[News] Haiti - Six Months After the Quake
news at freedomarchives.org
Wed Jul 14 18:07:29 EDT 2010
Haiti: Six Months after the Quake
by Johnny Van Hove / July 13th, 2010
Half a year following the earthquake, conditions
in Haiti are worse than ever. Still, there is a
lot to be hopeful for, according to Robert Roth
of the activist network Haiti Action Committee
who recently visited the Caribbean island. An interview.
Johnny Van Hove: How are the living conditions in
Haiti six months after the quake?
Robert Roth: During my visit a few weeks ago, I
was struck by the absence of systematic aid for
Haitians. The food distribution has been
haphazard at best. Work is scarce and there are
no massive efforts to prepare for the approaching
hurricanes. Above all, shelter for the 1.5
million Haitians living in the camps is hardly
existent and highly insufficient for the rainy
season. Haiti truly is experiencing a
humanitarian disaster of the highest order.
JVH: In what kind of shape are the refugee camps?
RR: Most people are living under plastic, sheets,
or tarps not tents. There is hardly any space
between the shelters. Sanitation is mostly
non-existent. If you take a look inside the
plastic tarps, people are cramped next to each
other in narrow spaces. Some sheets are all they
possess and these get soaked as soon as the tarp
is flooded by the frequent rains.
JVH: Over-crowding, bad sanitation, the rainy
season: how do these elements affect the health situation in the camps?
RR: We spoke with a number of Haitian doctors and
medical workers who are running clinics at the
Aristide Foundation. There is a real fear of
epidemics. The day-to-day health issues are
worrying too. Children are asthmatic because of
the dust everywhere. Eye diseases, irritations,
rashes, and constant headaches are major problems
too. The same goes for dysentery, as there is
very little potable water. The general health situation is horrific.
JVH: Considering these conditions, how are the
Haitians you have talked to responding?
RR: We visited three camps and met with many
grassroots activists on our trip. There is a high
level of frustration with both the Haitian
government and the international relief effort.
Much has been promised, and hardly anything has been delivered.
In one camp, near the airport, residents had not
seen any aid of any kind since late February.
When we asked them about the Préval government,
they said it was a zero and did not represent
them. When we asked about the UN, they said they
just drive by with their guns out. They want
food, work and shelter for their families and they have not gotten that.
Weekly demonstrations against the Préval
government and the UN occupation have been
growing. One week before I was there, 30,000
people had demonstrated in Port-au-Prince,
calling for Prévals ouster, democratic and fair
elections, the end of the UN occupation, and the
return of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide
to Haiti. Its a charged political situation right now.
JVH: In our last interview, you mentioned the
high degree of grassroots organizing in Haiti.
Have you seen that happening in the camps too?
RR: Yes. This is one aspect of the situation in
Haiti that goes unreported. In one refugee camp,
Camp Mesiane, women organizers mobilized people
to demonstrate in front of a Red Cross center,
since they had received no aid. They then
continued to meet with camp residents to deal
with security, health needs and food. This is
happening in many camps. It is Haitians helping
Haitians, treating each other with dignity in the midst of crisis.
JVH: Are there Haitian organizations which are
particularly stepping up in the camps?
RR: The Aristide Foundation has been providing
medical services and relief from the days right
after the quake. From February on, it ran mobile
schools in five refugee camps, reaching over
1,200 students. The Foundation created a weekly
health clinic that serves 1,000 patients each
week. It also has a mental health project in
which Haitian health workers are going into the
camps to reach out to people who have experienced
the most severe psychological trauma. All of this
work doing the maximum with the minimum amount
of resources has had a deep impact.
JVH: Are the camps as unsafe as a number of media
and relief organizations suggest?
RR: Of course there are major security issues
when 1.5 million people are living in refugee
camps, when the infrastructure is shattered, when
communities have been uprooted, and when massive
poverty and hunger is the norm. But Haiti is not
a crime scene. The vast majority of people in Haiti are just trying to survive.
The issue of security is highly politicized in
Haiti. It has been used to justify attacks on
popular organizations and communities, including
violent assaults against community-based groups
in Cite Soleil and other pro-Lavalas areas. When
insecurity is projected as the main issue,
rather than the undemocratic nature of the
current government or the desperate situation
faced by millions of people, that reflects a political agenda.
JVH: What about sexual violence, which is rampant
in the camps according to various human rights organizations?
RR: The conditions in the camps heighten the
dangers of sexual violence. Its a real issue,
one that community-based organizations
particularly womens groups are conscious of
and working to address. At the same time, I
believe that some human rights groups have presented this issue narrowly.
There is little discussion of the role of UN
troops and the Haitian police force in regards to
sexual violence. In 2007, 114 UN soldiers from
Sri Lanka were sent home after widespread charges
of rape and child abuse. Many people talked to us
on this trip about how UN soldiers and Haitian
police use access to food and aid in exchange for
sex. This amounts to forced prostitution,
completely linked to militarism and occupation.
Why isnt this being highlighted as well?
JVH: How did the Haitians you talked to evaluate the UN relief efforts so far?
RR: After distributing tarps and food in the
first few weeks after the earthquake, the impact
of the UN organizations is considered dismal
since late February. The UN stopped its Emergency Food
Program in April, for instance, because it
decided it was time to provide cash for work.
The main presence of the UN is not as relief
workers; its as soldiers on patrol, pointing
guns at people. They are considered a foreign
occupying army. Many Haitians feel that the UN is
targeting instead of helping them. In the absence
of an effective relief effort, the UN presence is
a daily reminder that Haiti is being run by foreign powers.
JVH: The Haitian political class handed over a
great deal of its powers to the Haiti Recovery
Commission, which has a mandate to coordinate
distribution of all aid for at least 18 months. Who runs the commission?
RR: In the commission, big international players,
such as the IMF, the World Bank, the U.S., Canada
and France, are represented. It is chaired by
Bill Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister Max
Bellerive. Supposedly, President Préval has veto
power over any decisions, but Clinton is clearly
running it: Esquire Magazine has just called him the de facto CEO of Haiti.
The Commission is in charge of doling out the
$5.3 billion dollars which were pledged not
given yet, pledged by UN members states and
international institutions at the international
donor conference in March. This kind of money
will be used to reconfigure Haiti with a fairly
classic model: low-wage factory work, a tourist
industry, free trade zones with tax breaks for
multinationals, open markets for U.S. goods, the usual.
JVH: Bill Clinton recently excused himself for
the US trade policy during his presidency which
forced Haitian farmers off land and undercut
Haitis ability to feed itself. Was Clintons
move a hopeful change of heart by one of the key players in Haiti?
RR: Bill Clinton loves to apologize. While he is
apologizing, he is committing new actions for
which he will have to excuse himself in the years
to come. The pressure to privatize, for instance,
continues up to this day in Haiti. The democratic
movements are still under attack. The most
popular political party in Haiti, Lavalas, is
still banned from elections. The tiny Haitian
elite is still Clintons major economic partner
in Haiti. Former President Aristide is still in
forced exile. The apologies will have to continue.
JVH: The Haitian democratic icon Aristide still
lives in forced exile. Did you feel popular
demand for his return during your stay in Haiti?
RR: It is highly ironic that George W. Bush and
Bill Clinton can travel freely to Haiti while the
twice-democratically elected president,
Jean-Bertrand Aristide, is banished. His return
is a big issue in Haiti and a fundamental demand
of the democratic movement. For instance, over
20,000 women have already signed a petition demanding his immediate return.
How can free and fair elections be held when such
a major spokesperson is prevented from even
living in his homeland? How can the voices of the
majority be heard when their political party is
banned and their political representatives are
silenced? In a period of such trauma and
difficulty, Aristides return would provide hope
and sustenance. We heard this everywhere, repeatedly.
JVH: Dramatic living conditions, a democracy
smothered, and a two time elected former
president banished: is the near future looking as
bleak as this list indicates or has your trip suggested otherwise?
RR: There are two stories in Haiti which are
happening simultaneously. One is the top-down
reconstruction led by the US and the UN. This
continues the elite model of development in Haiti
of the past, repackaged since the earthquake. The
other story involves the mobilizing efforts at
the grassroots level. This is the hope for Haiti,
the real democratic vision that is emerging from
the disaster in Haiti. Numerous organizations
responded to the quake by very visibly providing
relief and support while continuing to fight for
democracy. That changed the political dynamics in
Haiti. On the grassroots level, there is a lot to be hopeful for.
Johnny Van Hove is a Belgian freelance
journalist, a media activist, and a PhD student
in the field of American Studies at the
University of Bremen. He publishes for a wide
range of critical media, such as the Belgian
webpaper Dewereldmorgen.be. He is also the
co-author the Belgian Indymedia reader Media and
Racism. Read other articles by Johnny.
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