Ricardo Seitenfus: “Haiti is proof of the failure of international aid”
[Translation of an interview from Le Temps of Geneva, Switzerland, for December 20, 2010. See original here and related articles here and here. Several sources reported immediately after the Le Temps interview that Seitenfus had been fired but in an interview in the December 29 Folha of Brazil (here) Seitenfus said he had received no official word on his status.]
By Arnaud Robert
A graduate of the Institut de Hautes Études Internationales (Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies) of Geneva, Brazilian Ricardo Seitenfus is 62 years old. He has represented the Organization of American States in Haiti since 2008. He makes a genuine indictiment of international presence in the country.
–Le Temps: Ten thousand Blue Helmets in Haiti. In your opinion, a counterproductive presence…
–Ricardo Seitenfus: The system of dispute prevention within the framework of the UN system is not suitable for the Haitian context. Haiti is not an international threat. We are not in a state of civil war. Haiti is neither Iraq nor Afghanistan. And nevertheless the Security Council, lacking any alternative, has imposed the Blue Helmets since 2004, since the departure of President Aristide. We are here on our eighth UN mission since 1990. Since 1986 and the departure of Jean-Claude Duvalier, Haiti has been in what I call a low-intensity conflict. We are faced with power struggles by political actors who do not respect the democratic process. But it seems to me that essentially, on the international scene, Haiti is paying for its close proximity to the United States. Haiti has been the object of negative attention on the part of the international system. For the UN it was a question of blocking power and turning Haitians into prisoners on their own island. For many, the anxiety of the boat people explains the international community’s decisions concerning Haiti. One wants them, at all costs, to stay home.
–What is preventing normalization of the Haitian question?
–For 200 years, the presence of foreign troops has alternated with that of dictators. It is power that defines international relations with Haiti and never dialogue. On the world scene, Haiti’s original sin is its liberation. The Haitians committed the unacceptable in 1804: a crime of high treason in a troubled world. The west was at that time a colonialist world, pro-slavery and racist, that based its wealth on the exploitation of conquered lands. So the Haitian revolutionary model struck fear into the great powers. The United States did not recognize Haiti’s independence until 1865. And France demanded payment of a ransom for accepting that liberation. From the beginning, independence was compromised and development shackled. The world has never known how to treat Haiti, so it has ended up ignoring it. That was the beginning of 200 years of solitude on the international scene . Today, the UN blindly applies chapter 7 of its charter, it deploys troops to impose its peace operations. Things aren’t resolved, they are aggravated. They want to make Haiti into a capitalist country, a destination of export for American business, and that is absurd. Haiti should go back to being what it is, that is, an essentially agricultural country still permeated with traditional rule. The country is endlessly described from the point of view of its violence. But, with no state, the level of violence nevertheless reaches only a fraction of that of the countries of Latin America. There are elements in that society that have managed to keep violence from spreading without limit.
–Is it not surrender to see in Haiti an unassimilable nation, where the only prospect is a return to traditional values?
–There is a part of Haiti that is modern, urbane and outward looking. It is estimated that four million Haitians live outside the borders. It is a country that is open to the world. I am not dreaming of a return to the 16th century, to an agrarian society. But Haiti is living under the influence of the international community, of the NGOs, of universal charity. More than 90 percent of the educational and health systems are in private hands. The country does not have the public resources to make a state system work in a mininal way. The UN has failed to take cultural traits into account. To reduce Haiti to a peace operation is to gloss over the real challenges the country is facing. The problem is socio-economic. When the unemployment rate approaches 80 percent, it is intolerable to deploy a stabilization mission. There is nothing to stabilize and everything to construct.
–Haiti is one of the countries of the world receiving the most aid and nevertheless the situation has only deteriorated for 25 years. Why?
–Emergency aid is effective. But when it becomes structural, when it substitutes for the state in all its functions, one ends up with a collective surrender of responsibility. If there is a proof of the failure of international aid, it is Haiti. The country has become a Mecca for that. The January 12 earthquake, then the cholera epidemic, only accentuate this phenomenon. The international community feels the need to re-do every day what it finished doing the day before. Haiti’s fatigue is beginning to show. This small country should astonish universal consciousness with its evermore enormous catastrophes. I had hoped that with the anguish of January 12 the world would understand that it had taken the wrong path with Haiti. Unfortunately, the same policy was reinforced. Instead of making an assessment, they sent in more soldiers. One should build roads, put up dams, take part in the organization of the state, of the judiciary system. The UN says that is not its mandate. Its mandate in Haiti is to keep the peace of the graveyard.
–What role do the NGOs play in this failure?
–Since the earthquake, Haiti has become a crossroad that can’t be avioded. For the transnational NGOs Haiti has been transformed into a place of required passage. I would say it’s even worse than that: professional development. The volunteers who have arrived since the earthquake are very young; they land in Haiti with no experience. And Haiti, I can tell you, is not suitable for amateurs. Since January 12, because of massive recruitment, professional quality has declined considerably. There is a maleficent or a perverse relation between the NGOs and the weakness of the Haitian state. Certain NGOs exist only because of the Haitian calamity.
–What mistakes have been made since the earthquake?
–At the same time of the massive import of consumer goods to feed the homeless, the predicatment of Haitian agriculture is still damaged. The country offers an open field for all humanitarian experiments. It is unacceptable from a moral point of view to consider Haiti a laboratory. The reconstruction of Haiti and the glittering promise of 11 billion dollars excite the covetous. It seems that a crowd of people come to Haiti not for Haiti but to do business. For me, as an American, it is shameful, an offense to our consciences. An example: those Haitian doctors that Cuba trains. More than 500 have been taught in Havana. Close to half of them, when they should be in Haiti, are working today in the United States, in Canada or in France. The Cuban revolution is financing the training of human resources for their capitalist neighbors…
–Hati is endlessly described as the edge of the world; you feel the country is rather a focus of our contemporary world…
–It is the focus of our dramas and of the failures of international solidarity. We are not at the level of a challenge. The world press comes to Haiti and describes the chaos. The reaction of public opinion is not long in coming. It sees Haiti as one of the worst countries in the world. You have to move toward Haitian culture, you have to move toward the foundations. I believe there are too many doctors at the patient’s bedside and most of those doctors are economists. Now, in Haiti what are needed are anthropologists, sociologists, historians, political scientists and even theologians. Haiti is too complex for people who are in a hurry; the volunteers are in a hurry. Nobody takes the time or has a taste for trying to understand what I might call the Haitian soul. Those Haitians have grasped it well who consider us, the international community, a milk cow. They want to profit from this presence and they do it with an extraordinary mastery. If the Haitians look on us solely for the money we bring, it’s because that’s the way we present orselves.
–Beyond the fact of failure, what solutions do you propose?
–In two months I will have finished a two-year mission in Haiti. To stay here and not be crushed by what I see, I have had to create for myself a certain number of psychological defenses. I wanted to remain an independent voice despite the weight of the organization I represent. I stayed because I wanted to express my profound doubts and to tell the world that this is enough. Enough of playing with Haiti. January 12 taught me that there exists in the world a potential for extraordinary solidarity. Even though we must not forget that in the first days it was the Haitians alone who, with their bare hands, tried to save their fellows. Compassion was very important during the emergency. But the moving force in international relations cannot be charity. It must be autonomy, sovereignty, equitable trade, respect for others. We should think at the same time of offering to Haiti opportunities for export but also protect the family agriculture that is essential for the country. Haiti is the last Caribbean paradise not yet exploited for tourism, with 1700 kilometers of virgin coasts; we should favor a cultural tourism and avoid paving the road toward a new El Dorado of mass tourism. The lessons we repeat to ourselves have been ineffective for too long. Reconstruction and the accompaniment of so rich a society are one of the last great human adventures. Two hundred years ago, Haiti brightened the history of humanity and that of human rights. Now we must give the Haitians a chance to confirm their vision.