Dying in Haiti: Humanitarian Crisis Enters Second Week

By Michelle Chen Jan 20, 2010

As the unprecedented humanitarian relief effort in Haiti struggles through logistical chaos, triaging shipments of food, medicine, and personnel, making sure help is distributed efficiently, one entity seems to consistently dominate the hierarchy of needs: the military. And so thousands of troops continue to descend on Haiti in droves, while reports of humanitarian aid being impeded or turned away, sometimes forced to reroute critical shipments of medicine and supplies. There have, however, been signs that the relief effort is starting to pick up pace: for instance, three days after balking at the idea, the Pentagon has now decided to air drop food and water to survivors. Still, we’ll never know how much time was lost while the U.S. dithered over whether air drops would lead to “chaos.” What is clear now is that the mob scene portended by officials and the press in recent days has apparently not materialized as a real threat. Sky News, under the headline “Clashes over aid rise,” describes outbreaks of violence as “Hundreds of scavengers swarmed over damaged stores around the capital, seizing goods and fighting among themselves.” But a few paragraphs into the piece, we get this quote from top military commander Ken Keen: "The level of violence we see now is below pre-earthquake levels." At a press conference on Monday, Keen admitted that there was no massive threat of violence. In fact, military officers’ fears may have been informed by alarming press accounts—demonstrating the media’s influence on not only public perceptions but policy calculations as well.

But I must say that all the places that U.S. forces have gone thus far have been very calm. In fact, they’ve been overtly welcomed. The people have been very orderly, and they’ve been very appreciative of all the aid that they’ve been given. So we have not personally experienced any of this violence in the areas that we have been. But again, it is out there, it’s been reported on quite extensively.

So while the military and the media may launder and feed off of each others’ racist stereotypes, the actual experience of troops on the ground indicates remarkable calm. (No one speaks of the human costs paid by dying survivors with each moment of apprehension in the chain of command.) Even when people have been spotted taking items from stores, the most popular objects could hardly constitute “loot”: many are scrounging for toothpaste—to stuff in their nostrils to block the stench of rotting corpses. Meanwhile, aid workers remain dumbfounded about the bottlenecks that keep thwarting their efforts to access the heaviest-hit areas. Soon after officials declared that humanitarian relief deliveries would take priority over military flights, the medical relief group Médecins Sans Frontières reported on Tuesday:

A Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) cargo plane carrying 12 tons of medical equipment, including drugs, surgical supplies and two dialysis machines, was turned away three times from Port-au-Prince airport since Sunday night despite repeated assurances of its ability to land there. This 12-ton cargo was part of the contents of an earlier plane carrying a total of 40 tons of supplies that was blocked from landing on Sunday morning. Since January 14, MSF has had five planes diverted from the original destination of Port-au-Prince to the Dominican Republic. These planes carried a total of 85 tons of medical and relief supplies.

Perhaps this can be attributed to logistical mismanagement rather than systematically skewed priorities. But notice how the gridlock does not seem to have significantly hindered the flow of hundreds upon hundreds of soldiers. “Their mission [is] to protect the huge relief operation,” NBC tells us, while much of the actual relief has been blocked from even touching the ground. Washington has denied any interest in assuming a policing role, and instead claimed that that authority is under the control of the highly controversial United Nations-led MINUSTAH, which handled security in Haiti prior to the earthquake (and in fact was installed in partnership with the Clinton administration following the overthrow of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004). Granted, the portrayals of Haitians haven’t all been replete with gruesome images of fighting, and raiding. The New York Times reports that desperation has driven Haitians to welcome U.S. troops with open arms. Following a concise history of foreign occupation and intervention in Haiti, the article ends with a triumphant Berlin-airlift-like scene of grateful natives rejoicing.

A decade later, Mr. Aristide was forced out of office, and he accused the United States of orchestrating his ouster. But on Tuesday, as American troops in combat fatigues bounded out of the helicopters and moved across the palace grounds, hundreds of Haitians gathered at the white-and-green palace gates erupted in cheers and called out in Creole for food and water. “We can’t do it without them,” said Ms. Pierre-Louis, the former prime minister. “This country has been mismanaged for the last 50 years, and if we can’t run the country well in normal times how can we do it now?”

But many believe that one way to guarantee that the mismanagement continues is to allow outside military and economic assault to continue as it has for generations. The activist group Jubilee, as well as some of Haiti’s creditors, are calling for a full cancellation of Haiti’s odious debt. Others are pushing for sensible immigration policies that channel the remittances of the Haitian diaspora toward development that enhances the country’s self-sufficiency. And as Haitians rely on themselves to stay alive, one group of young media activists from the Cine Institute aren’t waiting idly for outside help, working tirelessly to document their struggle in their own voices.

Pinchinat: Report by Keziah Jean from Ciné Institute on Vimeo.

To Bill Quigley of the Center for Constitutional Rights, what may look like an endemic state of crisis stems directly from the racist, oppressive policies of powerful neighbors:

The Haitian people have resisted the economic and military power of the US and others ever since their independence. Like all of us, Haitians made their own mistakes as well. But US power has forced Haitians to pay great prices–deaths, debt and abuse.

The media zooms in on scenes of apocalypse and helplessness. But against the backdrop of a post-colonial history fraught with despair and ugliness, Haiti’s sheer survival today attests to an extraordinary will to survive–with a grace that should put the rest of the world to shame. Image: Médecins Sans Frontières