Tag Archives: Haiti

Helping Haiti’s Elders

A week ago, I posted excerpts from the heartbreaking story put out by the AP, about a group of old, infirm Haitians lying–and dying–in the streets outside their destroyed nursing home in Port-au-Prince. According to a follow-up story in the Washington Post, they finally got some attention from relief workers on Saturday, more than 10 days after the earthquake took place. According to the post, the first group to visit the elders was “a team of 13 doctors funded by the Venezuelan government,” who “evaluated the patients, changed dressings on their wounds and promised to return the next day.”

Actually,  HelpAge International, the international NGO that deals with the needs of older people around the world, appears to have been on the ground helping the patients several days prior to the Post report.  Although its office in Port-Au-Prince was badly damaged, HelpAge announced last Friday:

Medical staff from our partner CARPA have been examining patients in the Municipal Nursing Home in Bel Air, Port-au-Prince. CARPA doctors also visited the UN hospital to collect free medical supplies which will be given out today.

Currently around 600 temporary living camps have been set up in the Haitian capital. HelpAge is aiming to support ten of them, including one near the Municipal Nursing Home. Two of our emergencies team, Sarah Packwood and Margaret Chilcot, visited the home yesterday with two CARPA doctors to deliver medicines including antibiotics. They also brought tarpaulins which they tied to the branches of trees to provide the older people with some shade from the tropical heat.’

Margaret Chilcott said, “We will hire someone to do some cooking and get water points set up. We can see that more caregivers are urgently needed.I saw one man not eating despite his hunger, apparently because he couldn’t eat without help.

We are now responding and trying to get more medical supplies to the older people in the home. We are able to get hold of supplies, but the problem is that delivery and distribution mechanisms are extremely weak.There are also large numbers of destitute people all around the home which makes it difficult to deliver specifically to the care home residents.

About 800,000 Haitians are over 60, and many of them live in extreme poverty even under normal circumstances. Old people tend to suffer disproportionately during disasters, and are less capable of fending for themselves in the aftermath. I suspect they also tend to be disproportionately overlooked by even the most well-meaning relief efforts.

HelpAge is a rare exception. Last week they entered into a partnership with the AARP Foundation to gain more support for their work. “HelpAge has on-the-ground experience in Haiti and is the only international relief agency that focuses on the unique needs of older people in an emergency,” said AARP CEO Barry Rand.

You can donate to HelpAge’s work in Haiti via their Haiti Emergency Fund at HelpAge USA or through AARP Foundation’s Haiti Relief Fund.

Will the U.S. Send Haitian Refugees to Guantanamo?

The U.S. prison complex at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is inextricably linked to terrorism and torture in the minds of most Americans today. But not very long ago, it was known for torment of a different kind. In the 1990s, an immigrant detention center at Guantanamo served as a holding pen for undocumented migrants from the Caribbean who were caught trying to enter the United States. Most notoriously, it was a destination for Haitian “boat people,” including some with HIV, who fled their country in large numbers in the wake of the 1991 coup.

Haitian detainees at Guantanamo Bay in the early 1990s. Photo: Ivan Curra on Flickr.

Now, in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, there are signs that Guantanamo may be returned to this chapter in its ignominious history. While the Obama administration suspended deportations to Haiti and granted temporary protected status to undocumented Haitians currently living in the United States, this policy offers no protection to quake victims who try to reach U.S. shores. If large numbers of desperate Haitians begin to attempt the treacherous trip, they could well end up in Guantanamo’s Migrant Operations Center (MOC), operated by the Department of Homeland Security.

Last Friday, Fox News was already reporting that Guantanamo was one of the “options on the table” for dealing with fleeing Haitians.

“Guantanamo is going to be an enormously valuable asset as we go through this,” State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters on Thursday, speaking generally about U.S. efforts to help Haiti. “[Guantanamo] is in the vicinity. … So we’re identifying all of the assets in the region that we can use in order to stage operations.”

One official acknowledged that the center likely would become the most viable option “if there was a mass migration” of Haitians from their country….

Once at the Guantanamo facility, the refugees would be supervised by the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which oversees the facility and has contracted the Florida-based Geo Group firm to manage day-to-day operations….

“We haven’t been asked to do anything,” one official said. “No one’s given us any marching orders. … But if they come to us, we’re ready to go.”

On Monday, Tom Barry of the Americas Program at the Center for International Policy reported on the MOC—which, like an increasing number of U.S. prisons, is run by a private, for-profit company.

Today, under a contract with DHS it is operated by Geo Group, a private prison corporation that relies on federal government detention/prison contracts for about 40% of its revenues.

In 2003, with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, MOC was upgraded and its operation transferred from the department’s own Immigration and Customs Enforcement to GEO Group, the country’s second largest private prison firm. In part because of the special international standing of the Guantanamo Bay military base, which one official called “the legal equivalent to outer space,” the State Department is cosponsor of the MOC contract.

According to GEO, it manages and operates a detention center with 130 beds but which “can house up to 500 detainees in the event of a surge.” According to the contract, “This dynamic population may consist of single adult males and females, unaccompanied male and female juveniles, and family groups of various nationalities and security levels.” Under the terms of the contract, which was renewed for a five-year period in November 2006, “GEO is responsible for providing all staff, supplies, and equipment to manage and operate the center.”

The 2003 contract was arranged, according to GEO, “at the emergency request of ICE in 2003” and offered the company “a unique opportunity.” Since responding positively to that emergency request, GEO says that it has “been successfully working with ICE in this unique environment and has developed professional working relationships with all of the federal agencies involved in the operation of the MOC.”

GEO is the company that also runs the largest privately run detention center–and also probably its worst–in Pecos, Texas. As Tom Barry reported last year, the Reeves County Detention Complex has been the site of two recent riots, several suicides, and numerous deaths from inadequate health care. Is this what awaits refugees from the Haitian earthquake?

Back in the 1990s, there was an outcry against the conditions for Haitian refugees at Guantanamo, especially a group of about 150 who had HIV. It was during this period that Bill Clinton set the stage for George W. Bush’s Guantanamo by asserting that anyone held there did not have any legal rights. As Brandt Goldstein pointed out in Slate in 2005:

We sometimes forget that during the Clinton presidency, the United States ran an extralegal detention camp on Guantanamo—and went to federal court to defend its right to do so. The camp during the Clinton years was by no means the nightmarish operation it is now; certainly, there weren’t allegations of torture. But Guantanamo under Clinton produced its own share of suffering and abuses—and perhaps most important for today, the court decision that shut it down was eventually wiped off the books, thanks to legal maneuvers by the Clinton Justice Department.

Some of the refugees who fled Haiti back in the early 1990s were eventually treated as asylum-seekers and admitted to the United States. But in 1994, with Haiti supposedly stabilized, the Clinton administration began shipping them home.  And according to a 2005 report cited by Fox News, the George W. Bush administration maintained that admitting Haitian refugees might “encourage other Haitians to embark on the risky sea travel and potentially trigger a mass asylum from Haiti to the United States.”

So unless the current administration reverses policy once again, any Haitians who might be taken to Guantanamo could be there for a while. This surely was not what Obama had in mind when he made his campaign promise to close the notorious prison camp.

The Abandoned Old of Haiti

In just about every disaster, it’s the same story: The very young and the very old do more than their share of suffering. It happened in New Orleans after Katrina, during the heat waves in Paris and Chicago–in the so-called industrialized world as well as the developing world.

In Haiti, home to the poorest of the poor, life for the old is always hard. In traditional Haitian culture, the “gran moun,” or elders, are respected and cared for by their families and communities, but dire poverty makes this difficult–and there is no government safety net for Haiti’s elderly.

AP photo

We tend to hear more about the injured and dying children than we do about the elders. While it’s true that a young life cut short may be the most tragic event of all, the human capacity for suffering is the same at every age. That is clear in a devastating article by Alfred de Montesquiou, with accompanying photographs, put out today by the AP. It tells of a group of nursing home residents in Port-au-Prince who are now without water, food, shelter, or medical care, and are basically waiting to die.

The old lady crawls in the dirt, wailing for her pills. The elderly man lies motionless as rats pick at his overflowing diaper. There is no food, water or medicine for the 85 surviving residents of the Port-au-Prince Municipal Nursing Home, barely a mile (1 1/2 kilometers) from the airport where a massive international aid effort is taking shape. “Help us, help us,” 69-year-old Mari-Ange Levee begged Sunday, lying on the ground with a broken leg and ribs. A cluster of flies swarmed the open fracture in her skull.

One man has already died, and administrator Jean Emmanuel said more would follow soon unless water and food arrive immediately. “I appeal to anybody to bring us anything, or others won’t live until tonight,” he said, motioning toward five men and women who were having trouble breathing, a sign that the end was near….

With six residents killed in the quake, the institution now has 25 men and 60 women camped outside their former home. Some have a mattress in the dirt to lie on. Others don’t.

As it was during Katrina, fear of violence from desperate residents seems to be impeding the aid effort in Haiti. It turned out after Katrina that many reports of violence were false or exagerrated–but the panic they caused cost many lives. Only time will tell whether the same is true in Haiti. But time is something this group of elders does not have.

Though very little food aid had reached Haitians anywhere by Sunday, Emmanuel said the problem was made worse at the nursing home because it is located near Place de la Paix, an impoverished downtown neighborhood.

Thousands of homeless slum dwellers have pitched their makeshift tents on the nursing home’s ground, in effect shielding off the elderly patients from the outside world with a tense maize of angry people, themselves hungry and thirsty.

“I’m pleading for everyone to understand that there’s a truce right now, the streets are free, so you can come through to help us,” said Emmanuel, 27, one of the rare officials not to have fled the squalor and mayhem. He insisted that foreign aid workers wouldn’t be in danger if they tried to cross through the crowd to reach the elderly group….

Jacqueline Thermiti, 71,…was surprisingly feisty for someone who hadn’t eaten since Tuesday. She attributed that to experience with hunger during earlier hardships. “But I was younger, and now there’s no water either,” she said. She predicted that unlike other pensioners, she could still hold out for at least another day.

“Then if the foreigners don’t come [with aid],” she said, “it will be up to baby Jesus.”

Messages from Haiti: “The suffering isn’t loud.”

Richard Morse, manager of the Oloffson Hotel in Port au Prince has been sending out Twitter messages, which  are being compiled together by Counterpunch.com. Morse is also well known as the leader of the band RAM, and his hotel was made famous in Graham Greene’s novel The Comedians. For more than five decades, it has been switching central for journalists, business people, VIPs, CIA agents, politicians, and thousands of others dropping in or departing Haiti through good times and bad.

Here are a few bits from Morse’s filings; you can continue to read him  in Counterpunch.

We slept out under the stars tonight. Port au Prince was very quiet. The suffering isn’t loud. No shooting…

The last time my guests all slept together was when the Haitian army was shooting journalists after the election massacre of Nov. 1987.

People are starting to wake up. I hear individual voices in the distance, some are moans, some are wails, some is just communication….

We need help with the rubble, help with medical supplies,help with food,water,the singing and praying has begun. God help us all…

The hospital across the street is putting bodies out on the street. decomposition. We need portable morgues.generators. Food. Help. Evacuation…

No homes,no jobs.death.no where to turn.people caught in the rubble.my sleep was peaceful.now I’m awake.reality sets in.sun is about 2 rise…

People have been good, helpful,calm … at some point, hunger, thirst, despair will set in. Portable morgues are needed…medical supplies…

I’ld say most of PauP neighborhoods are damaged. Haven’t visited them but from what I’m hearing, damage everywhere…

I’m not in direct contact with Jacmel but I’m not hearing good things from there. Many buildings collapsed and death. Few specifics…

Bring the people, the help and the aid. We haven’t doctors or morgues or medical treatment and supplies. Bring it on!!!

I guess the people who lived through the earthquake sleep outside and the ones who arrived afterwards sleep inside…

Bodies are being brought to the cemetery. Decomposing bodies everywhere. Looting is begining.The prison is empty. 7 dead bodies in the prison 

People sent & are waiting in the stadium for medical help and no one is coming. They’re starting to give out water today.

I’m finally able to get to my office. Many journalists. Internet is getting a bit slow. Bodies in piles. Bodies along the road. Body committees….

Workers trickling in, so many have lost their homes, all their belongings. How many have lost family, home, job, neighbors? Now what? Stay? 

Communication is frustrating. Can’t reach people in Jacmel to get news. Can’t reach people around PauP. People are still remarkably calm… 

Started to do some shopping today to feed journalists. Someone opened a market for us. One of few not damaged. 

I don’t hear as much singing and praying tonight but I do hear planes in the distance. Help is on the way. There were approx 2 million in PauP… 

I see lights in the distance by the wharf. Pretty dark here except for the glow of laptops. A few journalists have headlights…

I’m getting occasional messages from Jacmel that people are in great need of help. I don’t know what the plan is. Is there a plan? 

U.S. Policy Helped Keep Haiti in Chaos

In the wake of the devastating earthquake, U.S. eyes are again turned toward Haiti–something that only seems to happen when yet another disaster strikes, and never during the daily chaos and misery that plague this poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. I’ve spent a good deal of time in Haiti, reporting first on the repression under the Duvaliers, then on the rise of Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s popular movement, and then on the 1991 military coup that brought him down. I was there during the period of the 1994 military intervention that restored Aristede to power.

U.S. interest in the country seemed to wane with the departure of American troops, and in the aftermath of September 11 and the Bush administration’s numerous adventures around the world, Haiti returned to its usual state of invisibility in Western eyes. Few people noticed a remarkable report that appeared in the New York Times in 2006, based in part on the analysis of former ambassador Brian Dean Curran, showing how U.S. policy helped to destabalize Haiti in the years leading up to 2004, when Aristede was again forced out, by armed rebels under an accused death squad leader. Written shortly before the election won by current president Rene Preval, Walt Bogdanich and Jenny Nordberg titled their story “Mixed U.S. Signals Helped Tilt Haiti Toward Chaos.” After Aristede’s 2004 departure, they write: 

Haiti, never a model of stability, soon dissolved into a state so lawless it stunned even those who had pushed for the removal of Mr. Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest who rose to power as the champion and hero of Haiti’s poor.

Today, the capital, Port-au-Prince, is virtually paralyzed by kidnappings, spreading panic among rich and poor alike. Corrupt police officers in uniform have assassinated people on the streets in the light of day. The chaos is so extreme and the interim government so dysfunctional that voting to elect a new one has already been delayed four times….

Yet even as Haiti prepares to pick its first elected president since the rebellion two years ago, questions linger about the circumstances of Mr. Aristide’s ouster — and especially why the Bush administration, which has made building democracy a centerpiece of its foreign policy in Iraq and around the world, did not do more to preserve it so close to its shores.

The Bush administration has said that while Mr. Aristide was deeply flawed, its policy was always to work with him as Haiti’s democratically elected leader. But the administration’s actions in Haiti did not always match its words. Interviews and a review of government documents show that a democracy-building group close to the White House, and financed by American taxpayers, undercut the official United States policy and the ambassador assigned to carry it out.

As a result, the United States spoke with two sometimes contradictory voices in a country where its words carry enormous weight. That mixed message, the former American ambassador said, made efforts to foster political peace “immeasurably more difficult.” Without a political agreement, a weak government was destabilized further, leaving it vulnerable to the rebels.

Mr. Curran accused the democracy-building group, the International Republican Institute, of trying to undermine the reconciliation process after disputed 2000 Senate elections threw Haiti into a violent political crisis. The group’s leader in Haiti, Stanley Lucas, an avowed Aristide opponent from the Haitian elite, counseled the opposition to stand firm, and not work with Mr. Aristide, as a way to cripple his government and drive him from power, said Mr. Curran, whose account is supported in crucial parts by other diplomats and opposition figures. Many of these people spoke publicly about the events for the first time.

Mr. Curran, a 30-year Foreign Service veteran and a Clinton appointee retained by President Bush, also accused Mr. Lucas of telling the opposition that he, not the ambassador, represented the Bush administration’s true intentions. Records show that Mr. Curran warned his bosses in Washington that Mr. Lucas’s behavior was contrary to American policy and “risked us being accused of attempting to destabilize the government.” Yet when he asked for tighter controls over the I.R.I. in the summer of 2002, he hit a roadblock after high officials in the State Department and National Security Council expressed support for the pro-democracy group, an American aid official wrote at the time.

The International Republican Institute is one of several prominent nonprofit groups that receive federal funds to help countries develop the mechanisms of democracy, like campaigning and election monitoring. Of all the groups, though, the I.R.I. is closest to the administration. President Bush picked its president, Lorne W. Craner, to run his administration’s democracy-building efforts. The institute, which works in more than 60 countries, has seen its federal financing nearly triple in three years, from $26 million in 2003 to $75 million in 2005. Last spring, at an I.R.I. fund-raiser, Mr. Bush called democracy-building “a growth industry.” These groups walk a fine line. Under federal guidelines, they are supposed to nurture democracy in a nonpartisan way, lest they be accused of meddling in the affairs of sovereign nations. But in Haiti, according to diplomats, Mr. Lucas actively worked against President Aristide.

While it can be counted on not to engage in these kinds of deadly shenanigans, the the Obama administration hasn’t taken much meaingful action on Haiti in the past year. It did pull back on some of the harshest deportation policies of the Bush years, which affected Haitians fleeing their country’s shores. But it has implemented few of the recommendations, for example, put out by the Haitian Lawyers Leadership Network after Obama’s inauguration, which included canceling debts and increasing trade.

For the most part, Europe and the United States have continued to sit by as Haiti has grown poorer and poorer. When I was there you could find the children just outside Cite Soleil, the giant slum, living in the garbage dump, waiting for the U.S. army trucks to dump the scraps left from the meals of American soldiers. There they stood, knee deep in garbage, fighting for bits of food.  As for the old, they people every street, gathering at the Holiday Inn at Port au Prince in wheelchairs, waiting at the doorway in search of a coin or two. They have no social safety net. And nobody with any money–no bank, no insurance company, no hedge fund, no mutual fund–ever makes any serious investment in the country.

It is hard to imagine what a magnitude 7 earthquake might do to a city that, on any ordinary day, already resembles a disaster area.  Today, compassionate Americans will wince at the photos, then pick their way among the foundations which offer alms to the Haitian poor. Here is one unlikely proposal to help Haiti, taken from Juan Cole’s email listserv this morning. It goes like this: “Memo to Obama on Haiti: It’s reported that Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase combined have set aside $47 billion for bonuses,” says an NPR account, according to Cole. “Haiti’s annual gross domestic product in nominal terms is about $7 bn. a year. Seize the bonuses. Send them to Haiti.”

It’ll never happen, of course. But if there were any justice in the world, it would.