January 12, 2011
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Antonal Mortimé is the executive secretary of the Platform of Haitian Organizations for the Defense of Human Rights (POHDH), a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) partner in Haiti since 2005. Advocacy was a primary focus of MCC’s work in Haiti before the earthquake and it continues now as MCC encourages its constituents to speak to the governments of Canada and the U.S. on behalf of basic human rights — food, housing, education and healthcare — for Haitians.
MCC also supports POHDH in its efforts to teach Haitians about the rights afforded them by Haitian law and to monitor national reconstruction plans to make sure they respect international human rights laws. MCC Haiti invited Mortimé to share his perspective about the situation in Haiti one year after the earthquake.
In January 1804 Haiti claimed its independence from French colonizers to become the first black republic in history. For this, we view Haiti as the mother of liberty. Many human rights activists use Haiti as a reference point for the concept of universal rights because the enslaved people of this land defended their rights with courage and determination to live as free human beings.
On Jan. 12, 2011, Haiti faces many difficulties. Haiti has long been known as the poorest country in the Americas, but one year ago, when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti, the country was made even more vulnerable.
We have to look at 20 years of history to set the context of Haiti’s vulnerability. The earthquake wasn’t a catastrophe. It is normal for the earth to shake, and so it wasn’t an earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people. The last 20 years of Haitian government policies, which have caused degraded social-economic conditions, are to blame.
In spite of poor governance, the Haitian government has received the backing of the international community, so the failure of the Haitian state is also the failure of the international community. Many international policies, trade agreements and even plans for Haiti’s reconstruction benefit the countries of the Global North more than they benefit Haiti.
Now, a year later, Haitians live in more fragile conditions than ever before. Nevertheless, I believe that change is possible in this country, real change that represents the interests of all of Haiti’s children.
I have hope and a vision that Haiti will rise up from under the rubble, not just the rubble from the earthquake, but the rubble of colonialism, the rubble of neocolonialist policies (the economic and social policies that countries use indirectly to maintain their influence over other countries), and the rubble of poor governance. I have hope that we’ll rise up from the rubble of violated social rights, the rubble of exclusion in all of its forms.
This hope is drawn from the strength and energy with which Haitian men and women claimed our freedom in 1804 and with which we have persevered during this difficult year.
For more than a week before international help arrived, we, Haitian men and women, mobilized on our own to save the lives of family members, neighbors and even strangers trapped under rubble. We had no heavy equipment, but we did this with our bare hands.
We are not passive.
We have endured a year of living in displaced peoples’ camps — during hurricane season and in the midst of a cholera epidemic. And now, in the current political crisis, the right of Haitians to choose their next leader is being threatened.
The right of self-determination of peoples is a fundamental principle of international law. According to this principle,the Haitian people have the right to participate in the democratic process of governance and to influence our political, social and cultural future. We have the right to make decisions that are not imposed on us by Canada, the United States and other countries that make up the international community.
Currently this right is not a reality. Foreign governments and financial institutions are in control of the reconstruction process and are not taking into account the opinions of Haitians. International money promised to Haiti after the earthquake has strings attached so that foreign companies benefit more than the Haitian people. Our country, once again, is being bound to external debt, so that it cannot address the needs of its people.
My vision for Haiti is to see us, as Haitians, govern ourselves. The only way for this hope to become a reality is for the majority of the Haitian population to become principal actors in the struggle for social and economic change. The nongovernmental organizations that work in Haiti, the Haitian government and the international community must empower the people living in tents to become active participants in the decisions affecting their country.
We ask, therefore, that the worldwide declarations of solidarity, of kinship and of sympathy that were expressed for Haiti a year ago be realized. We ask that citizens of other nations put pressure on their governments to work with financial institutions to annul Haiti’s external debt and to revise the international policies that have negative consequences on the Haitian people. And we ask that citizens of other nations put pressure on nongovernmental organizations that they support to make sure they are empowering Haitians to direct their own recovery.
We ask everyone to respect this nation’s sovereignty — a historical symbol of freedom, the mother of liberty. In this way, Haiti will finally be able to rise out of the rubble.
Antonal Mortimé is the executive secretary of the Platform of Haitian Organizations for the Defense of Human Rights.