|By: Ayana Labossiere – Haiti Action Committee
I will never forget my first trip to Haiti. In 1990, at five years old, I went to Haiti with my dad to visit family. I spent my days chasing goats and chickens on farms, enjoying the beach with my family, playing with kids in the street, and learning my very first Creole curse words. I had an amazing experience and have long since given credit for these experiences to my family, without contextualizing them. Haiti in 1990 and in 2001 (when I was there for a trip at the age of sixteen) was a place of poverty but also of hope. I never realized how fortunate I was to experience Haiti at the height of Lavalas organizing and during Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s presidency; the country was being run by a movement created by, for, and devoted to the grassroots and the poorest of the poor.
Going to Haiti now is different, harder, and more arduous. Certainly, being an adult means that my lens has changed, but Haiti is becoming a place that I’d only heard about from my father and others who remember the Duvaliers’ dictatorships: a place of economic exploitation and brutal repression of the poor and a place of opulence and gaiety for the wealthy and foreign And now, as an adult and high school teacher, it is part of my job to take high school students to Haiti and help them contextualize the poverty they see. In June 2013, I and other teachers in San Francisco took students to Haiti, where they were exposed to all of these harsh realities. They were exposed to the massive tourism and propaganda campaigns dedicated to covering up these realities, and to the fight that Haitians continue to wage against the forces that would oppress them.
A CONTEXT OF EXPLOITATION
As we traveled to Haiti, the students got to witness firsthand the extent of Haiti’s manmade poverty: the devastation that still remains from the earthquake, the thousands that are still displaced, the squalor people are forced to live in, rampant cholera, and the lack of access to healthcare and potable water They got to hear firsthand accounts from Haitians about the context of all of this unnatural poverty: the lack of aid from the government and international community in most areas, the overabundance and disorganization of many NGOs, the exploitation of Haitians in factories and sweatshops, and the political repression They got to visit organizations and meet activists who are working tirelessly to make up for the lack of support. It was shocking for all of us to learn that at a time of so much injustice, and as people struggle hourly to feed themselves, millions of dollars in earthquake relief money have been spent on building at least seven luxury hotels and promoting tourism.
Let’s examine the facts: the Royal Oasis Hotel, the Clinton-Bush Fund’s shining star, received $2 million in start-up costs for a project that rivals many US five-star hotels It boasts major restaurants, luxurious views, air conditioning, and an art gallery It literally sits in the midst of a sea of poverty, towering over shantytowns around it.1
The Red Cross, well known for its seemingly benevolent work, also broke into Haiti’s luxury hotel market with a $10 5 million property purchase with the intention of building a hotel.2 A Best Western hotel was also built with a projected $150,000 in earthquake money for guest room construction alone.3 And in one of the biggest hotel projects, Marriott and media giant Digicel have pooled their money to build a $45 million luxury hotel. Altogether, Haiti’s hotel projects total more than $100 million of relief money that is not going to relief.4
How Tourism and
Propaganda are Taking Haiti Back to Dictatorship
WHY IS THE TOURISM ISSUE SO IMPORTANT?
For many, talking about tourism as a tool of exploitation is paradoxical and confusing We’d all like to luxuriate on Haiti’s beautiful beaches, and if we can help Haitians in the process by “jumpstarting the economy” and “providing jobs” to the destitute, then what’s the problem? Tourism feels innocuous to the privileged because it appears to be based in partnership, but in so-called “Third World” countries, it is not.
A lot of money is being directed away from the vital, life-or-death needs of Haiti’s mass population: healthcare, housing, and education Today, in Haiti, despite decades of supposed “aid”, there continues to be only two doctors for every 10,000 people.5 Instead, critical resources are being spent on creating luxury and opulence for those who can afford it. After more than three years, hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the earthquake continue to live in tents, but luxury hotels have sprung up and have been completed almost immediately.
While foreign “generosity” is touted as the reason why governments like the US, France, and Canada (and their corporations) take such a keen interest in directing relief money into tourism, this is untrue. “Benevolent” CEOs spin fairytales of the job opportunities and economic development their ventures will spark, and though it all sounds great in theory, it leaves out one major point: they are private entities making very private profits. And all of these private hotels (that exist because of relief money) have excellent returns for their home countries. As Global Research points out, numerous reconstruction contracts have been awarded to companies and the funds come right back to benefit the company’s country of origin:
“According to US government figures, 1,537 contracts had been awarded [to US Companies] for a total of $204,604,670, as of last fall . Only 23 of the contracts went to Haitian companies, totaling $4,841,426.”6
These tactics are not new. Haiti has a history of being a tourist playground for the wealthy. Tourism was especially prominent during Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s dictatorship. Baby Doc Duvalier, following in his father’s footsteps, continued a legacy of brutality and repression that resulted in the deaths of thousands of people and people fleeing the country in the hundreds of thousands.7 Part of maintaining this control meant receiving millions of dollars in “aid” from the US and other Western governments, and allowing foreign corporations and gov- ernments to have free economic reign in Haiti. Tourism allowed the privileged in Haiti to experience a diversion from what was really going on, while untold human rights violations were being overlooked and/or ignored.
Today’s Royal Oasis is eerily reminiscent of the luxury tourist hotel Habitation LeClerc, a favorite hangout of wealthy foreigners in the 1970s. This hotel gets its sinister name from the sister of Haiti’s former oppressor, Napoleon Bonaparte It was also created using “aid” money and with the promise of helping Haiti. Former CBS anchor Harry Reasoner created an exposé on the tourism industry in Haiti, and his on-the-ground reporter noted that Habitation LeClerc “looks down literally and figuratively on the people.”8
Most people born during or after this time don’t know about Haiti’s ongoing popularity with tourists and companies in search of cheap labor. There are many, however, who do remember that time Bill Clinton—former President, current US Special Envoy to Haiti, and often treated as the Second Coming—credits this time in Haiti as the time he and his wife fell in love with the country. The Haiti he fell in love with was a time when the people were exploited and repressed, and the wealthy had free reign. His presidential policies and actions since have reflected his desire to keep Haiti in a state of economic dependence on the US and on foreign influence. His now notorious economic policies ensured that subsidies to the US rice industry would make US rice so cheap in Haiti that it would completely undercut and destroy Haiti’s own rice industry. Haiti now imports 80% of its rice from the US.9
The Haiti that Bill Clinton fell in love with was also one of immense racial and class disparities. Tourism, by definition, is an industry that depends on the foreigner being served by the locals. It is a paradigm based on servitude, where the servers (the locals) live in poverty and the served (tourists, foreign aid workers, and Haitian elites) live well. Racial dynamics heighten this exploitative class dynamic. As Wendi Muse writes about tourism and race relations in Brazil, “tourism, as a business, relies heavily on stereotypes in order to function.”10 These stereotypes often become the main attraction for many tourists. In Jamaica, for instance, a large part of the tourism is based on the stereotypes surrounding marijuana (which, despite the hype, is actually illegal there). These racial and class dynamics between locals and tourists/foreign workers are palpable today in Haiti, from the time you step off the plane. Black Haitians rush to help you—the privileged foreigner—with your bags, competing with each other for tips (potentially a sole source of income). Everywhere we went, black Haitians were chauffeuring white foreigners in SUVs, guarding luxurious private businesses with rifles, and protecting opulence from the poor masses. Giant Supermarket, a store that rivals the most expensive US stores, is a private piece of luxury that average Haitians cannot access, unless they are in a position of servitude and accompanying a wealthy/ foreign patron. Visiting the store immediately brings a sense of unease to watch Jim Crow-esque racial dynamics play out so transparently.
As a black nation, Haiti has been the victim of stereotypes and prejudice in the Western world and within its own borders. Today, Haitians are treated with a mix of fear, contempt, and pity. Even for the most well-intentioned foreign “aid” workers, the power dynamic is inherently unbalanced. With these complex racial and class narratives playing out daily, I can’t help but be reminded of Paula Deen’s fantasy wedding: the happy black slave whose mission in life is to please the benevolent white superiors, by performing for them and serving them. Tourism, as it exists today in Haiti, magnifies the imbalance in Haiti’s race and class structure. Labadee is one of the most poignant examples of this. Royal Caribbean Cruise Line has its own port and peninsula in Haiti, Labadee, whose sole purpose is to provide tourists with all the trappings of any typical Caribbean tourist attraction: white sandy beaches, clear water, hair- braiders, black locals to wine and dine them. It is marketed as a “private, secret, and exclusive” location. It is so “secret” in fact that the company tells travelers that they are in Hispaniola (the name Christopher Columbus gave the entire island of which Haiti is a part), and not Haiti. Royal Caribbean admits that most people don’t know where they are and they use that as part of their “marketing strategy.” Privileged tourists can come to Haiti, be spoiled by its amenities, waited on by its locals, without them ever having to know that they are in Haiti!
What makes this brand of tourism even more sinister is that it serves as a mask, hiding all of the deliberate exploitation and repression underneath it. Many come to Haiti and stay for months, without ever fully grasping the political situation and just how the population is being exploited by the Duvalierist government and its international allies. After all, can you really criticize a president who just wants you to have a Mai Tai and relax? In this way, tourism becomes an effective type of propaganda in which the privileged visitors are only exposed to selective portions of the country: the fun, relaxing, happy side of the island. And everywhere you go in Haiti, you see the beaming face of President-select, Michel Martelly, reminding you that “Haiti is advancing.”
Martelly’s résumé reads like a character from a soap opera. A former musician who made a career out of misogynistic lyrics and shocking performances (i e , pants dropping on stage, etcetera), Michel “Sweet Mickey” Martelly got his nickname from a notorious leader in the Duvaliers’ personal militia, the dreaded Tonton Macoutes. He is an admitted member of the Macoutes himself, along with other organizations responsible for the deaths of at least 35,000 people. To this day, he openly supports Jean-Claude Duvalier. He took center stage internationally as President in 2011 amidst fraud and the exclusion of major political parties (including Haiti’s majority party, Lavalas). Despite campaigning himself as a progressive who can join the ranks of Angela Davis and Dr. King, he was backed by the same conservative public relations firm as John McCain in the US and Felipe Calderón in Mexico. He even provides propaganda for President Obama and French President Sarkozy, whom he links with “peace” and “progress” respectively (himself with “love”), despite serious track records of war and exploitation.
Upon President Aristide’s return to Haiti in 2011 and a month after being President, Martelly publicly called Lavalas supporters and Aristide “ugly, dirty, and they smell like s**.” He continued by saying that they should all “f** off.” He has intimidated officials in his own government who disagree with him and is currently embroiled in financial and murder scandals. This is the man that Hillary Clinton called the hope of the country. Obama’s government has not only given him its blessing, but has sung his praises. This dynamic is nothing new. Since 1915, the US has politically and financially supported preferred candidates in Haiti, with US geopolitical and corporate interests at heart.11 Martelly’s administration follows this long tradition of puppet governments. One has to wonder how Haiti is “advancing” when Haitians are continuing to suffer in substandard living conditions (camps like Canaan), when the population is being threatened by a return of Duvalierist brutality and repression, when the US and other superpowers have a stranglehold over Haiti’s economy, and when corporations are in charge of the destiny of the people.
Not much is said in the mainstream media about the real and harsh conditions in Haiti. Even less is said about the ways in which the clock is being turned backwards in Haiti, to a time of dictatorship and cover-ups. Being in Haiti is a wake up call and a harsh one. Going there forces us to be uncomfortable and to ask difficult questions.
And while there were many aspects of the trip that were hard and difficult, there was much that inspired. Forcing ourselves and our students to see these things firsthand means that we all learn and grow. It also means that where there is injustice, there is opportunity for community building, resistance, and collective mobilizing. It is the people’s consistent resilience that makes our work in solidarity possible. For every hole in the education system, there are community organizers building their own schools. For every hole in healthcare, there are communities taking care of each other and doing their best to help each other with food and water. As solidarity workers, we must support the grassroots, and our voices must help magnify the truth to our communities abroad.
1 http://www globalresearch ca/haiti-humanitarian-aid-for earthquake-victims-used-to-build-five-star-hotels/31646
2 http://us p501 com/new-hotels-constructed-amid-ruins-in haitian-capital/
http://www ezilidanto com/zili/2012/03/haiti-red-cross-mis- use-quake-monies/
3 http://www sfexaminer com/sanfrancisco/best-western-to-
4 http://www globalresearch ca/haiti-humanitarian-aid-for- earthquake-victims-used-to-build-five-star-hotels/31646
5 http://haitianproject org/updates/2012/11/drain-remains
6 http://www globalresearch ca/haiti-humanitarian-aid-for- earthquake-victims-used-to-build-five-star-hotels/31646
7 http://www thenational ae/news/world/americas/haiti-terror- victim-recalls-hell-of-baby-docs-jails
8 Harry Reasoner report via Youtube
9 The Huffington Post, “With Cheap Food Imports, Haiti Can’t
Feed Itself ” by Jonathan Katz
10 http://www racialicious com/2007/07/19/globalization-or- zoo-like-exploitation-slum-tours-on-the-rise/
11 Bitter Cane (film)