Democratic insecurities: violence, trauma, and intervention in Haiti

  • Fall 2010
Erica James

Erica James

By Erica Caple James
November 1, 2010

The excerpt was reprinted with permission from University of California Press.

On January 12, 2010, as this book entered the final stages of production, Haiti was struck with a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions, the latest in a long series of catastrophes that have afflicted the nation and its people. The epicenter of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake was mere kilometers southwest of the nation’s capital, Port-au-Prince, where the ethnographic research discussed in this book was conducted. Between 1995 and 2000 I worked with survivors of human rights abuses from the 1991-94 coup years and studied the interveners that attempted to rehabilitate them as part of my project analyzing the role of humanitarian and development assistance in postconflict reconstruction. Current estimates are that 80 percent of the capital has been destroyed. As of this writing I have had little word of the fate of the people with whom I worked. A few in positions of power, wealth, and security have survived. Others have died. Many are missing. The fate of most of the poor pro-democracy activists who shared with me their lives of suffering and resilience remains unknown.

The scale and nature of the recent devastation are unprecedented. Nonetheless, the physical and psychosocial aftershocks have created eerie parallels to events analyzed in this book—from accusations that Haitian culture and religious practices are responsible for this tragedy and hamper efforts to remedy it to the outpouring of concern for Haitian victims and the influx of aid to the nation. Other parallels that raise the uncanny specter of déjà vu are the lack of donor coordination, widespread frustration with the distribution of humanitarian resources, and the escalation of violence among the internally displaced.

Democratic Insecurities

Democratic Insecurities was authored by Erica James, associate professor of anthropology at MIT and member of CIS.

Since the ouster of the Duvalier dictatorship in 1986, the Government of Haiti has had only limited capacity to protect its citizens and has struggled to establish security apparatuses that operate transparently and are accountable to Haitian citizens. While the abbreviated tenure of Haiti’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, initially raised hopes of peace and security in the nation, his ouster by military coup in 1991 and three subsequent years of repression thwarted those aspirations. Since the political upheaval of 2004 following Aristide’s second ouster from the presidency, thousands of UN military peacekeepers, international police, and international and local staffers have worked to arrest crime and promote security, much as was the case in the period following the restoration of democracy in 1994. Many of these individuals were killed during the earthquake, and others are still missing.

Although additional UN and U.S. military forces are currently attempting to restore order and provide humanitarian relief, security remains of paramount concern. The earthquake damaged the national penitentiary. Thousands of former prisoners are currently at large. Some of these escapees undoubtedly orchestrated the destabilization of democracy and security in Haiti in the 1990s and in 2004. Armed gang members who had been imprisoned have reportedly returned to slums they once ruled to reassert their sovereign power.

The struggles of the Government of Haiti to protect its citizens and assert its sovereignty are no better demonstrated than by the actions of an American missionary group recently charged with child trafficking. The group claims it was rescuing children from the chaos of postquake conditions and was taking them to an orphanage in the Dominican Republic where they would be adopted. The group felt a divine call to intervene without authorization by the Haitian state in order to save the children, some of whom still have living parents. As the case has progressed, questions have arisen about the true intentions of this group, the corruption of the Haitian judiciary, and whether justice is for sale or will be meted out according to the rule of law. But the case is also an indicator of the extent to which international actors feel entitled to intervene in order to fulfill their mandates.

There are other parallels to the circumstances documented in this book. As during the 1991-1994 period, hundreds of thousands of Haitians have fled to provincial cities, towns, and villages seeking asylum in areas that once depended on their labor in the capital for subsistence. Many Haitians have crossed into the Dominican Republic seeking medical care and new lives. It remains unclear whether the population shift to rural Haiti will result in permanent resettlement and future development of the nation’s periphery, as was intended by many of the international development plans that proposed the nation’s decentralization in prior years. The United States has also begun to prepare its naval site in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to receive a potential influx of refugees should conditions worsen and desperation increase. The detention of Haitian “boat people” in this camp is not new. Long before it was used to house suspected terrorists, Camp Delta held tens of thousands of Haitians for reasons of humanitarian and security concerns during the 1991-94 coup years. The majority of these “inmates” were subsequently returned to Haiti, despite its ongoing political and economic crisis.

Also reminiscent of the conditions described here are reports that have begun to circulate regarding the rape of women and young girls. Haitian women of all classes have traditionally been the pillars of society. They bear greater responsibility for maintaining the household and family than do men, and many do so while also pursuing independent livelihoods to meet their families’ needs. Such expectations must be ful- filled regardless of shifts in political, economic, or environmental conditions. Because of these disproportionate obligations, Haitian women have typically been less mobile and more strongly rooted in their communities. For precisely these same reasons, they have also been more susceptible to attacks: it is difficult to flee from persecution when one’s livelihood, family, and home are tied to a particular neighborhood, market, or place of work. If current reports are accurate, the makeshift tent cities that currently provide refuge to the internally displaced are sites of further victimization of women rather than sites of asylum, which raises additional questions regarding how security will be established in Haiti. Such conditions also highlight how gender is an integral component of the experience of insecurity and trauma.

Other similarities between the current crisis and the conflict and postconflict period in the 1990s concern the politics of aid. A few recent reports suggest that criminal actors have begun to capitalize on the chaos in order to expand their traffic in persons, drugs, and illicit goods. This book characterizes black market transactions like these as components of occult economies, some of which incorporate hidden exchanges between material and unseen (or immaterial) worlds. Furthermore, scandalous stories have circulated about how humanitarian aid has been diverted from its intended recipients into the black market. Well-intentioned charities have been questioned about the authenticity and legitimacy of their work in Haiti. There have been signs of contention between and among grassroots and international nongovernmental organizations regarding how and to which institutions the hundreds of millions of dollars in charitable gifts that have been donated to aid Haiti will be distributed. These ethical debates involving the just distribution of resources to victims and to the organizations that assist them are described here as components of a political economy of trauma.

As these events continue to unfold, there will come a point at which the numerous agencies and agents now working to provide relief will shift from a framework of emergency to one of reconstruction and rehabilitation. This book analyzes how such transitions occur. It is a cautionary tale documenting how conditions of insecurity have evolved over time. The phenomenon of insecurity incorporates political and criminal violence, economic instability, environmental vulnerability, and long histories of corruption and predation on the part of Haitians and foreign interveners. This text also chronicles how the transition from a crisis mode of intervention to one aimed at sustainable development of Haitian institutions—the police, the judiciary, and civil society organizations that promote democracy, human rights, and rehabilitation and reparations for victims—provoked competition and strife within the governmental and nongovernmental aid apparatus in the context of insecurity. To some extent the in%ux of aid had the unintended consequence of exacerbating the conditions that gave rise to military and humanitarian interventions in Haiti in the first place.

Some people have characterized the earthquake tragedy as an opportunity for Haiti’s transformation, as long as Haitians remain partners in deciding how plans for their country’s redevelopment and reconstruction are to take place. Calls for partnership and greater economic employment opportunities for Haitians are important and necessary. What remains crucial is that Haitians from all social classes and geographic locations participate in such plans. Regardless of the material or infrastructural disparities in power between Haiti and other members of the international community, Haitians must be imbued with equal (if not greater) power than international, national, and local interveners in deciding the course of reconstruction efforts in their country.

As this book demonstrates, it is perilous to consider Haiti and its citizens solely as clients, recipients of welfare or charity, or as victims. This lesson is even more urgent given that there are several populations affected by the earthquake whose status is similar to that of Haiti’s victims of human rights abuses following the 1994 restoration of democracy. As was the case then, the Government of Haiti possesses little capacity to provide security, civil services, and medical care for its citizens. Women are increasingly vulnerable to insecurity. The number of orphans has increased exponentially. Thousands of new amputees of all ages require multiple forms of rehabilitation to help them rebuild their lives. If these populations are singled out for greater psychological, physical, economic, and other social supports because they are considered “at risk,” but similar opportunities are not made available for all Haitians to flourish as productive citizens, it is possible that these groups may become subject to further stigma and resentment in their communities, as were victims of human rights abuses from the coup and postcoup years.

These issues of population management, the regulation and distribution of resources, identity, and accountability are important considerations for Haitians in Haiti and its diaspora and for those who would aid in rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts. However, such concerns should not overshadow attention to the physical, psychosocial, and spiritual effects of trauma that are the primary focus of this book. Trauma can result from ruptures in the routines of daily life, whether caused by natural, industrial, or human authors. Those who survive such ruptures may experience acute trauma; providers of care to victims may experience secondary trauma during and after a crisis. Trauma and emotional distress are phenomena that are culturally mediated and experienced in bodily ways. Whereas some view the devastation caused by the earthquake as an opportunity to create a blank slate in Haiti, the stories recounted in this book suggest that without effective strategies to address these traumas the power of memory and the embodied legacies of acute victimization will render attempts to mitigate suffering and to promote reconstruction and development ineffective.

Other questions addressed in this book must now be considered anew. How long will the “emergency” funds flow? How and to whom are private donations accounted for? Will the rehabilitation of trauma (whether physical, psychological, infrastructural, or spiritual) be rationed, regulated, and curtailed prematurely, so as to have only limited effect? What identities will emerge for these new “victims” after Haiti’s dependence on charity, emergency relief, and other forms of humanitarian and development aid reemerges as a large component of its current economy? If new paths toward sustainable development cannot be created to empower all Haitians and to restore those who wish to rebuild their broken communities, aid interventions risk exacerbating the cycles of insecurity that have ebbed and flowed over the past twenty-five years.

Supported by a rich cultural heritage, the Haitian people retain a capacity for hope, faith, and resilience that remains a tremendous resource for any efforts to rehabilitate the nation and its people. Even when a powerful minority—whether Haitian or foreign—has posed obstacles to democracy, human rights, justice, and economic possibilities for all, the majority has endured. They must participate as equal partners in the reconstruction of their nation.