Another “If only I (k)NEW(s)!” update from Haiti


I have a confession to make—

I’m a tad bit apprehensive here in Haiti today—

Since, as many of you know by now, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier arrived in Port-au-Prince Sunday evening.  If that doesn’t blow your ever-lovin’-Haitian mind, nothing can, nothing will.

It’s in honor of this less-than-happy happening, that today I offer another “If only I (k)NEW(s)!” update from Port-au-Prince.

First, a brief overview:

Sunday night former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier landed unexpectedly at the Port-au-Prince airport.  He had been exiled in France for nearly 25 years.  Duvalier, son of the infamous and brutal “Papa Doc” became “president for life” when his father died in 1971 and he himself continued to brutalize the Haitian people for 15 years, until exiled in 1986.  Many believe he may have ulterior political motives for returning at this time, wanting to fill the power vacuum left here after a fraudulent presidential election in November.

Duvalier history in Haiti:

–Francois “Papa Doc,” Duvalier, a medical doctor, served as president from 1957-1986.

–In 1959 Papa Doc established the Tonton Macoutes, a secret police, that terrorized Haitians for nearly 27 years.

–Papa Doc had political opponents imprisoned and/or executed.  Some estimate as many as 30,000  were killed.

–Papa Doc died in 1971, having named his 19-year-old son as his successor.

–Baby Doc continued the atrocities begun by his father: “prison camps, torture, arbitrary executions, extrajudicial killings . . .” in the words of Amy Wilentz (see her book The Rainy Season).

–In 1986 a coup exiled Baby Doc and his family to France.

–Haitians danced in the street, knowing he was gone.

Current developments:

On Sunday at 5:50 pm Duvalier, along with his wife, arrived in Port-au-Prince aboard an Air France flight from Paris.  59-year-old Baby Doc, wearing a dark blue suit and tie, is said to have kissed the ground upon deplaning.  From the airport, where he told reporters only, “I’m here to help,” Duvalier traveled in an SUV to Petion-ville’s Karibe Hotel.  (Petion-ville is the up-scale Port-au-Prince suburb Sara and I call home.)

Sources indicated that Baby Doc traveled to Haiti on a diplomatic passport, but it’s not clear which country issued it.  Though most find this hard to believe, a senior aid of current President Preval said it did not become clear to Haitian officials that Duvalier was returning until the plane he traveled on stopped on the Caribbean island of Guadaloupe.

It’s the timing of the former dictator’s return to Haiti that seems suspect, his arriving on the day a final run-off presidential election was to be held, one day before the head of the OAS (Organization of American States)  was scheduled to meet with President Preval to discuss the outcome of a vote recount.  The OAS findings were leaked to the press a week ago and suggested the OAS would recommend that Jude Celestin, candidate from president Preval’s political party, and Preval’s hand-picked successor, be eliminated from a final round of elections, due to massive election “irregularities”—namely ballot boxes having arrived at polling places already stuffed with votes for Celestine.

Because of this, some, both in Haiti and abroad, believe Duvalier has arrived for political purposes, hoping to fill a power vacuum here in Port-au-Prince.  It’s this fear that has lead the United Nations to restrict the movement of its staff until further notice (or until Baby Doc’s motives for coming can be clarified).

We can only wait ourselves, since Duvalier’s press conference scheduled for Monday was postponed and is expected to be held today, Tuesday, instead.

Finally and, perhaps, more importantly, some journalists and academic experts are asking if this return of Baby Doc’s will prompt Jean-Bertrande Aristide to come home, as well, or at the very least drive Aristide supporters to the streets demanding that their exiled hero be allowed to return.

A few good news articles you might want to read:

–“’Baby Doc’ Duvalier returns to Haiti in a surprise move”—a piece from CNN.com.

–“Haiti’s ‘Baby Doc’ in surprise return from exile”—at Yahoo news.

–“Duvalier Meets with Advisers as Haiti Holds its Breath”—from the New York Times.

Disclaimer:

Remember, as I’ve said before, that here in Haiti it’s hellaciously hard to get good news.  And by “good news” I mean accurate news.  More often than not I throw my hands in the air and exclaim in utter and complete newsless-ness, “C’est la vie, la vie.”  Indeed—whatever will be will be—cause I’m not gonna be able to change it and I’m sure as hell not gonna know about it ahead of time.

Dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier at Port-au-Prince Airport


The news here in Haiti just gets stranger and stranger. 

Within the last few minutes we got word that former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier has returned to Haiti, landing at the Port-au-Prince, Toussaint Louverture International Airport at 5:30pm EST on an Air France flight from Paris. 

We don’t know yet what this means or why he’s here for the first time since exiled in 1986, but it’s hard to imagine this is a good development.

I’ll keep everyone posted as soon as I hear anything more.  In the meantime this article from the National Post might interest some of you.

If only I (k)NEW(s)!


Earlier this week my friend Lisa at “Notes from Africa” suggested I begin periodic news updates about Haiti.  I thought that a fine idea, as most of Lisa’s are, so today I’m here to deliver news, of sorts.

“Why ‘of sorts’?” you might ask.

A reasonable question—

For here in Haiti, the fact remains, it’s hellaciously hard to get good news.  And by “good news” I mean accurate news.  More often than not, I’m misinformed, ill-informed, or not informed at all.  More often than not I’m confused.  More often than not I throw my hands in the air and exclaim in utter and complete newsless-ness, “C’est la vie, la vie.”  Indeed—whatever will be will be—cause I’m not gonna be able to change it and I’m sure as hell not gonna know about it ahead of time.

In Haiti I think we have accurate news about like we have free and fair elections—rarely, if at all.

But here goes.  Here you have—

Haiti’s Week in Review:

Earthquake anniversary

If you’ve been reading this blog, you should know that January 12th was the one year anniversary of the earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince, an event which, I hear, got significant coverage in the US and around the world.  (I know the national director for Sara’s NGO here in Haiti was interviewed on CNN the night before last.)

–At least 230,000 were killed.

–More than 300,000 were injured.

–Only 5% of rubble has been cleared in the last year.

–Still 1.3 million are homeless in and around Port-au-Prince.

A couple of great articles on the anniversary have appeared at Time.com this week.  I suggest you take a look at:

                “Who Failed on Haiti’s Recovery?”

                “Haiti’s Quake, One Year Later: It’s the Rubble, Stupid!”

 Cholera

Not as much in the headlines this week, but I heard in an interview on NPR this morning that we are officially in the epidemic phase of the disease. 

–The death toll as of yesterday was 3, 759 according to the Haitian Health Ministry.

–Officially 181,000 have been sickened to date.

For more news on the cholera outbreak I recommend an article from the Montreal Gazette:

                “Haiti cholera toll tops 3,750”

Haitian Presidential Elections

Here’s where things get complicated and more than a little fuzzy.  And here’s where I wish I knew a whole lot more, not only because it’s important to the democratic process, but also because, in purely practical and selfish terms, what happens here over the next several days will impact my life most significantly.

First a bit of background in case you’re new to this issue: 

–On November 28th Haiti held nationwide elections, with 18 candidates running for president.

–Ballot boxes arrived at polling places stuffed with votes for the candidate from the ruling political party and soon-to-be son-in-law of current Haitian president Preval—Jude Celestin—causing most of the other candidates to accuse the government of fraud.

–Rioting broke out when election results were announced a week later and the top two vote-getters were Mirlande Manigat and Celestin—excluding hugely popular musician candidate Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly from a run-off between the top 2 vote-getters on January 16th.

–Port-au-Prince streets calmed down when Preval’s government agreed to a recount of votes by the OAS (Organization of American States).

–The announced results of that recount have been delayed multiple times since December 20th, when they were originally to be made public, so the January 16th run-off has been delayed.

–Official results of that recount have yet to be announced.

However—and this is a big “however,” indeed—

–Monday results of that OAS recount were leaked to the press.  And BBC News reports that the OAS will recommend that the candidate from the ruling political party be disqualified from any run-off.  If this story interests you, check out the BBC piece,

                “OAS to give Haiti presidential election verdict.”               

 What does this all mean? 

There was actually some debate about this at a dinner party Sara and I hosted the other evening, but I will mention an idea discussed by folks who had just left a meeting with presidential candidate, Lesley Voltaire.

Our dinner guests mostly speculated which announced outcome would result in the most violence on the streets of Port-au-Prince and when that announcement might be made.  Some thought that announcement could come as early as last night, which didn’t happen, but was more likely on Sunday evening, January 16th.

Surprisingly to me, most agreed that more violence would result from Jude Celestin being left out of the run-off, since Preval’s government would pay protesters to take to the streets, despite the fact that few in the country actually support Celestin’s candidacy.  They said the omission of Martelly from the run-off would cause problems and likely riots, but fewer problems than Preval could pay the poor to incite on the streets.

So, there you have it, folks, the news from Port-au-Prince, as I know it.  Yes, I wish I  (k)NEW more—but I don’t.  We’ll just have to see what happens Sunday, whether an announcement is made then, and if so, who will be allowed to participate in a run-off.

The last time an announcement came, we were stuck in our house for 4 days because of city-wide violence.  For descriptions of that rioting and how it affected our lives you should click here and here  and here .

I’ll keep you posted———-

Haiti’s 35 Second Tragedy: a Second Chance for Peace


A mere 35 seconds nearly sealed the fate of Haiti. 

At 4:53 pm on January 12, 2010 an earthquake lasting just over half a minute devastated Port-au-Prince, killing close to a quarter million, injuring hundreds of thousands more, and leaving, still one year later, more than a million homeless in and around the Haitian capital.  The earthquake may have leveled Port-au-Prince  in half a minute, but cholera continues to kill Haitians by the thousands.  Every 35 seconds more are sickened.   More die needless deaths.

It’s not a pretty picture.  There’s nothing pretty about Port-au-Prince.

And as an outsider, clearly, I know nothing about the real suffering of the Haitian people.  I know nothing of a mother housing a family of 14 children in a tent the size of a suburban bathroom, nothing of another mother trying to quiet a baby crying in the dark, while torrential rain turns the ground beneath her tiny tarp to liquid mud.

How can I, a privileged white woman from a wealthy nation, speak of Haitian pain with any real authority?  

The fact of the matter is I can’t.  I have no right.  I have no knowledge of not enough food to eat or no clean water to drink.  I can only speak of what I see—

And what I see—every 35 seconds—is a city still in ruin.  I see the weary but not teary eyes of human beings too stunned to grieve even colossal losses. 

I may indeed presume too much, but I am here in Haiti on this historic day and I will take 35 seconds to pray for Haiti—

To pray for peace in the mountains that circle Port-au-Prince this morning.

Please take 35 seconds to share this prayer with me.  Take 35 seconds and pray for peace in Haiti.

Haiti in your Face


I’m pleased to share——-(drum roll)—————

I will be heading back to Haiti Saturday, after 3 weeks in the US—21 days so far since my American Airlines flight landed in Miami and I had my first night in several months with an uninterrupted supply of electricity.  I guess Friday will be my last for the next 90 days or so.

Which raises the question—

What comforts from home will I miss most in Haiti?  Over the next several days, I’ll share them here, a way to gear up for this transition.

Clearly, however, electricity tops the list.

Now, I’ve been without power before in the US, without the luxury of electricity for 6 days straight during an ice storm in Kentucky some years ago.  But being without this utility here at home is entirely different from being without in Haiti. 

For example, no electricity for several days means near disaster in most of North America.  No one knows what to do or how to manage the tasks of daily living, so folks function on the adrenaline panic produces during times of crisis.  Citizens of Kentucky jump into fully fueled cars, drive to Lowes or Home Depot, grab all the batteries, flashlights, and candles money can buy this side of Port-au-Prince.  Normal life is temporarily interrupted. 

It takes several powerless days to shift into “picnic mode” and celebrate with neighbors round a fireplace, all hoping to stay warm on icy February nights.  

People play games.  They pop popcorn on the stove top (gas, of course).  They become families and neighborhoods once again–helping one another survive this bout of being without. 

The local utility company may take longer than they’d like to get things up and running, but folks maintain a basic faith in the system, a security that only a strong and stable infrastructure provides. 

They believe.  They know. 

The lights will come back on and all will be right with the world—a reality interpreted largely in terms of how well one sees at night. 

Eventually, neighbors go back to FaceBooking  in the evening, doing status updates out the ass—rather than playing Monopoly or Clue around the kitchen table—really seeing the shadows candles cast on the faces of their children—the shades of gray and flickering light—Sally’s chin that’s strong and Bobby’s dimples winking in the nearly dark. 

In Haiti it’s an entirely different affair. 

If we happen to have power when we wake up in the morning and even less likely happen to have it when we fall asleep at night, Sara and I marvel to one another:

“Do you think we REALLY had city power all night?” (What in Haiti we call electricity that comes from something other than a generator)

“Well, was it on when you fell asleep?”

“Yeah, it was.”

“And you’re sure you didn’t just forget to turn the generator off?”

“No, if you didn’t turn it on, I didn’t either.  Had to be city power!”

Craziness—

We marvel at the having rather than the not.

But Sara and I are spoiled.  Though we often face the threat of diesel running low—at least we HAVE a generator.

Most folks in Port-au-Prince, on the other hand, truly DEAL with darkness every night.  Without the ability to generate power, they struggle to help children with their homework—that is, if they can actually afford tuition, if they can actually afford to buy a candle for their kids to study by.

Eyes adjust to lesser light—the dim of half-light becomes a way of life.

But now—

As I prepare to return to friends on our Caribbean island—now that I once again have grown to expect bright light at night—20 good evenings in the US—it’s time to return again to the dimly lit faces of my Haitian neighbors.

To look them fully in the face at night—

And see the contours courage carves.

Ghost of Hamlet Haunts Haiti’s Presidential Election


Things sound eerily quiet here this morning in my little corner of Haiti—especially after all the angry, sometimes violent,  protests yesterday against election fraud.  I can only image that, like me, folks are reluctant to go out into the streets.

The big picture looks like this, however:

Haiti held nation-wide elections yesterday for president, senators, and other lesser offices—elections that were to have been scheduled for last February but were delayed following the earthquake that leveled most of Port-au-Prince on January 12, 2010.

Yesterday ballot boxes were said to have arrived at polling stations already filled with votes for the protégé and future son-in-law of current Haitian President Rene Preval—Jude Celestin.  Mid-morning yesterday 12 of the 18 leading opposition candidates alleged “massive fraud” on the part of Preval and Celestin’s Inite (Unity) coalition and called for election results to be cancelled.  These candidates included former first lady and front-runner in pre-election polls, Mirlande Manigate, whose husband again ran for president in 2006, coming in second.  In that election Manigate was denied the legally required run-off, even though Preval failed to get 50% of the vote.

(And we think politics in the US are bad!  This makes the Bush/Gore Florida controversy in 2000 look like child’s play.)

It has seemed for months that things weren’t likely to be fair, not so much because hip-hop star Wycliffe Jean was denied a spot on the ballot, but more importantly because no candidates of the truly grass roots opposition party Lavalas (still figure-headed by former President Aristide), were allowed to run for any office.

It seemed surprising yesterday, at least to me, that thousands of protesters took to the streets even here in the usually quiet suburb of Petion-ville—led by candidate and entertainer Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly and joined by Wycliffe Jean himself.

(The noise kept our dogs unsettled and barking into the night.  Actually though, we were bothered no more than that.  And to be honest, ours are not the quietest of canines to begin with!)

Today there’s a planned march on the presidential palace, during which protesters, we are told, will call for President Preval to resign. 

But damage to the palace itself during the earthquake last January, the palace on which protesters will march today, may suggest, at least in metaphoric terms, that something is indeed “rotten in the State of [Haiti].” 

The ghost of Hamlet here is haunting?

Haitian Presidential Elections and a DNA of Hoarding


Haitian presidential elections are tomorrow, and in preparation for post-election violence, people are stocking up on food and drinking water, ready to remain in their homes should angry protesters flood the streets once election results are announced.  Most NGOs, Sara’s included, plan to remain closed on Monday, believing that if history is any indicator, security problems are inevitable.  My Haitian French teacher told me that after the last election, she was unable to leave her home for 5 full days, and she expects the same this time around.

However, Sara and I may have gotten to the grocery store a bit too late this morning, a day after most Haitians had already stocked up.  The shelves, though they were not empty, were terribly picked over, and, for example, there was not a baguette in sight (and very little fresh produce).  But we got the fundamentals and finally found French bread at the bakery near Sara’s office.

At any rate, we are well-supplied in the event of violence or political unrest: plenty of fuel for the generator, batteries for emergency lighting, and a solar powered radio to hear election results via our guards.

We are so well supplied, in fact—that Saint Sara is laughing at me as I write this, pointing out that, including the 4 cans of diced tomatoes I bought today, we now have a grand total of 13, and including the 2 I purchased this morning, we now have 14 bottles of salad dressing—blue cheese, balsamic vinaigrette, and honey mustard varies all lined in lovely rows.  Not to mention the 15 two liter bottles of Coke Zero, equally well-ordered.  Saint Sara’s soldiering of the surplus, so to speak

Okay, okay, I admit it—I’m obsessed.  I over-shop.  I over-stock.  It’s a sickness. 

But couldn’t I blame this on the political climate here in Haiti, the potential for civil unrest, the need to be well-supplied in the event of disaster?  Yes­—

—But I blame it on the DNA—

—Claiming, as my grandmother did when my aunt asked why she had so much toilet paper—a floor-to-ceiling-sized pantry full—

“I’m keeping it so all the hoarders don’t get it!”

What supplies are surplus-ed in your pantry?

A Prayer for Haiti


We now know, according to national health officials, that more than 1000 have died from cholera here in Haiti and that Haitian President Preval fears cholera riots will spread to Port-au-Prince today.  Violence aimed at UN peacekeepers began over the weekend in Cap-Haitien and Hinch, as well as smaller towns around the country—this amid unfounded fear that members of a Nepalese contingent brought the disease to Haiti.

In the midst of all this, I feel fairly safe in my small section of the city, Petion-ville, essentially the Beverly Hills of Port-au-Prince.  With 2 armed guards posted at my gate around the clock, whether there’s rioting in the capital or not, I’m blessed with a security so many here are forced to do without.

 Admittedly, Haiti isn’t all that safe for foreigners, especially in this city, where non-Haitians are kidnapped, on average, of once a day—mostly for ransom, sometimes because people are desperate, often because the prison here was damaged during the earthquake, allowing criminals to escape and (still on the loose) commit crimes against the very people who are here to help.  Not more than a month ago someone was kidnapped just outside the gym where I work out most mornings.

Unfortunately, my experience in Haiti is limited by these security concerns and the policies implemented by the NGO where my partner Sara works—one that, unlike some smaller organizations and church groups, has the size and funding to manage risk effectively. 

But I am safe.  And though I don’t work directly in the community, though I don’t go into the camps and feed the poor, I know I am doing my small part, providing a home for Sara and giving her (I hope) the security she needs—the strength to direct a massive disaster response operation for a housing NGO that works in nearly 100 countries.  

The effort sometimes leaves her a little frayed around the edges and me a bit torn up in the process. But, we are blessed to be together, loving one another, learning to love a country that has been fighting now for centuries—fighting first against colonial oppression, fighting later against oppressive dictators, and fighting now a disease that’s dictating the fate of way too many.

Please pray for us.  Please pray for Haiti!

Watering Change


No water has flowed from the faucets at my house here in Haiti for 2 days, and I’ve decided not having water is way worse than not having electricity.

Bottom line:  I’m not a happy camper—or at least—not happy camping, as the case may be.

At the same rate, I must confess, to living a ridiculously comfortable life here in Port-au-Prince, certainly by Haitian standards.  So, I have no real reason to complain, especially when one considers the more pressing crisis of cholera contaminating the water supply, an epidemic that has killed nearly 1000 in the past few weeks, sickened nearly 20 times as many, and incited violence against UN peacekeepers in a number of towns across the country.

It’s mostly a matter of not having what I’ve come to expect after more than four decades of running water’s near perpetual availability.  To say I’m spoiled would be both true and minimizing of just how comfortable, on some level, I think I’m entitled to be—an ugly truth, I don’t totally know how to change about myself.  Perhaps, doing without is the only way to train myself otherwise.  And it seems it may indeed be a matter of training, relearning how to think about the resources in America we so casually take for granted, waste, complain about, and even don’t know how to survive without when shortages arise.

Frankly, I’m embarrassed, after living in Haiti for a number of months, to come from a country that plays survivor games on television (to the appeal of mass audiences), calling that “reality” TV.   But the sense of entitlement I’m uncovering in myself is exponentially more shameful.

After a chronic illness left me unable to work for a number of years, I’d come to consider myself fairly self-aware, someone who thought about poverty and hunger and wanted to do something to alleviate suffering.  But, too much thinking coupled with not-enough acting, can clearly translate into an hypocrisy I and too many Americans, both liberal and conservative alike, unknowingly live by.

Certainly, I don’t have the answers, not even for myself.  I only know that by the time this piece posts, it’s likely water will again be flowing in my house and complacency will become even easier, once more.  I can only pray that my attitude improves, that I learn to do with less, that I complain less about the little things and do as Ghandi said we should, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

If only I knew how!