Saturday, May 15, 2010

the demonstrations

I have said iy many times in the last few weeks: apart from the rubble in the streets, we the humanitarian community have rehabilitated Haiti to where it was before the earthquake: a dysfunctional state, with a dysfunctional health system and a dysfunctional education system, but with a vibrant, albeit very small scale, entrepreneurial economy.

Of course, saying that we are back to where we were on 11 January is hugely simplistic, and in any case is not the objective of the rebuilding exercise. But my assessment was proven right earlier this week, with the first political demonstrations after the earthquake. You see, Haiti is back to normal!

The issue is president Preval. There is general discontent with the way the government is handling the post-earthquake rehabilitation, the lack of progress, the lack of initiative. But there are also specific complaints. Firstly, the president is being blamed for selling out the country to foreigners through agreeing to the establishment of an oversight committee for the so-called Multi-Donor Trust Fund - the 10 to 11 billion US$ that have been raised for Haiti. This committee consists of 18 members, of which only 9 are Haitian. Right! Would anybody have donated if their money would have been handed over to the Haitian government directly - I don't think so, given the corrupt history of this country. But Haitian pride demands Haitian control. On top of that parliament has just adopted a law allowing Preval a three months extension to his term if, and only if, there are delays in holding the next presidential election, due before February next year. Three months! On a five year term, that in any case started three months late! In a country totally ravaged, which in the best of times had already difficulty organising timely elections, let alone now that election records have been destroyed and well over a million people, perhaps half of them voters, live in camps. I would suggest that the demonstrators do not - yet - have a real issue at hand.

But that has never stopped Haitians from demonstrating. So, true to form, the first tires and old cars went up in flames last Monday, when from two directions angry crowds - mostly able young men, and let me guess: possibly with an abundance of gold chains and dark sunglasses - marched onto the presidential palace to smash it up (not realising that that is not necessary anymore, but never mind). Shots were fired, and police used teargas when demonstators tried to break through a barricade. Opportunistic as ever, innocent passers-by were robbed at gun point, by protesters who helped them off their wallets, mobile phones, anything of minor value even, and then beat them up for good measure. Can you believe this? I can: if you go demonstrating one day, you have no income, so in one way or another you need to rectify that. Just rob the first bystander you see. Well, in fact, many of the protesters will have received an income, these gangs are traditionally being paid to disrupt the city, and somehow they are very good at it. They are also being paid to demand the return of Aristide, a former, controversial president who was ousted in 2004, and to distribute flyers stating that "Heads will be cut and houses will be burnt" and "the White People must be put out". Jolly environment!

And it is not that the gangs haven't got anything else to do: the kidnapping of foreign aid workers is in full swing, with no less that three known incidents last week, and not just in dodgy areas. In full daylight - in fact one of our drivers witnessed the last abduction close to one of our own offices. More demonstrations have been announced for next week, and they may have a "nationalist" flavour to them. Just getting jollier!

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