Louisiane Nazaire heads a women’s group pressing for change in Haiti. Photo courtesy Mary Durran

Mary Durran: Haiti’s youth driving frantic push for change

By  Mary Durran, Guest Columnist
  • March 4, 2019

Since Feb. 7, women’s leader Louisiane Nazaire has hardly dared to leave her home in the city of Jérémie in southwestern Haiti. 

“No one dares to go out,” she says. “The place is on fire.”

Schools are closed, the price of staple rice has risen 40 per cent overnight and at least three people are dead after clashes between police and armed gangs who have infiltrated demonstrations, Nazaire said. 

She represents OFTAG, a women’s organization active in the remote Grande-Anse department, a region harshly affected by the several-days-old roadblock, diminishing supply of drinking water, fuel and food, and the spiralling fall of the Haitian gourde against the U.S. dollar. 

The current unrest in Haiti started as a protest against corruption and mismanagement of state funds and has turned into a call for the departure of the government. The latter is nothing new. But the degree of widespread discontent suggests that Haiti is at an important turning point.   

“The country hasn’t experienced a socio-political crisis of this magnitude since 1986,” says Chenet Jean-Baptiste, director of ITECA (Technology and Animation Institute) an organization that supports rural farming communities. 

In 1986, Haitians mobilized to topple repressive dictator Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier, whose father, François (Papa Doc) declared himself president for life in 1964. The Duvalier dynasty assassinated, imprisoned and tortured thousands of Haitians and hundreds of thousands fled into exile. 

“We are both encouraged and worried,” says Jean-Baptiste. “Encouraged at the massive and national scope of citizens’ awakening to say they have had enough. And it is young people who are driving the movement that has almost managed to impose required social change.” 

Many Development and Peace partners are at the forefront of this movement. 

“We need a government that will respond to the needs of the people,” says Antoinier St. Cyr, a community leader and member of the Tet Kole rural farmers’ organization in Cavaillon, a small town on the south coast that was hard hit by Hurricane Matthew in 2016.  “We need government policies to strengthen the gourde against the dollar, so that we can afford to pay for our basic needs, and send our kids to school.” 

Tet Kole took to the streets of Cavaillon in October 2017 to protest the Moise government’s 144 billion gourde ($2.3 billion Cdn) budget which raised taxes and allocated disproportionate funds to the presidency, the prime minister’s office and the Parliament yet failed to invest sufficiently in health or agricultural production.

This budget prompted a Haitian journalist to describe a Parliament with a budget bigger than the health budget as “worse than a cancer in a poor country like Haiti.”  It is still in force, as the Parliament has not approved the 2019 budget. 

“How is it possible that the Parliament gets five per cent of the pie and less than seven per cent goes to agriculture? If the president took just a part of that money and invested it in crops farmers could plant, we would have food on our plates,” St. Cyr said. 

“The taxes we pay should fund farming projects, schools, hospitals and housing.”

Last year, Tet Kole joined the Petro Caribe challenge, the movement calling for an investigation into mismanagement of oil products loaned to Haiti by Venezuela. OFTAG is also active in this movement. 

“We are facing a constantly weakening gourde and inflation at 13.5 per cent,” says Nazaire.  “Women, particularly rural women, are the most vulnerable to the consequences of corruption and mismanagement of these funds. We are going to keep pressing the government to prosecute those responsible.”

But Haitian anti-corruption challengers are not stopping at the Venezuela loans issue.  Enfo Sitwayen (“Citizen Info”), a civic education campaign, has launched on social media a two-minute video showing that each of the country’s 119 deputies cost the state $380,000 (U.S.) per year — totalling a staggering $45.2 million (and each of the 30  senators cost $1.5 million). 

“More and more people are questioning the need for a Parliament that costs the state so much,” says Enfo Sitwayen’s editor-in-chief, 26-year-old Obed Lamy, named one of the top 24 youth to have left a mark on Haiti in 2018 by the daily Le Nouvelliste

“Haitians need to come together to dialogue, to find a way to address our problems,” says Jean-Baptiste. “But it must be a Haitian solution, and not one imposed by the international community.” Ideally, such a dialogue would be facilitated by the Catholic Church. 

In Cavaillon, St. Cyr still has to be careful going out. The police are arresting democratic protesters, he says, and he doesn’t want to be next.  But the local organizations are not giving up. 

“We are re-examining our strategies so that we can continue to fight for better living conditions and for our children to have a better future.” 

(Durran is Latin America programs officer for Development and Peace.)

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