Mayors appeal for urgent aid in northwest Haiti

By Roger Annis

Port de Paix, Haiti—August 8, 2007
“We are one hour of heavy rainfall away from a humanitarian catastrophe here in Port de Paix,” said one of this city’s deputy mayors, Eluscane Elusme to members of a human rights factfinding delegation organized by the U.S.-based Fondayson Mapou and Haiti Priorities Project. The delegation is spending four days touring northern Haiti.

Elusme and another deputy mayor, Wilter Eugene, gave a wide-ranging interview to the delegation yesterday morning. At times, it was difficult to hear each other over the clamour of the street traffic passing by on the adjacent main street.

The two mayors painted a picture a city of 200,000 living on the edge of human survival. They consider the city uninhabitable in its present condition. There is no running water and electricity service is provided at late night only, for four to six hours. The city lies at sea level; heavy rainfall would flood tens of thousands out of their precarious homes and overwhelm any rescue effort. The consequences of a hurricane strike is unthinkable. There would not be enough transport available to get people out of the way.

The city’s airport is getting crowded out by market vendors. People continue to migrate into the city from the surrounding countryside, but there is no room to house them. Street vending is a part of the struggle for survival—there is no work here and everyone is in the streets all day long trying to earn a few gourdes, the Haitian currency, by selling items or services.

Elusme and Eugene are part of a new city administration that took office in March. Their first act in office was to purchase eight wheelbarrows and shovels in order to remove the garbage and sewage that lines every one of the city’s streets. The city has no motorized vehicles to do the job. They hope to double the salaries of those who work cleaning the streets. Those workers earn less than two dollars per day to shovel garbage and human waste from the street gutters in the extreme heat of Haiti’s summer. They have no protective equipment.

The newly-elected officials inherited a municipal administration that was shattered by the February 2004 coup d’etat that destroyed Haiti’s elected government. They say that matters have improved slightly since the national elections in 2006. But the city’s budget for the upcoming year is only 127,000 Haitian gourdes (US$4200), roughly the same amount since the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship in 1986. This budget is insufficient and cannot meet the increasing demands of the city’s population which has grown exponentially.

One of the great challenges hindering infrastructure in Haiti is the lack of resources to set up tax collecting administration. The mayors are critical of the central government in Port au Prince for failing to respond to their urgent appeals for financial help and other resources.

Currently, the only health care services in the city are those provided by a Cuban medical contingent that has been in the region since before 2004.

The mayors are calling for two emergency measures—they want more delegations to come to Port de Prince to see the situation first hand and appeal for international aid. And they want the national government and the countries of the foreign occupation to immediately provide money and equipment to clean the city and get services such as water, electricity and health care running. Schools are supposed to open next week, but this will not be possible in the present conditions.

The mayors are also calling for all political parties in Haiti to unite in order to tackle the county’s social crisis.

Penal system a disgrace
Our delegation got a first-hand look at what passes for a justice system in Haiti when we visited a local courtroom and the office of the commissioner of the Northwest Department in Port de Paix. Haiti has ten departments (equivalent to states or provinces). Each one has a commissioner appointed by the national president.

The civil judge and his two assistant judges in Port de Paix have not been paid for more than two years. Their work is conducted in a small, noisy area sectioned off on the top floor of the municipal building.

Commissioner Michenet Balthazar granted us an interview and gave a graphic description of the lack of funding and other resources in the justice system. These problems are compounded by rampant nepotism and corruption, and bribery is an all-too common protocol.

The local prison holds slightly more than 200 prisoners in six cells. Each cell measures approximately 20 feet square. One of them held 13 women at the time of our visit. They are held in the same block as the men. Five other cells hold the rest. Prisoners are given two 15 minute breaks per day to go into a cement courtyard with no shade for exercise, bathing and toilet. The bathrooms function poorly and there is no recreational equipment. (Our delegation bought and donated several footballs and basketballs, hoping that prison guards would not confiscate them for their own pleasure.) Several prisoners reported physical abuse from the guards. Prisoners are rationed one gallon of untreated water per day to serve drinking and washing needs.

There is a nurse in the prison who provides the only medical service. His office has a desk, a filing cabinet and a small bed. Rain floods the office through the cinderblock window. The nurse has received basic medical training but his equipment is sorely lacking. He can provide aspirin for ailments as diverse as hernias (a common condition due to physical labour and malnutrition), skin parasites, infections or chest pain. The prisoners know that this is all the medication he has. They often use the aspirin for chalk.

If a prisoner’s condition requires additional aid, he has to ask the prison director’s permission to refer the patient to a local hospital. Recent legislation requires local hospitals to treat prison inmates but relations between prisons and hospital staff are tense and uneasy.

Our brief visit to the jail discovered four prisoners being held in violation of Haiti’s constitution—a 13 year old girl, and three men held for alleged unpaid debts. When we met again with the commissioner to report our findings, he agreed to the release of the girl and one of the men. We were promised by other officials that the two other men would be released within one week. The girl’s story and the work of the delegation made national news that same day.

Roger Annis is a participant in the Fondayson Mapou/Haiti Priorities Project delegation in Haiti and a member of the Canada Haiti Action Network. Another delegation participant, Tiffany Gilmore, contributed to this article.