Saturday, March 28, 2009

From the NY Times

March 24, 2009
Gonaïves Journal
Living in a Sea of Mud, and Drowning in Dread

GONAÏVES, Haiti — Even now, well before hurricane season, Jean Hubert tries to tamp down the panic that wells up in his chest whenever dark clouds mass overhead.

His unease multiplies if even stray raindrops splatter through his corrugated roof. Its seemingly robust support boards snapped like matchsticks in the cascading floodwaters last year, puncturing random holes in the flimsy tin.

“I live with one foot out the door,” explains Mr. Hubert, a 35-year-old high school teacher ready to run for the hills at the slightest suggestion of a storm.

Outside his four-room, cinder block shanty, the havoc visited across this city in central Haiti by a string of hurricanes six months ago remains readily apparent.

Mr. Hubert’s home now sits four or five feet below the narrow street. The mud that choked every house, excavated by hand and carted into the road, has hardened into an uneven chain of mounds, solid like concrete. Pedestrians negotiating its choppy surface look down on the tin roofs while trampling household items jutting out of the dirt — here a woman’s bright red pump, there a turquoise plastic comb.

The fear of the next big storm infects the whole town. Everyone knows that the rains should start in April, and that by June hurricanes can begin to form out in the Atlantic — the deadly season lasting until November. Mr. Hubert complains that the city has no evacuation plan, that the same chaos that left him sitting on a neighbor’s roof the last time for three days, his five children crying from hunger, could well unspool all over again like a recurring nightmare.

City Hall, basically a two-story house on the main square, lacks the bustle one might expect in a city still recuperating from storms that hit like a battering ram. Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike — all but the first one were hurricanes — landed within the space of a month last August and September. It was Hanna that really pummeled Gonaïves, the fourth largest city in Haiti, with 300,000 inhabitants.

No other city in Haiti absorbed so much punishment. More than 30 inches of rain fell overnight. The deforested hills, less than 2 percent of them covered by trees, sent the spill-off crashing down into La Quinte River, the wall of water and mud eventually cresting at 15 feet above its banks.

By the time it receded from the city streets, the flood had killed 466 inhabitants; another 235 just disappeared and are presumed dead. Of the city’s 33,000 buildings, 5,441 collapsed and some 22,300 others were damaged. Nationally, damages came to a total of $900 million, or nearly 15 percent of the gross domestic product.

“All it takes is one cloud, and everyone asks me when they will be evacuated,” groused the deputy mayor, Jean-François Adolphe, when asked about the mood here. The City Council tried to develop a plan, he said, but readily admitted it was basically fruitless. The city does not have a place to shelter anyone, not to mention the means to ferry its inhabitants to higher ground.

Mr. Adolphe rated the chances of a hurricane hitting this year at 30 percent, and flatly denied a rumor that the mayor and his two deputies had bought houses in the hills. He noted brightly that the national toll from the 2008 storms was under 800 dead, down from 3,000 when Hurricane Jeanne struck in 2004, which meant officials must be doing something right.

The main hangover is the mud. Estimates of just how much mud slithered into Gonaïves range up to a square mile filled with a bit more than three feet of goop.

Mr. Adolphe thought the city had hit on a happy solution to getting rid of it — neighborhood teams paid for the work as they moved from one quarter to the next. But, he said, residents cleaned their own streets and shrugged off other areas, appearing only every two weeks to collect a small salary. “They are not really interested in doing community work,” he said.

For their part, residents complain bitterly that the government is missing in action. They reserve praise for Venezuela alone. It paid for the new Simón Bolívar power plant, which provides the city with some 16 hours of electricity daily.

The United Nations also hired 21,000 people to build terraces in the hills around the city, paying them $2 cash and $3 in food for each day worked. But less than 2 percent of what needs to be done to shore up the watershed has been completed, said Alex Ceus, the director of the terracing program.

“The little that has been done is insufficient to protect the city,” he said. On the hill next to the fresh terraces, experienced hands point out the smooth bumps of previous efforts. The force of water spilled by Hurricane Hanna erased terraces too.

Right after the floods, the United Nations organized a worldwide appeal for $127 million for recovery efforts, but only about half has been donated.

Each storm seems to compound the previous lashing. Right outside the southern approach to Gonaïves, a sprawling lake several miles across now covers a once arid plain. Water laps against the windowsills of abandoned houses, their curtains flapping in the stiff breeze.

The water hides a raised highway that was being built because the same area flooded in 2004. Most Haitian roads are abysmal moonscapes, but the 25-minute detour that National Route 1 now takes around the lake is a particularly rough, unpaved road, with muscular buses barreling along giving no quarter to smaller vehicles.

At first, people forced from their homes thought the lake might at least provide fish to eat. But after a couple of men drowned when their skiff capsized in the strong winds, the nearby residents, still living in tents, said they no longer ventured near the water.

Drowning is not a fear only by the lake.

In the downtown communal market, Pierre Exante, a mattress seller, grimaced as his eyes darted over the oozing cesspool of black water and garbage abutting his store, the foul stench and worse reputation keeping customers away. Four people have drowned in it, Mr. Exante said.

Not that the rest of the market is very busy. One stall owner said she got more beggars than customers — the storm killed the local economy. Residents say endless such problems fill their days and nights with dread.

Nicole J. Clervius is the local director for Fonkoze, a microcredit lender that is helping businesses struggle back to life. “People cannot sleep, they are always on alert,” she said. “It’s like they are always waiting for something to come.”

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Solace in Solidarity

My latest article on Haitians in the Dominican Republic is posted here.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The War on the Other Front

While many in the world are focused on the hot wars in the Middle East, many in the United States are now turning their attention to the "other war', on their southern border, now erupting in violence in Mexico.

Many here in the Dominican Republic fear that the United States changes its drug policy, we will soon end up like Mexico. We here on Hispaniola are a transit point for 10-15% of the cocaine destined for the United States and Europe. We have an ongoing issue of assassinations, rising crime rates linked to drug trafficking, and deportations of convicted drug felons from the United States.

The former Presidents of Columbia and Brazil headed a commission on drug policy and have issued a call for a paradigm shift in international drug policy,printed here in English.

I hope that Friends will read this and begin, once again, a discussion on the subject.

It is my understanding that the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting did once undertake this discussion but the discussion was held over because of concerns of some Friends over the issues of addiction. The violence that is now ensuing makes this issue of paramount importance to the security of the hemisphere and the world.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

NY Times in favor of TPS for Haitians

Haiti, already desperately poor, was devastated by storms last year. It is hard to see how an influx of up to 30,000 homeless, jobless people — the number of Haitians facing deportation from the United States — would do anything but further destabilize the country as it struggles to recover from what has been called its worst natural disaster in a century.

American advocates for Haitians have joined the Haitian government in pleading for an end to the deportations, arguing that all interests are better served by giving the detainees temporary protected status. When a political crisis or natural disaster makes repatriation a bad idea, it is far wiser to allow people to stay put rather than be forced home where they will place further strains on local supplies of food, clean water and housing — all of which are perilously scarce in Haiti. The Haitian diaspora can do a lot more for its stricken homeland by sending home what is really needed: money.

Ending deportations of Haitians would also be consistent. Tens of thousands of Nicaraguans, Hondurans, Salvadorans and others whose countries have been hit by war, earthquakes and hurricanes have routinely been granted protected status in 18-month increments.

The strongest argument against doing so is the fear that boatloads of Haitians will take to sea in a deadly gamble to win sanctuary for themselves. That is a legitimate concern. But the best way to address it is by helping to lessen Haiti’s misery with aid, trade and investment. Haitians living in this country can help — but not if they are deported home to a country that is in no condition to accept them.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Friends Committee on National Legislation

Dear Friends-

I write to you again from the Dominican Republic to urge you to have your Meeting's representative to FCNL move the issue of Temporary Protected Status for Haitians up on their agenda.

I know that the immigration issue is already a grave concern to FCNL and that there staff is well versed on the law and the issues.

My understanding is that Haitians would qualify for Temporary Protected Status under this law. As I have stated, the nation of Haiti is very fragile,under the protection of UN peacekeepers,having only recovered from a coup in 2004, and just on its way to democracy. Because of the four storms last year, it is facing famine. It suffers from an ongoing wave of kidnappings which keep it on the State Department travel warning list, precluding tourism, the backbone of the economy here in the neighboring Dominican Republic. It is still a transshipment point for cocaine. The introduction of these deportees, particularly those with felony records and no ties to the community, will further destablize this nation, and by extension, this entire island.

Please discuss this issue in your Meetings. Should anyone wish further information, please feel free to call me on SKPYE at "elizabetheamesroebling" or send me your number, or the number of anyone in your Meeting, and I will call them to answer any questions.

We are awaiting delicate elections in Haiti in April. The party of former President Aristide has been banned and there have already been protests on the street.

There is a concern that further disruptions will tip the balance into chaos.

Thank you for your attention to Haiti.

Elizabeth Roebling

Asheville Friends Meeting

Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Monday, March 9, 2009


And the country I fell in love with years ago:

Friday, March 6, 2009

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Checking on the news coverage from Haiti

For a recent analysis of the Reuters coverage of Lavalas in Haiti, read Michael Deibert, author of Notes from the Last Testament, here.

The Shadow of Arisitide

Five years after he fled into exile amid a bloody revolt, former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is continuing to cast a long shadow over Haiti's political landscape.

His reemergence as a central figure in Haiti's political future comes as the once all-powerful Fanmi Lavalas political party seems to be imploding amid an internal power struggle over which competing faction has the right to lead in Aristide's absence.

The internal dispute boiled over into Haiti's larger political debate last month when Haiti's Provisional Electoral Council -- presented with two competing slates of Lavalas candidates for the upcoming April 19 parliamentary elections -- disqualified all 16 office-seekers from across the country who had registered for the 12 senate seats under the Lavalas banner.

The electoral council's explanation for the disqualifications: According to Lavalas bylaws, the party's national representative -- Aristide -- must sanction candidates.

Others, including some Lavalas leaders, disagree. They say the council's ruling is a pretext to keep the party, which boycotted the 2006 presidential and legislative elections, from getting a foothold in President René Préval's government.

The matter has confused and confounded even loyal Lavalas supporters, who have publicly criticized each other.


The election exclusion has placed Aristide at the crux of the debate, and stirred concerns within the international community that banning Haiti's most popular and biggest political party from the vote could lead to contested elections and provoke a repeat of the political crisis that led to the 2004 rebellion and Aristide's ultimate departure to South Africa.

''Throughout Haiti's history, Haiti has had leaders who have either fled or been placed in exile. It seems to me that Aristide's shelf life is surprising everybody, compared to what has happened with other leaders,'' said Robert Maguire, U.S. Institute of Peace Jennings Randolph senior fellow and director of the Haiti Study Program at Trinity University.

''In part it's because under René Préval, you've had improvements in security and kind of less-overt political conflicts. But you haven't had improvements in people's personal and economic well-being,'' Maguire said. ``For some in Haiti, Aristide apparently still holds promise.''

On Saturday, several thousand Aristide supporters blanketed the streets of Port-au-Prince to commemorate the five-year anniversary of his ouster.

As they chanted and waved signs demanding his return from exile in Pretoria, South Africa, 7,393 miles away, they also for the first time added a new request: the inclusion of Fanmi Lavalas in the April elections to fill 12 seats in the 30-member Senate.


The credibility of the elections is of such importance that it is expected to top the agenda of several planned high-profile visits to Haiti in the coming weeks. Among those expected to visit: former President Bill Clinton, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and members of the U.N. Security Council.

The fear, say Haiti observers, is that contested elections or those that erupt into violence could negatively affect storm-battered Haiti's efforts to maintain strong and increasing international support for reconstruction, development and governance.

''That is why it's important for this issue to be resolved in a way that most people in Haiti and most observers are comfortable there is going to be an inclusive election,'' said Mark Schneider of the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit that analyzes conflict in Haiti and elsewhere around the world.

And as the international community pushes for the inclusion of Lavalas, in Haiti, the talk turns to Aristide.

Some have seized on the exclusion explanation offered by the electoral council, known by the French acronym CEP, to demand Aristide's return -- so that he can formally sanction those seeking office under the Lavalas banner.

''It's clear there is more discussion now about Aristide because of the CEP's need to require Aristide to take some action to validate one or another set of candidates,'' said Schneider. ``Were the CEP to recognize the [Fanmi Lavalas] candidates it registered in December, or some other slate, immediately the issue of Aristide would diminish.''

So far, few here know what to make of the squabbling, including whether the elections, which is expected to cost $16 million, will be postponed. Some are hoping that the electoral council, which has yet to order the ballots or come up with a final budget, will reverse itself and allow Lavalas to participate.

But then the question becomes: Which Lavalas?

The party today is being led by at least two factions: One is led by Lavalas Senator Rudy Hériveaux and Aristide spokeswoman Dr. Maryse Narcisse of the Fanmi Lavalas Executive Committee. The other involves a 27-member coalition whose most high-profile supporter is former Aristide Prime Minister Yvon Neptune.

Narcisse, who is reportedly in South Africa meeting with Aristide, has insisted that she has the right to nominate the 12 candidates she registered on behalf of Lavalas.

She also points out she was the first to register her slate and the registration was recognized by the CEP in December. Neptune disagrees, and his group turned in its own list of candidates weeks later. A third faction, led by several Lavalas senators, also handed in a list of candidates.

''This is a very tricky situation,'' Neptune told The Miami Herald.

``On the one hand, the electoral council, and I would even say the government, hasn't been doing what they are supposed to do to accommodate Fanmi Lavalas. At the same time, Fanmi Lavalas has a lot of problems on its own.''

In a wide-ranging interview at his home overlooking the hills of Port-au-Prince, Neptune downplayed his role in the faction, saying he's there as a founding member to help reorganize the splintered party; dismissed the executive committee Aristide reportedly left in charge of Fanmi Lavalas as ''illegal;'' and questioned the motives of Narcisse and others.

But Neptune's critics question his motives and loyalty, viewing him as a traitor to Aristide who helped Canada, France and the U.S. governments put in place an interim government in the wake of Aristide's Feb. 29, 2004, departure.

''I did not stay in office to please anybody or to be utilized by anybody,'' he said, dismissing claims that he was pressured to do the international community's bidding. ``I did what I believed was the proper thing to do so that indiscriminate killings would not happen because that was in the planning. Indiscriminate killings. Indiscriminate burnings.''