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11/24/2010 04:32 PM

Haitian Discontent

Rage in the Time of Cholera

By and

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.

Choleric on Election Day

What does this mean, if anything? One sixth of the roughly 6,000 people surveyed are not registered to vote. Since the cholera epidemic began, the question arises as to how many will turn out for election day. "It's impossible to force people to vote," says Joseph Junior of Radio Tele Paradis, "if they can't even get themselves to the hospital for treatment."

The survivors of the earthquake have set up house in the ruins of Port-au-Prince. Hundreds of thousands still live in close quarters in tents, huts and unstable ruins, dependent on foreign aid. They wait and hope, but the reconstruction effort makes no progress. The state of emergency has become a permanent condition. And now cholera is raging in the capital. The bacterial infection, which causes severe diarrhea, is easily preventable in theory -- by not drinking contaminated water and frequently washing one's hands with soap. Some 75 percent of infections progress without symptoms. The rest are easily treated by administering fluids and electrolytes. But Haiti is one of the poorest, weakest and most corrupt nations in the world, a nation with no immune system.

In Cité Soleil, the poor district near the Port-au-Prince harbor, foreign aid workers are now waging a seemingly hopeless battle against the epidemic. Cholera patients, apathetic and half-naked, lie on boards in a field hospital under a white tent run by the aid organization Doctors Without Borders. The boards have a hole in the middle and there is a bucket underneath to catch the patients' feces. The patients wear armbands: red for critical cases, white for moderately severe to mild cases.

"Originally, we wanted to set up a diagnostic center here and then transfer the patients to other hospitals," says Renato Souza, the Brazilian director of the emergency station, "but the hospitals were already overcrowded." Now the doctors are converting an empty derelict building into another sick bay, to take more patients. "Today, so far, we've already received 200 new cases," says Souza. He looks at the clock. It's shortly after 1:00 p.m.

'I Believe the UN is Helping'

Souza has been in Port-au-Prince for a week. It's his second time in Haiti. He was there last in January, after the earthquake. "The shocking thing is that hardly anything has changed," he says. "It's as if the country were paralyzed, in a state of lethargy." But, he is quick to add, he is here to help, not criticize. "And you don't help people by weeping with them."

A six-year-old girl is huddled on one of the plank beds. She wears a white armband, but she seems to be suffering from severe diarrhea. "It's been going on like this since yesterday," says her mother, a short, thin woman with an anxious look in her eyes. She says she lost most of her relatives in the earthquake; her house was destroyed; and she and her children have lived in a tent since January 12. She suffers constant headaches. "I don't know much about politics," says the woman, "but I believe the UN is helping us."

Next to the woman, a young man wearing tracksuit pants and sneakers jumps up from his daughter's sickbed and says: "The MINUSTAH soldiers are a danger to the life of my child -- to the lives of all children in Haiti." He walks to the middle of the room, extends his arms in the gesture of a preacher and calls out: "I need the MINUSTAH to leave our country!" No one reacts to his words. Muttering to himself, the man walks to the water tank and rinses out a rag.

Another demonstration of sorts takes place on this day, between the collapsed presidential palace and a tent city. A few dozen children march down the street, accompanied by a marching band, and line up in front the wreckage of the palace. The band strikes up the national anthem, and the children stand at attention. They are celebrating the 18th of November, the day of the last major battle of the Haitian revolution against the French in 1803.

The adults, who have been perched on a low wall on the side of the road for a while, glance silently over at the children. No one gets up. "I'm not going to stand up for the national anthem," one of them finally says. "What are those people up there doing for me?"'

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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