The 2010 Earthquake devastated Haiti, killing thousands of people and destroying most of the country’s infrastructure. Since then, reconstruction has been slow and unemployment has soared. There has been a mass exodus of Haitians from their country in search of greener pastures abroad and thousands of them have opted to live and work in Brazil, especially Manaus, the capital city of Brazil’s northern Amazonas state. Brazil is now the sixth-largest economy in the world. Its growth, and preparations to host the 2014 World Cup, have made the country an ideal place to look for jobs.
Manaus is a free economic zone. In other words, companies working there are taxed very lightly or not at all to encourage development of the region while preserving the environment. And so while it is difficult to find jobs in other parts of Brazil like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, that’s not the case in Manaus. Many of these migrants travel to the Amazonas town of Tabatinga which shares a border with Colombia, where they apply for temporary visas and then travel by boat to Manaus in search of jobs. Local newspapers have reported a large concentration of Haitians in Tabatinga, waiting for visas in order to travel to Manaus. To forestall the outbreak and spread of cholera, the Amazonas State Government sent a medical team to Tabatinga recently but so far no incidence of cholera has been reported.
Many of the Haitians are in shelters administered by the Catholic Church. Life in the shelters is not easy but the Church is so far coping with the immense logistical demands. Help for the Haitians is coming from companies and Brazilians from all walks of life, who are making donations to the Catholic Church, says Father Gelmino Costa, the coordinator of the shelters housing the Haitians in Manaus. Father Costa is impressed by the comportment of the migrants.
Generally, they easily find jobs as industrial machine operators, construction workers, French teachers, shop assistants, etc. “They are well-behaved and very much concerned about their families and loved ones at home. They remit home despite the meagre salaries they receive and some even send all their pay packets home when they are able,” Father Costa affirmed. In Manaus, it is now very common to see black people at the offices of the Western Union money transfer institution speaking the Haitian Creole.
Initially the arrival of thousands of Haitians in the Amazonas state was regarded with mixed feelings by the inhabitants of the region. There were very few blacks in Manaus, prior to the influx of the Haitians. Therefore, it is easy to spot the migrants. There were fears of an upsurge in criminal activities and the spread of diseases. However, the Haitians have proved to be hardworking people, drawing praise from their employers and the media. And there have been no reports of crime involving them so far in Manaus.
Haiti is regarded as the poorest country in the western hemisphere. However, Haiti became the world’s first black-led republic and the first independent Caribbean state when it threw off French colonial control and slavery in a series of wars in the early 19th century which resulted in its independence in 1804.
According to Professor Bryan Page, Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Miami, several reasons explain the unfortunate situation of why Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. He points out that French plantation owners in Haiti became extremely wealthy by literally working their slaves to death while growing everything from indigo to sugar cane.
In August 1791, the Haitian slaves began a violent rebellion that would eventually lead to the nation’s full independence. “You then have something that is a totally unique occurrence in the history of the world. Never has there been a people who have thrown off slavery and formed a nation other than in Haiti.” After they became independent, they ended up being considered a threat by the entire rest of the region because the rest, especially the US, owned slaves.
After independence, Haitians were discriminated against by the US and all the European powers. That discrimination meant no availability of resources to educate the population and no significant trade with any polity outside of Haiti. The break-up of the plantations into individual land parcels meant there was no longer a coherent cash crop activity taking place within Haiti. Page says these conditions persisted into the 20th century.
What this isolation essentially meant was that Haiti never had a chance to progress alongside the surrounding civilisations of the region. Complicating the picture even more was a series of despotic rulers that added to the country’s struggles. Haiti was seen increasingly as a benighted, terrible place, in part also because of the collective racism of the white-dominated nations that surrounded it, including Cuba, the US and the Dominican Republic, which occupies the other side of the island of Hispanola.
This historical background coupled with the 2010 earthquake, which could be described as the worst disaster to hit Haiti, has led to the migration of Haitians in droves to Brazil. The fortunate ones are those who end up in Manaus where jobs are available but others are stranded in other parts of Brazil where it is very difficult to find jobs.
Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff has affirmed that those who are already in the country will be given permanent visas, while mechanisms are put in place to control the mass migration of Haitians into Brazil. Miriam Kelly, an African- American anthropologist, succinctly describes the Haitians as apostles of black pride who have gone through a series of hardships and still have many rivers to cross.