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A Q & A with the State Department on Haiti

Sending in the Marines

by JUDITH SCHERR

The French Cooperation Minister Alain Joyandet accused the U.S. of “occupying” Haiti rather than helping in the wake of the devastating January 12, 7.0 earthquake. Doctors Without Borders and officials from the Caribbean community expressed similar frustrations, as US military personnel controlling the airport turned away their planes. With just under 20,000 U.S. boots on the ground in Haiti or just off shore, the U.N. military force has augmented its numbers to around 12,000. Still, more than two weeks after the disaster, Haitians lack water, food, medicine, shelter and equipment to dig out those that may still be alive under the rubble.

On January 25 I spoke by phone to Virginia Staab a state department deputy press advisor for Western Hemisphere affairs. I asked about the role of the U.S. and U.N. military forces in post-quake Haiti, and the U.S. reaction to former President Jean Bertrand Aristide’s announcement that he wants to come home [Aristide was ousted in February 2004 by the U.S., France and Canada and exiled in South Africa]. I wanted to know who will rebuild Haiti and how Guantanamo fits into the picture. The transcript that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

QUESTION: I’m trying to understand the current role of the U.S. military in Haiti. There are medical and food distribution functions, but I don’t understand the need for 20,000 troops.

STAAB: The Haitian government is driving the relief and recovery efforts as much as possible, despite operating under the most difficult circumstances. The United States is consulting and closely coordinating with Haitian authorities; the United Nations and the international community are partners in this process. As of this morning, there are 19,134 U.S. military and civilian personnel in Haiti. Our military is wonderfully equipped to provide medical services, relief distribution services, and all of the humanitarian need that is required on the ground right now in Haiti. They are assisting. Many of those are on the naval ship Comfort, where they have already treated about 2,000 people; they’ve performed a whole host of surgeries. I think it’s 109 surgeries. Additionally, there are militaries on the ground trying to fix the port in Port-au-Prince so that aid can be more swiftly delivered and taken off the ships, on to the docks and to the distribution points.

The military is very well versed in humanitarian needs. They have a lot of the assets required to get the aid there. So of course they are functioning in a purely humanitarian capacity and functioning within the auspices of the Haitian government.

QUESTION: That’s the part I understand. The part that I don’t understand is that most of the military are kind of sitting on 14 ships, stationed near Haiti and they’re kind of on call but not participating. Is that correct or incorrect information?

ANSWER: Somewhat correct. There are individuals that are out within the port, mostly because we can’t offload them. So they are conducting medical surgeries for example when patients are medevaced to them from helicopters. Others are working on water distribution points or sanitation kits. Things like that, that are getting out to the people; they’re not just sitting on a ship; they’re going back and forth with helicopters to do a lot of the aid drops, etcetera. They’re not just sitting out there waiting for something to do.

Now remember this is the government of Haiti that makes these decisions. So if they are not providing authorization for these military individuals to come on shore, for whatever their mission or role is, we have no authority to override that decision. It’s the government of Haiti or MINUSTAH, the United Nations, who have the authority within Haiti. We act at their pleasure. And we are assisting in any way that we can.

QUESTION: I’m wondering how long the military plans to stay and does Congress have to authorize their presence after a certain point.

ANSWER: Excellent question. Right now we are looking at trying to work with Haiti to rebuild it, essentially. And it’s critical that the same energy and generosity that’s being put into the humanitarian effort is going to be maintained over the long term. However, because the military is there for humanitarian reasons at the present time, it’s at the direction of our president. If and when Congress needs to sign an action to keep them in Haiti, that will happen. But at the present time, it’s strictly humanitarian. So it isn’t an act of Congress that has brought them into Haiti. It’s at the direction of the president.

QUESTION: I see. So as long as it’s a humanitarian action, they can stay as a humanitarian force, but if it was a security action, Congress would have to play a role. Is that right?

ANSWER: Exactly.

QUESTION: Is there a certain time period they have to authorize that?

ANSWER: I don’t have that information. I can tell you that the president and secretary of state and many of our leaders have said that Haiti is a top priority for us right now. And they are a close partner within our hemisphere, and the secretary is at a planning meeting for a donors’ conference up in Montreal, Canada today, and we are really looking towards a broad multilateral effort with all the donor countries to assist Haiti. And to get them back up on their feet as quickly as we can. First and foremost, it has to be a partnership with the Haitian government and the Haitian people. They are the ones that define what their needs are. And that role must be defined by transparency and accountability and the international community will work with that government to make sure reconstruction efforts are targeted to the greatest portion of the population and to bring about economic recovery as quickly as possible, so that our forces aren’t needed in Haiti for the long term.

QUESTION: The mission is clearly humanitarian, but the US military has been criticized for overemphasis on security and insisting that military accompany humanitarian deliveries, which has caused a bottleneck of supplies at the airport and also they’re rerouting some of the Doctors Without Borders and French supply planes that tried to come in.

ANSWER: I think unfortunately, there’s a lot of misinformation out there. Some of the U.N. peacekeepers and some of the U.N. agencies have requested American security assistance before going in and some of the relief workers as well have requested security. We then go to MINUSTAH who has the authority for that. If we are needed, certainly we assist. But we think there’s been a lot of misinformation out there.

With regards to the planes landing, unfortunately, the airport is operating at three times capacity. We’ve set forward a protocol to identify what actually is in each plane, what the cargo is, etc. Humanitarian aid has always played a top priority. But every morning we meet with the Haitian government and they identify what the priority is for that morning. And we march to those orders. So, unfortunately, if the planes have been diverted, it’s either because they haven’t followed the protocol that has been established or let us know what their cargo is, or not fallen into the priority of the day. They haven’t provided that information so that we are making decisions, unfortunately, without the entire picture. That’s been difficult.

With regards to the security situation, there have been isolated security instances, certainly where orphanages have been raided by armed gunman. Individuals seeking assistance have had information that orphanages have been provided relief as quickly as possible, so it’s been the circumstance that if we provide one or two days of relief, to those orphanages, they are then vulnerable to attack by members of the local community. Certainly, we are trying to keep those security episodes to a minimum to the extent that we can. And we are there with MINUSTAH [the U.N. stabilization mission] to help in that security situation if we’re needed.

MINUSTAH, one of their main goals right now is to track down the I think it’s 5,000 prisoners that have escaped, convicted felons that have escaped out into the community. One of MINUSTAH’s priorities right now is to track down those criminals, to put them in a facility where they are not out in the local population and the local population is not vulnerable. Certainly after a huge disaster such as we’ve seen in Haiti, the local population at all levels – the aged, the young – and anybody who is identified as in trouble, becomes even more vulnerable and that vulnerability is accentuated. We are there to assist where we can and MINUSTAH is making that security situation a high priority for themselves.

QUESTION: These 5,000 prisoners that escaped – you said they were convicted felons? My understanding is that 80 percent of them have never been charged with a crime. Is that bad information?

ANSWER: No, I’m sorry. I actually misspoke. They are individuals that were identified and were in prison. Prior to this earthquake, we had been working with Haiti to develop a system to enhance their judicial process and really quickly deal with these individuals by training their judges, by setting up the institutions whereby these individuals could have their human rights respected, but the difficulty is now everyone is out into the population, so, potentially, there were some criminals that were within this population and so we’re trying to get them back to where they were pre-earthquake to then develop those institutions that would allow for judicial process and respect of human rights.

QUESTION: And in terms of rebuilding, will you be working with private contractors – I think that Dyn Corp and CHF International were some of the groups that have been working in Haiti. Are these groups already rebuilding? How is that going to work?

ANSWER: Typically what happens is that USAID heads that part of the mission, under the Department of State obviously. As soon as the Haitian government identifies what the priorities are, the international community then steps up to see what sort of partnership the United States can play within that grouping, then USAID will put information out to contractors – contractors that we’ve worked with before. They’re typically openly advertised and reported contracts so any companies that are doing that sort of reconstruction building would be available to fulfill those contracts.

QUESTION: Those contracts are not out as we speak?

ANSWER: As far as I know they are not out yet. Haiti is very much in rescue and recovery mode still. They may be discussing that today at the Montreal meeting – the planning for the donor’s conference — but that would be absolutely up to the minute information.

QUESTION: Are there ever a certain number of Haitian companies or contractors that are mandated – and workers – to work on these projects or is it basically more efficient to hire outside?

ANSWER: Absolutely. We’re making a concerted effort to outreach to the diaspora, the Haitian diaspora that’s here in the United States. Certainly they know Haiti better than anybody else. And we’re encouraging them to go back and invest in Haiti and help us out through the process. So we are working closely with Haitian groups and honestly it’s going to be the best individuals, and the best groups for the job, once those needs have been established.

We work very closely with the Haitians that are here in the United States. And we look to them for guidance and partnership as we continue to invest in Haiti.

QUESTION: I wanted to ask you about the role of Guantanamo. I understand it might be used as a refueling base for some of the airplanes and even a possible use of a hospital there. Is that correct?

ANSWER: Yes. There have been a few individuals – I think mostly Americans actually, but Haitians as well – who have been flown to Guantanamo for their hospital facilities. They are a staging area for much of our aid because of the logistical challenges we face within Haiti. So we are trying to use every facility in the region to act as a staging point for our aid contributions to Haiti. Now, they obviously have a large medical facility there, too, and so, where that can play a role, we’re looking at taking advantage of every facility that we have to meet the need.

QUESTION: The new rules around TPS [Temporary Protective Status], that’s only going to apply to people already in the U.S. as of January 12, but Haitians typically try to come here after a disaster. I read that they will be sent back, and I was wondering if you were going to use Guantanamo to house any of those who try to come illegally.

ANSWER: Well, we typically don’t speak in hypotheticals. It is true that the Temporary Protective Status only applies to Haitians that were in the United States prior to the earthquake and we’re looking at all of our options going forward. That is obviously a very dangerous journey and many Haitians, unfortunately have lost their lives as they have tried to go from Haiti to the United States by water. So we’re trying to not compound the difficulty that Haiti has faced to date with another emergency, whereby these Haitians could potentially lose their lives in the water. We’re trying to encourage them to stay in Haiti. We’re getting the aid to Haiti; we’re meeting their needs in Haiti. We hope to provide any sort of aid, housing that they require, in Haiti. That is the location where we can best attend to their needs.

With regards to what may happen if Haitians leave, we’ll deal with that if and when that comes to fruition. We’re very hopeful that Haitians will stay in their country and that we’ll be able to provide the assistance they need and so desperately require.

QUESTION: The former president Jean Bertrand Aristide has said he wants to come back to Haiti. In the previous administration, Condoleezza Rice had said that he shouldn’t. Of course, earlier on, Bill Clinton had facilitated a return for him in 1994, so I was wondering what the U.S. position is around Aristide’s return.

ANSWER: Former President Aristide has expressed a willingness to assist, to travel to Haiti, to provide leadership, in the situation that has devastated Haiti right now, and honestly we welcome any partners who want to contribute to the success of Haiti. So if former President Aristide wants to play a role, within the rebuilding of Haiti, we would welcome that.

QUESTION: The other question I have is the role of the Dominican Republic. I’ve read contradictory things, the DR was going to send military and the Haitians said that they shouldn’t and now it appears that they are. Has the U.S; gotten involved in that question?

ANSWER: We are trying to broker some differences. The Dominican Republic and the government of Haiti historically have some differences and we are working within any international partner that is able to assist in whatever capacity. I think that at times like this, at times of devastation of a country, that problems that have occurred in the past need to be put aside and friend or foe need to provide any sort of aid that rebuilds. And so we’re looking for all partners to step up. And the Dominican Republic has very much assisted right now with the needs in Haiti and they have facilitated though their airports, through different transportation facilities. Many of our Americans have been evacuated there. They have really stepped up in this crisis and we very much welcome their participation.

QUESTION: Is there anything you want to add.

ANSWER: Let me see, with regard to American citizens, we have most recently 55 confirmed American fatalities, and another 37 reported. We have evacuated 11,540 American citizens and their family members. And we have also accounted for the majority of over 17,000 Americans that have been brought to our attention. Certainly, the U.S. embassy in any country, their first and foremost responsibility is to our American citizens, both to assist them with their needs and, when necessary, repatriate them off to the United States. So we are working very closely with American families who have lost loved ones in Haiti, but also Americans that are in Haiti to get them safe passage, to provide for a safe home for them.

Our embassy and the state department there have been working first and foremost for United States citizens that have been physically located in Haiti.

QUESTION: Actually, that reminds me of another question, because one of the criticisms has been made, that the early efforts in particular were directed towards Americans and towards high-profile people that might have been buried under some of the very elite hotels.

ANSWER: That actually is untrue. We’ve had an amazing number of rescues. Of course we’ve have international rescue teams, not just the United States. But we have provided search and rescue teams as well. We’ve had 128 rescues at last count and more than half of them have been Haitian nationals. I think it was up to about 60 percent, the last I saw. So we are interested in saving lives, not just saving American lives, although we of course do whatever we can to represent Americans abroad. We are just interested in saving lives and our search and rescue teams, regardless of who is under the rubble, if they find someone alive, they immediately expend all their energy and effort to rescuing that person.

This interview was conducted as part of a news story broadcast January 25 on KPFA (Pacifica) radio. http://www.kpfa.org/archive/id/58093.

JUDITH SCHERR is a freelance print and radio journalist. Reach her at judithscherr [at] gmail.com.