Sunday, February 11, 2007

War in the Slum

John began working in Cité Soleil, a slum of 300,000 people, a few months ago. He sees children at a clinic run by the Daughters of Charity, an international order of Catholic sisters, founded by St. Vincent de Paul. He also works at a mobile clinic run by a Passionist priest, Father Rick, that circulates throughout the slums—Soleil, Wharf Jeremie, LaSaline.

The first time John went with the mobile clinic to Cité Soleil, they drove to the neighborhood called Boston. They parked the medical truck in a neat concrete plaza surrounded by walls with colorful murals of the Virgin Mary and Che Guevara. A couple of guys were batting around a ball as other people stood around the periphery.

Father Rick got out of the vehicle to talk with the leader of this territory, a man who goes by Evans. Evans was an overweight man who looked much older than a person in his twenties, which he is. He was wearing a jersey with a number on it. His long white teeth made up the gist of the crazy and diabolical smile of one who knows that he is lord and ruler of all he sees through force and fear.

Evans shook Father’s hand and said of the other people waiting in the truck, “I have not met everyone.” An American woman got out and was introduced to Evans. John asked a burly, streetwise Haitian man, who is one of Father’s assistants, “Aren’t you going to get out?” The man gave a quick shake of his head; no he was not. Father sat and talked with Evans for about 40 minutes. Father and other people who want to work in Soleil must pay homage to chiefs like Evans if they want to work safely in the slums.

Friday, February 9, at 3 am, the UN launched a massive assault on Cité Soleil that lasted six hours. Their purposes were twofold: they wanted to occupy territory held by the gangs and they wanted to capture a gang leader, who is the gang leader of all gang leaders: Evans. Seven hundred UN soldiers—blue helmets, they are called—largely from Brazil rolled through the slum in 40 tanks. They were largely successful in their first mission. The UN now occupies the plaza described above, known as Jamaica Base. They also captured a water tower, where gang snipers used to fire away and also a house used to hold kidnapping victims. According to UN reports, one gang member was killed. However, Evans is still at large.

Evans is reported to be a vicious gangster. He and his gangs extort money from people and use people as human shields. He is also reported to be superstitious of cats. He ordered all of the cats in the area rounded up and killed. When one woman wouldn’t turn over her cat, he shot her. While John didn’t know all of these details about Evans when he saw him a few months ago, he definitely got the impression that he was a bad guy. “He had the eyes of a killer,” John said.

No one is really sure where the gangs get their firepower. Some gang members have said they want to lay down their weapons but they are afraid of the UN. “They call us gangsters, but everyone in this world is a gangster. When you’re hungry, you’re mad,” said a gang member to an AP reporter.

Since late December, the UN has conducted increasingly aggressive forays into Cité Soleil. Several months ago, President Preval called for all gang members to turn in their weapons. “Give us peace, or you will rest in peace,” was the refrain of his administration. A few token weapons were turned in. But in December, there was a surge in kidnappings, including kidnappings of children. So Preval gave the UN permission to take off the handcuffs. There were raids into Soleil in December and January. In the December 22 attack, the UN reported that six people were killed. However, Soleil residents said that 10 people were killed, and none of them were gang members.

Therein lies the rub. Almost all people of good will would like the gang members to be arrested or to at least lay down their arms. And I am not opposed in principle to the UN being in charge of this effort. But the UN’s tactics have made the cure worse than the disease. I believe they have killed an untold number of innocent people—collateral damage, this is called: can we please have a consensus to ban this Orwellian term?—with their indiscriminate shooting. These deaths have received very little coverage—unlike when a UN soldier is killed or if an American is kidnapped—and the UN have not been sanctioned at all. It makes it seem as if these lives don’t matter at all. “The people didn’t ask to be born here. We didn’t ask to live like this,” said a woman principal to a NT Times reporter.

If you talk with residents of Cité Soleil, they will tell you they fear the UN more than the gangs. Part of it may be the devil you don’t know being scarier than the devil you grew up with. Or part of it could be the UN’s superior firepower which has made itself felt. It is frightening even for us to see the white UN tanks roll through the streets with their automatic weapons manned, pointed, and at-the-ready. In Cite Soleil, it seems as if the majority of the buildings are riddled with bullet marks from these weapons. Another Catholic priest we know, Father Tom, who runs schools and feeding programs in Cité Soleil, says that the black boards in one of his school are covered with bullet holes. I’ve recounted some of the other misdeeds of the UN in other posts.

The general displeasure by many of Haiti’s poorest citizens with the UN’s presence was on display a few days ago. On February 7, two days before the UN’s incursion into Soleil and the 16th anniversary of Aristide’s first inauguration as president of Haiti, thousands of people marched in front of the UN headquarters on John Brown Avenue. They were calling for the departure of the UN, justice for the victims in Cité Soleil, the release of political prisoners, and the return of those forced into exile, especially Aristide. And then two days later, the UN attack occurs. It’s kind of a schizophrenic world here in Haiti.

Now the UN has a least some of what they want: more control of neighborhoods in Cite Soleil as well as control of the major entrances into the huge seaside slum. They have driven Evans and other gang leaders into at least temporary hiding. But here are the unintended consequences:

The Daughters of Charity who run the clinic and other programs left Cité Soleil on Saturday morning. They walked out, carrying suitcases, as the UN was letting very few vehicles into the slum. With the Sisters gone for an unknown length of time, 1,200 children won’t receive a hot, substantial meal each day, 600 children won’t be in school, and 45 babies won’t receive two meals a day through their malnutrition program. The clinic isn’t open to treat sick children either. I am sure that most similar programs in Cité Soleil are not currently operating.

We talked to the director of an orphanage. On Saturday, several moms from Cité Soleil showed up at her place begging her to take their babies and place them for adoption. They told her they have no way to feed their children. Sadly, her orphanage is full and she couldn’t accept the children. What will become of them and their mothers?

The world is a mean place in big and small ways for so many people I’ll close with a vignette reported by the Washington Post. After the UN raid, A 45-year-old man, Miken, had spent much of the day waiting to be able to return to his home in Cité Soleil. He wants the gangs gone but he wants back to his home too. A few days ago, he was walking down the street, his pocket holding $3, a good day’s wage for a hard day’s work selling scrap metal. “A gang member he knew greeted him by leveling a revolver at his head. The man with the gun didn’t have to say a word. Miken handed over the money and walked away.”

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Pearl of the Antilles?

Haiti was once known by the above title, though it may be difficult to believe today. The island, which was once lush and forested is now largely barren. However, the conditions that created such a fertile country still exist, as evidence by the these pictures, which were taken only a few weeks apart. If given the chance, stuff likes to grow in Haiti.

I’ve spent a few posts describing Haiti’s troubled history and the problems it faces. I would like to spend one entry listing the strengths of the country.

-The weather in Haiti is fabulous. FAB-U-LOUS. We have been here for seven months now. Locals had told us that December, January, and February are beautiful months in Haiti and we are finding out how right they are, especially given the temps in Illinois. The days are sunny and warm, but not oppressively so; we don’t run the air conditioning at night. There is little or light rain. Nice breezes from the Caribbean help cool the island, even during the hotter summer months.

-The people in Haiti are resilient. The living conditions for poor people here are wretched, for reasons detailed in the previous post. Though the infant and maternal mortality rates and the average lifespan of Haitians are all atrocious, they are not as bad as the might be. Many of the African countries have much worse mortality rates, and I find it hard to believe that conditions, bad as they are there, are as poor as in Haiti. Haitians are descended from some very tough people: the slaves who defeated Napoleon’s army.

-The people in Haiti are hospitable. We have been extended such kindnesses from Haitians who are very poor. We have visited people in their shanty homes who have had cold Cokes waiting for us. They will also offer you the only chair in their house.

-The people in Haiti are largely law abiding. You read, and I’ve discussed the gang-related crime in Haiti. However, gang members comprise a very small part of the population. By and large, the people in Haiti are peace-loving. We have traveled around Port-au-Prince on public transportation—i.e. tap taps—extensively and never felt threatened or in danger. I believe the United States to be a much more violent country than Haiti, and I think the crime statistics would bear this out.

-The people in Haiti are hard working. As George Orwell said in Down and Out in Paris in London, the unpoor don’t realize how much work it is to be poor. From walking miles for water to washing clothes by hand to fixing cars wherever they break down, Haitians are usually working.

-The people in Haiti want democracy. Despite the failure of past governments and the hardships of getting to the polls and then waiting there often for hours, the Haitian people turn out in huge numbers for the presidential elections. They want to have a voice in choosing their officials.

-The people in Haiti are good cooks. This is rather a painful paradox, given the scarcity of food in many Haitian homes. But we have had delicious meals here prepared by people from all different income levels.

-There is a ton of potential in Haiti, if it can only be channeled. This is a country of 8 million people, many of whom would love the opportunity of a job. People here want a better life and are willing to work for it.

As you can see, most of the strengths of Haiti are bound up in its people.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Where We Are Now

Gerard LaTortue of Boca Raton, Florida, was installed as the interim prime minister of Haiti by the United States and other international powers after the coup d’etat that forced Aristide out of office. LaTortue served until Spring 2006, when the current president, Rene Preval, took office. LaTortue’s administration was noted for its corruption and inaction, as the country waited for elections, which were repeatedly postponed, to be held.

During our last few trips to Haiti my husband would often remark at the end of his work shift, “This was Haiti’s worst day,” meaning things have never been so bad in Haiti. Here are some of the reasons why:

-Gangs control many of the slums. They kidnap, steal, kill, and terrorize people, throughout Haiti. We know people they have kidnapped and a family whose home
was burned to the ground.

-The UN forces—over 7,000 strong—are here to help with security. However, they shoot indiscriminately in the slums and have killed untold numbers of innocent people, including children. John has interviewed many of these victims at St. Catherine Laboure hospital in Cite Soleil.

-The judicial system is corrupt and inefficient. There seem to be no regular laws or rules that are enforced regarding charges, trials, and imprisonment. Violent prisoners are released while people like Father Gerry Jean-Juste are held for months on trumped up charges.

-The lack of security has kept away people who want to help Haiti.

-The infrastructure is gutted. Roads are terrible, clean water is not widely available, and electricity is only accessible a few hours a day.

-Many of the poor are malnourished or even starving to death.

-Haiti was cited as the most corrupt country in the world by Transparency International. This index defines corruption as public officials who abuse their positions for private gain.

-Schooling is not available to all children and many of the schools are inferior.

-Medical care is woefully scarce and inadequate. Many preventable and/or treatable diseases like tuberculosis, typhoid fever, and malaria take the lives of Haitians, especially children.

-An environmental crisis is ravaging the country as the deforested mountains allow rains to carry away topsoil and turn into deadly floods.

-Unemployment is rampant, somewhere around 80%.

-Many of the educated, skilled people who are critical to developing Haiti leave for the United States, Canada, and Europe. Our adoption attorney told us that none of her five children are living in Haiti.

All of these problems have their roots in the historical and current events I have described in previous posts. I think we have to take into special account the role of the U.S. in Haiti’s history, particularly its most recent history. I believe the United States has a great deal of control as to some things in Haiti. The U.S. told Aristide he must leave and flew him to Africa. A resident of the U.S. became Haiti’s interim prime minister. The United States held up promised aid money to Haiti because we didn’t like the way their 2000 elections were administrated.

Haitians are very aware of the U.S. power over their country and they pay close attention to U.S. politics. We were in Haiti during the 2004 U.S. presidential elections and people were listening to their radios/ They knew the states where the vote was in question. I think that the U.S. president often has more affect on people from other countries than he does on Americans. In Haiti’s case, one U.S. president restored Aristide to office and another led him out.

Now, it’s not just a question of what other countries can do for Haiti. It’s also a question of what Haiti can do for itself. And like a person who has been beaten too long, Haiti has developed its own dysfunction, which contributes to its problems.

When all is said and done, the question remains: what can be done now to improve Haiti?

Saturday, February 03, 2007

The Aristide Years: Haitian History Part III

Jean Bertrand Aristide, formerly a Catholic priest, was Haiti’s first democratically elected leader. Widely popular among the poor, whom he served as a parish priest, Aristide won the presidential election in 1991 with 67% of the vote. But Aristide served only 8 months of his term before he was overthrown in a military coup led by Raoul Cedras. Aristide spent part of his exile in the U.S. In 1994 with the help of U.S troops, Aristide was restored to power. However, the embargo against Haiti during his enforced absence along with terror of the Cedras regime crippled Haiti’s economy. Aristide disbanded the national army, which was guilty of severe human rights violations. He finished out his aborted term in 1996. Rene Preval, Haiti’s current president, followed Aristide, serving from 1996-2000.

In 2000, Aristide ran for president again and won, this time with almost 92% of the vote. But again, Aristide was not able to serve out his full term. A rebellion led by many former army officials took control of the northern part of the country in 2004. As they were advancing to Port-au-Prince, Aristide was escorted by U.S. military to a plane and flown to the Central African Republic. Aristide asserts that he was kidnapped by the U.S. government.

Aristide is a controversial figure among many people. Some have tried to link him to drug dealings and opposition killings. Others were unhappy with him because he did not embrace American-style development. But even those who view him negatively would grudgingly admit that he was overwhelmingly elected president of the country twice. Aristide’s elections, ousters, and legacy may embody better than anything the clash in Haiti between the poor who are the majority and the rich who hold the power. It is an old story.

And things have not gotten better in the three years that Aristide’s been gone.