit into a minute on television and the journalists are not able to know, let alone report, the complexities of Haitian society.
Joegodson is finding the same thing among the poor people of Haiti. For years, we have been witnessing the structural and conceptual divisions that would divide us. Bur we have found that truth is more interesting than lies and that myths are most fascinating when their purpose is understood. 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. We have learned to appreciate the fact that nothing can be assumed in intercultural or transnational relations.
The relations between Canadians and Haitians (this is particularly true between rich and poor nations) are mediated by the media, government, and, especially, industry. 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 get back to the drawing board. Rather, take a quick look at Edward Said to open a door to a mature view of relations between borders of all sorts. Very powerful interests will not allow a full and honest discussion to develop between Haitians and Canadians. For instance, the powerful will tell you about the working conditions for Haitians. News is not intended to inform, but literally to misinform the public.
Anyone can follow the advocacy for the Community Kitchen that we have transferred to a separate page. As for the response: two people sent letters to CECI, one French and one English Canadian. CECI responded only to the English Canadian woman, asking her for the details of her donation before they would answer her request that CECI look into funding the Community Kitchen. She was startled and angered by that obfuscation. Nevertheless, she responded with some details. They have since ignored her. The French Canadian did not get any response. Neither did we.
Joegodson hasn’t lived in Simon for years. So, for him to return to find out what was going on took time that he simply does not have. It took both of us away from the fair trade enterprise that we think is the most ethical response to the exploitation of Haitian workers and the thoughtless consumerism of North America. We have written only a few words about this, mostly because there is too much to say and even more to do.
While the humanitarian issues are obviously paramount, we saw that humanitarian aid was going to take a backseat to developmental aid from the moment that Haiti began to tremble. Haiti will not develop except on the backs of the poor. Almost all Haitians are poor. 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. 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, literally. 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 involve interfering with the wage or working conditions. You can’t get near that.
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. It goes into the pockets of a few wealthy Haitians and, especially, multinational corporations. Those players give back 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 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. The defeat of Canadian labour was one of the necessary conditions for the exploitation of Haitians. 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 to 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.
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 require before they contribute. That game is played to the point of nausea by NGOs and some advocates for 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 and just very thankful for the generosity? What world do they live in?