Haiti: one more shameful UN betrayal

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After six years of repression and infighting, however, the political leadership of this popular movement is more divided and disorganised than ever. Fanmi Lavalas itself has simply been barred from participation in the election (with hardly a whisper of international protest), and from his involuntary exile in South Africa, Aristide has condemned the ballot as illegitimate.

[Global]

Almost everyone now accepts that the United Nations brought cholera to Haiti last month. The evidence is overwhelming and many experts (including the head of Harvard University's microbiology department, cholera specialist John Mekalanos) made up their minds to that effect several weeks ago.

Poverty and a lack of rudimentary infrastructure compels much of Haiti's population to drink untreated water, but there has been no cholera there for decades. Haitians have no experience with – and therefore little resistance to – the disease. All the bacterial samples taken from Haitian patients are identical and match a strain endemic in southern Asia. Cholera broke out in Nepal over the summer, and in mid-October a new detachment of Nepalese UN troops arrived at their Haitian base in Mirebalais, near the Artibonite river. A few days later Haitians living downstream of the base started to get sick and the disease spread rapidly throughout the region.

On 27 October, journalists visited Mirebalais and found evidence that untreated waste from UN latrines was pouring directly into an Artibonite tributary.

By early November, Mekalanos couldn't see "any way to avoid the conclusion that an unfortunate and presumably accidental introduction of the organism occurred" as a result of UN troops. Mekalanos and others also refute UN claims that identification of the source should be a low public health priority.

Probably as a result of UN negligence, more than 1,200 people are already dead and 20,000 infected, and the toll is set to rise rapidly over the coming weeks. So is the number and intensity of popular protests against this latest in a series of UN crimes and misadventures in Haiti in recent years, which include scores of killings and hundreds of alleged rapes.

Rather than examine its role in the epidemic, however, the UN mission has opted for disavowal and obfuscation. UN officials have refused to test Nepalese soldiers for the disease or to conduct a public investigation into the origins of the outbreak. Rather than address the concerns of an outraged population, the agency has preferred to characterise the fresh wave of protests as a "politically motivated" attempt to destabilise the country in the runup to presidential elections on 28 November. Protesters have been met with tear gas and bullets; so far at least three have been killed.

So far, in fact, so normal. The truth is that the whole UN mission in Haiti is based on a violent, bald-faced lie. It says it is in Haiti to support democracy and the rule of law, but its only real achievement has been to help transfer power from a sovereign people to an unaccountable army.

To understand this requires a little historical knowledge. The basic political problem in Haiti, from colonial through post-colonial to neo-colonial times, has always been much the same: how can a tiny and precarious ruling class secure its property and privileges in the face of mass destitution and resentment? The Haitian elite owes its privileges to exclusion, exploitation and violence, and only quasi-monopoly control of violent power allows it to retain them. This monopoly was amply guaranteed by the US-backed Duvalier dictatorships through to the mid 1980s, and then rather less amply by the military dictatorships that succeeded them (1986-90).

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