A political storm slammed into northern Haiti long before Tropical Storm Jeanne came along. On March 20th, Interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue flew into Gonaives where a huge and boisterous crowd of thousands welcomed him. During the festivities Latortue embraced gang elements and the former military that helped overthrow the government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide as "freedom fighters." Since then, Latortue and his government have done little to take control of Haiti's third largest city and has allowed gang leaders like Butteur Metayer and Wilfort Ferdinand to run it like a private fiefdom. This has had serious consequences for the people of Gonaives since Tropical Storm Jeanne arrived to claim her share of Haiti's misery.
The political storm took many victims as well and left Haiti ill-prepared for the devastation brought about by Tropical Storm Jeanne. One of its first victims was the Civil Protection Office following a rampage led by the "freedom fighters" against suspected Aristide supporters. This politically benign institution had been established in cooperation with the local municipal government by grants provided by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and administered through the Pan American Development Foundation (PADF). PADF's own website confirms that, "PADF's emergency response and reconstruction efforts are complemented by community training in disaster preparedness. Mitigation training promotes the development of civil action plans that enable communities to identify priorities and reinforce key infrastructure. Last year, 23 local civil protection committees were formed and over 5,000 people were trained in disaster awareness, leading to safer communities." Unfortunately, with Washington, Paris and Ottawa ushering in a man-made disaster with the destruction of constitutional authority in Haiti, all of the tax dollars USAID invested in preparing for natural disasters like Tropical Storm Jeanne were wasted as well.
Tropical Storm Jeanne is exactly the type of disaster USAID and PADF's programs were set up to manage. There were components that monitored incoming tropical storms and provided an advanced warning and preparedness network designed to plan a response BEFORE disaster struck. Plans included advising communities in advance of approaching storms and preparing for them by storing large supplies of drinking water, food, medical supplies and portable tents for those displaced from their homes. When Tropical Storm Jeanne hit, these structures no longer existed and the trained and competent participants in the program had long been driven out of the area, offices were pillaged and burned. Nowhere was this more evident than in Gonaives where many associated with the Aristide government and the Lavalas party were reportedly dragged through the streets and burned alive.
Instead of reasserting control of the State an rebuilding the necessary infrastructure that was destroyed following the coup of February 29th, Latortue followed a policy of benign neglect and accommodation with thugs in the region that has led to needless death and suffering in the wake of Tropical Storm Jeanne. In all fairness, the fault does not lie exclusively with the US-installed government. The Bush administration shoulders much of the blame for the current situation with an ill-conceived regime change that has replaced what they considered a failed state with an even more failed state.
The United Nations also bears a large responsibility for the armed gangs and elements of the former military currently hampering relief efforts in northern Haiti. Like Latortue's accommodation of the gangs in Gonaives, the UN forces have stood by while the former military has taken over several towns in the north. The official excuse of the UN has been that they do not have enough forces on the ground to challenge the former military from seizing control of the region. It seems that by the time they do have the necessary forces they will wake up to find themselves bunkmates with the very people they claim to want to keep out of power. This does not bode well for the inhabitants of Port au Prince should a natural disaster ever strike the capital to combine with the current political disaster as it has in Gonaives.
In the end, the UN and Latortue are victims of their own failed policies and ultimately the failed policy of the Bush administration in Haiti. The ones who will suffer the most as a result of these failures are the very people they claim to have come to this island nation to help. The disregard for institutions destroyed during the latest regime change and the lack of planning and response for natural disasters is only a symptom of a political storm that is far from over in Haiti- a storm that is being feed by poor political judgment. Sadly, this has resulted in more needless suffering for the people of Haiti during this latest crisis.
Kevin Pina is an independent journalist, filmmaker, is Associate Editor of the Black Commentator, and currently resides in Haiti.