Banking on the Poor

June 22, 2011

After Joegodson and I received a positive response from the publishers that we had asked to publish the book we are writing, we needed to plan how to finish it. We are serious about this. We think we have something important to communicate. (The publishers, evidently, think so too.) We decided that the best way to finish our work would be for Joegodson to come to Canada. I have lived in Haiti. Joegodson has never seen where the people come from that invade his country to explain to Haitians how they might enter the civilized world. The most fundamental thing that Joegodson and I share is that we both know that they are full of shit; we have encountered some who have come to the same realization about their place in Haiti. Anyway …

So, we began the process. Joegodson went to the Canadian Embassy in Port-au-Prince. He picked up a pamphlet from outside the Embassy on how to apply for a temporary visa to enter Canada. He went to an Internet cafe to look up the site. Everything must be done through the Internet: the forms, the guide, the information – it’s all available on the Internet. That means that the great majority of Haitians are excluded. Joegodson has to pay for every mistake he makes as he tries to remember how to navigate the Internet. Then the signal gives out and he has to go back the next day. Anyway …

He managed, of course. He filled out the forms to take to the Embassy. He had to submit the forms with a cheque for seventy-five dollars. It could be more expensive, but he’s coming for a short business trip – to finish the manuscript. For many other requests, the non-refundable fee is much more substantial.

His first attempt to submit the forms was the worst.

He needed to have a bank account, for instance. He needed to prove that he had a bank account. He, like every other poor Haitian, didn’t have a bank account. In general, poor Haitians avoid banks because they know that their money is being used by the banks against their interests. They are absolutely right. (It’s another lesson that the uncivilized world has to offer the civilized; unfortunately, the latter is suffering from terminal arrogance. In fact, it’s really ignorance, which gets along very well with arrogance.) But, in order to comply with this requirement, he opened an account with money I sent him. He had a bank book now to prove that he had money. The day before his rendez-vous at the Embassy to submit all his documents, he went to the bank to get a certified cheque for seventy-five dollars Canadian. The teller at the Capital Bank where he had opened the account two weeks earlier (on the advice of a neighbour) told him that he was not eligible for that service because his account was not six months old. He called me. I said that that was just stupid. Moreover, I checked their website where they say they offer the service of certified cheques; what bank doesn’t? So, he asked to speak with the manager who told him that, sorry, you must have an account for six months before we will issue a certified cheque. He had opened the account with five hundred dollars cash two weeks earlier! Sorry.

Dejected, he left the bank and was walking home when he decided to try a national credit union. He had taken one hundred dollars out of the Capital Bank and so he went in and asked if they would write him a certified cheque. The teller agreed, as long as he had an account there. So he opened an account with the one hundred dollars. Then, the teller said that the charge for a certified cheque was twenty dollars. There wasn’t enough to give him the cheque because he would need to have twenty dollars left in the account after the transaction in order to keep it open. With the fees, he was fifteen dollars short. There were only five minutes left before the bank closed for the day. His Embassy appointment was a quarter after eight the next morning. It was impossible. Just at that moment, his church’s treasurer entered the bank. Joegodson quickly explained the situation and the buddy handed him the fifteen dollars. Joegodson would repay him later. He had his cheque. And, he wondered if his God hadn’t intervened on his behalf. (Sometimes he almost convinces me, although my theology is not that way inclined.)

So, the following morning, he arrived at the Embassy with his certified cheque. He also had a letter from the publishers saying that they were looking forward to receiving the final manuscript. He had a letter from me inviting him to stay with me in Montreal so that he would have no expenses in Canada. He had a letter from my mother saying that she would be happy to have him stay with her in Toronto if he needed to be closer to the publishers. He had his temporary resident request form filled out. However, it turned out that there were two new documents that he was missing. Applicants from Haiti now have to give a detailed description of their work history for the last ten years and, in another document, they have to list all of their brothers and sisters along with their jobs. He left the Embassy during a downpour to try to find an Internet cafe to print out the forms and fill them in. He almost succeeded, but the signal shut out before the time ran out. Some might have wondered if their God had not betrayed them. (I didn’t raise the issue.)

So, he started over again. He submitted all the documents, truthfully filled, last week. Today he went back for the next rendez-vous. He stood in line in the heat with thirty other Haitians in front of the Embassy. As with all the others in line, the clerk handed him his form response. Rejected. The box checked off was the same for everybody in line: you haven’t convinced us that you will leave Canada at the end of the time permitted under the visa application. (Please think about that: who is it that needs to be “convinced” and what are the arguments that would convince him or her? There is no place in all the myriad forms where the applicant is invited to “convince” – convaincre – some nameless bureaucrat that he or she will leave within the timeframe specified.) Sorry, the deposit was non-refundable There’s no use trying to apply again. So, today, the Canadian Embassy in Port-au-Prince made a tidy sum of about $4,000, taken from the poorest Haitians. Wealthy Canadians, you will note, are charged nothing by the Haitian or Canadian embassies to enter Haiti. Haitians are charged more than a month’s salary to ask to visit Canada. The answer will be no.

I was angry. Joegodson was calm – dejected, but calm: “I knew that they wouldn’t let me in. I could tell from the first moment I set foot in the Embassy.”

Still, even if you imagine things from the perspective of the Canadian economy-first government, it makes no sense. Joegodson has a letter from a well-respected publishing house asking to publish his book. He would be contributing to the Canadian economy. The publishers will pay taxes on the copies they sell. However, first, the Canada Council turned down our grant application. We found a publisher (which should make you question the CC); now, the government refuses to cooperate. Not only that – they take our money! In case this is lost on the neoconservative, less-government, hate-the-arts-grants ideologues, the CC has been funding trash praising the Canadian military for years. The Governor-General can’t find enough awards to praise books praising Canadian troops who are the bestest in the world. We have funded ourselves and the government is doing everything it can to stand in the way of our business deal, already in place.

So, we have had to change our plans. Now, we need to finish our work in Haiti. It’s out of the question that we finish it in the room where Joegodson and Antonia and Joenaara are staying. Joegodson had crafted three pieces of furniture last summer, but only two would fit in the room. (The other piece, the vanity, is still okay, by the way. Out of respect for Joegodson, the old neighbours in Delmas 19 haven’t hacked it up for cooking wood.) When I call, I ask Joegodson if he’s having a party or something. No, he says, it’s the neighbours. He says I wouldn’t be able to imagine how tight the living conditions are. I ask him if some of them might agree to stop yelling for a minute. He says no, that’s not possible. So, we are going to have to find a quiet place in the mountains where we can work for a couple of months to finish what we have done over the phone. Antonia says that in her home community near Gonaives there is a place for us.

Joegodson asked that I let people know where we were at. Also, since our last posting, we had a couple of kind offers. Cherelynn from British Columbia sent Joegodson one hundred and fifty dollars. Then Roger, also from BC, has offered to give him a camera to replace the one that had been stolen. (p.s. That turned out to be an empty promise.) Then, today, Mona from Austin, Texas has offered to send Joegodson another one hundred and fifty dollars. This was all really great. We spoke tonight about it. Joegodson is going to use the money to advance the house he started in Canaan. He has been paying an elderly woman to look over his property and the stones and rebars that are waiting to be turned into a foundation. She says that he now has neighbours on both sides that seem to be taking his property over. He’s going to lay the foundation now that he has the money to do it. That will secure the place for him. Then, he’ll be able to move Antonia and Joenaara there by the time that we start to complete our work in Gonaives. Everyone is excited. Antonia will be able to move the vanity into the new place and Joenaara will be in a more healthy environment.

Last note: Frederique gave in and is working in a sweatshop. Manouchka and he are together and happy. He presses suits after his co-workers make them. He hates it. He says he can’t wait until the day is over when he can walk out into the ‘cool’ air of Port-au-Prince. But Manouchka is not so well. At SONAPI on Friday, she lost consciousness and had to go to a clinic. She has cholera. But she’s in a hospital and is recovering. Joegodson passed on part of the money he had received from Cherelynn for Manouchka’s care. (The Embassy had his bank book, so he couldn’t access the money we had deposited there. Now that the Embassy has given him his bank book back – imagine! – he can access that money to finish the foundation. Think about it – how easy it would have been for Haitians to house themselves if they had been given the money that had been collected for them. Can you not see how this system works? My advice to students looking for a reliable career would be to get a nice cushy job with an NGO that will be dealing with the inevitable and increasing disasters in the coming decades. Try the Red Cross and work to develop a kindly First World arrogance. Alternatively, you might try to secure a job rejecting visa applications from the poor; that will remain the core of the growth economy.)

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2 Responses to “Banking on the Poor”

  1. A said

    Interesting post. I’m as disgusted by the situation in Haiti as you. It’s a load of crap going on there regarding “aid”. I try to keep Haiti out of my mind these days because whenever i think about what I saw there earlier this year, whenever I talk about it, I get angry. And as for being rejected by the embassy, a Haitian friend was rejected for a week-long trip to the USA. His father, living in Boston, had died and this was to be the last time my Haitian friend would see his father (in a manner of speaking), and the only opportunity to see his extended family. Similarly, the US embassy happily took his money and just as happily turned down his request.

    See. Now I’m angry again just thinking about all of it again. I wish all the best to you and Joegodson.

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