Haiti Floods

Echeverria: It reads like a page in the bible: epic floods, death, and starvation. Unfortunately for the people of Haiti, these are not ancient times of which we speak, but of the here and now. Political kidnappings, destabilizing dictatorships, and devastating hurricanes continue to test the resilience of the Haitian people. With us once again to update us is Flashpoints special correspondent Kevin Pina…Can you just describe the situation there? We’ve been getting these reports here on the U.S. side, with respect to the hurricane that there’s been a couple of dozen dead here in the States. Let’s talk about how many have died in the floods in Haiti, and just the comparison there, in terms of the devastation there. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Pina: Wide swaths of the entire North of Haiti, beginning with the Central Plateau all the way up to Cap Haitien, and as far East as Port au Paix, are completely under water. So far, they’ve been able to recover about 600 bodies. The estimate right now is that the death toll could far exceed 1000 when all is said and done. There are now relief workers of the United Nations and various relief organizations that are trying to make their way North, but, of course, with the flooding and the conditions of the roads, this is very difficult.

Also you’ve got to understand that since the forced ouster of Aristide on February 29th, the Civil Protection Bureau, which was built to respond to these kinds of disasters, which were community-based organizations [and] structures, that were put in place under the Aristide administration, actually with a grant from USAID – …even benign organizations such as this disaster relief bureau, people who were associated with it were also driven from their offices, [their] offices were burned, and they were driven into hiding. So, now the population that are suffering in these areas are suffering doubly so because there is no infrastructure in place to be able to respond to a disaster of these proportions.

Echeverria: That actually brings me to my next question, which was, whether or not politics has in fact played a role in this, especially given the devastating floods of last May, which the people of Haiti have not recovered from yet. How has politics played into this? How is the new regime responding to this devastation?

Pina: As I said, there is no structure in place, the structure that was in place to respond to the needs of the population was completely destroyed and obliterated, especially in areas like Gonaives, where tropical storm Jeanne hit hardest. This is a place where Wilfred [inaudible] and Butteur Metayer, who are basically gang lords, now hold sway and control the mayor’s office. This is an area where the former military controls the patrolling and the security of the city despite the presence of Argentinean troops. There has been a very awkward truce over the last month between the former military and the United Nations forces in that area. So this is an area that already had suffered tremendously, and, unfortunately, because of the political atmosphere, because of the destruction of even benign organizations like the Office of Civil Defense and Protection, the people of Gonaives are being forced to suffer without any kind of structure that can respond to their needs, that can get aid into those areas immediately, and that can serve as a watchdog to make sure that the right people who deserve the aid get the aid as soon as possible.

Echeverria: Kevin, do you think that the international community is able to really look at Haiti right now and flesh out the differences between the Aristide legacy and the legacy that the Latortue government is fleshing out right now…because what it seems to me is that it would seem very obvious in speaking with you that the very people that would be able to help Haiti in a time like this, just with respect to the floods, are in hiding, or they are missing, or they are disappeared. Do you think that the international community is able to make that kind of connection?

Pina: Well no, but the international community is going to pay for it, because with the lack of those structures, with those structures being basically dismantled and destroyed, and, as you said, with people being forced into hiding for participating in something as benign as hurricane prevention, even though it happened to be developed under the Aristide administration and the previous administration, it’s the international community that’s going to have to end up footing the bill, eventually. It’s going to mean that it’s going to come out of U.S, contributions to the United Nations, which means its ultimately going to come out of U.S. tax dollars [and] ultimately from the pockets of U.S. citizens; the extra costs that are incurred because those structures are no longer in place.

The United Nations is having to pick up the slack, they’re having to pay for everything, they’re having to send their people out in small armies and convoys in order to get relief to these areas, because there are no structures of the State in place. All of those structures were driven out, as you said earlier, and now there are basically thugs, gangsters, and criminals who are running, especially, as I said, Gonaives, which was hit hardest and where the largest death toll has taken place. They’ve counted 500 bodies thus far just in Gonaives; the majority of them were children. This is a disaster compounded by the previous disaster, of the forced ouster of the democratic government.

Echeverria:You mentioned…[that] the United Nations has had to up the slack. Let’s talk reality here: have they been able to pick up the slack? What obstacles are they encountering in trying to help the people of Haiti?

Pina: One of the concerns that they’ve mentioned time and time again are security concerns. Those are rightful concerns. [Areas like] the Plateau Central, Hinche are under the control of the former military, the same former military that they have allowed to slowly take city by city without saying a word about it, without challenging them whatsoever. So, actually the United Nations, and the Latortue government – remember those same forces were embraced by Gerard Latortue as “freedom fighters” – they are victims of their own policies, they are victims of their own accommodation with the former military who control those areas. So, of course, when the United Nations says that security is a concern when it comes to relief convoys being able to go into those areas and to administer help, medical attention, to pass out drinking water – because people have no drinking water – to distribute food. as people have no food, it’s a legitimate concern on their part, whether they’re going to be able to do that in a secure environment. But, they are the victims of their own policy.

Echeverria: Speaking about that kind of victimology. In terms of the deforestation of Haiti, what connection does that have with respect to the economics of Haiti and the impact that all of this is going to have on Haiti?

Pina: That’s a long historical question, Selange. This is something that started long ago with the French yanking out swaths of forests from Haiti, especially its precious hardwood, and corrupt dictatorship after corrupt dictatorship. And then, of course, there were the black pigs which were obliterated by the policies of the U.S. administration. The black pigs were literally – forgive the term – the ‘piggy bank’ of the peasants in the countryside. In other words, the surplus income of the peasants in the countryside, who are seventy per cent of the population of this country, was their pigs. And when the U.S. claimed that there was ‘swine flu’ and they replaced those black pigs with U.S. pigs, these white-pink pigs, and the peasants ended up having to pay more money to support the pigs than they could their own families, it was an economic disaster for the Haitian peasantry. So pigs no longer became the piggy banks of the peasants.

What became the piggy bank of the peasants, their bank if you will, their legacy for their children, were trees on their property. And, of course, [in] Haiti, trees are used as fuel, and not only just for cooking, its for dry cleaners in the major cities which have been popping up all over the place. A peasant can get a lot of money by cutting trees off his property and selling it to a dry-cleaning business that’s run by some wealthier schmuck who’s making a buck off of that business. Because trees have become the piggy bank of the majority of this population, it’s meant that it’s the only disposable income available to them when they need to send their kids to school, when they have an emergency in their family, when someone gets sick. And as long as policies dictate that the peasants must rely upon trees as their only available disposable income, this problem will never be resolved and it will never be corrected. It’s a major disaster and certainly its been a major contributor to the great flooding that’s occurring in the North during the passing of Tropical storm Jeanne.

Echeverria:Kevin, can you tell us, get a sense of what’s in the immediate future right now for the Haitian people?

Pina: It’s very difficult times. The repression has picked up again. They’re now doing the next level, if you will, of repression, touching quite a few people that I know; I get a lot of calls every day, panicked calls. There are human rights offices that are being attacked; there are union members who are being arrested without cause, there are members of religious communities that are being arrested without cause. There is this blanket accusation that is being put out by this organization called the National Coalition of Haitian Rights [NCHR] that concerns December 5th, 2003, where they say that Lavalas had attacked the university facility. It’s being used as a blanket justification for the arrest, detainment, and incarceration of a lot of people that they claim are associated with Lavalas, or have some affiliation with Lavalas. So this talk about reconciliation that continues by the current U.S. installed government, seems to be just words. As long as they are going to keep listening to organizations like NCHR and allow them to continue to create this witch hunt climate in Haiti, I don’t see how reconciliation is ever going to be possible.

Echeverria: If people wanted to send help the people of Haiti, where would they go?

Pina: I think the best place to go would be to www.haitiaction.net. At the top of the page there’s this organization called the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund [HERF]. I know that they’ve been working with victims rights groups, and I think that they have a presence in the North as well right now.

Echeverria: Thank you so much Kevin, we hope to be talking to you soon.

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