Haitian Discontent Rage in the Time of Cholera
The cholera epidemic in Haiti is rapidly spreading. It has become the dominant issue leading up to elections set for Nov. 28. And as popular rage grows against international aid workers, protests have erupted in the ruins of Port-au-Prince.
The crowd, mostly men and a few women, runs past wreckage, mountains of garbage and corrugated metal huts. Sweat streams down their faces. It's 10 a.m. and already oppressively hot in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, which has become a capital of the suffering, as the protesters run shouting through the streets. A man with a shaved head and deep-set eyes running in the middle of the crowd pauses for a moment, gasping for air, then says: "There was no cholera here before. The UN brought cholera into this country. They should get out of here!" He starts running again.
Roadside vendors gather up their wares and barricade themselves into their huts. An open truck is blocking the road in front of the crowd. Peacekeeping troops with the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, or MINUSTAH, are huddled together on the truck bed.
The protestors start throwing stones. The UN peacekeepers cock their rifles. The soldiers start shooting into the crowd. It breaks apart, only to coalesce again after a few blocks. This time it's larger, louder and angrier, as the protesters shout: "Death to MINUSTAH!" Local police finally put a stop to the march with tear gas. The crowd dissipates, leaving burning tires behind.
Faces of Rage and Lethargy
The vendors soon return, and Haitian pop music starts blaring from one of the huts, the Ideal Barber Shop. An old woman sits in front of baskets of nuts and sweets, braiding her white hair into pigtails. When asked about the protesters, she insists she hasn't seen any and that she has no information about them. None of the vendors wants to admit having noticed the street clashes. Instead, they shake their heads and stare into space.
Haiti has two faces in these days leading up to the parliamentary and presidential election on Nov. 28: the face of rage and the face of lethargy. The rage is directed against foreigners, against the foreign organizations that supposedly control the country and, most of all, against the United Nations and its 12,000 soldiers and police officers, including the Nepalese troops who -- according to popular rumor -- brought the cholera pathogen into the country. The story goes that the Nepalese secretly emptied their latrines into the Artibonite River, and that the first Haitian contracted cholera several kilometers downstream a few days later.
The epidemic spread rapidly around the entire country, and now more than 25,000 people have been infected. As of Tuesday this week at least 1,415 people in Haiti had died of the disease. The Dominican Republic tightened border security after a case was reported there. Another case was reported in Florida.
Epidemiologists do not completely dismiss the theory involving the Nepalese soldiers. After studying the pathogen and analyzing its DNA, scientists with the American Centers for Disease Control (CDC) concluded that it was a form of cholera that commonly occurs in South Asia. But they also warned against drawing premature conclusions. "Perhaps we'll never know where this specific cholera bacterium came from," says Jordan Tappero of the CDC. Edmond Mulet, the head of the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti, believes that political forces in the country are fueling the protests shortly before elections.
A 'Catastrophe Industry'
Conspiracy theorists have always warned that the foreign aid workers only came to Haiti to occupy it and suck it dry. Such assertions are in vogue because the UN troops and 14,000 foreign aid workers are now seen as an occupying force. A "catastrophe industry" has established itself in their country, say Haitians, an industry that turns a profit by pretending to provide aid. This election campaign revolves around the future of a country, a new beginning, dreams and hopes.
Charles Henri Baker, the candidate for the Respé Party, promises low-income housing, schooling for all and special loans for farmers. Leslie Voltaire, candidate for the Ansanm Nou Fò (Together We Are Strong) Party, wants to introduce school meals for all children and industrial investments to help the country recover. But what are such promises worth, if they are unaffordable?
Nineteen parties have fielded candidates in the election. They include the Farmers' Party and the Solidarity Party, the Strength Party and the Key Party, a colorful jumble of names that could mean everything or nothing. They run radio ads and send text messages to thousands of mobile phones. They put up posters in the streets of Port-au-Prince, on the remains of buildings destroyed in the January earthquake, including what is left of the presidential palace. There have been six television debates, part of a cautious attempt to keep things in check and bring order to the chaos of Haiti. There have even been opinion polls in this election campaign. The last poll has former First Lady Mirlande Manigat in the lead, followed by Jude Célestin, the protégé of outgoing President René Préval, with 20 percent of the projected vote.
- Part 1: Rage in the Time of Cholera
- Part 2: Choleric on Election Day