Port-au-Prince, Haiti — Is it taking baby steps forward for a country learning how democracy works and what freedom means, or is it a country that cannot grasp the concept of democracy and is tumbling into chaos?
As Haiti's elections are cancelled for the second time, and the current president makes preparations to leave office without a replacement on February 7, there are no clear answers. In Port-au-Prince and throughout the country functioning on a day-to-day level is almost impossible, leaving the masses living in fear.
Every Saturday, I go to a clinic in the slums of Port-au-Prince with the Missionaries of Charity. We see 300 to 400 people in a space given to us at St. Joseph Church in the middle of a huge street market. As we were getting ready to leave this past Saturday (January 30), we heard gunshots very close to the church. The people with stalls in the market ran for cover. We waited inside the clinic. The sisters said it would be safe to leave when the people returned to their stalls in the market. After 10 minutes or so, all was quiet, and in another 15 minutes, everything was back to "normal" so we headed home.
I have lived in Haiti for 14 years and experienced the chaos and upheaval that was everywhere at the time Aristide left the country. I have seen two presidents remain in office for their entire terms of election, offering hope that the seed of democracy was fragile, but alive.
One of the Gospel readings this week spoke of seeds falling on shallow soil, in rocks, on the surface. And some seeds finding good soil. Seeds of desire for democracy have been thrown in Haiti, not planted well, not fertilized, not tenderly cared for.
People outside of Haiti who are watching the chaos and hearing about it on the news ask "Why?" "Why can't Haiti progress?" "Why so much chaos and violence and corruption?" My simple answer, if there is an answer, is poverty!
In my years here, I have begun to touch the depths of the consequences when most of the people in this country are poor. Almost one fourth of the population is desperately poor. Illiteracy remains a huge problem. Malnutrition is rampant and causes lack of brain development, so learning is difficult. The educational system is broken; technological resources are not available for Haiti to compete in the modern world. Children cannot learn because they are hungry. Eighty percent of the population is unemployed or underemployed. A Haitian friend told me today that "there would not be so many demonstrations and acts of violence if people had jobs and needed to go to work!" There is a lack of critical thinking skills among the population who have learned to "react" rather than "respond" and have not been taught how to make decisions creatively.
There is a saying, "There are two Haitis: the Haiti of the city and the Haiti of the countryside." The majority of the Haitian people live in the provinces. I lived with them for three years in a small rural village. For these people, the government has little or no effect on them. Most of them do not vote. The election chaos that the world is seeing has little impact on their lives.
This is also true for many of the people living in the cities. I work closely with a small group of Haitians in Port-au-Prince. Their primary concern is not who will be the next president or when the elections might happen, but rather, how they can get to work with the demonstrations closing the roads. How can their children get to school? What do they do when the bullets are flying nearby?
The focus for the majority of Haitians on a daily basis is on meeting their immediate needs. The government, historically, has had little concrete impact on their lives. They believe they are, and always have been, on their own. They are in need of food, jobs, health care — basic needs. They do not see, and have not seen, help coming from the government.
I run a weekly medical clinic in a small mountain village in the south of Haiti. For the people there who rely on me for their medical care, the election chaos means that I might not be able to get out of Port-au-Prince and thus their access to health care will be compromised: No checking their hypertension, diabetes, wounds, and no access to medications.
The Haitian people may not look to their government for help, but they do recognize their need for the help that comes from outside of Haiti. And they are aware that this help will be negatively impacted by the problems with a non-functioning Haitian government.
Some people have called Haiti "The Republic of NGOs." Non-governmental organizations, churches, and other non-profits are the main source of assistance in Haiti. NGOs have almost created a parallel state and an alternative infrastructure: building schools, clinics, hospitals, roads, and small businesses. Seventy percent of health care and education is supported by foreign funds, and often with foreigners in leadership or on the staff.
Not having a functional government in Haiti will affect many of these programs and partnerships. Foreigners are afraid to travel in Haiti until they know it is safe and calm. Both the physical presence of foreigner volunteers and visitors, and access to their financial aid is always affected by violence and instability in the country. This can be seen daily by the lack of activity at the airport and the numbers of missionary trips that have been cancelled throughout the country.
Another Gospel reading again speaks of seeds: Seeds are scattered and grow as we sleep and rise. The seeds sprout and produce the grain.
Seeds of democracy are scattered everywhere in Haiti. Even though the people do not trust the government to function nor to meet their needs, the seeds that are planted are also seeds of hope.
And the Haitian people live in hope for a better life. They want what is best for their country. The seeds are fragile and these days many of the seeds are being trampled. There is no clear direction. People are afraid. Still, they are filled with faith that God is with them.
Some of the seed will find its way to good soil. God has promised.
[Sr. Judy Dohner, a Sister of the Humility of Mary from Villa Maria, Pennsylvania, is in her 14th year of service in Haiti. With her nursing background she has worked in various capacities mainly with Nos Petit Frères et Soeurs. She is currently training a Haitian staff to run a medical depot that sends out medications and supplies to clinics.]