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Flagwoman for liberté

By Sunity Maharaj

The habits of old power die hard. Really hard. Deep and enduring, they constitute a culture of their own, supported and protected by infrastructure as deep as DNA, programmed for survival by any means necessary.

These days, Delacroix's "Liberty Leading the People" has the face of an Indian woman. Her half-draped bodice is now torn and soiled while the bodies under her feet are not dead and dying but prying and peering up her dress.

But Delacroix's flagwoman for liberté and equalité has long ago dismissed assumptions of fraternité, recognising that, coming more than three decades after the Haitian declaration of universal rights for all, Delacroix's France was, after all, just a provincial club with its rights for whites only.

In this season of Arab and Woman springs, where hope itself is the Spring of all springs, the Haitian Revolution should caution us about the nature of power and the challenge of change.

Saturday coming will be three years since the Haitian earth opened up and swallowed over 200,000 lives, leaving behind a million others, battered and bruised and trampled upon.

Given the collective anguish, the global generosity and the can-do confidence of the G-8 powers in delivering a new and improved Haiti, who could have imagined that three years would pass with virtually nothing achieved?

This third anniversary will meet over 350,000 people still living in almost 500 tent camps.

The figure comes from the New York Times' Debra Sontag who notes that the chief accomplishment of the past three years has been the clearing of the rubble, finally.

Hardly surprising, given the global insistence on interpreting Haiti through the lens of a history distorted by denial and repudiation.

From the beginning, even while the world's news cameras were still trained on the earthquake disaster, the mistakes of the global management team were evident and the outcome predictable.

Haitians, the only people with the experience and knowledge of Haiti's intricate survival networks and systems, with the mastery of the landscape and adeptness in the art of taming the impossible, were sidelined. Large and in charge were the big donor representatives, armed with the confidence of capital and technology and backed by an army of private contractors waiting to capture and repatriate donor capital. In the end, like Napoleon's men, they have all been undone by history and culture.

Yet again, we have learned that unless a country's development agenda has the good fortune to coincide with the donor agenda, funding-led development will be counter-productive at best, and destructive at worst.

Haiti is today what it was before January 12, 2012. Just worse and with UN-transmitted cholera. The Port-au-Prince government shares power with the United Nations and the United States with an agenda that is frankly geopolitical and driven by foreign investor and supplier concerns. The provision of public services are left to the army of NGOs who over-run Toussaint's republic, dispensing goods and gods with and without discrimination.

Over centuries of experience, Haitians have learnt to negotiate this minefield of interests. They have endured because of their powerful network of informal institutions, hidden and impenetrable by outsiders. Indeed, impenetrability is a talisman of Haitian protection, honed from a psychology born out of centuries of threat and aggression, and designed to hide the real Haiti from us behind an elaborate decoy of exotica manufactured to keep us entertained and at bay. It is a survival strategy that keeps the Haitian revolution alive with the hope of eventual consummation.

A world willing to help Haiti needed to understand and engage Haitians.

Instead, it fell victim to its own stereotypes of the country and dismissed its people and their wisdom, confident in its own superiority. Well, it has failed. Three years on, the powerful voices that were once championing change are a whimper. In the Caribbean, we, the family of Haiti and biggest beneficiaries of the Haitian revolution, are not even in the picture. Indeed, we never were.

In 2010, with Caribbean people finally engaged with Haiti, our leaders missed the historic opportunity to build a bridge between us. Failed once again by our imagination, we followed the pack and joined the queue looking for business opportunity in the ruins of Port-au-Prince. When opportunity failed to materialise, we, too, turned away and haven't looked back since.

On the third anniversary of the earthquake, the Haitian President, Michel Martelly, is in the chair as Head of CARICOM. Is it too cynical to predict another opportunity wasted?

Indeed, the habits of old power die hard. Really hard.

Given our history of entrenched minority power, democracy with its ideal of equal rights was bound to fall into conflict with the old power structure. But it quickly found its feet, re-invented itself and survives today in the form of political financiers of mass movements that are wined and dined on their way to deliver the vote.

Perhaps, like the people of Haiti, we, too, are plotting a route that would put our hijacked power into our hands. And maybe, as with the masks that hide Haiti's revolution, there is serious intent behind the casual face we show the world. This is, after all, the culture of the oppressed where, outside of the occasional eruption, the battle is mostly oblique, subterranean and relentless, day in, day out, in the private spaces without witnesses, in the scornful glance, the denied opportunity, the open leer, the stereotype.

Law and policy are critical components in anchoring a framework for protection and change but it will take a new culture to defeat the old, bringing us always back to the question of how does a culture escape itself?

We of the Caribbean, who were born out of the ideology of people as property, who were sellers, buyers and products in the unholy trade in human beings, have a historic responsibility to stand on the side of the rights of the individual in whatever form the battle takes: whether as women's rights, children's rights, gay rights and every other minority right.

If we can't, we might as well slap Toussaint L'Ouverture for taking on Napoleon and make peace with the whip.

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