A hillside in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Photo by Carolyn Barker-Villena.

Haiti: A country of contradictions, a country of hope

  • Carolyn Barker-Villena
  • Feb 8, 2019

By Carolyn Barker-Villena

I first came to visit Haiti a few months after the 2010 earthquake devastated an already deeply impoverished country. And today I am leaving on a day when the streets are literally on fire.

Crowds are protesting the embezzlement of $3.8 billion that came from the sale of cheap petroleum that Hugo Chavez, then the president of Venezuela, gave Haiti as a loan after the earthquake. Yes, petroleum from Venezuela, a country that itself now faces a humanitarian crisis. The petroleum was to be sold at low prices in Haiti and the profits then invested in infrastructure projects that would generate revenue to repay the loan to Venezuela. But instead that revenue has largely gone into the pockets of Haitian politicians and elites. And Haitians — rightfully so — are angry. That anger has been fueled by a weakening economy driving even more of the Haitian population into extreme poverty. The anger is also fueled by rising violence as rival gangs are emboldened by the despair around them. 

And so here we are nine years after the earthquake. The tent camps that housed over a million people after their homes were destroyed are gone. In their place are homes built precariously on the hillsides above Port-au-Prince. The massive piles of rubble and rebar from collapsed buildings that blocked the streets are also long gone, but the roads are still snarled with traffic. A city that could barely manage a population of 1 million people two decades ago is now home to 4 million with no infrastructure investment in sight. And that brings us right back to the anger over the billions of dollars that should have gone to roads and schools, but instead went to the wealthy.

Signs of hope

There are signs of hope. Haiti has smart young professionals like Lutheran World Relief’s program manager, Wegbert Chery, an agronomist who received his master’s degree from Louisiana State under a scholarship from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Now he spends his days overseeing a cocoa project in southwest Haiti, a region that was heavily impacted by Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Dame-Marie, the main town there, is a good 8 to 10-hour drive on bumpy dirt roads from Port-au-Prince. Wegbert and his team of two extension workers have trained 28 young adults as agriculture promoters who visit farms and teach farmers techniques for increasing production, such as proper pruning and fertilizing their cacao trees. 

Much of what Lutheran World Relief is doing in Haiti borrows from our successful cocoa work in Central America. The cocoa toolkit we created with farmers in Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador, for example, has been translated to Creole and adapted for the Haitian context. 

More than 980 farmers have been reached so far in this current project. But Wegbert emphasizes that in addition to the training his team provides, what the farmers express that they most appreciate is the time taken to treat them as people and not just project participants. That is indeed where Lutheran World Relief thrives around the world — in sitting down with farmers and understanding their struggles and working with them to improve their lives.

Linking health with agriculture and value chains

Another sign of hope is Lutheran World Relief’s recently announced integration with IMA World Health. Wenser Estime heads up the health program and is a talented Haitian doctor who is determined to make a difference in his country. The IMA team manages a USAID funded national project in neglected tropical diseases. The team of 20 people train and oversee 9,000 community health workers around the country and have provided over 50 million treatments since 2009, averaging approximately 5 million people every year, the vast majority of whom are in rural, hard to reach areas of the country. In discussions we had during my visit, Wenser says he envisions linking the agriculture and market chains Lutheran World Relief typically works in with health outreach services. For example, the same day a pregnant woman comes to market from her small village to sell her produce, she could also get access to pre-natal healthcare. 

Lutheran World Relief and IMA World Health are also joining forces to better prepare for the natural disasters of which Haiti is too often the target. Access to safe water to prevent the spread of cholera after an emergency is one area we will work on together. Training communities in disaster preparedness is another area where we will collaborate. These are examples of why we really are better together. 

A mixture of life and death

As I write this on the plane ride home, a large yellow Carnival cow mask sits perched on my lap. I asked a Haitian friend who works with artisans about the significance of the cow. She told me that in the tradition of Carnival in Jacmel and Port-au-Prince, there is always a “school of disguised young cows.” One explanation is that they represent the cowboys who take care of the cows and bring them to Port-au-Prince.

The mask is beautifully painted with golden swirls and stripes. But it also clearly has anger in its dark eyes (the nostrils serve as the eyeholes). And a ghostly appearance, too.

Haitian artists are definitely masters at mixing the whimsical with the macabre, a direct influence of the voodoo belief system. I am no expert on Haiti, but from pure observation over the last nine years of travels there, I wonder if perhaps that mixture of life with death is what helps make Haitians so resilient. They face the daily reality of poverty and corruption with a tough exterior that is ready to put fire to the streets, but also a soft interior with a sense of humor and “joie de vivre” that is evident in the annual Carnival masquerading. A country of contradictions. A country of hope, even among the burning barricades. 

Carolyn Barker-Villena is Senior Regional Director for Latin America & the Caribbean. 

Carolyn Barker-Villena, Feb 8, 2019 email