March 1, 2010
How was the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund formed, and how connected is the HERF to ordinary people in Haiti?
The Haiti Emergency Relief Fund (HERF) was formed shortly after the February 29, 2004, coup e'tat as an offshoot of our partner organisation Haiti Action Committee (both based in the San Franscisco Bay Area), which does political advocacy and consciousness raising about Haiti and has long-term relationships with several grassroots leaders in the Lavalas movement that represents the vast majority of Haiti's population.
Several Haiti Action Committee members have travelled extensively and lived in Haiti, and its co-founder, Pierre Labossiere, is a Haitian currently based in the US who has helped us develop close ties with a broad network of activists in Haiti who have been working for democracy and empowerment of the poor under the leadership of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The 2004 coup d'etat, in which democratically elected President Aristide was kidnapped by US marines and the Lavalas government was dismantled with support from the US, France and Canada, ushered in a period of severe repression, during which our partners called on us for emergency support.
What was the role of the HERF initially?
In the aftermath of the 2004 coup, which was a kind of political earthquake, we realised that material assistance was urgently needed by many of our partners who became political prisoners, or were forced into hiding or exile by the extreme political repression of the coup government supported by the US marines and then the United Nations.
All Lavalas members who had been employed by the Aristide governmnet lost their jobs and many social programs, including a major adult literacy program, were terminated after the coup. For that reason HERF was created as a fund-raising organisation to provide support to numerous organisations, schools, women's groups and agricultural collectives to help meet the needs of people and families suffering under the coup government and UN occupation.
In the ensuing years, HERF was additionally called on for support during the major hurricanes that hit Haiti in late 2004 and 2008. The damage caused by those hurricanes was tragic, unnecessary and frustrating, because under the Aristide government from 2000 to February 2004, an extensive disaster preparedness system following the Cuban model had been put into place, but after the coup, that whole system was dismantled.
What is its current role of HERF?
The current role of HERF is essentially the same as it has always been, except that the scope of the need has grown exponentially, given the magnitude of the earthquake disaster. Again, it is very disheartening that six years of UN military occupation did nothing to re-establish the effective disaster preparedness system that was dismantled after the coup.
Further exacerbating the situation is the fact that the US military has been controlling the Port au Prince airport and aid distribution since the earthquake, only allowing a relatively small amount to actually reach the people who need it most, while huge stockpiles of food and supplies remain under guard at the airport.
For this reason, HERF has been sending funds directly to our partners on the ground so that they can purchase food, water and basic supplies for people living in many encampments and who have organised themselves to share what little they have as effectively as possible. HERF has also facilitated bringing in some medical teams and medical supplies to Haiti to work alongside Haitian doctors in makeshift clinics. HERF is funding a mobile schools project of the Aristide Foundation for Democracy in Port au Prince that hires older Haitian youth from the communities to go to different encampments and teach the younger children for a few hours a day.
How would you describe the current situation in Haiti?
The reports we get are that people are traumatised and struggling to survive, and are doing so by and large peacefully, with much sharing and community building, despite indications to the contrary in the corporate media, which consistently fails to portray Haitian people with the respect and dignity they deserve.
The trauma is certainly taking a toll, and we have had requests for therapists to travel there, as Haitian therapists on the ground are overwhelmed with the sheer numbers of people needing assistance processing the psychological impacts of the disaster. Physically, the conditions continue to be deplorable, and will only get worse as the rains come.
Have you had any indication from the people of Haiti as to what they think should be done post-quake, both in the short term and in the long term?
What we hear is that for the short term, massive amounts of food, water and supplies, including tents, need to be made widely available to all neighbourhoods and encampments and Haitians be allowed to distribute this among themselves. Given the amount of money donated worldwide to the major NGOs and relief agencies (in the billions of dollars), there should be no problem filling all of these short-term needs. HERF is small and can only do so much. There are a few other groups doing good work, but the vast majority of aid is either not getting to the people at all, or is being distributed in a way that is demeaning and disempowering.
Haitians continue to call for the immediate return of Aristide, especially now in this time of crisis. Aristide has the trust of the people and with his skills as administrator and psychologist, he could do a great deal to help guide the nation through the recovery and rebuilding process. To date, the Haitian government, clearly under the thumb of the US State Department, has declined to issue him a passport, and he remains in forced exile in South Africa.
Haitians continue to call for an end to all military occupations, including that of the United Nations since 2004 and the current US de facto occupation. There has been massive resistance to the past six years of UN occupation, with often lethal consequences, as on mulltiple occasions blue-helmet-clad "peacekeepers" invaded poor neighbourhoods populated by vocal demonstrators in pre-dawn hours, killing unarmed men, women and children with impunity.
Another thing grassroots groups in Haiti have called for, and continue to call for, is that the Haitian government and Unitied Nations launch a comprehensive investigation into the disappearance of human rights advocate Lovinsky Pierre-Antoine, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances on August 12, 2007, just two weeks after he led a demonstration in front of the UN headquarters in Port au Prince calling for an end to the UN occupation and return of Aristide. Lovinsky is a co-founder of the Fondasyon Trant Septanm (September 30 Foundation), which supports the victims of the September 30, 1991, coup d'etat, which ousted Aristide seven months after his first election to the presidency, and three years of brutal repression ensued. To date neither the Haitian goverment nor the UN occupying authorities have done anything to investigate the circumstances of his disappearance.
In the long term, Haitians want to re-establish their democracy and determine themselves how the re-building process will unfold. The Fanmi Lavalas party must be allowed to participate in elections again. The party was banned from parliamentary elections last spring, sparking a very successful election boycott in which only 3-10% of voters went to the polls in two successive elections.
Haitians want to control their own natural resources and agriculture, and put an end to policies imposed by the wealthy elites in collusion with the US and other international big-money interests that rob the Haitian people of what is rightly theirs. It has been estimated that France owes Haiti about US$21 billion, todays equivalent of the obscene restitution Haiti was forced to pay to France from 1825-1946 to "compensate" for the former slaveholders' losses following the Haitian revolution. With $21 billion and a robust democracy, Haitians could do wonders with their country.
How would you describe the current role of the US in Haiti?
The US has had varying degrees of control over Haiti's affairs since its inception, beginning with its refusal to recognise the new republic in 1804 for fear that US slaves might be inspired to follow suit, to the outright US occupation of Haiti by marines from 1915-1934, to the US support for the brutal Duvalier dictatorships under the guise of "anti-communism", to the US support for two coups d'etat ousting the democratically elected President Aristide in 1991 and 2004.
What is particuarly shocking now is how the United States' immediate response to one of the worst humanitarian disasters ever was an entirely military one, with control and containment taking precedence over basic human caring and compassion. Numerous people in Haiti have told us how bizarre it is to see throngs of armed soldiers patrolling areas where sick, injured and hungry people are peacefully trying to do what they can for each other.
There are many reasons why the US is so intent on controlling Haiti and not allowing Haitians to do their own thing. In addition to some of the exploitive economic practices I'll address in a later question, the US and US corporations clearly have their eyes on large untapped reserves of a variety of mineral resources in Haiti and just off-shore, including gold, oil and natural gas.
A further indication that the US has intentions to maintain significant control of Haiti is the fact that it recently constructed a huge new US embassy just outside Port au Prince. This new US embassy compound in Haiti is the fifth-largest US embassy in the world, in a very small country with a population of around 8 million.
How would you describe the current role of NGOs operating in Haiti?
Most major NGO's in Haiti are not really meeting the needs of the people. They tend to be well connected with major big business and the US/UN occupiers, with well-paid staff and a carefully crafted image of doing a few projects here and there, as long as the recipients of their largesse don't get political and vocal about calling for the return of Aristide and Haitian democracy.
In the case of the Red Cross, we have heard reports that it has only earmarked about 20% of the vast sums donated for earthquake relief in Haiti to that purpose, while the rest is being held for other things. Of the larger NGOs, two exceptions to these questionable practices that I am aware of and that are actually getting aid to people and supporting their needs as much as possible are Partners in Health and Doctors Without Borders. It's ironic, by the way, that immediately after the quake, a Doctors Without Borders airplane carrying a medical field hospital was denied landing at the Port au Prince airport five times by the US military.
Can you make any comment on Haiti’s economy, or economic development? What effect have sweatshops, agriculture and tourism had on it? What has been the US part in this?
As I've indicated above, a major challenge for the Haitian people is that they have not been allowed to fully control their own ecomonic development in a way to meet their needs. Shortly after the successful revolution and establishment of the Republic of Haiti, the few wealthy elites remaining in the country were quickly co-opted by their couterparts abroad to thwart efforts to take the revolution to the next level and distribute resources more equitably among all the people.
Haitian popular movements have tried reversing this course many times, most recently and powerfully with the rise of the Lavalas movement from 1994-2004, when trade unions were strengthened, the minimum wage was raised and Aristide's government resisted heavy pressure to privatise state-owned utilities. In addition, Aristide implemented a massive adult literacy program, expanded public education and built a medical school for the poor.
Prior to and during that time, the US did much to undermine equitable economic development, including dumping US-subsidised rice on the Haitian market which put Haitian rice farmers out of business, operating sweatshops for offshore assembly of items sold duty free in the US, and denying payment of development loans that had been granted to Haiti for entirely bogus reasons. During the 1950s, a major dam was built in Haiti's central plateau to provide electricity for a wealthy few while displacing huge numbers of farmers and peasants who ended up relocating in Port au Prince, forming the still impoverished slums of La Saline and Cite Soleil.
The Associated Press reported on February 22, 2010, that "in the quest to rebuild Haiti, the international community and business leaders are dusting off a pre-quake plan to expand its low-wage garment assembly industry as a linch-pin of recovery... All sides agree that garment-industry wages are too low to feed, clothe and house workers and their families. Even factory owners acknowledge that reality -- though they deny running sweatshops..."!
How important is Haiti’s history (like the first slave revolt and black republic) and more recent events (such as the election and then overthrow of Aristide) to its political and social development?
Haiti's history has played a huge role in its current political and social development. What it boils down to is this: the enslaved people of France's most lucrative colony, Saint Domingue, had the audacity to do something they weren't supposed to do and no one thought they were capable of doing in an era when European white supremacy was the order of the day. They rose up and freed themselves, defeating three major European armies (of France, England and Spain), and asserting that they, too, were full human beings intent on participating fully in the course of their own destiny. This shocked and dismayed the powers that be of the day, and Haitians have been punished for it ever since.
Haitian revolutionaries stood up and challenged an entrenched and deeply racist social structure built on the notion that poor people of African descent are less than human, to be exploited economically in good times and to be feared in times of crisis. It is a structure designed to protect the wealth of a few, at the expense of our common humanity.
Sadly this racist structure is still intact, as is apparent from the US government's response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 and again much more so after the January 12, 2010 earthquake in Haiti. In both instances, available and urgently needed aid was deliberately withheld from poor black people by the so-called leaders of the "free" world.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
HERF stands shoulder to shoulder with our sisters and brothers in Haiti in insisting that the resources of the Earth be shared equitably and that all people have a place at the table in deciding their future. To this end we engage in solidarity, not charity.
[For more information and details of how to donate to the HERF, visit http://www.haitiaction.net/About/HERF/HERF.html.]
In a February 17 article “Venezuela’s Renegade Aid” published in the Huffington Post, freelance journalist Patrick Adams implies that there is something untoward and problematic about the Venezuelan aid effort in earthquake ravaged Haiti.
Venezuela’s main crime appears to be its non-participation in the UN coordinated “cluster system” which Adams argues “has worked fairly well” – never mind that the UN has been an occupying force in Haiti since the United States engineered overthrow of democratically elected President Jean Bertrand Aristide in 2004 and never mind that John Holmes, the head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, himself heavily criticised the implementation of the “cluster strategy” in a confidential email leaked on February 16.
“One month into the response, only a few clusters have fully dedicated cluster coordinators, information management focal points and technical support capacity, all of which are basic requirements for the efficient management of a large scale emergency operation,” Holmes said.
Despite the clearly logistical nightmare of organising such a large scale relief operation Adams argues that it is “one group -- such as the National Armed Fores [sic] of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela” that is creating “problems for everyone else.”
Adams’ main source for the supposedly problematic behaviour of the Venezuelans is Dr. Tiffany Keenan, “founder and president of Haiti Village Health, which oversees the supply and distribution of private aid from its offices in the airport,” in the port city of Jacmel. As it turns out Adams is “embedded” in Keenan’s guesthouse in Jacmel (though he doesn’t mention that in the article).
“The Venezuelans haven't showed up at a single meeting," complained Dr. Tiffany Keenan,” Adams writes.
"We were all sitting there the other day and someone said, 'Did you hear they just put a bunch of tents in Pinchinat?' Nobody had had any idea they were there. We still don't know how many doctors they have or how long they'll be there." Keenan continues.
However, as Adams later admits, the Venezuelans are coordinating their work directly with the Haitian government (which is ultimately responsible for deciding “how aid is coordinated and who manages its distribution among populations in need”) and in the case of the Pinchinat camp in Jacmel, the Venezuelans were brought there directly by the local mayor’s office, so it’s pretty clear that some people had an idea they were there.
As one perceptive commentator on Adams’ article wrote, “So they chose to work through the local government instead of the North-American run “cluster” system. I guess that makes them renegades.”
It later also emerges that the whole story seems to be concocted around a communication problem as the cluster system meetings are conducted only in French and English, whereas the Venezuelans speak Spanish.
In fact, Adam’s article is one big whine about the Venezuelan aid effort, implying that it is uncooperative, inept and inefficient.
However, occasionally facts on the ground force Adams to take a reality check: “When the Venezuelans first arrived, Pinchinat was a sea of makeshift huts assembled with sticks, bed sheets and scraps of plastic -- whatever could be salvaged from the collapsed homes that many of its residents had fled. Within days, some fifty Venezuelan soldiers in forest green fatigues had erected more than a hundred 40-foot, green canvas tents with "U.S." stamped on the side.”
But again Adams finds something to complain about; he mocks Maximo Tampoa, a 25-year-old engineer in the Venezuelan Civil Defense and another Venezuelan Capt. Chapparo for spray painting the red, yellow and blue colours of the Venezuelan flag on the tents provided by Venezuela and chides them for not knowing that more than two centuries ago “on March 12, 1806, the "Generalísimo" Francisco de Miranda, predecessor of the revolutionary leader Simon Bolivar, whose vision of a unified South America has become Chavez's own, raised the original Venezuelan tricolor on the ship Leander, anchored at the time in Jacmel Bay.”
Then he goes on to list a string of complaints: the tents are hot, and there are no floors. That’s it! That’s the problem with the Venezuelan aid effort!
The Venezuelans haven’t occupied the country militarily, blocked aid supplies from arriving at the airport, tried to impose unfair conditions on reconstruction loans or attempted to kidnap 33 Haitian children a la Laura Silsby and the Central Valley Baptists, BUT…. their tents are hot!
So what are the Venezuelans really doing in Haiti?
Venezuela has certainly differentiated its approach to what Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicholas Maduro described as “the hegemonic, abusive form in which U.S. military has sought to address the issue of Haiti.”
After the disaster struck on January 12, Venezuela was the first country to send aid, with an advance team of doctors, search and rescue experts as well as food, water, medical supplies, and rescue equipment arriving in Port-au-Prince on the morning of January 13.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez also announced the cancellation of Haiti’s US$ 295 million debt to Venezuela on January 25, (a fact which Adams does not mention). In addition to thousands of tonnes of food aid Venezuela has also sent 225,000 barrels of diesel fuel and gasoline and Chavez has pledged “all the free fuel that Haiti needs.”
The Venezuelan government has donated 30,000 tents and sent more than 10,000 tonnes of food to Haiti and has pledged to continue shipments of food aid and supplies. Collection points have been set up all around the country for donations to ship to Haiti and Chavez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela has organised dozens of concerts and fundraising events to help out with the Haiti reconstruction effort.
As part of a broader effort in collaboration with the member countries of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas (ALBA), which also includes Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Dominica, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Antigua and Barbuda, Venezuela and the ALBA countries also pledged $120 million to help reconstruction efforts, and together with the Union of South American Nations (UNSAUR) Venezuela has also agreed to contribute to a $300 million fund, with each country donating according to their GDP.
Venezuela has also set up three “community camps”, that together house 3,900 Haitians whose homes were destroyed by the earthquake - the Simón Bolívar and Alexander Petión camps in Leogane, which each house 1,200 people, and the Francisco de Miranda camp in Jacmel, which houses 1,500 people.
The camps provide medical attention, trauma counselling, food, access to sanitation, adult literacy programs as well as sports, education, and music classes and other recreational activities for children. Venezuela’s ambassador to Haití, Pedro Canino, said Venezuela’s 520 aid personnel are also working directly with 219 grassroots social organisations in Haiti to distribute food aid and other supplies to the local communities. The Venezuelans are also helping with reconstruction efforts, digging latrines, clearing rubble, building houses and schools.
Rather than living in hotels or guesthouses like many other aid workers, the Venezuelans are living and working side by side with the Haitian people. Jean H. Charles MSW, JD Executive Director of AINDOH Inc, wrote of the Simón Bolívar camp in Leogane in Caribbean Net News on February 17, “The Bolivarian tent city, is well organized, its a transitional model that should be replicated; the Venezuelan soldiers living with the refugees are social workers, teachers, cooks and community organizers.”
The Venezuelan plan is to work with local communities to multiply the camps to extend access to thousands more people in need. The Jacmel camp is scheduled to be handed over to a team of Cuban doctors, while the Venezuelans will go back to Port-au-Prince, to work on constructing additional camps. The approach of the Venezuelan aid effort is not to impose conditions or win lucrative reconstruction contracts, but rather to help provide Haitians with tools with which they can organise and empower their communities for their own sovereign development.
Of course, efforts can always be improved, and unlimited solidarity with the people of Haiti is urgently necessary right now, but Venezuela, a small underdeveloped country has attempted, in a spirit of internationalism to step up to the challenge to the best of its ability and resources. As Chavez said, “Venezuela’s aid is modest but it is done with a big heart.”
So, rather than attacking the efforts of poor countries engaged in genuine solidarity to alleviate the suffering of the Haitian people perhaps Adams could better spend his time questioning the imperialist intentions of his own country that has sent more than 15,000 soldiers to occupy Haiti, which, incidentally, is thought to have potentially massive untapped reserves of oil and gas. He could also investigate where the billions of dollars in international aid is actually going, what conditions the IMF is imposing on Haiti’s reconstruction loans or what Christian missionaries – who, as with all colonising projects are an essential part of the “hearts and minds” strategy to maintain subordination to Western imperialist and capitalist interests - are really getting up to?
Maybe he could even start with the Christian relief and missions organisation, ORA International, of which Keenan’s NGO, Haiti Village Health, is an affiliate. According to the website Ministrywatch.com, whose stated aim is “educating and empowering donors to support Christian Ministries,” ORA International’s “transparency grade” is “F” and the website posts a “Donor Alert” on the ORA International profile with a warning “Non-Transparent Ministries: Are they Faithful in the Small Things?”
March 3, 2010
The president of Bolivia sets an example …
Translated from CubaDebate, March 2, 2010
Bolivia’s President Evo Morales has launched a five-day campaign, called “Chile and Haiti need you,” to raise funds for the two countries.
“This is a solidarity campaign with two Latin American peoples who have suffered irreparable climate damage,” said the Bolivian president. Setting an example, Morales announced that he and his vice-president will contribute 50% of their salary for the month, and that the other cabinet ministers will donate 30%.
Funds raised during the five days will be channeled through and managed by the state bank. The
Bolivian leader said that the campaign goal is for Bolivia to contribute about 2 million dollars.