Resilience is what keeps the country's residents going, but dialogue and change of heart are what's needed among leaders, says Haitian educator.
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Haiti has been plagued with problems for the longest time, and the July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse only compounded its troubles. But underlying all the challenges right now is a continuing sense of uncertainty.
Even the relative calm that seems to permeate Haitian society at the moment was a surprise, following the dramatic shooting of Moïse and the power struggle that ensued. But no one is really sure what that calm portends.
“In Haiti, what you hear is not necessarily what is currently happening. But on my end, specifically for someone based in the Central Plateau, currently I think it’s very unknown what is happening politically,” said Cassandre Regnier, an official with Summits Education, a nonprofit network of schools in rural Haiti.
“The prime minister is now in charge but really overseeing, making sure the elections will happen at the end of September,” Regnier said in an interview on Wednesday. “From time to time you will hear of unrest in specific areas, but compared with before, it’s like, what a lot of the population was expecting, it’s really calm. It’s a lot of uncertainties. There’s a calmness, but you’re not really sure if you should operate as if it was normal or if we should be worried. After the funeral we were expecting a lot of turmoil, but all this week, we haven’t heard about big incidents.”
The uncertainty has a direct effect on people’s ability to provide for their families. Many live on less than $2 a day and rely on day labor, “so with the fact that there are so many uncertainties and businesses are closed and they’re putting a hold on hiring and a lot of other activities on hold, a lot of people are losing work,” Regnier said.
As a result, school officials have seen more signs of malnutrition, making Summits’ collaboration with Mary’s Meals even more vital. The Scotland-based charity supports daily, in-school lunches for students in Haiti and other poor areas of the world, helping to ensure that kids won’t have to miss school in order to go out and work, beg or steal for food.
But Haiti’s unpredictability right now also is one of the impediments to continuing delivery of humanitarian and development assistance.
“There’s no stability. You can’t confirm that tasks can be undertaken. So that’s the reason why we think there will be a kind of humanitarian hold, because there are so many uncertainties,” Regnier explained. “For instance, if you need to do a specific activity in an area, if for instance you would have to send supplies, there’s no certainty you can say there won’t be any roadblocks, there won’t be any incidents on the road. I think this is the uncertainty that might affect it. And I think because of the situation, not a lot of expats will be coming to the country. I think there’s a lot of current programming that’s on hold until there’s a certain stability that resumes in the country.”
‘Multitude of challenges’
Soon after the assassination, the United States Conference of Catolic Bishops issued a statement urging the United States government to “continue to explore ways of effectively addressing the deeply rooted issues that prevent the country from emerging from its problems.”
“This shocking attack further compounds Haiti’s current political unrest and the multitude of challenges they face in the wake of natural disasters, hunger, failing economy, and gang violence that has made it one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere,” the bishops stated.
As the New York Times explained, Haiti never really recovered from the devastating earthquake in January 2010 that claimed the lives of about 300,000 people. Haiti “has remained mired in economic underdevelopment and insecurity,” the Times said. “A cholera outbreak in 2016, linked to U.N. peacekeepers, killed at least 10,000 Haitians and sickened another 800,000.”
Adding to the challenges is a second wave of the COVID-19 virus, with even more contagious variants, said Akim K. Kikonda, country representative for Catholic Relief Services. Kikonda said in an interview earlier this month that he is also seeing people suffering from gang violence.
“People are really stressed and wondering every day if they’ll be able to make it to work or wherever they go and come back home safely,” he said. “Most recently, we had over 13,000 people displaced in some neighborhoods around Port-au-Prince due to gang violence. People had to flee their homes and go take shelter in sports centers and other families and so on. So it’s really a lot of suffering and people struggling to make ends meet.”
The situation was already bad, he said, and with the assassination, “people are wondering what’s going to happen next. That is causing even more anxiety because it adds to the concerns they already had: will the government be able to protect them? Will the police force be able to protect them against gang violence?”
Gang violence is what led Malteser International, the charitable arm of the Knights of Malta, to relocate its offices from the slum area known as Cite Soleil, said Ravi Tripptrap, executive director of Malteser International Americas.
“What we’ve tried to do in past years is to strengthen civil society organizations and civil society as such in Haiti, Tripptrap said in an interview. “But the problem in Haiti is that we have to start from scratch, really from the basics. And we have to start with food security, the basic health support, water, sanitation, hygiene — the minimum that people need to survive. What we always try is a grassroots level approach to make them more resilient to all the shocks they endure during their lifetime. It is not always because it’s a natural disaster, but there is always political turmoil, and that throws everything out of order, and they have to start from scratch again.”
Regnier acknowledges that and says that Haitians in general are very resilient.
“It’s all about hope and knowing that if you don’t continue there will be so many lives impacted,” she said. “So I think it’s all a matter of hope and you need to persevere. A lot of people don’t have any other options.”
As for long-term solutions, she believes the starting point must be an openness to dialogue and change one’s own point of view.
“Solutions are really about discussion, trying to understand the other and where you don’t get along. It’s very difficult, because in the past years we really don’t see any political groups getting along. We don’t have the same vision for the country. At the end of the day we all want the same development for the country, but they’re not getting along. I think there needs to be a whole change of mindset. It’s not about one person having the power. Unfortunately this is what we have seen — everybody trying to have power for a short time in the government, but at the end of the day there hasn’t been any real change. I don’t know if there’s a leader who will emerge. We haven’t so far seen anyone coming with a different mindset to bring change to the country.”
CRS’s Akim agreed on the need for dialogue.
“I think the US government has a lot of influence in the Haitian political arena, and I hope that it can exert as much pressure as they can to bring everyone around the table and try to find ways to come up with a peaceful transition of power and bring this violence we are seeing to an end” he said. “The violence won’t end if the politicians don’t come together to agree on a way forward for the country.”