Protests shake Hinche, shut down Cap-Haïtien
Large, militant protests against the presence of United Nations troops in Haiti broke out on Nov. 15 in Hinche in the Central Plateau and Cap-Haïtien on the northern coast. The protesters demanded the withdrawal of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), a Brazilian-led multinational force with more than 13,000 soldiers, police agents and staffers that has occupied Haiti since June 2004. Many Haitians blame MINUSTAH for an outbreak of cholera in October that by Nov. 18 had already caused more than 1,100 deaths.
Thousands of people participated in the protests in Cap-Haïtien, the country’s second-largest city. Some threw rocks at MINUSTAH troops and blocked streets with barricades of flaming tires. Protesters reportedly set fire to the police stations at Barrière Bouteille and Pont Neuf in retaliation for actions by Haitian riot police, who allegedly fired on demonstrators. People also looted a World Food Program (WFP) warehouse in the city’s southeastern section.
MINUSTAH claimed that six of its soldiers were injured and that armed protesters fired on troops in Quartier Morin, on the outskirts of the city. “One of these demonstrators lost his life when he was hit by a bullet coming from a blue helmet [a UN soldier], who responded in legitimate self-defense,” according to a Nov. 15 UN press release. Later in the day the body of a young man was found at 24th Street; according to witnesses, an armored car belonging to a Chilean MINUSTAH contingent had been in the area and two blasts had been heard. In addition to the two deaths, some 19 people were injured in Cap-Haïtien on Nov. 15, according to local media, about 15 of them with bullets.
“We’d rather die from bullets than be decimated by the cholera epidemic,” some of the Cap-Haïtien protesters shouted while throwing rocks at the base of a Nepalese MINUSTAH contingent.
In Hinche a large number of protesters reportedly threw stones at MINUSTAH troops on Nov. 15, injuring six Nepalese soldiers; two demonstrators were arrested. Hinche, the capital of Center department, was the site of a protest by some 10,000 peasants in June rejecting an offer of hybrid seeds by the Monsanto Company, a US-based biotechnology multinational, supposedly to aid the country after a devastating earthquake on Jan. 12. (AlterPresse, Haiti, Nov. 15, Nov. 16; MINUSTAH press release, Nov. 15, via AlterPresse; Radio Kiskeya, Haiti, Nov. 15; Radio Métropole, Haiti, Nov. 16)
Cap-Haïtien remained largely paralyzed by the protests through Nov. 17. There was extensive use of tear gas by security forces, and 17 arrests were reported. One more protester was killed on Nov. 17, and several others were wounded at the city’s southern entrance; according to witnesses, MINUSTAH troops opened fire when their vehicle was immobilized. (AlterPresse, Nov. 17; Radio Métropole, Nov. 17)
UN blames protesters for cholera aid delays
“The manner in which the events developed leads one to believe that these incidents have a political motivation, with the aim of creating a climate of insecurity on the eve of the elections,” MINUSTAH’s Nov. 15 press release charged, referring to presidential and legislative elections scheduled for Nov. 28. “MINUSTAH calls on the population to remain vigilant and not to let itself be manipulated by the enemies of stability and democracy.” In a Nov. 17 radio address, Haitian president René Préval referred to “people who are using the cholera epidemic to create disturbances.” Published sources didn’t indicate what evidence MINUSTAH or Préval had for these accusations. (MINUSTAH press release, Nov. 15, via AlterPresse; AlterPresse, Nov. 17)
Préval and spokespeople for the UN and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) indicated that the protests were impeding efforts to fight the epidemic. “Burning tires, throwing rocks or bottles, shooting with firearms—none of this helps wipe out the cholera germ,” Préval said in his radio address. There were claims that the barricades in Cap-Haïtien were keeping sick people from reaching hospitals and were interrupting the distribution of medical aid. “We need to get aid to these people immediately, and these disturbances are slowing us down,” said Julie Schindall, spokesperson for the British-based aid organization Oxfam. She stressed that cholera progresses rapidly and that delays can cause deaths. Imogen Wall, from the UN coordinating office for humanitarian affairs, said that the protests had forced the UN to cancel aid flights to Cap-Haïtien and Port-de-Paix. (L’Express, France, Nov. 17, from Reuters)
None of our sources described incidents in which protesters blocked medical aid or kept sick people from seeking help. The UN and NGO spokespeople appear not to have discussed whether the presence of police and soldiers using tear gas and live ammunition in the streets of Cap-Haïtien might have slowed humanitarian efforts or deterred sick people from going to hospitals. The sources didn’t explain how the protests forced the UN to cancel aid flights to northern Haiti.
In the capital: “It’s too much”
By Nov. 18 a “tense calm” was reported in Cap-Haïtien, but hundreds of students, unionists and social activists took to the streets in Port-au-Prince to protest the MINUSTAH presence. The demonstration–which also commemorated the 207th anniversary of Haitian forces’ decisive defeat of an occupying French army in the Battle of Vertières—was organized by the Liberation coalition, Batay Ouvriye (“Workers’ Struggle”), the Popular Democratic Movement (MODEP) and the Autonomous Federation of Haitian Workers (CATH).
With slogans such as “MINUSTAH is cholera” and “MINUSTAH is spreading excrement in the streets,” the protesters attempted to march from the Ministry of Public Health and Population (MSPP) to a UN base in Port-au-Prince. Haitian police forced them back with tear gas. The protesters ended up near the National Palace, blocking traffic with burning tires, breaking the windows of police and UN vehicles, and tearing up posters for Jude Célestin, the presidential candidate of President Préval’s Unity party.
In what a correspondent for Agence France Presse (AFP) called “an urban guerrilla atmosphere,” the police again used tear gas to disperse the protesters, who kept regrouping and returning to the confrontation. The tear gas forced displaced people to grab their children and flee from tent cities in the large Champ-de-Mars park; more than 1 million Port-au-Prince residents have been living in camps, often in improvised shelters, during the 10 months since the Jan. 12 earthquake. Julien Gregory, who said he was president of the Pétion camp, told the AlterPresse news site that some tents were set on fire by the tear gas grenades; he held Préval and Prime Minister Jean Max Bellerive responsible.
The protest was smaller than those in Cap-Haïtien, and no serious injuries were reported as of the evening of Nov. 18, but the anger in Port-au-Prince seemed just as intense as in the north. “It’s too much,” youths in the camps told AlterPresse; some openly called for revolution. (AlterPresse, Nov. 18; Radio Kiskeya, Nov. 18; Agence Haïtienne de Presse (AHP), Nov. 18; AFP, Nov. 18, via Le Point, France)
The media ignore the background
Since late October there has been speculation in Haiti that poor sanitation at a Nepalese MINUSTAH base at Mirebalais in the Central Plateau caused the cholera bacterium to enter the Artibonite River, which then spread the disease throughout the lower Artibonite Valley; from there it spread to the rest of the country.
The foreign media have tended to describe these suspicions as “rumors,” but there is in fact strong, if not conclusive, evidence for the claim, which has been backed by extensive reporting from the Associated Press wire service. Health experts like John Mekalanos, who chairs Harvard University’s microbiology department, take the speculation seriously. Cholera is endemic to Nepal but hasn’t been reported in Haiti since records started being kept in the middle of the 20th century.
Most reporting on Haiti gives the impression that MINUSTAH is a humanitarian mission and that its troops are “peacekeepers,” with little reference to a long list of Haitian grievances against the force. In 2005 the troops mounted several large military-style operations in crowded Port-au-Prince neighborhoods to clear out alleged criminal gangs; dozens of innocent local residents were reportedly killed by gunfire from the soldiers. In November 2007 a group of 108 MINUSTAH soldiers from Sri Lanka and three officers were said to be involved in the sexual abuse of Haitian women and girls; the soldiers were apparently repatriated without being punished.
In the late summer of 2008 MINUSTAH troops were criticized for their failure to provide emergency aid when two hurricanes and two tropical storms hit the country in quick succession; they again failed to respond after this year’s earthquake [see “Day Two in Port-au-Prince: ‘Young men with crowbars'” ]. The troops have been more effective in putting down protests, however; they reportedly killed at least three unarmed people during protests in 2009.
Demonstrations against MINUSTAH intensified in recent months, especially in Cap-Haïtien after a 16-year-old Haitian boy, Gérald Jean Gilles, died at a MINUSTAH camp in there on Aug. 17; the UN claimed he committed suicide. “People are demonstrating against the government and MINUSTAH, which does nothing,” secondary school teacher Ladiou Novembre told AFP during the Nov. 18 protests in Port-au-Prince. “MINUSTAH was supposed to keep peace in the country, and everywhere it goes, things are worse. MINUSTAH kills Haitians.” (AFP, Nov. 18, via Le Point, France)
From Weekly News Update on the Americas supplement, Nov. 18.
Update, Nov. 19: see report from Ansel Herz in Cap-Haïtien.
See our last post on Haiti.