It was late afternoon when our flight from Miami arrived at the Toussaint L’Overture airport in Port Au Prince. Someday the fine folks at American Airlines will have to explain why it makes sense to fly from Puerto Rico to Haiti stopping in Miami instead of Santo Domingo, which makes the trip about four times as long.
Driving away from the airport and into the city’s bustling streets the first thing we noted was the transportation. Most Haitians get around on roofed pickup trucks. They are everywhere and they are all crowded to the hilt, with the less fortunate passengers literally hanging from the back of the vehicles. The roofs are loaded to capacity with freight, everything from groceries to live caged chickens. All these vehicles are colorful beyond belief, adorned with the most cheerful hues and intrincate and diverse patterns. Plenty of motorcycles out on the streets too, but no private cars to be seen, these being a rarity in the country.
We saw only one traffic light in the city- in fact in the whole country. Everywhere else on this Thursday evening the traffic is pure pandemonium. This traffic conjures words like ‘crazy’ and ‘chaotic’ in the mind of an unkeen observer. But all drivers and pedestrians here know exactly what they’re doing. Hurtling, careening, dashing, the vehicles all manage to avoid pedestrians, and the pedestrians know the deal full well, deftly moving in between vehicles that are speeding past them in both directions.
Our driver, taking us through the asteroid field in The Empire Strikes Back, drives in a way that in the USA or in Puerto Rico would be considered rude and borderline reckless, passing vehicles in seemingly impossible maneuvers and honking at pedestrians half a block ahead. Nobody glares or shakes a fist at him. This driving is considered normal over here.
It is getting dark fast. Driving north to the mountains, we barely get a glimpse of the capital city, sadly famous for the 2010 earthquake. We speed by refugee tent camps, a dried-up river bed, slums, and cookie cutter rows of cement houses being built by some relief agency. After driving hard and fast into the night for almost four hours we arrive in the small city of Hinche, and from there up a dirt road to our destination: the headquarters of the Mouvman Peyizan Papay, Haiti’s peasant movement.
The next morning I get my first view of the Haitian countryside. Looking east from the dormitory where we are staying, I see nothing but hardship. Sparsely spaced trees and brushes anxiously waiting for the next rainfall, which won´t be anytime soon, judging from the scarce cloud cover today. It´s not quite a desert, but this parched country landscape looks and feels like a tinderbox, a permanent fire hazard.
As the day starts and we walk off to breakfast we see local peasants either doing work- from construction to cooking- or attending the MPP´s formation and leadership training courses and workshops, as well as volunteer aid workers from the USA driving away to do construction work nearby. Some workers are digging a ditch. The sight of their toil reminds me of a Janis Ian lyric from the nineties: “Land so hard it broke the back” (1). The soil here is so unfriendly and forbidding that doing any kind of work on it, whether farming or digging, is nothing less than a triumph of the will.
The French truly have ruined this country. They turned the lush and bountiful Caribbean tropical forest that existed here at the time of the Columbus expeditions into unsustainable monocultures of sugar cane, cotton, coffee and indigo. The crops sucked up excessive amounts of water and nutrients and eroded the soils. The environmental wreckage and accompanying tale of genocide of the original population, and the oppression and brutality suffered by African slaves who worked until literally dropping dead, resulted in great benefit and profit for the French empire. The colony of Saint Domingue, as it was called then, was nicknamed France´s Golden Teacup. By the 1780′s it was producing 40% of the sugar and 60% of the coffee consumed in Europe. It was producing more coffee and sugar than all of the British-controlled Caribbean isles.
In the early 19th century, taking advantage of the chaos and havoc caused by the French revolution and the Napoleonic wars, the slaves went for it. The resulting rebellion was the only successful slave revolt in the Western hemisphere. The former slaves established the first ever black republic, naming it Ayiti, the name given this land by the extinct pre-Columbian inhabitants. The Haitian revolution scared white rulers and colonialists even more than the American and French revolutions, for this one was anti-colonial, anti-racist and abolitionist all at once. The news of an all-black army defeating Napoleon’s all-white army terrified slave owners all over the Americas.
The brave Haitian people paid- and are still paying- a terrible price for having raised their hand against the white master. The French- with the help of the Americans and the British- blockaded Haiti until it was forced to pay compensation for the pain and suffering its people had inflicted upon their former masters (!). Since then, foreign powers, especially the troublesome neighbor to the north, have repeatedly infringed upon the country’s sovereignty. For almost a decade now Haiti has been invaded by a UN-led multinational military force, and since the 2010 earthquake this foreign military presence has been primarily American.
After independence, further damage was done to the land by the exploitative and environmentally destructive farming practices of the country´s corrupt landowning class, which has not hesitated to employ terror to prevent any type of land reform or social change. This social class backed the 20th century Duvalier dictatorship and was behind the two coups against elected president Jean Bertrand Aristide.
But not all has been sorrow and grievance. Haiti’s history has always been one of defiance and heroism. The city of Hinche, which we briefly passed on our way to the MPP, is the birthplace of Charlemagne Peralte, the commander who valiantly led the armed resistance against the 1915 US invasion of the country until he was assassinated in 1919. Haiti’s central plateau, the region where Hinche is, is a hotbed of MPP organizing.
Since its founding in 1973, the MPP has been fighting the good fight for land reform, food sovereignty, women’s rights, employment, health care and education for all, and environmental protection (2). Its many activities include the formation of cooperatives and credit unions, leadership training, reforestation, and teaching the principles of sustainable agriculture. Today the MPP engages over 60,000 people in sustainable farming techniques. In 2010 the organization made international waves when its members burned seeds that had been donated to Haiti by the Monsanto biotechnology company in the wake of the earthquake (3).
The MPP is an active member of the Coordinadora Latinoamericana de Organizaciones del Campo (CLOC), a continental coalition that brings together 84 organizations of peasants, farm workers and black and indigenous communities of 18 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean (4). The CLOC was founded at an international congress of grassroots groups that took place in Peru in 1994. That was a very exciting year for activism in Latin America. It was the year that saw the Zapatista EZLN emerge from Mexico’s Lacandon jungle. It was also the year that gave us the second indigenous uprising in Ecuador, part of stream of protest and organizing that would eventually result in the overthrow of three consecutive neoliberal presidents and the ratification of a new constitution, one that is among the most socially and environmentally progressive in the world. 1994 was also a year of protest marches by Bolivia’s indigenous coca growers, a sector that would later converge with other constituencies to battle against the corporate theft of natural resources such as water and natural gas, overthrowing two consecutive presidents and achieving the presidential election of Evo Morales, the hemisphere’s first indigenous head of state. It was also a year of major organizing and mobilizing for land reform in Brazil, Paraguay and Guatemala.
But the CLOC’s origins go further back. The key to its formation was the 1989-1992 continental campaign to commemorate and celebrate 500 years of indigenous, black and grassroots resistance, which was put together by campesino and indigenous organizations of South America´s Andes and Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (MST). The MST was instrumental in the rise to power of the Workers’ Party (PT), which has won three consecutive presidential elections in Brazil.
And the CLOC is part of something even larger: La Via Campesina, an international movement made up of campesinos, small and medium farmers, women farmers, indigenous peoples, landless people, rural youths and farm workers from all over the world (5). It defends small-scale sustainable farming as an indispensable sector for addressing urgent global social and environmental concerns, and it opposes corporate-dominated industrial agriculture. Possibly the most important grassroots organization in the world today, La Via Campesina comprises some 150 organizations in 70 countries and represents about 200 million farmers.
Thanks to the activism and pressure of CLOC/Via Campesina’s affiliated organizations, food sovereignty has become stated government policy in several countries, including Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela. These groups were also instrumental in defeating US president George W. Bush’s drive to establish a neoliberal Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). The defeat of the FTAA cleared the way to the founding of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), a block of Latin American and Caribbean nations initially proposed by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, which has now eight member states, with four more with observer status (including Haiti). The inspiration for the ALBA was the vision of 19th century South American statesman, warrior and liberator Simon Bolívar, whose military feats were key in liberating the continent from Spanish colonialism. Bolívar dreamed of an united Latin America, for only united would it be able to withstand neocolonial pressures from the US and Europe.
We are joined by MPP founder Chavannes Jean Baptiste, a pleasant man who irradiates strength and commitment, as well as gladness to be alive and gladness also for the chance to help his people. Just from meeting him casually, one would not know the hardships and dangers he has faced. Having survived several assassination attempts, death threats forced him to leave the country between 1993 and 1994. For his work and courage, he was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2005 (6).
Our meeting at MPP is attended by representatives of farmers´ organizations not only from Puerto Rico and Haiti but also from Cuba and the Dominican Republic. This meeting is a modest step toward fulfilling the dream of a Confederación Antillana (Antillean Confederacy) that would unite the peoples of the greater Caribbean Antilles, an idea advocated by the 19th century pro-independence Puerto Rican revolutionary Ramón Emeterio Betances and his Cuban counterpart José Martí. Hopes for such a confederacy were dashed by the 1898 US invasion of Cuba and Puerto Rico, and since then have been furthered complicated by Washington’s constant interventionism, including its relentless hostility toward the Cuban revolution, its 1965 invasion of the Dominican Republic, and its suppression of Puerto Rico’s right to self-determination. Here in this multinational meeting in the middle of the Haitian countryside, the Antillean Confederacy is being built from the bottom up by small farmers and their organizations.
For two days, several agenda items are tackled, including the preparations for the upcoming twentieth anniversary of La Via Campesina’s founding, which will be celebrated at the organization’s congress in Indonesia next September. Strong emphasis is also given to the campaign on violence against women- no small issue, given that women do most of the world’s farm work, yet own almost none of the farm property and get close to zero remuneration for their toil. And there is also talk at the meeting about integrating CLOC/Via Campesina’s Caribbean region into the workings of the ALBA as well as CELAC, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. The CELAC, another effort at Latin American and Caribbean integration originally led by Hugo Chavez, is basically an Organization of American States, but explicitly excluding the US and Canada.
On Sunday, we pack up, bid farewell to old and new friends and go our separate ways. Looking out the window of the crowded pickup that races to the Port Au Prince airport. It is a sunny and dry, yet fresh and breezy Caribbean day. Then the ridiculous, wasteful and unnecessarily long Haiti-Miami-Puerto Rico plane trip. Plenty of time to look over notes, reminisce and analyze. The lesson from the Hinche meeting can only be one of optimism. In these times of daunting challenges and hazards, such as neoliberalism, global warming and looming food, energy and water crises, it is possible to attain a Caribbean and Latin American integration based on principles of anti-imperialism, ecology and food sovereignty. Organized small farmers will show the way.
Carmelo Ruiz-Marrerois a Puerto Rican journalist, author, activist and environmental educator. He directs the Puerto Rico Project on Biosafety (http://bioseguridad.blogspot.com/). His Twitter feed is @carmeloruiz.
1) From Janis Ian’s song “Searching for America”.