Jean-Saurel Beajour is the founder of the Haitian-based Association of National Solidarity for People Living with HIV-AIDS (ASON)). When he began the organization in January 1999, it was Haiti’s first AIDS community advocacy group. ASON’s primary goal is to advocate for the people who live with HIV and to promote the rights of people who are HIV-positive.
What you do think about the U.S.’ role in fighting HIV in Haiti?
At ASON, we recognize the importance of U.S. government funding, especially ARV (antiretroviral drugs) and also the importance of the funding from the Global Fund. We thank the U.S. government for the initiative to assist, but maybe there are also some criticisms of how the funding is distributed.
Tell me about the criticisms you have.
I think not enough money is going to treatment and prevention for younger Haitians. Most of U.S. money goes to buying nice cars and paying consultants â€” this money should be used to buy medicines instead.
We had a three-day conference. We came out with a report and recommendations that more money should go to treatment. The money is American taxpayers’ money and our (people living with HIV/AIDS’s) platform is that this money should be spent wisely and for people who need this money. We worked on a proposal and submitted it to PEPFAR [President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief], but PEPFAR rejected our proposal.
What sort of proposal did you submit to PEPFAR?
Maybe our proposal was rejected because PEPFAR didn’t want to share information with us â€” the information that publicized or criticized the way that the money was being spent.
The main objective of the proposal to PEPFAR was to reinforce the capacity of the members of the platform to be able to oversee the projects’ funding through the NGOS â€” to monitor, to see if the projects that were funded by PEPFAR are really effective in the services they give to HIV[-positive] people.
Should the HIV-positive community have a say in AIDS policy in Haiti?
As a community based group and as people living with HIV, our visions are different than those that are receiving funding. Our goal is different than the goals of the organizations that are receiving the funding and from those who are executing the funding. We are focused on getting medication and better treatment for people living with HIV. Even though we know we will die, we can die with dignity.
As an example, if you have 150 people who will die with HIV, it’s more important to give them the service that they need instead of buying a $40,000 or $60,000 car. These organizations prioritize the material goods over the lives of the people. Because the most important thing is life and then any other type of material is less important for the person who is going to die. For the tremendous amount of money that is being invested in the fight against HIV/AIDS, only 5,000 people are on ARVs.
PEPFAR should revise their policies if they aren’t working with people who have HIV.
It would be in their interest to help these groups.
How would you explain this to an audience in the U.S.?
I believe that what motivated the people in the U.S. is to really help the people who are living with HIV and to help the young generation not to contract the virus. If these are the two main objectives that motivate those who pay taxes in the U.S., then they should be interested in activist groups that monitor the funds that are spent. Without the workforce of American people that pay taxes, there would be thousands of Haitians who would have died already. As an example, a person who wasn’t taking medication and lives with HIV, he looked like a zombie and once he started taking medication he returned to his body.
They should, it’s their duty, to make sure that the money that has been given is really well-spent. We are the ones who are suffering, and we know how the money should be spent.
Has the church been involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Haiti?
It would be a good thing if the church would be involved in this struggle against HIV because they were the most discriminatory of those living with HIV. But they have to have an open mind of working with the people of Haiti because of the cultural differences in different countries like Haiti and in Africa.
I have worked with a lot of Christian groups â€” Baptists, Catholics. Voodoo are more mobilized and more open to work for change. They have been more open. In the beginning, [some] said only people who could contract HIV are voodoo practitioners and non-Christians. But since they are seeing more people from the Christian community getting HIV, they are more willing to work with those who are HIV-positive â€¦
Let me take the opportunity to talk about one of the members of the organization. She was a young woman from a Protestant background â€” her father was a pastor â€” and she always said she wanted to wait until after she finished studying, after college to have sexual relations. She waited, at 30 years old she met a boy at her father’s church and they got married and that’s when she contracted HIV/AIDS, in her first sexual relations.
Haitian translator Guy-Claude Jean-Baptiste Jr. was the Creole- and French-speaking translator for this interview.