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The U.N. in Haiti: Time to Adapt or Time to Go
Posted on Sep 1, 2011
In the summer of 2009, visiting Haiti for the first time after an absence of three years, I found the country in better shape than at any time since I started visiting there in 1997.
Three years after the inauguration of René Préval as Haiti’s president (after the two-year tenure of an unelected interim government), the population of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, again felt safe enough to patronize downtown bars and kerosene-lit roadside stands late into the evening, where once armed gangs controlled entire neighborhoods. Billboards that once praised the infallibility of a succession of maximum leaders instead carried messages about the importance of respect between the population and the police, or decrying discrimination against the disabled.
A police-reform program was in its third year, providing the country with a level of professional law enforcement not often seen in a place where political patronage, not expertise, swelled the ranks of security forces with party loyalists. Investment was beginning to pick up and, by the end of the year, Haiti’s delicious signature rum, Barbancourt, had even won the bronze and silver medals at the International Wine and Spirit Competition.
Presiding over all this was the (at the time) 9,000-member United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti, known as MINUSTAH. When I sat that summer in the office of the head of the mission, veteran Tunisian diplomat Hédi Annabi, he seemed to be justified in his pride at the country’s progress, telling me that “the level of respect for basic freedoms, such as freedom of the press, is at a historically remarkable level.”
Of course, all of this changed at 4:53 p.m. on Jan. 12, 2010, when the country was struck by an apocalyptic earthquake that leveled much of the capital and surrounding towns and killed an estimated 200,000 people. Annabi, his deputy and nearly 100 other MINUSTAH personnel died as the structures they were in collapsed on them, and the peacekeeping mission itself became one of the many strata of Haitian society that needed rescuing.
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Though an estimated 634,000 survivors of the quake still live in makeshift settlements in and around the capital, and Haiti remains without a government (two of Martelly’s nominees for prime minister have been rejected), it is my conclusion after a visit to Haiti last month that it is now time, after seven years in the country, for MINUSTAH to either significantly refocus its mission or close its operation in Haiti and leave the business of governing and reconstruction to the Haitians themselves.
Haitians have a keen sense of their own history as the site of the world’s first successful slave revolt (in 1804) and the second independent republic in the Americas (after the United States), a nation that has produced guerrilla leaders of the magnitude of Charlemagne Péralte and Benoît Batravill when faced with a two-decade U.S. occupation of the country in the early 20th century.
If you ask the average Haitian on the street what the purpose of MINUSTAH in Haiti is now, as I did in a vast tent encampment of displaced earthquake survivors in front of Haiti’s still-collapsed National Palace, they will answer you succinctly: MINUSTAH is in Haiti to protect the interests of the foreigners.
True or not, such a perspective has become conventional wisdom in Haiti, and it was a refrain that I heard time and again as I traveled this country that, though still stricken, is by no means beaten or defeated.
At this point, for the first time since I have been observing the mission, the sentiment on the street among a majority of Haitians appears to be a desire to see MINUSTAH in its current incarnation gone from Haiti.
For several reasons, MINUSTAH’s reputation with the Haitian people has reached its lowest level since it arrived in 2004.
A cholera epidemic that has killed more than 5,800 people since October has been linked convincingly to the mission. A June report by a group of epidemiologists and physicians in the journal of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that evidence “strongly suggests” that the cholera strain had been brought to Haiti by U.N. peacekeepers and spread through a faulty waste disposal system along the Artibonite River, a conclusion supported by other studies.
Rightly or wrongly, the perception of MINUSTAH’s response to the crisis within Haiti itself has been of the mission stonewalling and obfuscating. This perception was reinforced in August when some residents of the country’s Plateau Central region accused the mission of dumping raw sewage near the Guayamouc River there, something MINUSTAH has denied.
In a far cry from the largely congenial relations I saw between U.N. peacekeepers and the local population in 2009, something of a bunker mentality has also appeared to have developed. On several instances—particularly at the intersection of the busy Route de Delmas and the road that eventually leads to the country’s international airport—I witnessed peacekeepers patrolling with their mounted machine guns pointed down at crowds of people who appeared to pose no threat at all and were merely going about the business of trying to secure the basic necessities of survival on any given day.
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