Saturday, May 5, 2012

Labour Day in Haiti

By Jean H Charles

In a country where 89% of the population endure unemployment or underemployment, more than 500,000 people, mostly young ones, turned out into the vast yard of Haiti’s Ministry of Agriculture to celebrate International Labour Day on May 1.

Indeed on Labour Day, the rest of the world (with the exception of the United States that celebrates its own on the first Monday of September) takes a day of rest to give homage to the punishment that God sanctioned man to: “You shall now eat your bread from the sweat of your labour.”

Early in the day, I took public transportation to go to the Ministry of Agriculture, located on the outskirts of the city of Port au Prince, to attend the fiesta of three days that features the art, the food, the agricultural experiments and the produce of Haiti. I knew, there would be a massive traffic jam later when the whole city would take the only road leading to the event. Indeed by midday, only a helicopter could get you into the Labour Fair.

President Michel Martelly, freshly minted from a week’s stay at a hospital in Miami, recuperating from pulmonary embolism, plunged himself into the affection of the crowd to urge the Haitian people to make the duty of work, a labour of love to remake Haiti the pearl of the islands when labour was total hell.

The president, as well as his Minister of Agriculture, Heber Doctor, and his Minister of Social Affairs and Labour, Francois Lafaille, that sponsored the event, took the artistic decorated podium (a master work of Sisalco, a Haitian company that produces designer bags, trays and other home products made of sisal) to urge the crowd and the nation to take advantage of the new vision of the government in terms of agriculture that focuses on four different features: guaranteed food security for all; guaranteed revenue for those who work hard and play by the rules; protection of the natural resources; and contribution for bringing foreign currencies into the country.

I was already into the path of that new locomotive when, last week I was invited to Cape Haitian (on the northern coast of Haiti) to a spectacular forum organized by the very articulate and ebullient Under Secretary of Agriculture for vegetal production, Mr Fresner Dorcin. For the first time in Haitian politics, a ministry is pulling all the actors and founding agencies together to share their knowledge, their constraints and their vision on agriculture in a given catchment area: the northern and northeast part of Haiti. 

This caravan will go from county to county in duplicating the model developed in the north of Haiti. Secretary Dorcin has pulled off a energetic team made of the best agronomists in the country, ready to kill the sacred cows and the old inertia that incubate the culture where each director of the ministry has his own little program that has nothing to do with a coordinated vision of the modern management of agriculture in a country where 90% of the population are involved in a way or the other in the business of agriculture.

The mood in Haiti is comparable to the mood in the rest of the world on Labour Day. No more those massive demonstrations of workers united to celebrate the symbol and the achievements of communism and socialism (down with capitalism!) in the capitals of the former Soviet Union, its satellites and its wannabe satellites. The crowd in Haiti was festive and in a spirit of jubilance, not a single incident of violence in a mass of half a million people, most of them still looking for work or a ready market for their creativities.

I was proud to be a native of Haiti amongst this gargantuan demonstration of creativity in decorative arts, happy as a lad going from booth to booth in sampling the different culinary specialties of each county of Haiti.

Upon stumbling on a giant fruit that I did not know before (I knew later its name was jacqier, a native of India), I was ready to buy the produce and play the Christopher Columbus game (transporting one seed from east to west of the world) when Mr Brunel Garcon, a friend from high school, who in the meantime became an official of the cabinet of the minister of agriculture, intervened to help me to get the gargantuan fruit free of charge. 

I profited from my proximity on the stage with the minister of agriculture to conduct a long and debating conversation on the policy of agriculture in Haiti. Should the government incubate and facilitate the business of agriculture as countries such as Japan, the United States and the European Union or should this government stay out of the business of incubation and let the market and investors have free hand?

At the level of the political platform of Repons Peyizan, the party in power (freshly reconciled in a warm and intimate relationship with the government) is leading a movement to enrich each peasant family in the territory of the republic. 

The program is a cocktail of husbandry, organic agriculture and art-craft where the party, through its social organization, will incubate each family to engage into those activities that will generate a minimum of $15,000 dollars per year in the next five years from the paltry $400 dollars per year today.

The party is attaching itself to an anchor agency to actualize its goal and its mission. The program is starting in the region of Jacmel, in the southeastern part of Haiti, with the support of the technical mission of Taiwan at the beginning of this month.

The debate initiated with the minister of agriculture is still open. Will Haiti follow the model seen in the other Western countries where the number of agricultural workers take a dip on the lower side as the country becomes richer or should Haiti lead the way again in the world where it can demonstrate it can retain its agricultural workers in their fields and on their land, where they will lead a happy and pastoral life with niche markets for specialized and organic products?

Haiti is today at an exciting place. It has a new president, soon a new government, dynamic ready to shake the inertia of arrogance, incompetence and indifference of the last sixty years of governance in the country. Its young population of almost 8 million people out of a nation of 10 million people is ready to engage into the world of work with the creativity which is proper to the Haitian people.

Haiti is indeed open for business! Businessmen of the world unite! See you in Haiti soon!

May 5, 2012