Haitians Take on Capitol Hill

On the eve of the State of the Union address, the labyrinthine tunnels connecting congressional offices to the Capitol building were eerily quiet. But turning a corner, an unlikely surge of Caribbean energy came in the form of a delegation of Haitians making their way from the Rayburn Building (where they had been meeting with members of Congress all day) to a swanky reception in the Capitol.

A dynamic group of human rights, peasant and women leaders, the Haitians were at the start of a three-day tour -- a rare opportunity to present firsthand testimonies about the situation in their country to U.S. government officials.

More than two years have passed since the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake shook an already fragile Haiti to its core. The reconstruction process has been painfully slow. Upwards of half a million internally displaced people still live in tent cities while international business deals take priority, often augmenting the number of displaced.

"Multinational companies come into Haiti and purchase land that we use to grow food," explained Pierre Doudou, an expert on food sovereignty, and one of the Haitian delegates to Washington. "It's an invasion that makes us more and more dependent." To make his point, Doudou described how the upcoming Northern Industrial Park will uproot farming communities on some of Haiti's best agricultural land.

"After two years, all the aid promised has yet to materialize," said Antonal Mortime, director of the Haitian Human Rights Platform, and a delegate. "The money coming in is not enough, and not administered properly," he added, pointing out that less than half of the $4.5 billion promised to Haiti through the Interim Commission for the Reconstruction of Haiti (CIRH) on March 31, 2010 had reached the country. "Marginalized Haitians have paid the highest price, and their suffering has only increased," Mortime emphasized.

The Haiti Advocacy Working Group (HAWG), a coalition of 29 international development, faith-based, human rights, and social justice organizations came together in early 2010 to advocate for a fair U.S. policy toward Haiti. Member groups work with Haitian social movements and grassroots organizations on a vast range of issues, from gender-based violence to health to holding international financial institutions accountable for their investments in Haiti. Part of the HAWG's commitment involves organizing face-to-face interactions between Haitians and policymakers -- thus the invitation for a delegation to come to Washington.

Elise Young of ActionAid USA, a member organization of the HAWG offered the following analysis:

The U.S. government must fully honor its commitment by meeting its number targets and supporting the Haitian government in its land reform and housing development efforts. Most importantly, this must be done through direct consultation with Haiti's grassroots and civil society groups, listening to the people living in the camps, women's groups, and peasant movements in decentralized areas.

Briefings sponsored by Representatives Frederica Wilson, Barbara Lee, Yvette Clarke, Maxine Waters and Donald Payne -- and supported by HAWG -- allowed delegates, Diaspora leaders, and other Haiti experts both a space for reflection and ways to move forward on high-priority areas including gender-based violence, cholera, aid accountability, land and housing rights, and governance.

Rep. Maxine Waters sponsored a well-attended briefing on governance and democracy to emphasize the need for a just political process in Haiti's recovery. The lengthy discussion brought together some of the most prominent authorities on Haiti from Marguerite Salomon, a Haitian leader who works for women's justice in the tent camps to Haiti Special Coordinator Thomas Adams from the State Department.

"Stable, effective, and democratic governance is critical for Haiti's recovery and development. Therefore, I was encouraged to see such a strong interest in my briefing on governance in Haiti," said Congresswoman Waters. "Each of the past week's Haiti events provided Members of Congress and staff an opportunity to hear directly from individual Haitians about the challenges they face in their daily lives. I hope that the events held this week serve as a launching pad for further interest in and advocacy for the future of this wonderful country," she added.

Similarly, Rene Magloire, a delegate and former Haitian Justice Minister, expressed a bit of hope: "When Congress tells us they have a renewed commitment, I believe they will present the situation in Haiti to their colleagues."

Colette Lespinasse, a fellow delegate who works with Haitian refugees, listened intently as Magloire spoke. "This is where HAWG comes in," she said, "the organizations work together to hold the U.S. government accountable and carry the urgency of Haiti on their backs."

Exhausted from the whirlwind working tour, the group sat down for a home-cooked Haitian meal the night before returning to Port-au-Prince. As the hot, fragrant food was spooned onto plates, the discussion around the table was the desire to return to Washington and do it all again.