Monday, January 24, 2011

One Week: No trial, no coup d'etat? What is the deal with JCD??

So what to make of Duvalier, one week and no coup d'etat later?  I don't think they weren't planning to stay for very long, I mean, his girlfriend Veronique Roy has been wearing the same outfit for days. The guy shuffles around his hotels, a face drooping with fear and weariness. What a wasted life: a terrible presidency which ended in exile; abandonment by his wife who took their stolen fortune with her; years spend puttering around France, not paying his debts and living off of hand outs from his few remaining supporters. He comes back to Haiti at a moment when a political vacuum is about to engulf the country, why?

I don't believe Duvalier is trying to make a vie for power.  If so, he has done all the wrong things. Of course, he was never a brilliant politician. By waiting several days to make a statement he lost the element of surprise, and left too many people wondering for too many days. And then, when he did finally say something, he left it up to two American consultants (Ed Marger and former Georgia congressman and presidential hopeful Bob Barr; the two of them are partners in a firm that seems to specialize in rehabilitating dictators) alongside his Haitian lawyer, Reynold Georges.  These men took questions in English rather than Kreyol, which instantly alienated most of the local press.  I believe Haitians would be unlikely to accept as a leader someone so obviously dependent on Americans for support. The press conference, which took place Friday, was a strange affair. Nowhere want to risk supporting him, so his people were kicked out of two venues before they decided to hold the conference in the tiny lobby of the guest house where the ex-dictator is renting a room. When Duvalier finally came out of speak, he spoke in a barely audible murmur, slurring his words as his read carefully from typed out statement.   In the speech he claimed that the reason for his visit was to show solidarity with his homeland on the anniversary of the earthquake, which he missed by a couple of days, supposedly for health reasons. He expressed sympathy for his supporters, many of whom who were killed in the dechokaj (uprooting) that followed his flight into exile.  He also offered a brief apology for those "to my compatriots who recognize, rightly, to have been victims of my government."

Duvalier has come to terms with the repressive force he required to bolster his regime. It is unclear whether or not Haiti, too, has come to terms. Memory, for better and for worse, is short.  There are many people, young and old, who hope Duvalier will take charge of the country and lead it in collective time-travel, back to the 1980's, and era remembered by affordable food, factories, and clean streets. There are others whose memories are less rosy, for whom the memory of oppression and state-sanctioned violence as not been erased by even-more-terrible things. Political activists like Boby Duval and Michelle Montas (both of whom were imprisoned, and in Duval's case, tortured under JCD) are filing complaints against the ex-dictator, which is the first step towards prosecuting him.  I think there would be much more vocal opposition to Duvalier in Haiti had not most of his opponents and his victims' families fled to live in the diaspora. However, apparently prosecuting a former leader for crimes against humanity is not the easiest thing in the world to do.  It is costly, takes many years, and requires experts from around the world. According to a friend of mine with UN connections, international community might not find it worthwhile if its just to take down one man and not the whole political cadre who perpetrated torture and assassination. And that would probably not be acceptable to Haitian social and economic elites, considering how many Duvalierists and Tonton maucoute have crafted new lives and identities for themselves.  Some have even been active in the Lavalas movement. 

Nevertheless, the most immediate question is the statue of limitations in Haitian law.  You can't try people from crimes committed more than 20 years ago. Duvalier fled the country 25 years ago. Does that mean that the people who suffered under his rule have no legal recourse? Duvalier's lawyers certainly seem to think so. I suspect they will be able to find a way around it though, if the other pieces fall into place.  
In addition to the question of limitations, the matter of "proving it" is tricky.  At the press conference on Friday, Duvalier's lawyer Georges boasted that "there is truth, and then there is judicial truth."  Basically, he said "we all know Duvalier committed crimes, but since you can't formally prove it, it doesn't count."  His lawyers also claimed (i imagine they bragged) that the case file that the Haitian government had against JCD was lost in the earthquake.  That is entirely possible, and very unfortunate if it is true. But that doesn't mean evidence can't be procured. Amnesty International has handed over to the Haitian prosecutors their entire dossier on the ex-dictator, which will probably furnish some damning evidence. Also, I have heard that activists have asked the United States to expedite the de-classification of State Department documents from the time of Duvalier. Supposedly diplomats and state department officials do a rigorous job of recording human rights abuses.  There is a precedent of this kind of evidence being used against human rights criminals in other Latin American countries, and it could be very important in bring Baby Doc to justice. The opening stages of a three-month investigation have begun.

The question everyone really wants to know about is the money.  Money is something everyone relates to and understands, and JCD's return would make a great deal of sense if we would just write it off to greed.  He has several million, the last drops the massive fortune he stole from Haiti's coffers,  stored in a Swiss bank account which has been frozen for the past year or so. People speculate that Swiss law required Duvalier visit Haiti and prove that he was not under persecution in order to reclaim the money. If that was their plan, they really blew it.  This sounds absurd to me, but I am no specialist in Swiss law.  Maybe he has to establish residency in Haiti. Doubtless the money is a factor in the equation, since the American consultants he brought it to represent him stated that it was their goal to retrieve it.  But they claim Duvalier would like to donate the money to reconstruction, and become a leader in the reconstruction movement.  Now that's hilarious. Bob Barr himself declares that he has come to help spread Duvalier's message of hope throughout the world. Their cynicism astounds me.  I don't believe I have seen someone so clearly full of  regret and sadness than  Jean Claude Duvalier.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

JC Duvalier gets arrested!! JC Duvalier gets released!!

Check out this video to see my footage of JC Duvalier getting arrested:

Today, despite itself, nothing was resolved. Jean-Claude Duvalier was "arrested" today, but it seems more like he was held for several hours in a courthouse (photocopies were made?), and then he was released, although apparently he is under investigation.  All morning we waited in the hotel where he was staying, watching the SWAT teams run up and down the stairs, changing the guard in front of his hotel room on the third floor. His spokesperson, a short man in an olive green coat, ran about furiously, at one point practically chasing us from the third floor stairwell where we had followed the police. He was shouting and scurrying.  Obviously things were not going as planned. At every moment, his arrest seemed imminent. A judge of the peace entered, went to the third floor. A police official entered, went to the third floor, and then exited.  Eventually a prison vehicle with caged windows backed its way right up to the entrance of the hotel and waited.  One of Duvalier's henchmen, the former ambassador to France, made a statement to the press saying that they "dared" the government to arrest the dictator.  But words are only words, and about an hour later Jean-Claude Duvalier descended the staircase of the hotel in the company of his wife, friends, and about a dozen Haitian police officers.  They exited the hotel from the back, with Duvalier getting into a private car that was driven by a policeman. The man never said a word. He looked broken, tired, sick.

Duvalier was taken to the courthouse downtown. It was announced all over the radio, and soon after he left the hotel men waving Duvalier's picture were throwing pieces of rubble into the street. It was a little too late to prevent them from arresting him, but it was a display of support none the less. However, it was a "half-hearted" attempt at a road block, and according to a friend the police were there soon after watching over as the men lifted the rocks from the street. By the time we arrived at the courthouse, two or three hundred people had gathered outside, watching with interest as the cars pulled up and the Haitian lawyers and the blan journalists poured out. Some of them were chanting pro-Duvalier songs. 

I interviewed a few people, both young and old. The older generation (those who remember life under Duvalier) was well represented in the crowd, but young people were there too. One man insisted that Duvalier had returned to Haiti to reinvest his millions in the poor country, and that other wealthy diaspora folk should do the same. Another man had been a functionary under Duvalier, and claimed that the Duvalierist, a very moderate group, had laid dormant for 25 years, but now that the dictator was back he was ready to sacrifice everything, including himself, to see him back in power. One woman was demanded that they release him immediately because they were certainly giving him cholera in the prison. I even interviewed a self-identified member of the Tonton Macoute (the volunteer militia, he said), who expressed his unqualified support for the return of Duvalier. When I asked people what they thought of the accusations that he stole millions of dollars from the Haitian treasury, they assured me that it was all lies.  The younger people I talked to, in their twenties, insisted that while they had no memory of the Duvalier era, the stories of their parents and relatives had convinced them that life was much better then and that his return could only be a boon for Haiti. But honestly, overall, I don't think people really cared that he was back, or that he got arrested. I think they are tired. It's just one thing after another. 

At one point the former ambassador to France made a statement to the press that was uncommonly emotional.  According to him, the news of  buildings destroyed in the earthquake, including the National Palace and the school where the dictator went to high-school, took an emotional toll on the man and he felt compelled to come back and reconnect with his country. Over a year after the quake. At a time of political crisis. He claimed that the arrest only happened when Duvalier's people announced that there would be a press conference. Preval doesn't want him to address the nation, he said. That is what has caused all of this.  Never mind the fifteen years of murder, corruption, and the theft of millions of dollars. Never mind the expired passport and the political vacuum. 

We waited, we waited. The rumor was he was getting released, and would be returned to his hotel. Duvalier never made a statement.  In the Haitian judiciary system, there are no charges like there are in America. The man is under investigation. For most Haitians, this would mean being held in the national penitentiary, possibly forever, without seeing a judge, but since Duvalier is a former president, they let him return to his hotel.  I guess he's too high profile to be a flight risk at this point. Supposedly the government had been building  a case against him for years, but the file was lost in the earthquake.The question at hand is if there is still definitive proof of his wrong-doing. When Duvalier returned to the hotel and escaped into the restaurant, I flashed a hotel key and scored a table right next to the dictator and his dictator-loving friends. If only I had cameras in my eyes. I would profile every face, try to understand each personality that sat with him and welcome him back with jovial smiles. But we kept a low profile, made up code words, and tried not to look at them too much.  We didn't hear anything unexpected.

So what does this all mean? What does this rule out? It would appear that Preval did not orchestrate Duvalier's return, although it still serves the purpose of distracting from the election results (oh yeah, announced tonight, the electoral consul will not be changing the results of the elections according to the OAS's recommendations. Apparently Mickey is still out and Celestin will be making it to the second round?)  My impression is that Duvalier was acting on his own, perhaps convinced by sycophants that he would find massive support in Haiti.  I still think he came here to die. The man seems like he has a degenerative muscle disease. His movements are very limited, in the face, neck and arms. He will probably still be arrested, eventually, although the Haitian judicial system is a maze I do not understand.  This will be a landmark case in Haiti and around the world, certainly. A murderous dictator returns, can a troubled nation bring him to justice? What would justice even mean?   Hopefully Haiti won't let this moment slip through the cracks. Yet unless there are massive riots tomorrow, I will feel confident saying this is almost a story more important to the journalists and historians and others who keep their eyes on the past, than to the Haitian people themselves. It does nothing to reduce their misery. Its impact on their lives is so small. 

Monday, January 17, 2011

Bon Retour J.C. Duvalier: Baby comes home

Last night Jean Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier inexplicably returned to Haiti after 25 years of exile. This was absolutely not in the cards, and no one knows who is responsible for the move.  Until yesterday, Duvalier was only spoken about in the past tense. A relic, a nightmare, a joke. A few words about Jean-Claude's past: in 1971 he became president for life at nineteen years old upon the death of his father, the brutal dictator Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier.  Jean-Claude continued many of his father's repressive policies of state terrorism, censorship, and control.  Thousands were killed, tortured or "disappeared."  However, Baby Doc did not possess the terrible genius of his father, and the carelessly destroyed the alliances and support bases that Papa Doc had cultivated.  He was known as a opulent playboy, and after his marriage to Michele Bennett, got the government involved in drug trafficking. In 1986, there was a uprising against him and the dictator and his family was forced to flee to France. He managed to take with him millions from the national treasury however, before fading into financial irresponsibly and oblivion.

And now he is back.  The moment is particularly ominous: the Haitian government is at odds with the Organization of American States about the outcome of the seriously problematic election that occurred in late November. There is supposed to be a run-off between the leading candidates, but there is serious disagreement about who the leading candidates are. The OAS's (also problematic) investigation has lead to the conclusion advised that the president's candidate leave the race in favor of Michel Martelly, a popular singer with a right-wing bent.  February 7th is technically the end of President Preval's term, and there is no clear leader to take over. In short, a power vacuum. Could this be why Duvalier came back? Does he hope to take back power at a moment when government is on its knees and trying to stand behind its weaknesses in the face of international pressure? 

Of course, there is the question of how he came back. He has been in exile, and forbidden to return, I think.  Who gave him a passport? Who on the inside authorized his return? The guy came in on a Air France flight for god's sake, not a private plane. He is a known criminal of serious proportions.  Murder, torture, drug running, the theft of millions from state coffers, you name it, and he could be held for it. But he has been here for 24 hours, hanging out at a hotel and avoiding the press, and has not been arrested. It's possible he has taken the government entirely by surprise. It is also possible Preval himself invited Duvalier back, some incredible game-changing move in the game he is playing with the international community.  What the next move is, nobody knows.

My personal theory is that Duvalier is dying, and he wants to die in Haiti. Or he wants to attempt amends at the end of his life. For what it's worth, in 2007, he issued an apology for all the corruption and violence of his regime. In the photos, he looks like a broken man. He looks sick. He certainly does not look like a man who could inspire confidence as a leader.  But then again, in leaderless and stumbling Haiti, who knows. There has been "bon retour JC Duvalier" graffiti scrawled for a long time on the walls of Port-au-Prince.

So what's next? The rumors are flying.  If Duvalier can come back, is Aristide next? That's really the burning question. Duvalier is still considered part of the past, even if arrived last night. People really want to know what this means for the one that matters in many people's hearts. Word is that Aristide is in Panama, that he is in Cuba, that he comes on Wednesday, that he comes next month, that he is still in exile in South Africa with zero plans to return. What could possibly be in store for Haiti?!?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

December 8th, and Why Martelly?

On Tuesday, election results were announced two hours late by a single official who sat alone at a table prepared for eight. The results? Manigat (grandmotherly former first lady) in the lead, with 31.37 %, Celestin (Preval's chosen successor) in second with 22.48%  and Martelly (popular musicien and badboy) in third with 21.84%. This was very bad news. (If you already know everything that's happening, skip to the bottom for an assessment of it)

The way Haitian elections are suppose to work, if no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, the top two go on to a second round. In this case, Manigat and Celestin, ostensibly leaving Martelly out in the cold. However, his supporters were having none of it. Celestin a most unpopular man, and the election process was so riddled with corruption, criminal disorganization, ballot stuffing and intimidation that the margin of six-thousand some votes between Celestin and Martelly is negligible and probably fraudulent. Within fifteen minutes of the announcement, Martelly supporters in Petionville (where Martelly spends most of his time and money, and has large support base) were out in the streets, setting up flaming barricades, stopping cars, and breaking windows. Protesters sang political songs from the Aristide-era, inserting Martelly's name in all the appropriate parts.  At least one protester was in a pillaging mood, since he reached into our car and stole the cell phone out of the hands of my friend. From my house I could a half-dozen fires and heard spatters of gunfire throughout the night, although it is unclear who was shooting what.

    By 7:30 in the morning, the protesters had regrouped, and flaming barricades were visible up and down Delmas, the sounds of protesting oppression were clearly audible from my house: cheering, drums, chanting, screaming, the pops of tear gas and the booms of concussion grenades. Around noon we went to Place St. Pierre in Petionville, location of the old electoral office and site of much UN-Martelly tenison.  The UN troops used tear gas to keep the protesters away from the office, but they were releasing it basically next to a camp full of families. People (including children) inserted slices of lime in their noses to help with the pain, others smeared a citrus cream beneath their nostrils. At one point I saw the face of a woman sitting outside her tent transform with suffering as she began to inhale the gas and dove inside her tent. The camp inhabitants report that babies are particularly badly affected with gas and more than one child has passed out for over an hour after a tear gas attack. If the UN had the slightest consideration they would allow the protesters to move a bit closer so that at least the people they were targeting were the people actually demonstrating instead of innocent bystanders.

    From Place St. Pierre I hopped a moto with journalist TD in order to go get a sense of the town.  There were the chard remains of burning tires every few blocks, a tree pulled off the hillside to block the road, groups of protesters wandering through the streets, singing, yelling. Burning tires are an interesting thing: they are a very aggressive yet non-violent form of protest. They are a symbol of violence without requiring any violence itself. The aggression comes from the blaze and the huge amount of thick black smoke they produce. From afar a few tires can make it seem like a whole neighborhood is ablaze. And yet neither people nor property are injured.

        Things had obviously cooled off substantially from the morning, but there were still serious tension spots, like at the electoral office at Delma 41, were UN tanks had blocked off the streets and were having a stand off with hundreds of protesters. The whole thing has a rather theatrical element to it, since the protesters are throwing rocks at people wearing riot gear. Throw rocks, throw tear gas, run, repeat. We continued on our way, driving to ransacked the unpopular INITE (Unity) headquarters which were still smoking from earlier in the day when protesters burned the place down earlier after the security guard fired on them. Here the violence was real: rumor has it that protesters were shot, and in retaliation the whole place was destroyed. On the way back up Delmas we almost got de-moto-ed by some guys who had just set fire to a barricade and surrounded us, asking our driver to give him gasoline. When I said that we were the press (half-true) and that we needed to rush home to write articles and tell the world what was going on here, they were like 'oh, okay, no problem' and used a rod to move one of the tires out of the way so we could run through the black smoke to the other side and speed away.

     That afternoon at home I listened to Martelly's speech on the radio.  It was terribly brief, all he said was that people have the right to peacefully protest, and they should do so until VICTORY!  Kind of encouraging the protests, kind of not assuming responsibility for them.

     My two cents: These protests make perfect sense (and were rather predictable) in light of the past year of mind-numbing incompetence, corruption, negligence, and suffering.  The elections were a sham, and it is unlikely that any country or international authority is going to foot the bill for another try, especially with the obvious incompetence of the electoral counsel.  What I am curious to know is what Martelly means to people, exactly. I mean, why him? As a popular singer and a leader of Carnival, he is associated with positive, non- political aspects of Haitian culture. Having no prior experince with politics means that he is pure, uncorrupted.  But his political message, when its not completely vapid, is rather frighteningly right-wing. He talks about recreating the Haitian army (traditionally used only to suppress its own people), and he uses the motif of red and black, associated with the Duvalier era.  People seem to have forgotten that Martelly was a vocal opponent of Aristide (a widely beloved and now exiled president and 'champion of the poor') and supported both coups.  Its true that the elections are an embarrassment to democracy, and the people's anger and suspicion is completely justified. But they have seized on Martelly as their savoir not for what he is, but for what he is not.  I think they are using the language of politics to express otherwise unheard grievances: the need for work, the need for shelter, the need for respect in the eyes of the world. But Martelly has shown that he lack integrity and  is no more capable then Preval or anyone else to soothe international anxieties and bring much needed jobs to Haiti. I asked a woman  at a large pro-Martelly rally what Martelly would do for the people once he was president. Her response: "I'm not certain if Martelly will be able to change this, I mean we took to the streets for Preval too and he proved he wasn't able to do anything. But we have given professionals a chance and they have proven they aren't capable of helping us."

For me the sadness in this election is how little there is to aspire to.  All of the major candidates have made clear that they are far more interested in personal access to power than in the safety or stability of the Haitian people. Martelly, Celestin, and even Manigat have all issued statements claiming they think they deserve more of the vote. Celestin's people are threatening that they can 'unleash Cite Soliel' as if it was an animal in order to provoke a civil war. Martelly's people are claiming they won't stop until their man is president. Manigat thinks she should have won already.  These politicians are as embarrassing as the election that might bring them into power.

If you are intersted, look at my photos at

Monday, November 29, 2010

Elections in Haiti

People lined up to vote in Port-au-Prince

Yesterday, after several weeks of rallies, concerts, and the occasional gunfight, thousands of Haitians turned out to vote. It was hard to believe yesterday that Haitians are politically apathetic. The atmosphere in the polling places was chaotic.People wandered from polling site to polling site, searching for their names. No one had been informed where they could vote. While the information was available on the internet, the internet is not accessible to most people in Haiti. In one school-cum-polling site, would be male voters stomped through the halls, shouting that their name didn't appear on the list since they were Martelly, rather than Celestin, supporters. Their agitated manner defined the mood, while those who were able to vote without problem passed silently around them. Even the president's chosen successor, Jude Celestin, was unable to find his name when he came to cast his vote.

Celestin himself seems harmless enough, but as Preval's chosen successor he represents continuity. Continuity is the last thing Haiti needs right now. However, since his campaign is funded by the government, his posters plaster walls all over the country, his campaign is broadcasted in 20 minutes slots on public television, airplanes fly his name through the sky. I've heard from many people that his cronies go into the camps and hand out money and pay people to register for his party. People take the money, but they assure me that their votes cannot be bought.

Jude Celestin posters in the gutter
There was much hand-wringing before the elections about whether or not they should go forward considering all the logistical problems of voter registration, polling sites, the of course the 200,000+ dead whose names were still on the voting lists. According to one person, the lists were both "bloated and incomplete". Some people are also angry that Lavalas, the party led by the exiled yet incredibly popular Jean-Bertand Aristide was excluded from participating from the elections. Many people who might have run on the Lavalas platform, for example front runner Ceant, ran with alternative parties. (Remember, in Haiti there are basically as many parties as their are candidates). People were also questioning the wisdom of having elections while so many people are living in tents and the cholera epidemic is spreading. All in all, the elections were being discredited before they happened

However, the consequences of not having the elections are also severe. The UN was pushing for the elections to illustrate that they had been doing significant work since the earthquake. The reconstruction process has been excruciating slow, in no small part because donors have been holding out until the new government is installed. Haiti politicians are notoriously corrupt and it seems foolish to hand millions of dollars over to a government that was on its way out of power. The peaceful installation of a new government is one of the most important elements to international support for reconstruction. Also, there is wistful possibility that new leaders might actually mean new governance in Haiti, and perhaps, even more wistful, a plan for the future. The government, the electoral counsel,and the UN, understanding the importance of stability for investment, probably hoped that a peaceful elections would be a litmus test for post-earthquake Haiti.

Too bad.


polling place in Port-au-Prince

Around 2 in the afternoon,12 of the 19 candidates came together in a press conference to denounce the elections as fraudulent.  Martelly, Manigat, Baker, Ceant, all the important front runners stood together and asked that the elections be canceled and that their supporters take to the streets. They claimed to have proof of voter intimidation and ballot stuffing, all part of a government plan to secure the election for Celestin. It would take some footwork on the government's part, for sure, considering hardly a single person in the past few weeks that I have met in the course of my interviews has expressed anything but disgust with Celestin and the present government.The press conference of the "group of 12," as some have called them, was played as a spontaneous intervention, but really, I wonder how long they had been planning this.  Why not call for the cancellation... before election day? 

Within a few hours, the streets of Port-au-Prince filled with people, mostly young men, chanting and dancing, waving Martelly posters high in the air. He was clear commander of the crowd (while it is easy to read this as Martelly winning the popularity contest, one has to keep in mind that those who support someone like the grandmotherly Manigat are probably more reliable to turn up at the polls and less likely to take to the streets). The march went up and down Delmas. At Place St. Pierre in Petionville the UN soldiers apparently used tear gas to disperse the crowd.  From what I saw, though, the mood of the crowd was wary and jubilant, but not angry. Some people even thought Martelly had already won.

The demonstrations lingered late into the evening. This morning, Martelly made a statement that the 12 candidates had made their demands, they had not been met, and the elections therefore would go on as planned. Basically, he backed down in order to allow the results of the election to still be valid. However, he did imply that the only means by which Celestin could win was fraud. Considering the massive public support this man is able to command, I suspect he has either been offered a position in the run off (this is just election round one, believe it or not), or knows that whether or not there was election fraud, he is still going to win. He is certainly distancing himself from the forceful statement he made the day before. Maybe it was a spontaneously organized (and quickly regretted) gathering after all.  However murky his motives, the fact that he did not call his supporters to further action may have spared Haiti a day of widespread violence.

UN soldiers prepare to meet the protesters

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Does the Origin of the Cholera Matter?

Cholera is not native to Haiti. It's not a disease endemic to poor people the world over that spontaneously occurs when sanitation conditions reach a particular low point. The disease migration is actually a rather important historical pattern that has shaped the outcome of many a event: the infamous smallpox blankets that helped the British defeat the Native Americans in 1763; the decimation of the French forces by yellow fever in 1802 that paved the way for Haitian independence. Maybe I'm too optimistic here, but it seems that the cholera epidemic in Haiti today is not going to reach such catastrophic levels, but the point is, the introduction of disease matters. At the moment, all evidence suggests that cholera came to Haiti when a group of soldiers from rotated into a base on the Artibonite river. The sanitation system at the base leaves much to be desired: human waste is stored in large pools that are dug uphill from the river, and broken pipes on site have spilled untreated human waste into the environment. The people who live next to the base stopped drinking the water long ago.

Understandably, this is a very embarrassing situation for the United Nations mission in Haiti. At first they both denied the possibility that the base was responsible and insisted that their contractor was responsible for all matters of sanitation. Then the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)conducted tests and established that it was a South Asian strand of cholera, but insisted that the specific origin could not be established, and that energies should be devoted to prevention instead. Yesterday Dr. Paul Farmer of Partners in Health (also a special UN envoy) made a statement to the Associated Press, insisting that origin of the disease could and should be established, and that Harvard would be willing to do the tests. To claim that the strain could not be established, he said, was a political move to protect the UN from further possible embarrassment.

To date, approximately 442 Haitians have died. Its tragic but logical that the disease was introduced: its a natural consequence of migration, and the UN troop rotations are a form of migration. From beginning the UN could have just acknowledged that there might be unintended consequences to a influx of a large and diverse population of foreigners. Rather than denying the possibility and claiming infallibility, they could have devoted energy to making sure affected populations had access to clean water and rehydration salts. They could have used the blunder to make a show of UN compassion, coordination, and humanitarian assistance. It could have been an occasion from them to take the high road, and instead they did a cover up and hoped the questions of origins would go away.

Its too politically imprudent for many in the international community to take seriously, especially at a moment when Haitian disillusion with the military presence is high. And the lack of international outrage around this issue is very telling. The U.N. peacekeepers are suppose to be the good guys, so this is almost too horrible to contemplate. Hasn't any seen Erin Brochovich? The fact is the 430 deaths matter. Their families deserve an explanation. In this situation these people were not the causalities of their poverty, they didn't die of a lack of education, they died of cholera. Although from now on, cholera will be another way that poverty kills. And to claim that no one should worry about how they contracted the disease, that we would be wasting our time on "the blame game" or "pointing fingers" is tantamount to saying that their lives and deaths just don't matter. Which is maybe what the UN has been saying along. I didn't think so before, but now I am starting to wonder.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010