Justice for Haiti: For Zion’s Sake

by Rebecca Bartel

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch.
Isaiah 62:1

Jan m’ renmen mòn Siyon sa a!
Se pou m’ pale.
Jan m’ renmen lavil Jerizalèm sa a,
mwen p’ap pran kanpo,
jouk delivrans li va parèt tankou limyè solèy k’ap leve,
tankou flanbo k’ap klere nanfènwa.
Ezayi 62:1

In order to understand the strategies needed for Haiti’s rebuilding, it is appropriate to consider the obstacles this country has historically experienced to the fulfillment of God’s shalom. Natural events are beyond our human control, but the vulnerability of Haiti to the horrific consequences that these events have is entirely human-made.

There is nothing “natural” about abject poverty. Haiti has been under the heel of external economic policies which have exacerbated and systematized the violence of poverty in the country. These policies began with the exorbitant debt of 150 million francs ($21 billion in today’s U.S. dollars) forced upon the population after independence from France in 1804 and have continued with more recent structural adjustment policies and conditions on foreign aid.

Until June 2009, Haiti was paying $56 million–$70 million a year on service debts to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Nearly 45 percent of that debt was incurred during the U.S.-backed Duvalier dictatorships (1957-1986). To put this into context, up until the forgiveness of $1.2 billion of Haiti’s foreign debt last year, the government spent $4 per person on healthcare and $5 per person on education each year, while paying $5 per person in debt service.

There is nothing “natural” about hunger. Until 1985, Haiti was self-sufficient in rice production–a main staple in the modern Haitian diet. Under the tutelage of international financial institutions, such as the World Bank and the IMF, Haiti liberalized its economic policies, opening the door to foreign imports such as rice.

In 1994 conditions on foreign aid to the country mandated that import tariffs on rice be cut from 35 percent to 3 percent. As a consequence thousands of rice farmers were put out of business. Many of these farmers were displaced to urban centers such as Port-au-Prince, where weak infrastructure and unemployment forced millions of people to live in shanty towns and poorly constructed housing, putting them at particular risk in the case of a natural disaster.

Dependence on foreign food imports puts any country in a position of vulnerability to the waves of change in the global market. It also destroys local agricultural development. An MCC Haitian partner “Local Food Production” states: “Liberal trade agreements have crushed Haiti’s agriculture sectors and have significantly contributed to unemployment and rural-urban migration.” It is not “natural” that millions of people were living in such vulnerable conditions in Port-au-Prince when the earthquake hit.

God’s vision of shalom for humanity calls Christians to consider the long-term investment that must be made for Haiti to rise out its current crisis. It calls us to respond immediately, but also to consider how our governments and institutions make policy decisions which victimize the world’s most marginalized people.

Only through investment in Haitian people, communities and society will future natural disasters be more manageable. We cannot control the movements of the earth, but we can control how our voices are heard in the halls of power. The Haitian people call us to share our prophetic voice, as do the words of Scripture: “For Zion’s sake, I will not be silent.” “Jan m’ renmen mòn Siyon sa a! Se pou m’ pale.”

Rebecca Bartel is the MCC Latin America/Caribbean Policy Analyst, based in Bogotá, Colombia.

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