Haiti: the Future of North America

November 1, 2010

 Joegodson and Paul

The language available to us to describe the world often interferes with our ability to see it clearly. We accept words and concepts as they come to us and, fatally, leave the structure of our thinking in place. To do otherwise requires much energy and is often psychically unpleasant.

In the current circumstances, North Americans refer to Haiti as a ‘developing nation’ at best. It fits into Canadian taxonomy as ‘a least developed nation.’ Canada and the United States are, of course, developed. And so, Haiti must be moving towards a level of industrialization already achieved in the North. Critics demonstrate this conceptual framework to be false by showing that Haiti, along with the rest of the least-developed world, is being forced to regress still further by the machinations of the powerful countries. However, if we carefully consider the work of people like Maude Barlow, Ellen Wood, and David Harvey, among many others, we are led to a very different conclusion. The current cholera crisis in Haiti, properly understood, points us towards the future of North America. Many Native groups are already experiencing their version of the Haitian reality. But we are collectively heading towards that nightmare.

Joegodson uses his access to water to show how he fits into the ‘scale’ or ladder (échelle) of society in Port-au-Prince. With two examples, he describes three positions. As a teenager, he was working long hours as a cabinetmaker in Delmas 19. He climbed each day to Delmas 31 where he lived. His pay was not sufficient for him to pay the gourd (two or three cents) that the street vendors charge for a small sachet of water. (There is no such thing as publicly available water – drinking fountains, for instance, are unknown in Haiti.)  One sweltering evening, he remembers being desperately thirsty when he saw another man, apparently in the same state, drinking water from a rivulet. These small streams throughout Port-au-Prince are open sewers; they carry all manner of garbage and human waste, for want of any infrastructure. Joegodson stopped, and watched the man cup his hands to bring the liquid to his mouth. The man was not crazy, but desperate. Joegodson, however terrible the thirst he was experiencing, could not bring himself to touch that substance.

When he lost that job, he was homeless for a period of time. He found shelter on the grounds of an abandoned clinic in Delmas 19. The aging doctor had fled up the mountain to a wealthy neighbourhood in Tomassin when the country fell deeper into chaos in the 1990s. He hired a peasant to guard the walled property. The peasant allowed Joegodson to live and work on the grounds, building furniture that he tried to sell to the wealthy. Once, the granddaughters of the doctor descended the mountain with their mother to survey the property. The wealthy family continued to look for a buyer for the old clinic that had been a middle-class home in the Duvalier era. Like other such homes, there was a reservoir on the property that held water. The security guard, a resourceful peasant, continued to have water delivered that he then sold by the bucket to the local poor for a small profit. The two little girls, atypically in the slums of Port-au-Prince with their mother, responded with horror to the sight of Joegodson drinking water from the pipe that extruded from the reservoir. They called their mother to watch a human being drinking water from a pipe. They, Joegodson realized, drank bottled water delivered to them in large plastic containers. Normally, Culligan supplies the wealthy with their drinking water in Port-au-Prince.

Joegodson learned that as he could not bring himself to sip from the polluted stream as had the more desperate man, so the bourgeois girls thought him odd for drinking directly from a pipe rather than purified water from a plastic container delivered by a serviceman.

Water has a price in Haiti. For those who can’t pay, the price is their health and, often, their lives. This situation predates the earthquake. However, only at our peril should we assume that the struggle for accessible, clean water for all is unique to Haiti. The neoliberal project to make all earth’s citizens dependent upon the market for everything leads us to see Haiti as a model for the future, not a vestige of the past.

Maude Barlow has convincingly demonstrated how ‘development’ models (capitalist, communist, or other – don’t be sidetracked) insensitive to the ecological limits of ecosystems have placed us all in great peril. In Blue Covenant, she shows that corporate power has set its sights on the privatization of the global water supply. Ecosystems are failing everywhere under the pressure of the neoliberal order that is attempting to control all markets and all resources on Earth. This is not a conspiracy: it is openly espoused as the goal by neoliberal think tanks and political parties. Everyone must be a consumer of everything. In that way, someone profits each time you take a sip of water.

Controlling water is the ultimate goal of the neoliberal activists. Haitians are dependent on the market for their survival. You cannot live without water. Those who are forced to drink from the polluted streams are dying. Presently, in the context of Haiti’s multiple crises, the deaths are being reporting. But the dependence of all people on the market for water is exactly the goal of the huge water corporations. Haitians are not distinct from Americans and Canadians in the eyes of the profit seekers. These corporations are amassing venture capital precisely because they are able to make the case that the world’s population will be dependent on purchased water as the natural water systems are destroyed.

By not protecting their water systems and allowing the infrastructure to deteriorate, Canadians and Americans are quickly moving towards the Haitian model of privatized water. Barlow’s book offers a clear and convincing analysis of a wealth of scholarly studies from around the world.

Water is the ultimate prize for neoliberal promoters. By understanding the class roles in Haiti, we can see where the ‘developed’ world is headed. Unfortunately, most analysts are looking in the wrong direction.

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