In the last days of May, torrential rainfall fueled a series of flash floods that killed thousands in the area along the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Tens of thousands of families left without homes, clean drinking water and food are still waiting to receive the help that they desperately need.
One of the cruelest ironies of the situation is that the area is one of the most severely drought stricken regions in the world, where years of deforestation and desperate slash-and-burn farming have left the land without trees to soften the fall of rain drops and the thirsty soil so compacted that it can’t absorb the water it so desperately needs. When rains fall, they sweep through gullies, wash out roads, and inundate towns.
Another cruel irony is that none of the officials and institutions charged with the responsibility of providing security to the citizens of Haiti-not the bankrupt interim government that was set up to replace ousted Jean Bertrand Aristide, not the U.S. and French forces who have been in country since Aristide’s February 29 departure, and not the understaffed, under-funded U.N. forces who nominally took over June 1-has been able or willing to provide even minimal emergency aid to the victims of the flood.
With the roads washed out to Mapou, the town hit hardest by the floods, the only way in was to walk or fly. The U.S. Marines provided helicopters to fly in emergency supplies in the first days of the crisis, but then stopped, citing pilot fatigue and the need to prepare to ship out after the U.N. takeover. The U.N. didn’t exactly hit the ground running; in a June 1 ceremony in Port-au-Prince, a few dozen troops exchanged their camouflage berets for signature blue of U.N. peacekeepers, but the vast majority of the 8,000 soldiers and police officers promised have yet to arrive. (A few countries are already backing out of their commitment to send troops.)
International aid organizations are providing help, but can’t afford to hire helicopters-a two-week rental would cost more than basic hygiene utensil kits and water filters for all the affected families, according to Oxfam International-so some groups planned to carry aid overland, by foot. A recent New York Times article describes a meeting between aid workers and a group of Haitians from the affected villages, who had walked and led their mules down to the sea to help carry supplies back to their flooded homes.
It isn’t just the victims of the floods who are suffering, either. First, there’s the quiet daily violence of life in a country where 85% live in deep poverty. Two-thirds of the country depends on subsistence agriculture to survive, and last year’s harvest failed miserably. Workers in the Ouanaminthe free-trade zone who had won a settlement with factory owners earlier in the spring when the eyes of the international community were all on Haiti, report renewed violence and intimidation of union organizers. The National Coalition for Haitian Rights has issued a report condemning the re-instatement of a judge connected to bribery and narco-trafficing to the bench. And armed groups of rebels and Aristide supporters retain their weapons and control of large portions of the country.
U.S. forces obviously didn’t believe that the “security” they came to maintain included access to clean water, food, and safe homes following a natural disaster, let alone protecting workers rights or helping build an honest judiciary. (Disarming the militias and gangs roving the countryside also seems not to have been a priority, since the multinational force collected less than 200 guns in their three month stay, according to published reports.) Earlier in the spring, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for a long-term commitment-a minimum of 24 months-with the aim of helping Haiti become a functioning democracy, but the current mandate is for only six months. Resources for the UN mission have been slow in coming, and the skepticism of Haitian organizations concerning the capacity of the UN to make a real difference in Haiti are looking increasingly on target.
This week the Organization of American States called upon the interim government to work on creating conditions for free and fair elections as soon as possible. That sounds great, but it is hard to see where this government is going to get the resources or the political will to create such conditions.
If there is hope for Haiti, it resides in the people looking up at all of this from below. In the face of decades of intimidation and repression, repeated coups and foreign intervention, the people of Haiti still show resourcefulness, creativity, and extraordinary resilience. Gone are the heady days of the early 1990s when a national grassroots movement yielded real power, but Haitians continue to organize for survival and to debate and influence the political future of their country.
Haitian history says that the odds are not on the side of these people, but they continue to believe in the possibility of change. That, alone, should earn them a voice in the international effort purporting to support democracy in Haiti. The UN is certainly in no position to overlook any resource. It would be the cruelest irony of all if the international community ignored this potential wellspring of strength.