"Today we demonstrate. Tomorrow we bring weapons. People are going to get killed."
This is the unashamed statement coming from a member of a violent gang roaming the streets of Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, causing mayhem, burning buildings, and using tactics of intimidation to have its preferred candidate declared president of this impoverished Caribbean nation. Haiti's November 28 presidential elections were always fraught with danger and violence especially after the devastation of the country by a powerful earthquake in January.
This event caused massive loss of life, put at approximately 300,000, almost complete destruction of government buildings and infrastructure, and a population still reeling and suffering from the after effects of the quake that left more than 1.5 million people in makeshift shelters. And in recent weeks the capital was gripped by a cholera outbreak that has so far killed more than 2,000 people. So an election held under these very extreme and difficult social circumstances was bound to be problematic.
Long before the elections gangs of unemployed young man had become active in the slums and squatter camps beating, raping and exploiting defenseless and vulnerable woman. Haitian land owners have also "employed" these gangs to forcibly remove destitute people from their lands and in other cases as "rent collectors" who beat and bully those squatters unable to pay. Unemployment has always been a major problem in Haiti but the earthquake destroyed businesses, small and large, boats and other means of livelihood, including livestock and crops.
All of these challenges have acerbated the inherent contradictions in Haitian society that has degenerated into a kind of "dog eat dog, survival of the fittest" where the weak and vulnerable get exploited by the strong and ruthless. Haiti's government, still traumatized and led by an extremely flaccid leader, has not been able to engage the Haitian masses or give strong, capable leadership to the suffering people. President Rene Preval is today the most unpopular political leader in Haiti.
In this social, economic and political mess Haiti, under pressure from the international community and it local elites, was pushed and rushed into a presidential elections in less than passable circumstances. Financed by the European Union to the tune of millions of dollars this plebiscite was supposed to demonstrate the political resilience of the Haitian people and their thirst for democratic rule. Here again the historic colonial relationship between Haiti and the rest of the world came into being with people in Paris, London and Washington dictating what they believe should happen without taking into consideration the reality of the situation on the ground in Haiti.
So why has things gone so horribly wrong?
The crisis of Haitian unemployed workers --" former farmers, peasants, construction workers, craftsmen, domestic workers, farm hands, sex workers and other daily wage laborers --" is not new. It is intimately connected to the Lumpen problem that drives social upheavals, violence and other anti-social behavior in Haiti. For example, parts of the unskilled tier of the fledgling construction sector are penetrated by this element that is now plagued by gangsterism of all kinds.
The term 'Lumpen' refers to a strata of society crushed by the juggernaut of lack of economic change. The Lumpen have been ejected from the old (often rural) economy but have not found a stable place in new formal economic activities. They live by their wits, often resorting to crime. And in Haiti this strata is very large and is growing even larger due to the after effects of the January 2010 earthquake. Young men, unable to find work, and who live by sponging off others, have banded together for survival oftentimes preying on others in the ghettos, slums and squatter-refugee camps that now dot the Haitian landscape.
The Lumpen develop a culture that is adapted to their position in society. Violence and intimidation are their modus vivendi; braggadocio their favored mode of expression; drug trafficking, hustling, prostitution and other illegal activities fund name-brand clothes, flashy cars and bikes, skin bleaching and gaudy (bling) jewelry. Haiti's Lumpen, because of blurred class lines, are sometimes undistinguishable from the law abiding, hardworking Haitian day workers.
The Lumpen are to be found in the informal sector and among the long-term unemployed, especially those who have never been employed. About 52 per cent of Haiti's unemployed in the 15-29 age groups are long-term unemployed. Of this number, about 63 per cent have never, ever worked in any sort of job, formal or informal. This might be a comparatively small number when put against a population of approximately 8.9 million but, when in control of the political situation on the streets and part of the established political parties things can and do get out of hand.
This fickle, violent, fleetingly loyal stratum has been used for various kinds of dirty work since the coming to power of Dictator Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier. He dressed them up in blue paramilitary uniforms and called them Ton Ton Macoutes (bogeymen) and used them to unleash a reign of terror on innocent Haitians. Since then various politicians have also bought their services from time to time.
In the recent Haitian presidential elections all of the 18 candidates had their supporters drawn from this stratum. But well-financed campaigns like that of singer/entertainer Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly was able to retain a significant number of hardcore Lumpen. Given the fact that he has absolutely no political base in Haiti he drew his supporters from among the ranks of the Lumpen found in the slums, squatter camps and within the ranks of the unemployed. For a few dollars Haitian politicians bought this fleeting loyalty of a strata that is violence prone.
Martelly's supporters have burnt buildings, threatened to kill people, attacked the police, and generally unleashed a reign of mayhem and terror that is inconsistent with the political process in a civilized nation. The problem for him is that once activated this mob cannot be controlled. It is an illiterate, angry, opportunistic and violent street gang that will kill. maim and terrorize for a few dollars. For this gang political loyalty --" if that is what it can be called --" is about who pays. That can quickly change if another politician pays more. It is a rent-a-gang for hire and it operates in safety in numbers with sticks, stones, bottles, arson, murder and mayhem. Sweet Micky's call for orderly, peaceful protest has fallen on deaf ears because the Lumpen under the guise of "political outrage rooting for their candidate" is now free to loot, steal and plunder.
Today in Haiti, the masses of people have no work, or work for pay which cannot come close to providing a living wage for a family. Because of the soil erosion and structure of agriculture, thousands still pour into Port-au-Prince's dilapidated, earthquake devastated environs looking for work.
Most of them have heard of a friend's friend or an uncle's cousin said to have found work in the tourist industry, or manufacturing sector. But there are few jobs to be had, and the slums grow. These unemployed masses put increasing pressure on the already inadequate city infrastructure. The problems of unemployment and underemployment are caused in large measure by the lack of an adequate infrastructure and the domination of all wealth by the few. The political instability of the present moment does not help.
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