Monday, November 29, 2010

Elections in the Artibonite

The Artibonite Department has a reputation for being cho (hot) during elections. This post-election morning we left Desarmes at 8:00 AM, heading to Port-Au-Prince via Mirebalais. We were greeted by a convoy of more than 5 MINUSTAH trucks and tanks, frantically motioning at us to turn around. It seems that a roadblock had been constructed ahead by protesters frustrated with yesterday's election. Not wanting to risk that things might turn ugly, we turned around to come back through Saint Marc. I was wary of being behind so many UN vehicles, because in my experience their mere presence incites the kind of violence that we were trying to avoid. When we got to Deschapelles, an angry group was constructing a roadblock in front of us out of tires and rocks but we negotiated our way through and made it back to Port-Au-Prince without incident.

I was with three other election monitors from RNDDH, the Reseau National de Defense de Droits Humains (National Human Rights Defense Network), one of the most prominent Haitian human rights organizations and an MCC partner since 1995. We spent Sunday traveling through the Artibonite as election monitor supervisors - checking in on RNDDH election monitors stationed in voting centers throughout the Department, and also doing monitoring of our own in each center that we visited.

In brief, the day was exhausting and discouraging.

We began the day at 5:30 AM in Desarmes, where the voting center opened more or less on time. By the time MCC staff in Desarmes showed up to vote after church, though, the center had run out of ballots. From Desarmes, we drove far beyond Gonaives through five rivers on a rutted out road to Ennery and Savane Carée. There, I was astounded by the number of people that had turned out to vote. Because vehicles are not allowed to circulate on election day, many voters in rural places had to walk miles to reach a voting center.

From where I stood in the corner of a voting station at the Ecole Nationale de Savane Carée, I could see the voters' ballots as they chose their candidates. The representatives of each political party (mandatè) were even closer to the cardboard partition that was an attempt to provide voters with privacy. Sporadic arguments broke out among the mandatè as they watched people vote.

Approaching Gonaives around 12:00, we came across the first of several places where we would witness the elections end prematurely because of unrest. In Minguette, a small riot was taking place on the road in front of us as the police arrested a mandatè from Ayiti ann Aksyon who had apparently punched a representative of Alternative. Rock throwing ensued as voters who had lined up to vote left without casting their ballots.

Everywhere we went, but particularly at the centers in Gonaives, registered voters were unable to find their names on electoral rolls. In Gonaives there was also a discrepancy between the electoral rolls posted outside of each voting station and the lists of registered voters inside. Although the situation was calm while we were there, rumors of violence throughout the day kept many voters at home. Flipping through the list of voters in one voting station, I noticed that less than 20% of the names listed had signatures next to them. While we were there, we received a call that a voting center in Cawo, where RNDDH had posted an observer, had yet to receive any ballots.

Part of our mandate as observers was to monitor the ballot counting process, preferably in a voting center close to Desarmes so that we wouldn't be out long after dark. We decided to head towards Verrettes, where we hoped to be by 4:00 PM when the elections ended. Our plan was to stop in l'Estere and Desdunes to check on our monitors on the way. We were within sight of the voting center in l'Estere when we noticed a crowd forming. Suddenly the crowd started running towards our vehicle and away from rocks and police bullets. We heard that members of Inite, the party currently in power, were behind the disruption, but didn't stick around long enough to confirm.

On a long detour through Marchand Dessalines, we came across an empty voting center scattered with ballots in Pont Benoit. The MINUSTAH soldiers stationed in front told us that Inite mandatè disrupted the ballot counting when it became clear that they were losing to Mirlande Manigat's RNDP party. We received reports of this happening in other parts of the Artibonite, as well.

Our last stop was the Ecole Nationale de Seguy in Petite Riviere de l'Artibonite. Just as the ballot counting got underway, mandatè started hearing reports of incidents and violence elsewhere. We pulled away just as it looked like the agitated crowd was about to storm one of the voting stations.

MCCers acting as monitoring supervisors in each of Haiti's ten departments report many of the same incidents, including many, many people unable to vote because their names were not listed on electoral rolls, as well as stealing and burning of ballots and cases of disruption and violence.

Although I'm frustrated by what I've seen and heard, it's hard to tell at this point whether all of the irregularities, incidents and, in some cases, outright fraud, will actually change the outcome of the elections. My impression is that the country is tensely awaiting the results, which should be announced within the week, to know how to react to what were clearly not free and fair elections.

Elections in Port-Au-Prince

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Election Day

Ballots are thrown into a drainage canal in Port-Au-Prince. We'll post more soon. I'm off to bed now.

THAT was an election?

After the day we've had here, it's stunning to look at my latest headlines page and see "Bulldog fear after toddler death" but no mention of the elections in Haiti -- how voters with registration cards were turned away from voting centers because their names were left off of electoral rolls, how Inite party members disrupted the counting of ballets in numerous places when they saw they were losing to RDNP, how some voting centers never received ballots and others didn't receive enough, how protesters exchanged rocks with Haitian National Police bullets in the Artibonite, how ballots were stolen and ballot boxes stuffed, how 13 out of 15 candidates are calling for the elections to be annulled and how thousands have taken to the streets of Port-Au-Prince to peacefully protest.

Equally stunning is the UN's announcement that the elections went well. I wouldn't even call what I saw today elections.

I wish I had the energy to tell you more about my day of monitoring or even upload a photo or two (though Ben's pictures from Port-Au-Prince will be much, much better, I'm sure). I'm still in the Artibonite and, god-willing, will be returning to Port-Au-Prince tomorrow morning. More then.

Friday, November 26, 2010


...for many, many things.
Happy Thanksgiving yesterday.


Monday, November 22, 2010

Staying Sew Busy

Lately I've been dealing with my conflicted emotions about living/working in Haiti by sewing up a storm:
I prefer my storms to be made of fabric these days
We are constantly trying to balance out the time we spend working with time that we spend doing other, unrelated activities. I think this is referred to as "self care" by people that write books about stress. It is also referred to as "fun." On weekends we make an effort to go hiking or swimming – we do live on an island in the Caribbean, after all; but sometimes just sleeping in on Saturday is our mental equivalent to hiking.  In my on-my-own downtime I make crafts, sew, cook, read, garden, or do yoga. Lately, I’ve been sewing more than anything else:

Meanwhile, with one disaster after another and elections coming up, Ben's self has had very little care recently. Here's hoping he has the time to pursue his dream of building a waste-oil-fueled mango dryer before the next mango season rolls around.

By the way, a BIG thank you to Kathy Troyer for scoring MCC Haiti an amazing sewing machine!

Elections are a-comin'

The hurricane, cholera and anti-MINUSTAH protesting have sort of pushed election news to the sideline this month. But, Haiti's presidential and legislative elections are still scheduled to take place this Sunday, November 28th.

For months activists and human rights organizations have been monitoring and denouncing the pre-election process. Problems and corruption within the Provisional Electoral Commission, the body that is responsible for carrying out the elections (and that is considered illegitimate by many Haitians), the fact that names of earthquake victims have yet to be removed from lists of registered voters, the decision not to put voting centers in camps, the barring of Fanmi Lavalas from the election (which regardless of your position on the Aristide debacle, remains of one of Haiti's largest political parties), politically-sponsored gang activity, growing frustration over cholera and many, many other issues point to Sunday's elections being one big mess. Check out this article (and the photo credits).

Frankly, I don't have much hope that the elections will be fair in any way. Yesterday on a walk through Petionville, Ben and I noticed that some of the voter registration lists posted in front of the lycee on Place St-Pierre (this is where people registered as living in the area go to find out where to vote) were torn down. We talked to a few people standing around and it definitely felt like I was more frustrated that the lists had been vandalized than anyone else - and I don't actually have the power to vote on Sunday! Most of the Haitians I know are so disenchanted with the political process and so convinced that a new president won't actually change their situation, that they won't be voting. I liked this perspective on the whole thing.

As in April 2009, I'll be an election monitor, this time for RNDDH, and Ben will be out taking pictures, so stay tuned to find out how things go.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Mass Graves

Workers from the Department of Civil Protection put the bodies of 22 cholera victims from Port-Au-Prince into a mass grave outside of the city. The workers have been burying cholera victims in mass graves since Monday, November 15th. Many of these deceased did not receive treatment and died in their homes or on the streets.

Thursday, November 18, 2010


Karl Michel LaFrance, 10, got sick at 1 AM and died at home at 10 AM this morning. His mother says she didn't realize the gravity of his illness until it was too late. After he died, she brought him out to the road to be picked up by the government. Workers, hired by the department of health to pick up dead cholera victims, spray the body with disinfectant. LaFrance is put into a truck with 14 other bodies and taken to a mass grave.

I'm getting the impression that when it comes to cholera education, most NGOs and the government are not reaching the most vulnerable. Somehow the text messages and radio spots aren't communicating to people how serious this illness is. This kid is the third person I saw dead from cholera on the side of the road today, all within close proximity of cholera treatment centers. 

We've suspected all along that the death toll and infection rate has been under reported, but until today I had no idea how quickly the cholera is spreading in Port-Au-Prince.

Ask your Senator to Demand International Financial Institutions Reform

Action: Urge your Senator to sign a bipartisan letter to President Obama.

Background: Low-income countries continue to pay high debt-servicing fees to the wealthiest countries through international financial institutions. For many of these countries, servicing such a debt means inability to provide social services for their own citizens. This problem has been exacerbated by the recent global financial crisis where we see debt burdens for low-income countries rising.

[This is an issue that has had no small impact in Haiti, where until last year servicing the debt accrued by the brutal, 29-year Duvalier regime required a larger portion of government spending than education or healthcare. Most of the country's debt was forgiven after the earthquake, but despite international calls that further aid be given to Haiti in the form of grants, not loans, the International Monetary Fund has since loaned Haiti $60 million.]

Senators Bob Casey (D-PA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) are sending a letter to President Obama urging him to take serious steps in reforming the lending practices and policies of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and other multilateral development banks.

Faith Reflection: “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the Sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat””[Amos 8:4-6].

Jesus condemns mistreatment of the poor and the needy. He teaches us to seek good and work for justice. Instead of helping them, the current lending practices of the international financial institutions are ruining the poor.

Action: Urge your Senator to sign on to this critical letter.

Based on alert prepared by Patrcia Kisare, Legislative Assistant for International Affairs, MCC Washington Office

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Loving the peacekeepers: A response to protests in Haiti

Reports have been pouring in from the radio, security update emails and phone calls that there are ongoing violent protests targeting MINUSTAH throughout Haiti. The protests have mostly been confined to the cities of Cap-Haitian and Hinche, where four police stations have been burned and protestors have been throwing rocks and bottles and even exchanged gunfire with UN soldiers. Unconfirmed reports say that there will be demonstrations in Port-Au-Prince tomorrow and things are predicted to continue to heat up as November 28th, the date set for Haiti’s legislative and presidential elections, nears.

MINUSTAH is the UN's Chapter VII Peacekeeping Mission in Haiti. It has been in place since 2004, with its most recent mandate issued on October 15th, 2010: to ensure a secure and stable environment; to carry out natural-disaster response; and to support the Haitian government in preparation for the elections on November 28th. Chapter VII of the UN Charter authorizes the use of military force to resolve disputes and so the mission is comprised of 8,940 military troops and 4,391 police agents.

Some of my advocacy work for MCC in Haiti has focused on MINUSTAH, asking the UN Security Council to address the following concerns: numerous human rights abuses that have been perpetrated by soldiers; a lack of legitimacy since the mission’s presence violates the Haitian Constitution; the mission's military component, which MCC would like to see eliminated; and a lack of clarity with regards to the mission’s humanitarian component.

A wall in Port-Au-Prince reads "down with the occupation"

MINUSTAH is perceived as an occupying military force by many of MCC’s Haitian partner organizations. And indeed, insecurity in Haiti is not the result of war, genocide or crimes against humanity as is the case for UN peacekeeping missions elsewhere in the world. In a recent interview, Camille Chalmers, director of MCC partner organization PAPDA (Haitian Platform to Advocate Alternative Development), states that MINUSTAH’s presence in Haiti is illegal and has in fact exacerbated Haiti’s structural crisis.

The protests this week have been sparked by the cholera epidemic that is spreading throughout the country. According to the Ministry of Health, 1,039 people have died and almost 17,000 are now infected. It's widely believed that the cholera, which matches a strain in Southeast Asia, was brought to Haiti by Nepali peacekeeping troops who have been documented dumping sewage in tributaries of the Artibonite river. UN officials are denying that the troops are the source of the cholera and have not launched an official investigation, despite requests from the Haitian government and Haitian civil society. Many Haitians, who have lost loved ones and fear contracting the disease, are furious about this and that anger is being fanned by some political candidates running in opposition to Haiti’s current government.

A few weeks ago I posted this prayer that those "whose lives are intertwined with systems that harm... violate, exploit, exclude, objectify, and dominate" would be inspired with "a longing for justice and the courage to break free from the powers that oppress." I believe that MINUSTAH's presence here helps to maintain a status quo that serves the economic elite and oppresses the majority of the population. I am categorically opposed to militarization and believe that the presence of more than 8,000 military troops in Haiti vilifies Haitians and does little to address the root causes of violence in this society.

But, as a result of my faith I also believe that violence is never an appropriate means to redress issues of injustice. This is difficult because it often seems that the marginalized have no other means of changing a system that is deeply rooted in exclusion. For that very reason, there is a part of me that wants to root for the protesters. Instead I am trying hard to look to my ultimate example of a peacemaker.

In The Powers That Be, Walter Wink reminds us that Jesus does not want the oppressed to give in to the power of oppression, but "rather, find a third way, a way that is neither submission nor assault, flight nor fight, a way that can secure your human dignity and begin to change the power equation. ... Jesus is not advocating nonviolence merely as a technique for outwitting the enemy, but as a just means of opposing the enemy in a way that holds open the possibility of the enemy's becoming just also. Both sides must win. We are summoned to pray for our enemies' transformation, and to respond to ill treatment with a love that is not only godly but also from God."

That is much harder to do than throwing rocks, and so as I wait to see what happens in Haiti this week I pray and I long for the day that "they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore."

Please join me in praying for a non-violent movement towards justice, dignity and peace for all of Haiti.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Food Days

I love this season. Although the markets in Port-Au-Prince are pretty consistent year 'round, the harvest for Haiti's fall planting season begins around mid-November so the markets will be bursting with fresh goodness for the next couple of months. It's also citrus season, so grapefruit, chadek, mandarins, oranges (sweet and sour) and key limes (sitwon) are all readily available. Yum!

We visited the Kenscoff market on Saturday, which is my favorite place to do our marketing because (a) it's closer to the source (much of the produce sold where we live in Petionville is grown near Kenscoff) and (b) we also get to go hiking when we're up there. Win and win.

Cabbage for making sauerkraut and beautiful beets

Also washing potatoes, green beans, carrots, leeks and watercress

Ben bakes up some tasty, tasty pumpkin bread

Roasting the seeds for a snack

Ruby red grapefruit from Desarmes - I'm already saving the peels for candying!
How could you not love November?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

10 Things to Love

  1. The beginning of mandarin, orange and grapefruit season.
  2. We've had electricity for 2 1/2 days straight.
  3. MCC office has finally been repainted - in color. My space is yellow!
  4. Hurricane Season is almost officially over.
  5. The flamboyant tree on our street is blooming.
  6. The SIZE of the pumpkins we bought in Furcy last week.
  7. Leah Gordon's new book, "Kanaval: Vodou, Politics and Revolution on the Streets of Haiti."
  8. It's been cold enough to cuddle this week.
  9. Maurice Sixto audio stories in Creole.
  10. Cilantro is sprouting in our garden.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Tomas in Leogane

Pretty terrible flooding in Leogane, a city that was mostly destroyed by the earthquake. Most large NGOs had the day off for safety reasons (other than PIH, who was set up in a large camp in Port-Au-Prince, ready to respond) but all of the major news networks and journalists made it out. Go figure. No need to fear the hurricane, though, because the UN had their tanks and guns ready.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Tracking Tomas

It's been raining consistently since early afternoon and the wind is starting to pick up. We've sort of personally prepared (ie, bought food and candles and stood in line in the rain to buy propane until the pump broke at the station... so no propane). Ben's rain and camera gear is all laid out and ready to go, which sounds a bit opportunistic and dangerous but that's how he rolls. Although it's not looking good, we're still hoping and praying that Tomas will change course. For now, it looks like we'll be getting the worst of it early tomorrow morning - not we, per say, but the many many people that are in tents and flimsy shelters and were unable to evacuate because there's nowhere for them to go. (Read this).
Please keep all of us in your prayers,
A & B

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Seguin, Again

Happy hikers and a rainbow at sunset when we reached the top:

Our favorite way to spend a weekend in Haiti. Pictures from the last two times we hiked up here and here (taken with the Ricoh).

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

All Souls Day and All Saints Day (Gede)

Made in Haiti: A Good Thing?

Alexis Erkert Depp

If you’re wearing Gap, Calvin Klein or Levi Strauss jeans there’s a chance that I’ve met the worker that made your belt loops or your waistband. If you’ve recently bought Hanes underwear or a Maidenform bra, check the label. Was it made in Haiti? If not, the next pair you buy probably will be.

As part of an effort to help Haiti rebuild its economy after the earthquake, the U.S. Congress passed legislation in May of this year to extend U.S. trade preferences to Haiti through 2020 and nearly triple duty-free quotas for Haitian garment exports to the U.S. Last month the World Bank, Haiti and the U.S. signed an agreement with a South Korean clothing producer, Sae-A to build another free-trade garment assembly factory in Haiti.

Garment assembly plants that employ low-wage laborers in poor countries have been seen as a powerful strategy for economic development for several decades. But who really benefits from these factories?

In August, I visited CODEVI, a free trade zone made up of 6 garment assembly factories in Ounaminthe, in Haiti’s North-East Department on the border with the Dominican Republic. A free trade zone is an area of a country where normal trade barriers such as tariffs and quotas are eliminated and bureaucratic requirements, like minimum wage laws, are lowered in hopes of attracting businesses and foreign investments.

Attracting foreign investment in this way was part of Haiti’s “Poverty Reduction Strategy” plan prior to the earthquake and continues to be a priority now for the Haitian government, the world’s International Financial Institutions, donor countries and, of course, multinational companies looking to capitalize on Haiti’s high unemployment and cheap labor. Note that this list of advocates doesn’t include Haitian factory workers, most of whom work full-time and remain in poverty.

Yannick Etienne is the director of the Haitian workers rights’ organization, Batay Ouvriye and tirelessly advocates for workers’ basic rights. Etienne believes, “It is evident that this model of development with free trade zones as its backbone for creating jobs is a failure. It creates wealth for the foreign investors and local factory owners but more misery for the workers. It's a model that sacrifices the future of our youth and puts our country in a more dependent framework. That type of international aid won't bring the change Haitian people envisioned for themselves.”

I spoke to some of the workers from the factories in Ounaminthe during their lunch hour. Thousands of workers were crowded under make-shift tin roofs in the 95 degree heat, eating their main meal of the day, diri Miami (imported rice) and sos pwa (bean sauce).

These workers are barely scraping by. They have a union and have succeeded in demanding a pay raise. They have also succeeded in getting factory owners to hire a Haitian doctor. Nevertheless, they must meet the taxing quota of 4,000 units a week to make 800 gourdes ($20.00 U.S.) a week, which is less than the legal Haitian minimum wage. If they don’t meet weekly quotas, they are paid 600 gourdes ($15.00). They spend more than $10.00 a week just to feed their families.

Higher-paid staff and supervisors are mostly Dominican. The free trade zone employs approximately 6,000 workers, most of whom are younger than 35 years old. 75% of the workforce is women and workers report that sexual harassment is common. Workers are not provided with filtered drinking water and are docked a ¼ of a week’s pay if they miss a single day of work. Workers tell me that they hope for a better future for their children, but that they themselves don’t have any other options.

The economy in and around Ounaminthe is depressed. It is in one of the most fertile agricultural areas of Haiti and yet rice farmers in nearby Ferier cannot sell more than 3,000 tons of rice this year because of Dominican trade barriers on imported rice and an influx of food aid post-earthquake. Meanwhile, factory workers eat “Miami rice” because it’s cheaper.

Support for this kind of economic growth in Haiti is complex. No-one can argue that Haiti doesn’t need more jobs. The production for export factories employ approximately 25,000 Haitians and that number is growing. But, most Haitians would argue that production for export is not a sustainable long-term solution to the country’s lagging economy.

According to Camille Chalmers, Executive director of the Haitian Platform to Advocate Alternative Development (PAPDA), “Free trade zones are not a good way to advance economic growth in general because working conditions are poor and this kind of activity has almost no connection to the rest of the country’s economy. It is also unreliable [as a long-term source for employment].”

Although these types of garment factories have provided consumers with increasingly cheap clothes and other goods and have enabled multinational companies to post record profits, as a development model it has repeatedly failed in Haiti and the rest of Latin America to improve the living conditions of the majority of people.

This was abundantly clear to me in my visit to Ounaminthe. Young and able-bodied workers there are working full-time for a wage that will never allow them to break out of the cycle of poverty. The Haitian government doesn’t fully benefit from taxes because CODEVI is a free trade zone. Haitian shipping companies don’t benefit because materials are shipped in and out from the Dominican Republic. The local economy is weakened as it becomes increasingly dependent on the whims of an external market. It’s clear that long-term, the true beneficiaries are not Haitians but rather the companies that own the factories and us, as consumers.

If the Haitian economy is increasingly dependent on cheap labor for growth, it is as much because we want to pay less for our jeans as it is because clothing companies are making a profit. If we truly believe that all human beings have equal rights, then we have a responsibility to support local economic development in Haiti that is determined by and for Haitians. Haitians tell me they want jobs that are sustainable and that will provide them with living wages. On our part, support for this kind of development can begin with ethical and informed consumption.

As I watched the thousands of workers crossing the bridge on their way back to work after their lunch break, I wondered whether I would be willing to pay a higher price for my jeans so that others could live a life of dignity and well-being. So, the question is: Who makes your jeans?

Alexis Erkert Depp coordinates MCC Haiti’s advocacy program. 

Download Justice in a Land of Plenty, a resource for worship and advocacy on trade justice.

Check out MCC’s trade justice campaign and actions you can take.

To read more about this issue:

“Re-building Haiti: “The Sweatshop Hoax" 

"Poverty Wage Assembly Plants as Development Strategy in Haiti"


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