Haiti: Sandy kills 54, threatens food supplies

Tropical storm Sandy began hitting southern Haiti with heavy rain on Oct. 23, just as it was intensifying into a Category 1 hurricane; the rain continued through Oct. 26. Haiti suffered the worst damage of the Caribbean nations that Sandy affected, even though the storm’s center never passed over the country. At least 54 people died, roads and bridges were damaged, and homes were destroyed. About 200,000 people suffered from the effects of the hurricane, according to official figures, with the damage concentrated in five departments: South, Southeast, Grand Anse, Nippes and West.

Crops were ruined in the southwestern peninsula, including local staples like bananas and breadfruit. The new destruction followed the devastation of other crops by the hurricane Isaac on Aug. 24 and comes at a time when rising prices on international markets have driven up the cost of imported food, sparking large demonstrations in September to protest the high cost of living. Since August the price of a marmite (about five pounds) of black beans has risen from 200 gourdes ($4.75) to 300 gourdes ($7.12). “The economy took a huge hit,” Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe told the Reuters wire service. “[F]ood security will be an issue.” Another concern is that the contamination of water by flooding may lead to an increase in cholera cases. More than 7,000 Haitians have died of the disease since it was brought to the country in October 2010 by troops of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). (AlterPresse, Haiti, Oct. 24, Oct. 27, Oct. 31; Reuters, Oct. 29)

At an Oct. 30 press conference Agriculture Minister Thomas Jacques announced ambitious plans for distributing seeds to farmers, subsidizing the repair and maintenance of irrigation systems, restoring damaged roads, and carrying out an agricultural reform that would enable Haitian farmers to supply 60% of the country’s food needs within three years; he put the current level at 45%. But Jacques acknowledged that government failures in the past were responsible for much of the damage from Sandy. One of the main causes of the flooding was the lack of river maintenance over the past decade, he said. Jacques also noted the absence of an agricultural insurance system, with the result that farmers won’t receive compensation for their losses. (AlterPresse, Oct. 31)

Also on Oct. 30, Prime Minister Lamothe and President Michel Martelly (“Sweet Micky”) declared a one-month state of emergency. Under the 1987 Constitution a state of emergency gives the president powers that include ordering evacuations, allocating funds without reference to the official budget, and using accelerated procedures to sign contracts. The president doesn’t have the power to limit free speech or other political activities under the state of emergency. (Haïti Libre, Haiti, Oct. 31)  President Martelly has tried to exceed his constitutional powers in the past, however.

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Nov. 4.