By Greg Beckett, author of There Is No More Haiti: Between Life and Death in Port-au-Prince
Haiti is in the midst of a political crisis that threatens to tear the country apart. Over the past two years a corruption scandal implicating the current president has slowly unfolded. That scandal has gone hand-in-hand with a budget crisis and an energy crisis, both of which are tied to the collapse of the PetroCaribe plan—an agreement in which Venezuela provided Caribbean countries with cheap oil at low-interest loans to spur economic and social development. In Haiti, it appears much of the money from that program was misplaced, misused, or simple stolen. New US-imposed sanctions against Venezuela mean Haiti must now import fuel from elsewhere, but the government has been unable to pay its energy bills, leaving the country with virtually no power.
With gas shortages and daily blackouts, most businesses, markets, schools, and hospitals have been forced to close. Anti-government protests have become near-daily occurrences. Most of the country is effectively shut down by roadblocks and demonstrations. The protesters, angered by government violence and corruption, have called for the president to step down. They are also calling for the end of what Haitians call lavi chè, the high cost of living. Since the protests began, more than a year ago, the cost of staples like rice, beans, and cooking oil has doubled, amid growing inflation and a sinking local currency. Many Haitians now say that life in their country has become “unlivable” (invivab).
An unlivable life seems unthinkable. Yet, it is a potent and profound sentiment that strikes at the heart of the experience of long-term crisis and disaster. This is how crisis feels to many in Haiti—it feels like daily roadblocks and blackouts, like a constant state of insecurity and uncertainty, like a problem that never goes away.
To understand this sentiment, we need to move away from the idea of crisis as an event or a rupture in the otherwise routine order of things and instead imagine crisis from the standpoint of those who live with it every day; to think of it not as an event but rather as a prevailing atmosphere, an atmosphere that suffuses daily life and turns catastrophic damage into ordinary, everyday disasters.
Haiti is said to be one of the most vulnerable countries in the world. Yet, it is important to see vulnerability in historical and political terms, to see it as the outcome of a long history of crisis, as the effect of a political climate that has weakened the Haitian state, broken the Haitian economy, destroyed the Haitian landscape, and displaced millions of Haitians. We might think of this as vulnerability to neoliberalism and neocolonialism, for it is those disasters that have made life unlivable in Haiti. And those disasters are not accidents; they are merely the weather that results from an atmosphere of crisis held in place by the international system.