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An insider's critique of what went wrong in Haiti

Ricardo Seitenfus, a Brazilian professor of international affairs, says perhaps the problem in Haiti is not so much with Haitian people, but with the advise the UN, OAS, and NGOs have been giving Haiti.

Last modified: 8 Jan 2011 21:20
Ricardo Seitenfus during interview in Brasilia with Al Jazeera. Photo: Maria Elena Romero/Al Jazeera

You will be hard pressed to find a man anywhere more passionate about the plight of the Haitian people than Ricardo Seitenfus. The Brazilian professor of international affairs first went to Haiti in 1993 and the warmth of the Haitian people – combined with their immense struggle - has been drawing Seitenfus back to the island nation like a magnet ever since his first trip. Seitenfus has authored a book about the country, as well over a dozen other publications about international affairs. (His personal web site, in Portuguese, can be viewed by clicking here.) Seitenfus feels so connected to Haiti, he often doesn’t even realise he refers to the country as “we,” not as “they” or “it.”

Since 2009 Seitenfus has been working in Haiti on behalf of the Organization of American States. As the Special Representative of the OAS Secretary General, Seitenfus was one of the country’s top foreign diplomats.

But Seitenfus is a man who will tell you he is a professor, not a diplomat, and he feels it’s his obligation to speak out about injustice and wrongdoing when he sees it. And with over 1 million people still living in inhumane conditions in tent cities, and by some estimates more than 4 million without basic services, and almost no reconstruction started, it doesn’t take Winston Churchill to figure out everything is not quite going right in Haiti.

In the past year few who hold positions in power in the international community inside the country have dared to ask tough questions of themselves.  But Seitenfus did. In an interview with a Swiss newspaper LeTemps published 5 days before Christmas, Seitenfus said – in essence - perhaps the problem in Haiti is not so much with Haitian people, but with the advise the UN, OAS, and NGOs have been giving Haiti.

The same day the interview was published, he apparently was asked by the OAS to get lost. The incident passed without much notice in the press. The obvious question: Was he fired for simply speaking truth to power and blasting the U.N. and NGOs?  To her great credit Georgianne Nienaber did ask that very question in a Huffington Post article. Also, Haitilibre.com has also been on top of the story, among a lot of the blogosphere.

Al Jazeera producer Rima Davoudi tracked-down Seitenfus after he left Haiti and I caught up with him this week in Brazil’s capital, Brasilia, for a sit down interview; it is his first interview with an international broadcast network since his forced exile from Haiti.

Below is the transcript of the interview, which was conducted in Portuguese, and which was trimmed slightly for length and clarity.

Is Seitenfus a man who deserves to be let go by the OAS? Or is he a man who is simply speaking truth that some don't want to hear?

You read it. You be the judge.  

 Excerpts of the interview will begin airing on Al Jazeera Sunday, January 9 as part of the kick-off of several days of special coverage on Haiti one year after the earthquake.    

 Gabriel Elizondo: In your view, were you fired from your job as Special Representative to the Secretary General of the OAS in Haiti?

 Ricardo Seitenfus: No. Contracts are generally one year in length with the OAS. So my contract was about to expire. However, I thought I had a contract until March 2011. So even though it’s one year contracts, it was assumed my contract would be extended at least until that point of March which would perhaps allow me to see through the current political situation…I wanted to stay in Haiti until the process of the elections is over. I did not want to leave Haiti. I don't want to be on vacation right now. But on December 20 -coincidentally the same day my interview was published in the Swiss newspaper…I received a phone call from the Security General of the OAS, Jose Miguel Insulza, asking me to go on vacation. I wasn’t planning to go on vacation because we are going through an electoral crisis that has political consequences, and I thought it was a matter good judgment and professional responsibility that I - as the Chief of the Representation of the OAS from Brazil and as this Special Representative of the OAS - stayed in Haiti during this period. But he (Sec. General Insulza) asked me to go on vacation. And he also informed me that when I returned from my vacation at the end of January 2011, I would not continue in my position. So I image, in a certain way, my period in Haiti, instead of being extended until March 31, 2011 like anticipated and talked about before, will be done on the 30th of January 2011.

 Gabriel Elizondo: So, just to be clear, do you work for the OAS right now?

 Ricardo Seitenfus: I am on vacation until 30 of January. So I assume until that date I am a functionary of the OAS, but from what I understood, I no longer speak on behalf of the OAS.

A Haitian woman standing in front of tents over 1 million people still call home 1 year after the earthquake. Photo: Maria Elena Romero/Al Jazeera.

Gabriel Elizondo: Your main criticism of the U.N.’s work in Haiti is that they put too much of a focus on security. Explain what you mean.

 Ricardo Seitenfus: I believe the international system of prevention and solution of conflicts is not prepared to treat specific cases such as Haiti. Haiti is not a threat to international security. It is not a threat to regional security. It’s not a threat to Cuba or the Dominican Republic. Haiti doesn’t even have armed forces…. With relation to the UN, I ask myself if we’re not just fooling ourselves. Wouldn’t it be better if the counsel of social and economic development oversees Haiti and would have priority, instead of the council on security? Haiti is not a threat to international peace and security. Haiti is a threat to itself and its own people…The life of the Haitian people is hard. Especially after the earthquake. After the quake we have 1.5 million people that are still living under tents in the parks and in the streets. I imaged that after January 12, 2010, the world would not only show that extraordinary solidarity to help Haiti, but it would also say, ‘Let’s stop and think if we are not mis-diagnosing Haiti with wrong formulas.’ But no, we didn’t ask that question. What we did was to send more soldiers in. So I think Haiti is much more complicated and much more delicate and multifaceted than simply sending peace keeping forces of the UN to image that Haiti can be rescued from the situation. The presence of the military is contradictory and counter-intuitive with me without talking about the moral questions. With MINUSTAH (U.N. peacekeeping forces in Haiti), we spent $600 million dollars per year this year. $865 million dollars this year alone, I think. That is besides what every member of MINUSTAH spends. So I believe we need to do a balance sheet - an audit almost - to take stock of how we have advanced in this last 6 and half years and to make a new strategy with relation to Haiti. I think we fool ourselves with who the real enemy here. The enemy of Haiti is misery, is lack of hope, the lack of perspective, lack of work, lack of income. Not security.”

 

A Haitian woman and her child in a camp in Port-au-Prince. Photo: Maria Elena Romero/Al Jazeera

Gabriel Elizondo: Haiti is a complex country, and isn’t there plenty of blame to go around?

Ricardo Seitenfus: What is the problem of Haiti? This is what I call a conflict of low intensity, where the political actors, in their fight for power, do not respect the rules of the ‘democratic game.’ There have been at least 8 interventions by the international community and the U.N. into Haiti. Clearly there is a problem in Haiti, but there is also a problem we have on the model of our presence in Haiti. Otherwise we would not have to return 7 or 8 times to intervene in Haiti in a period of 20 years! I believe the international system is not prepared to deal with the issue of Haiti. Besides that, we are in Haiti trying to make Haitian's learn the lessons of democracy. And what  kind of conclusions can we draw from our efforts? Is it possible to have democracy when there is 80% unemployment? When 50% of the population lives in misery, on less than $1 a day? When practically there is no state to organize the public force of society? And the fact we are now in this situation regarding elections, is not a result because Haitians and the political actors in Haiti are opposed to democracy. They are just against the process that leads to democracy. They question that process we are imposing on them…Many of the countries of the world that came out of colonial rule established democracies, liberties, and guarantees amongst political actors defining the ‘rules of the democratic game’ to get to power. Things like multi-party systems, freedom of the press, freedom of thought and association, amnesties. And all this plays a role in making a national agreement to start a new history in the country. Haiti did none of this. Haiti’s political actors signed no deal. And in some ways, without organizing democracy, they keep us - the international community - and also and more importantly, the Haiti people, as hostage. In a certain way, we in the international community in the past 20 years, we go to Haiti not because of misery, not because of abandoned children, we go there only when there are political problems, not even security problems, but political problems! So I think it is fundamental the international community and United Nations make an effort, and the OAS together with the political actors, to establish this kind of ‘democratic deal.’ Without that deal the Haitian people and the international community will be forever hostage to the different political groups in Haiti.

 

Thousands of people gathered outside the collapsed presidential palace in Port-au-Prince. Photo: Maria Elena Romero/Al Jazeera

Gabriel Elizondo: The NGO relief organizations have a huge presence in Haiti. What are your misgivings about their work in Haiti?

Ricardo Seitenfus: The NGOs did an extraordinary job in the day’s right after the earthquake, and should be commended. But the tendency for the NGOs was to lay down roots in Haiti. And in a certain way, some governments, and the world population in general, made huge donations to Haiti via NGOs that never reached the Haitian people. So in certain ways the situation in Haiti is the same or has not changed. We have hundreds of millions of dollars in the hands of the NGOs without any sort of social control, without any transparency, or government management. And we are accusing the government of Haiti of being corrupt when the government of Haiti doesn’t even have money in their hands to be corrupt with! We can not demand from Haiti what we do not demand for ourselves…We can attempt to create a new model of state and to make Haiti a labratory of experiences but we have to stop Haiti becoming ‘Haiti-NGO,’ that means a country of NGOs. That is unacceptable for us. And that is unacceptable for Haitians and for the history of Haiti. All projects that come in to Haiti that weaken even more the weak Haitian state, should be discarded. We should accept only projects that bring resources for the institutions of Haiti to be strengthened, and for Haiti to effectively respond to the needs of dealing internally with their inequities… We can not make of Haiti a ‘Disneyland’ of the NGOs. And I think this it the time to say to the NGOs: ‘Stop! This is a sovereign country, a country that needs to be respected, not only because of the country it is, but also for what it represents for the history of the world.'

Gabriel Elizondo: Do you think the international community – the NGOs, U.N., and OAS – would prefer you just shut up and not be speaking out about all this?

Seitenfus says he is under no obligation to keep quiet, but no longer speaks on behalf of the OAS. Photo: Maria Elena Romero/Al Jazeera.

Ricardo Seitenfus: “Their preferences on what they want do not matter to me. I am on vacation right now, I guess. I imagine I am not anymore a voice of the OAS. I have no more obligations to hold back my opinions. I am a citizen. And as a citizen I have a right to speak. The problems of Haiti touch all of us, and question all of us…Haiti doesn’t deserve the present that is has today. And Haiti doesn’t deserve the disregard that the international community has for it. I think the problems in Haiti should be a priority for the OAS because this is the only country in Latin America that has peace keeping forces, and the length of a peacekeeping operation is proportional to length of its success….the longer peace keeping forces stay, the less success they are going to experience.  So I am exercising my freedom of speech. I question why we always go walking down the wrong path with Haiti. Let’s stop playing with Haiti. We must find - through dialogue with the Haitian society and Haitian state and the political parties - a formula to make this country and its people with such an extraordinary history an opportunity to get out of this degrading human situation that they are in today.

Gabriel Elizondo: Do you think things with change in relation to the international community and how it deals with Haiti?

Ricardo Seitenfus: I believe that the decisions made in international organizations are highly bureaucratic. And in a certain way, when someone inside speaks out in an open and objective manner - with supporting data - that causes fear because that could serve as verification that, for example, 60 years of help to Haiti has been a failure. The example of Haiti is not unique. It’s only one of the cases that you can take out of a series of failures of development aide in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

 

Tens of thousands of Haitian children lost parents in the earthquake. Photo: Maria Elena Romero/Al Jazeera.

Gabriel Elizondo: Do you have hope for the future of Haiti?

Ricardo Seitenfus:  “Haitians are in charge of their destiny. If they don’t want help, nobody will be able to help them. But I think the world wants to help Haiti. Probably the international institutions in many parts of the world simply do not know how to help. And that is why right now we need to seriously take stock of where we are at right now. We need to dialogue with Haitians to find a common road to make this country leave this situation of misery that it is in today.”

With editorial assistance from Rima Davoudi, Maria Elena Romero and Douglas Engle.