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Hollywood meets Haiti in Boston to fight poverty

Eduardo A. de Oliveira | 2/11/2009, 4:20 a.m.
(From left): Paul Farmer of the nonprofit organization Partners in Health, actor Matt Damon and state Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry take part in a “Change Haiti Can Believe In” seminar at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston. The panelists discussed the island nation’s precarious position. EthnicNEWz.org/Eduardo A. de Oliveira

Actor Matt Damon and hip-hop artist Wyclef Jean visited Haiti last September, after a string of storms battered the island. As they surveyed the damage, Damon recalled during a recent seminar at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston, the Haitian-born Jean said, “These are not the conditions [that] human beings should be living in.”

Damon was one of many participants in the recent “Change Haiti Can Believe In” seminar, which featured a debate focused mostly on the misery, corruption, natural disasters and reconstruction of the Caribbean nation. A crowd of about 500 people came to the discussion, hoping to hear the latest news about the island.

Established in 1804, Haiti was the first Latin American nation to be freed from slavery. But a series of military actions, including invasions by the French and Americans, and several natural disasters have impeded the Haitian people’s progress.

Today, Haiti’s 9 million people experience severe poverty, compounded by profound social and political perils that range from the country’s problematic infrastructure, insecure job market and unequal education system.

“It’s not an accident … that Haiti has the highest rate of privatized schools in Latin America, and also has a lot of illiteracy,” said Paul Farmer, co-founder of Partners In Health, a nonprofit organization based in Haiti that provides access to health care for hundreds of Haitians.

“Education in Haiti hasn’t been viewed as a people’s right,” he added.

Massachusetts state Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry, a Haitian American who filled the Dorchester seat in Boston of former House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran in 2005, said the country needs a collective answer. She referred to Haiti’s deteriorating political establishment, which has had no free elections from 1804 to the 1990.

“It wouldn’t work if we just solved one problem,” Forry said. “In Haiti, we have to attack everything at the same time: poverty, lack of access to health services, a weak judicial system, and others.”

According to Census figures, there are 420,000 Haitians in the U.S., mostly concentrated in Florida (43 percent) and New York (30 percent). About 8 percent of Haitian immigrants in the U.S. reside in Massachusetts.

Among Haitians in Boston, about 4 percent are business owners, and 21 percent have supervisory or managerial jobs, according to a 2006 survey conducted by the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

“Every year, Haitian émigrés send $1.2 billion to their motherland, resources that go straight to regular families,” said Forry.

For Brian Concannon Jr., a Brandeis University human rights attorney and director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, part of the island’s social vulnerabilities stem from the fact that all foreign aid goes solely to the private sector and nongovernmental organizations.

“When the government lacks the most basic resources, it gets harder and harder to support its peoples,” said Concannon.

Matt Damon visited the Haitian city of Gonaïves shortly after Hurricane Ike struck the island, the fourth major storm to strike the country last year. He said it was easier to promote a Hollywood movie like his hit “The Bourne Supremacy” than it was to get major American TV networks to pay attention to the poverty that is killing many Haitians.