Dancing for the cameras, bulldozed behind them
“Mayor Wilson Jeudi has just bulldozed the entire camp,” recounted Connie Watson, CBC Radio’s Correspondent in Haiti. “He showed up with the police at 6 o’clock this morning, stormed through with machetes and clubs, slicing all the tents and knocking down their springy supports.”
Watson witnessed the early morning raid orchestrated in camp Delmas 3; one of many tent cities scattered around the capital and filed a short documentary for the Canadian radio station published on Thursday Dec. 29, 2011. The raid segment was part of a larger report about Haiti’s generational land disputes, often marked by violence, larcenies and/or deaths.
The impromptu raid left camp residents traumatized, vibrating with anger. “I need to know if Haiti really has any human rights,” said Guirlene Pierre, struggling to frame her thoughts, as the police cleared the camp she shared with 200 displaced persons. “I need to know,” she added, “If we are the people who will always be forced to bow down to the higher classes just so the rich can take every little thing we have.”
Justifying the government’s actions however, Mayor Jeudi felt the homeless people were in the way of progress. “If we keep on like this,” he told Watson, “How are we going to attract investors so they can come here and give jobs to the people?” Among his reasons for raiding camp Delmas 3, the mayor enumerated prostitution trades, criminals’ safe haven and residents enjoying free rent while renting out their real homes, although he did not elaborate on mechanisms the government used to identify those nuisances. “We must search for serenity and peace to attract foreign investors,” stressed Jeudi who later added, “The truly homeless people had a year and a half to find somewhere else to live.
Under the media’s spotlight though, Martelly’s holiday festivities depicted a harmonious relationship between the president and his people, as he gave away cars, motorcycles, money, TV sets and many other gifts. The presidential couple travelled to various parts of the country, held competitions where people danced for them to win prizes and handed out cash envelopes to cheering spectators. Although the program drew sharp criticism from many leaders across a broad societal spectrum, the first couple perceived it as the best way to put smiles on sad faces that experienced a tough year. The administration allocated $11 million to implement Christmas of Solidarity; a program Prime Minister Garry Conille said would also create about 35,000 temporary jobs for camp dwellers in addition to many holiday handouts.
The jubilant crowd dancing with Martelly hoping to be the lucky winner of a presidential prize differed radically from the infuriated bunch in Watson’s report, fleeing bulldozers, gathering their remaining dignity. Facing eviction from flimsy tents, inhabitants scrambled helplessly with family members. “As they watched the garbage truck in stunned silence,” described Watson, “They’re each handed a cardboard box, containing a bar of soap, some toothpaste and other basics,” from the Haitian Red Cross. “It doesn’t begin to replace what they’ve just lost,” she added. The recurring scenario enraged civil rights advocates such as Patrice Florvilus who decried the mayor’s actions as inhumane and criminal. They young lawyer has helped people leaving in displacement camps fight evictions, though unsuccessfully most times. “They have to relocate them,” he shouted into Watson’s microphone, his choler boiling over. “They have to find a place to relocate them before kicking them out,” added Florvilus whose pleas fell on death hears, as the police carried on, bulldozing lives.
Like Martelly’s predecessors, attempting to settle age-old land quarrels bearing a dynasty of contemptuous flares will be as if walking a minefield. As the documentary indicated, the bloodied history of Haiti’s land disputes traced back to the birth of the republic and shared the blame for first Emperor Jean-Jacques Dessalines’ assassination, two years after his historic ascension to power. How does an administration decide who owns a piece of property when several people claim ownership to it? Many of them hold deeds or land titles dating back generations and are even willing to die for it.
For rights lawyer Florvilus though, fraudulent title claims did not justify government raiding homeless camps, challenging the legitimacy of the elite’s claim of the lands. He shared the views of many Haitians who thought the devastating earthquake that cratered much of the country in Jan. 2010 would initiate tangible property reforms. “We thought that after the earthquake the Haitian government would take advantage of this time to try to regulate the whole land ownership issue, but they haven’t done that,” explained Florvilus. He stated that only 5 percent of the country’s lands were legally registered, which left 95 percent for anyone to claim.
In spite of major scarcity of resources, the administration managed to offer some cash incentives to encourage people to leave the camps they have called home for nearly two years. However, it was not the case for Pierre and her 200 neighbors who were served eviction notices instead. Bulldozers and machetes will not diffuse land-ownership’s ticking bomb; neither the perception of harmonious Christmas incentivized by gifts, which according to lawmakers, did not begin to address dire needs of the general population. Instead, this young administration needs a strategic approach to address the plaguing problem, perhaps even Jeffersonian.
Meanwhile, as one side optimistically hangs its hat on Martelly’s promise of law and order to keep what they deemed rightfully theirs, not so fast, cried the other. They too, want justice and are ready to die to get that little half hectare plot back, as Watson explained. In their eyes, there were only two options: “Die for the land or die of starvation.”