Looking beyond the Rubble: Refounding Haiti amid Continued Challenges

August 2013

Mark Schuller and Pablo Morales, eds., Tectonic Shifts: Haiti since the Earthquake (Sterling, VA: Kumarian, 2012); 271 pages; ISBN: 9781565495128 (paperback).

Tectonic Shifts: Haiti Since the Earthquake, one of multiple volumes published in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti on 12 January 2010, reflects collective efforts by Haitianist scholars and activists to discuss the temblor’s impact from Haitian perspectives; expose the disaster’s humanmade, not “natural,” qualities; and restore complexity and history to a nation reduced to images of horror and tragedy through what Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck regards as the violence of the international media.1 Tectonic Shifts stands out because it offers critical and heretofore unheard perspectives on the problematic process of reconstruction over a year later. After considering the historical framework of Haiti’s two-hundred-year domination by foreign powers, the book analyzes the ineffectiveness of presumably philanthropic efforts postquake and, most important, affords a platform for the voices of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and of grassroots organizations such as the Force for Reflection and Action on Housing (Fos refleksyon ak aksyon sou koze kay [FRAKKA]), which promotes housing rights, and the women’s advocacy groups Commission of Women Victims for Victims (Komisyon fanm viktim pou viktim [KOFAVIV]) and Haitian Women’s Solidarity (Solidarite fanm ayisyen [SOFA]) that combat gender-based violence in Haiti.

Tectonic Shifts features forty-six essays by scholars, journalists, activists, and Haitians both at home and in the diaspora. Although essays appear in English, many flesh out main points through Creole expressions: for example, Gina Athena Ulysse uses “Tout moun se moun” [“All people are people”] (244), and Chenet Jean-Baptiste “Bourik travay pou chwal galonnen” [“The donkey works so the horse can run free”] (97). These proverbs are juxtaposed with depictions of UN and foreign aid workers, along with elite Haitians, driving new SUVs while IDPs continued to live in squalid conditions, vulnerable to extreme weather, disease, and rape and other violence, and fearing eviction by landlords—who in most cases have no proof of land ownership—but lacking anywhere else to go, particularly the two hundred thousand people who previously rented. And making matter worse, soon after the quake many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) cut off emergency assistance like free water distribution, claiming that if given handouts people would remain in the camps too long. Contesting the neoliberal, profit-driven discourse, Tectonic Shifts underlines the resilience, solidarity, and industry of the long-neglected and exploited Haitian poor—whose revolutionary roots run deep and strong—and simultaneously disputes Haiti’s exceptionalism as a nation. This objective resonates with Caribbeanist critic J. Michael Dash’s insistence that Haitians not be regarded as heroic or abject but as ordinary people capable of carrying out normal lives and helping one another.2 Totally absent from international media coverage of the earthquake are images of Haitians pulling people from the rubble themselves, peasants assisting more than half a million refugees from Port-au-Prince, and humanitarian efforts from Cuban, Dominican, and other Caribbean agents.

The priorities espoused in Tectonic Shifts coincide with Mark Schuller’s Killing with Kindness: Haiti, International Aid, and NGOs: both books question current practices of delivering humanitarian aid to Haiti, presenting abundant evidence to establish how these gestures are intricately linked to US military interests and global capitalism.3 The proverbial and completely unregulated “republic of NGOs” (58), in the editors’ words, is a government unto itself; as the late Janil Lwijis argues in his essay, this undermines the Haitian state and reinforces and worsens the status quo (70–71).4 In concert with recent work by Haitianist scholar Nick Nesbitt, this volume demonstrates in a straightforward way how the United States and other international players benefit from a dependent Haiti: the Haitian oligarchy, the army, and foreigners have historically colluded to profit off the backs of the people.5 Foreign powers contributed millions to support (premature) presidential elections instead of releasing aid money, after which the newly elected president Michel Martelly declared Haiti “open for business.” Also, as Haitian writer and professor Evelyne Trouillot laments, there was a rush to re-open schools after the earthquake instead of to reform the system and making education more accessible to all (105).

Where did the money go? Who is responsible for the fact that thousands of Haitians remained in makeshift camps, under subhuman conditions, over a year after the January 2010 tragedy? Schuller and Morales show that the Haitian government, which received less than 3 percent of the billions of dollars of funds, cannot be blamed. Instead, the waste stems from “disaster capitalism,” wherein misinformed do-gooders, grandstanding celebrities, and imperialistic NGOs absorb money, mismanage it, and squander it, with little to no coordination among themselves, much less transparency in terms of their efforts. The Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, by informing Haitian members last minute about meetings and refusing to provide Creole translation, excluded Haitians from the decision-making process involving aid expenditure. Mobilization of IDPs continued to be discouraged, and passivity and dependency encouraged. Finally, the United Nations mission in Haiti, known as MINUSTAH, remained ineffectual, popularly disliked, and often harmful. In October 2010, for example, a cholera epidemic broke out in Saint Marc. This waterborne disease had not been seen in Haiti in at least a century, and it claimed well over one thousand lives (though the epidemic’s real toll cannot be determined). Subsequent analysis indicated that the strain originated in South Asia, and most likely was brought in by UN troops from Nepal.

Tectonic Shifts provides bleak analysis of the erosion of the Haitian state over time: foreign powers undermine the Haitian government, and the elite ruling class undermines the Haitian population. Martelly’s election illustrates how problematic the voting process was, given that so few Haitians were able to vote and that clerical errors abounded; Patrick Sylvain notes the people’s resulting determination to reject the traditional elite mandate by simply voting for “disorder” (205). Also disturbing is the perverse problem of “communicative capitalism,” which Valerie Kaussen discusses (125). Publications such as Chimen Lakay, ostensibly designed to afford poor Haitians a voice, serve mainly to release social pressures or to create the illusion of popular participation in the reconstruction process. Problems are not addressed, and needs are not met; instead, a “do-it-yourself” ideology is promoted, replicating the dominant neoliberal ethos espoused by foreign NGOs.

Haitian American scholar and activist Gina Athena Ulysse argues, “Haiti needs new narratives now more than ever” (240). Dehumanizing images of Haiti as powerless, irrational, and dangerous are not new but historically entrenched and resistant to change. In the nineteenth century, when slave masses triumphed over France, unsettled the larger Western colonial system, and established the world’s first black republic, Haiti immediately became an international pariah, and negative discourses proliferated. Later, during the US occupation of Haiti (1915–1934), racism and class-based divisions intensified and extreme centralization occurred.  

Tectonic Shifts does not pretend to offer a coherent list of priorities or recommendations, much less a unified perspective regarding Haiti’s postearthquake challenges. But it fundamentally supports the notion that, in the words of Ricot Jean-Pierre, whom Beverly Bell cites, “another Haiti is possible” (221). The reflections and recommendations articulated in the volume alternate in tone between indignation, anguish, and unwavering idealism. For instance, the idea of Haitians coming together to overthrow global capitalism seems poignant but improbable, while appeals for the Haitian government to realize UN-mandated universal human rights to housing, clean water, health care, and education in Haiti appear optimistic—especially considering that more “developed” nations, including the United States, do not completely fulfill such social commitments. But Tectonic Shifts provides a host of potential blueprints for collective action toward progressive social and political ends in Haiti, and it offers ample room for hope. To successfully re-found Haiti, women and peasants in particular must be involved, trained, and supported, for they have long represented the backbone of the country. South-South coalitions and collaborations must be nurtured, the Haitian state supported, governmental power decentralized, and the diaspora involved. In the volume’s concluding essay, Fritz Deshommes, recalling the intense period of social change and activism following the overthrow of Duvalier, reminds readers substantial work has already been done to “re-found” the Haitian nation. Haiti’s 1987 Constitution—still in effect—is an “excellent warhorse and must be equipped, nourished, and cared for in order to achieve the real re-foundation. . . . We must fight for its implementation” (251).

The emphasis of Tectonic Shifts lies primarily on history, politics, and economics and less on culture, a notion that the Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot discredited as overly vague. Essays do occasionally refer to Vodou, and the centrality of Haiti’s popular religion to the nation’s social fabric and its contributions to creative production are worth remembering—as well as the reality that some conservative Protestant NGO interventions overtly attacked or denied assistance to Vodou practitioners. A potential weakness of Tectonic Shifts might reside in its name: because the volume so convincingly articulates how the earthquake intensified preexisting social disparities in Haiti, the title may be somewhat overstated. Haiti has certainly changed since 2010, but the influence of foreign powers in the Caribbean nation has shifted less than it has accelerated, warranting continued resistance on the part of Haitians themselves, along with members of the Haitian diaspora and individuals in solidarity with Haiti.


Mariana F. Past is an associate professor in the Departments of Spanish and Latin American, Latina/o, and Caribbean Studies at Dickinson College. She is currently completing a book manuscript titled “Reclaiming the Haitian Revolution: Race, Politics, and History in Twentieth-Century Caribbean Literatures,” and is also cotranslating from Haitian Creole to English (with Benjamin Hebblethwaite) the first publication by Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Ti difé boulé sou istoua Ayiti (1977).


1 Raoul Peck, “Dead-end in Port-au-Prince,” in Martin Munro, ed., Haiti Rising: Haitian History, Culture, and the Earthquake of 2010 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2010), 47.

2 J. Michael Dash address from the “Ways of Knowing” panel, “Symposium on the Life and Work of Michel-Rolph Trouillot,” New York University, 1 March 2013.

3 Mark Shuller, Killing with Kindness: Haiti, International Aid, and NGOs (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012).

4 “On this land that is the mother of liberty, NGOs zombify the poor masses” (71). Lwijis, an activist professor at the State University of Haiti, died on 12 January 2010, just minutes before the earthquake struck.

5 See Nick Nesbitt, “Haiti: the Monstrous Anomaly,” in Millery Polyné, ed., The Idea of Haiti: Rethinking Crisis and Development (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013). 


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