Elections in the Time of Cholera, Part III
|Saturday, 27 November 2010 11:36|
Leading up to the elections on Sunday we will be posting commentary from CEPR's Alex Main, who is in Haiti this week. The following is the third installment, click here for the first or here for the second:
After a heavy dose of meetings with foreign aid workers at the UN Log base we decide that it’s time that we heard from some of the Haitians most affected by the January 12 earthquake. Over two days we visit a few of the tent and tarp camps around Port-au-Prince that are now home to nearly a million and a half individuals who lost their homes during the quake. Everywhere we go we ask camp dwellers – referred to in a clinical manner by the international aid community as internally displaced people, or IDPs – what they think of the elections, the cholera epidemic and the general situation of their country following the earthquake.
Located in the heart of downtown Port-au-Prince in the Chanmas public park, this camp lodges hundreds of families that lost their homes in the nearby neighborhoods of Kafou Fey and Fò Nasyonal which were hit particularly hard by the earthquake. As is frequently the case with most of the camps throughout the city, Chanmas is an informal camp; in other words, the Haitian government never authorized the use of the site for temporary shelter. According to camp dwellers and outside witnesses, Haitian authorities, with the backing of MINUSTAH and the Haitian police, have done everything they can to discourage people from staying by restricting aid and intimidating residents. But for many of those who set up camp here in the days following the earthquake there was no other available space in the area and, to this day, there is nowhere else for them to go. And so, despite the discomfort, hostility and lack of basic services they have for the most part stayed put.
The Chanmas park (Champ-de-Mars, in French) was surrounded by majestic government buildings, almost all of which buckled and crumbled when the earthquake hit. With numerous monuments and manicured gardens, the park celebrated the independence wars which led to the liberation of Haiti and its largely enslaved population from French rule in the early 19th century. Now, a jumbled assortment of tents and tarps occasionally identified as coming from “USAID” or “P.R.China” occupy the concrete walkways where people used to enjoy a Sunday stroll. From the outside, the camp looks like an unfriendly, forbidding place but, once inside, we discover a bustling network of clean, swept corridors that twist around the shelters and take us by small stores selling drinks and snacks, children playing games and families preparing food on small stoves. Towering above us, equestrian statues of Haitian independence heroes survey the beehive of human activity.
Our friend Mark Snyder, who’s a human rights worker with International Action Ties, is our guide here and in the other camps we visit. He takes us to meet with Marckenson Bellevue, a Haitian-American in his late 20s who, despite looking and sounding as American as apple pie, was deported from the U.S. in 2009. Since arriving in Haiti he has worked as an interpreter for the U.S. military and the International Medical Corps at the nearby General Hospital and lived with a friend in Kafou Fey whose house was leveled by the quake. He is unemployed now and just barely scraping by. He says he had big plans for the future but that, since the earthquake, he’s had to lock them in a drawer in his mind. He hopes that he won’t lose the key to that drawer.
We ask Marckenson whether he’s been receiving a regular supply of aid, particularly the items needed to protect himself from cholera? Not much, he tells us. He’s heard about aid organizations making deliveries to the camp but it seems that it doesn’t get distributed to all the residents. He has been able to clean some of the water he uses thanks to chlorine tablets given to him by a friend.
In recent weeks, he says, security has become a big problem for many of the camp’s inhabitants. Rival groups associated with political candidates have exchanged gunfire and the flimsy plastic or cloth of tents and tarps offer no protection against flying bullets. As a result a few families have left the camp even though they have nowhere to go. Has MINUSTAH not intervened to provide some security? He laughs. Everyone knows that the UN “peacekeeping” force’s only real mission is to sow fear in the population, and particularly the destitute. “When you run into MINUSTAH, you just have to hope that they’re not having a bad day. Because if they are, they’ll find any excuse to stop you and beat you up.”
We ask if he thinks that the upcoming elections offer some hope for an improvement in things. There’s no point to voting, he says. The elections are unfair and, anyhow, none of the politicians are offering anything. All they are interested in is power and money.
Even if he wanted to, Marckenson isn’t clear on how he could exercise his right to vote. Supposedly, there is a special voting center that the provisional electoral council (CEP) has installed in the camp, but so far he hasn’t seen it. But, in any case, Marckenson won’t be voting on Sunday.
Karedou is an enormous tent city that is spread over a hilly, bare terrain on the outskirts of the Delmas neighborhood to the east of Port-au Prince. Split into various subdivisions in part by the big international NGOs that manage the camps, it is particularly clean, orderly and well kept. Where residents have been able, they have set up gardens around their tents with herbs, vegetables and flowers. An elaborate system of ditches provides drainage when it rains though we are told that there is nothing the community can do to prevent flooding whenever it begins to rain hard.
We visit one of the subdivisions, Toussaint L’Ouverture, which is located on the slope of one of the plateaus. Next to a set of latrines in disrepair, we meet with a tall, young camp leader named Jean, who describes some of the challenges that L’Ouverture is facing. They are lacking the basic services that are found in other subdivisions despite the IOM’s commitment to ensure that services are equally distributed throughout the Karedou camp. As we speak a small crowd of camp dwellers of all ages joins us, as well as a few undernourished but friendly puppies. We ask the group what they think of the elections. Nearly everyone shakes their heads. What is the point? None of the candidates have shown any interest in helping them. No, none of them are planning on voting.
As we walk through the camp in the fading light of dusk, we continue asking residents whether they intend to vote and, with few exceptions, they tell us no. Even the minority that says that they will vote tell us that they will do so only because it’s “a citizen’s duty.” When asked, they say that they are doubtful that elections will help improve their situation.
As the sun sets on Karedou, a tall, massive building with bright lights shining from its many windows dominates the horizon. It is the most imposing edifice I have yet seen in Port-au-Prince, and I ask Mark what it is. “That’s the U.S. Embassy”, he says.
Immaculée is a tightly packed tent and tarp community in Site Soley (Cité Soleil), one of the poorest popular neighborhoods in Haiti. The camp is installed on a concrete slab that was, we are told, the foundation of a now dismantled fabrik, or factory sweatshop, owned by businessman and presidential candidate Charles Baker. In early 2004, Baker actively supported the coup d’Etat and forced exile of democratically-elected president Jean Bertrand Aristide, and was later the favorite candidate of the U.S. in the 2006 elections (in which he only managed to garner a tiny percent of the vote). He is apparently trying to evict the residents of a camp nearby and the residents of Immaculée believe that he intends to evict them next.
Diela, one of the camp leaders, takes us on visit of the community. The first thing we see is a set of latrines conceived and installed in the camp by Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihood (SOIL) and funded by Oxfam. Unlike other latrines we’ve seen, they are not smelly and produce an efficient compost. But these facilities, and the concrete foundation that the shelters are propped up on, seem to be the only positive attributes of the camp. The shelter materials are particularly shoddy and space between shelters is reduced to a minimum making it difficult to maneuver through the camp. We see tents that have been slashed with knives and are told that the camp has sustained a number of attacks by armed gangs.
A small group of elderly women is gathered in front of the latrines (which have no foul odor). Are they planning on voting, we ask? They respond almost angrily. It is shameful to hold elections in the current conditions. How can elections be held when there is so much suffering and hardship. They tell us that they refuse to go out and vote as long as they are under tents and tarps. This is a common refrain that we hear in other camps as well.
We follow Diela around a tight corner and arrive at the entrance of a tent hardly big enough to hold a small bed on which a frail woman is lying. Diela enters the tent and waves for us to follow and we see that next to the woman, who is listless and looks very ill, is a tiny bundle tightly wrapped in a blanket. Diela picks it up and we see the miniscule face of a premature baby, making faint whining sounds.
The tiny baby is just hours old and we learn that the woman – who her neighbors call Doudou – had it shortly after being released from a cholera ward where she had been confined for several days. The baby, a boy, is barely alive and we discover that Doudou is suffering from post-partum hemorraging and not likely to survive much longer either. Diela tells us that the community tried to take her to a public hospital close by but that she was turned away. Not having any resources to pay for medical care in a private hospital they are left with no option but to leave her and her baby in God’s hands.
Since our little group does have the means of paying for medical care for the mother and her child, we take them in our little SUV and begin to search for a hospital. One after another the hospitals we contact by phone tell us that they are not equipped to deal with a premature baby and tell us that they can’t be of any help. Finally, we reach a hospital that – though they’re not equipped with an incubation unit – tell us that they will admit them. However, the hospital is in another town – Kafou – and traffic is, as usual, very slow.
After about two hours of driving the baby passes away. An hour later we finally reach the hospital. After a bit of squabbling with hospital staff over whether Doudou’s case is an emergency or not, she is finally taken care of and a doctor and nurses intervene to stop the hemorraging. We leave her overnight in the hospital with another member of the community who will assist her in returning to Immaculée the next day.
The experience with Doudou leaves us troubled and sad. If a group of foreigners with contacts and resources has as much trouble finding any sort of medical attention for a woman who is hemorraging and her child who is months premature, what must be the typical experience for poor Haitians in camps when they fall ill or have an accident? The moment brings home to us more than ever the horrifying scope of the human emergency and the extreme deficiency of existing social services in Haiti.
Next: “We are heading toward a senseless election”