The Tragedy of Gonaives, Haiti

by KEVIN PINA

Port au Prince, Haiti

Prime Minister Gerard Latortue flew into Gonaives, Haiti on March 20th where a huge and boisterous crowd of thousands heralded him. During the celebration Latortue embraced gang elements and the former military that helped overthrow the democratic 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 Buteur Metayer and Wilfort Ferdinand to run it like a private fiefdom.

One of the first victims of the campaign of political reprisals the population met upon suspected Aristide supporters, under the direction of the "freedom fighters" in Gonaives, was the destruction of the Biwo Pwoteksyon Civil or Civil Protection Office. This politically benign institution had been established in cooperation with the local municipal government by grants provided by United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and administered through the Pan American Development Foundation (PADF). PADF’s own website confirms this, "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 the first disaster of the destruction of constitutional authority in Haiti, ushered in by Washington, Paris and Ottawa, all of those hard earned tax dollars USAID invested in preparing for the type of calamity that just hit Haiti were wasted as well.

It is exactly this type of disaster in northern Haiti that 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 all of the trained and competent participants in the program had long been driven out of the area and their offices pillaged and burned. No where was this more evident than in Gonaives where many associated with the Aristide government and his Lavalas party, were reportedly dragged through the streets and burned alive.

Instead of reasserting control of the State and 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 to contend with the former military, they will already find themselves bunkmates in the capital of Port au Prince. 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.

The UN and Latortue are both 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 ones they claim to have come to this island nation to help. The lack of planning and response to this disaster, which is a consequence of poor politic decision making, has resulted in more suffering for the people of Haiti during this time of crisis.

KEVIN PINA is a freelance reporter. He can be reached at: kevinpina@yahoo.com

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