Haiti: vote postponed a fifth time

Following a meeting with representatives of Haitian political parties on Dec. 30, Max Mathurin, president of the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP), announced the postponement of the presidential and legislative elections previously scheduled for Jan. 8. “Following our work schedule, some preparation operations will go on past Jan. 8,” he said. “This explains why it is impossible for this date, set for the first round, to be respected.” He did not announce a new schedule.

This was the fifth postponement of the current elections, the first following the February 2004 ouster of left-populist president Jean-Bertrand Aristide; the most recent postponement was announced on Nov. 25. Osner Ferry, from the National Council of Political Parties, called for the dissolution of the CEP and the removal of the United Nations (UN) and the Organization of American States from the electoral process. According to the Reuters wire service, more than three dozen political parties have called for the resignation of Haiti’s interim government, accusing it of incompetence. The elections were supposed to have been held in time for the new president to take office on Feb. 7, as required by Haiti’s 1987 Constitution. (Haiti Support Group News Brief, Dec. 30 from Reuters; AlterPresse, Dec. 30; Haiti Press Network, Dec. 30)

Aristide ally Father Gerard Jean-Juste, imprisoned since July without formal charges, is suffering from leukemia, according to US physician Paul Farmer, who examined Jean-Juste on Dec. 24. “[I]t is essential that he be transferred to the US without delay for a more extensive work-up,” Farmer told the leftist weekly Haiti Progres. “This disease can be treated if we get him out of jail and into qualified medical care.” Jean-Juste has been held in prison without formal charges since July. Farmer operates an internationally renowned clinic in rural Haiti. (HP, Dec. 28)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Jan. 1

See our last update on Haiti.

  1. Roots of unrest
    Big kudos to Newsday and its reporter Letta Tayler for this incisive Jan. 2 piece on the structural roots of Haiti’s ongoing crisis:

    “It’s misery and more misery,” said Roland Toussaint, 35, a farmer in bare feet and a straw hat who started working in the paddies as a boy, alongside his father and grandfather. “We can’t compete with the American rice. It’s killing us.”

    Three decades ago, Haiti was almost self-sufficient in rice production, the mainstay of the rural economy. But since Haiti opened its markets to the United States in 1986 at the behest of lenders including the International Monetary Fund, rice production has halved, while rice imports, mainly from the United States, have increased 50-fold.

    Haiti’s rice problems are emblematic of the broader economic crisis facing this tiny island nation, which two centuries ago was the pearl of the Antilles, stuffing colonial France’s coffers by producing much of the world’s sugar, coffee and mahogany.

    Now, Haiti is the poorest country in the hemisphere. Three-fourths of Haitians live on less than $2 a day and 70 percent of the workforce is jobless or underemployed. More than half the country’s children don’t get enough to eat.


    While tourism, light industry and handicrafts also can create jobs, “rural development is key to revitalizing Haiti’s economy,” said Volny Paultre, Haiti program director for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. “And central to that development is rice.”

    Otherwise, Paultre and other experts predict, peasants will continue leaving for the city in search of manufacturing jobs that no longer exist. Or migrating to neighboring Dominican Republic, where they often work under brutal conditions for almost no pay. Or boarding rickety boats bound for the United States, home to an estimated 1 million Haitians, half of them in the New York metropolitan area.

    Haiti still has the capacity to be almost self-sufficient in rice, many agronomists believe.

    Rice was among a flood of foreign imports that Haiti’s then-military government accepted in exchange for international loans in the 1980s. The rice imports sparked such an uproar that the government dispatched armed convoys to escort the first rice shipments through the Artibonite Valley.

    Further protective barriers against U.S. rice were dismantled in 1994 by then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide as part of the agreement with Washington to restore him to power after he had been ousted in a military coup three years earlier.

    Haiti’s tariffs on rice imports fell from 35 percent to 3 percent, the lowest in the region. In contrast, rice tariffs in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, are 40 percent.

    International lenders forbade Haiti from subsidizing its rice farmers; the aim was to cultivate Haitian industries that could survive without props. Yet U.S. rice farmers are massively subsidized by the U.S. government, receiving $1.3 billion last year alone to support a crop that cost $1.8 billion to grow, according to a report issued in April by Oxfam International, a nonprofit organization dedicated to poverty eradication.

    “This is an example of rigged rules and double standards at their baldest,” said Phil Bloomer, head of Oxfam International’s Make Trade Fair campaign, who called the practice “scandalous.”

  2. Deforestation deepens agony
    Another excellent dispatch from Newsday‘s Letta Tayler. Jan. 3 she reports from Gona├»ves, the coastal city that was devastated by floods unleashed Hurricane Jeanne in September 2004. (See WW4R #103) Tayler’s report sheds light on the social and ecological roots of this “natural” disaster.

    Across this city of roughly 200,000, which is still reeling from the deluge, almost no one seemed aware of the scientific explanation: deforestation, a phenomenon that is turning tiny Haiti into a Caribbean desert and causing increasingly deadly flash floods and mudslides.

    With three-fourths of Haitians dependent on charcoal to cook their food, and most subsistence farmers unable to earn a living without a quick cash crop, tree cutting is one of Haiti’s biggest industries. About 50 million trees are felled to make fuel or to sell as lumber each year, according to the Haitian Environmental Association.

    Less than 2 percent of Haiti’s once lush forests remain, compared with 20 percent in the Dominican Republic, with which it shares the island of Hispaniola.

    Without tree roots, topsoil is loosened and easily washes away. Without topsoil, the ground can’t easily absorb water. So when the rains fall, water pours down denuded hills, overflows riverbanks and fills up the plains.

    Criss-crossed with rivers and ringed on three sides by mountains so badly stripped they look from afar like a three-day beard, this western coastal city didn’t stand a chance.

    “There are many more Gona├»veses in Haiti just waiting to happen,” said Jean Andre Victor, Haiti’s leading environmentalist. “We’re sitting on a time bomb.”

    Sewage canals blocked from years of neglect caused water to build up even faster. But even if they had been cleaned, the toll still would have been catastrophic, environmentalists say.

    Reforestation is one of the biggest challenges facing the new president that Haitians will elect in voting tentatively scheduled for later this month. It also is one of the most daunting, because the tree-cutting is fueled by poverty, soil degradation and energy needs.

    More than four-fifths of Haitians have little or no electricity, ruling out that energy source for heating their beans or boiling their rice. Three-fourths of Haitians live on less than $2 a day, so they can’t afford gas or kerosene, which often costs four times the price of charcoal.

    “Gas? Sure, I’d love to cook with it. But who can afford it?” asked Christine Jean, a mother of six, as she bought a small bag of charcoal for 25 gourdes (62 cents), one-fourth of her daily earnings, at the March├ę Salomon in the capital, Port-au-Prince.

    Business is always brisk at March├ę Salomon, a warren of alleys packed with buckets and mounds of charcoal where everything, from the walls to the footpaths to the already black faces of vendors, is coated in soot.

    With nearly three-fourths of the workforce lacking steady jobs, Haiti’s mountains are filled with farmers chopping trees, or tending smoldering mounds of wood that they’re slowly burning into charcoal.

    Above Gonaïves, some farmers who continue those practices lost relatives in the flood.

    Farues Lomilis, 43, a father of 10 from the hamlet of Menguelte, watched the waters devour his 11-year-old son, Cholo. The flood also killed his two cows, six goats and three pigs, and destroyed his house, rice crop and banana trees.

    But on a recent day, Lomilis stood barefoot with a friend in a clearing in Passe Reine, about an hour’s drive northeast of Gona├»ves, hacking at a 60-foot tree with an axe. Asked if he knew that cutting trees contributed to the killer flood, Lomilis shook his head so vigorously it appeared he was trying to chase away the thought.

    “If I don’t cut the trees, we don’t eat,” he said finally. Then he picked up his axe and resumed hacking.

    Like more than half of Haitians, Lomilis can’t read or write, and the only work he knows is farming. He estimated he and his friend will earn 2,500 Haitian gourdes (about $62) for the tree, which he’ll use to supplement the corn, beans and rice he grows on a tiny plot.

    Every year, Lomilis said, yields on his land are scarcer. In a vicious cycle across Haiti, topsoil erosion caused by deforestation has washed most of the nutrients from farmland, making peasants even more dependent on the cash crop of tree-cutting.

    About 36 million metric tons of Haiti’s topsoil is flushed away each year, one of the highest rates in the world, according to the United Nations Development Program. Most of it lands as sediment in rivers and canals, causing them to overflow, and in the ocean, where it kills coral reefs and seafood, threatening what little remains of Haiti’s tourism and fishing industries.

    Deforestation dates to colonial times, when the French cleared forests to create sugar plantations and sold the country’s mahogany for export. Since then, a succession of governments, pressured by powerful charcoal and lumber interests, has lacked the will or the resources to bring the forests back.

    “The environment is totally forgotten by most decision-makers in Haiti, and even the international community is in a state of denial about the severity of the problem,” said Lyes Ferroukhi, who coordinates environmental programs in Haiti for the UN Development Program.

    Haiti’s Environment Ministry, a shabby building in Port-au-Prince, is stuffed with proposals to solve the deforestation crisis. Possible solutions include converting to solar and wind energy and using sugarcane pulp to run thousands of charcoal-fired bakeries, dry cleaners and mills that make clairin, Haiti’s popular moonshine.

    “We’d love to invest in renewable energy,” said Serge Pierre-Louis, chief aide to the environment minister, with a weary smile. “But where is the money?”

    The poorest nation in the hemisphere, Haiti received pledges of $1.3 billion in foreign aid for a two-year transition period when President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted in an armed uprising in February 2004. Less than 2 percent of that was earmarked for the environment.

    Further compounding the problem, the Environment Ministry has almost no authority, the few environmental laws on the books are outdated, and the country lacks inspectors to enforce them.

    Gonaïves remains in a state of crisis from the 2004 flood.

    Children crowd classrooms missing walls. Scores of businesses remain closed. Low-lying neighborhoods are still flooded with mud or filled with mounds of garbage dumped here by the waters.

    Survivors who returned to flood-prone areas because they had no place else to go are bracing for a repeat of the disaster.

    They include Fertilice, who moved back into her two-room shack after scrubbing out the mud, using rags created when the flood tore curtains from windows, sheets from beds and clothes from people’s backs.

    But she had neither savings nor insurance money to rebuild her business – a tiny depot of salt that dissolved in the flood. With no income, she relies on relatives for cornmeal, rice and a bit of fish.

    Fertilice cooks that food out back, not far from where she buried the bodies of her daughter and three grandchildren.

    She uses a charcoal grill. “What choice do I have?” she asked.