Hundreds of Haiti earthquake victims lined up in scorching heat last week to receive hot meals delivered to a makeshift camp, fighting over rice and chicken tapas overflowing with plastic lunch boxes. In some cases, they rescued food that had fallen on the muddy ground.
The lunch boxes, which were few in number, had a printed message: “Courtesy of Senator Franky Exius.”
The 7.2 degree earthquake that rocked southern Haiti on August 14, killing 2,207 people, struck a country already in crisis, with few legitimately elected public officials and a crippled, unpopular and underfunded interim government .
In the absence of a joint government-initiated rescue and relief effort, prominent Haitian politicians seek to fill the void, rescuing the injured in their private jets, delivering food and medical supplies, and even by handing out money.
With the approach of the legislative elections, their personal initiatives take political contours. In practice, the epicenter of the disaster has become a launching pad for the political campaigns of some of the Haitian presidential and congressional candidates.
In the capital, Port-au-Prince, the efforts of politicians raise difficult questions about the line between the offer of urgent aid and the cynical exploitation of the suffering of the population.
“The disaster area has become a political exercise ground,” commented Fritz Jean, a public policy specialist who works in Port-au-Prince. “If you think of the help they are giving, this is a disgusting political campaign.”
Haitian politicians are used to exploiting natural disasters for their personal gain. In 2016, when Hurricane Matthew’s arrival in the country coincided with the presidential campaign, candidates flooded the area with donated water bottles and matchboxes featuring their photos.
Jovenel Moise, who served as president until he was assassinated at his home last month, consolidated his campaign lead by delivering a shipment of rice to hurricane victims shortly before the election. The bags of rice carried his party’s slogans, which angered community leaders.
Moise’s death left Haiti without a president, without a functioning parliament or a Supreme Court. Although a general election is officially scheduled for November 7, Acting Prime Minister Ariel Henry said before that date Haiti must tackle pervasive gang violence and appoint members of a new electoral council.
Since Moise’s assassination, members of the Haitian elite have been vying for power, traveling to Washington, interviewing and hiring American lobbyists, in initiatives widely seen as an exploitation of candidate candidates.
In Haiti, a country with a small and weak economy, where corruption is deeply rooted and receives large volumes of international aid, obtaining political office has traditionally been the main avenue for personal progress. There are around 200 political parties in the country, which has a population of 11 million.
As in the past, politicians who distributed disaster relief this summer have described their emergency donations in humanitarian terms.
“The people in the camps need to eat, and my intention was to offer that help,” said Exius, the former senator whose name appeared on the lunch boxes of food donations in Les Cayes.
Exius said he only gave money to a local restaurant to provide free meals and was unaware his name would appear on lunch boxes. According to him, his name was subsequently withdrawn.
Some of the politicians who offered to help have long-standing ties to affected communities. Thanks to this, their aid seems less opportunistic.
Former Senator Hervé Fourcand, who lives in Haiti’s southern peninsula, used his propeller plane to evacuate the wounded to the capital. Former senators Francenet Dénius and Dieupie Chérubin took bags of rice and noodles to the department of Nippes, hard hit by the earthquake and which they represented in parliament until last year.
“You can attribute our initiative to politics,” said Denius, originally from Nippes and who said he would not run for another term. “If you can do something for the people now, people see that you are able to meet their demands, and it can benefit you in elections.”
The aid offered by former politicians contrasts with the largely ineffective emergency relief effort launched so far by the Haitian government. Henry, the Prime Minister, twice visited the earthquake-affected area and sent his ministers to visit isolated communities, but they did little more than distribute words of comfort and talk about reconstruction. .
But private donations are limited, and in some cases this fact only seems to heighten the desperation of the population. Fritz Jean, the public policy expert, said charity actions by politicians, some of whom are accused of corruption, are no substitute for an official emergency aid campaign.
Hundreds of Haitians surrounded the convoy of former President Michel Martelly as he visited hospitals in Cayes last Thursday (19). “He’s our president!” people shouted, begging for help.
Martelly, one of Haiti’s most powerful politicians, is said to be preparing to launch a new presidential candidacy.
At the end of each hospital visit, his bodyguards handed out orange envelopes containing cash to the crowd, in one case sparking a heated argument over the ballots.
As one man desperately grabbed an envelope, a dozen others grabbed him and tried to snatch the envelope from his hands. Another man picked up a large boulder and plunged into the fray, brandishing his makeshift weapon frantically, while a woman next to him shouted “Kill him, kill him!”
Meanwhile, at Les Cayes General Hospital, street vendor Vercia Edmond stood anxious by the bedside of her 15-year-old son, Robenson Perjuste, who was hit by rubble at their home, destroyed in the earthquake, and had one leg amputated. at thigh height.
Edmond’s oldest daughter, the main breadwinner, was lying in another room with an injured spine.
Edmond said he tried to talk to Martelly about her predicament, but her bodyguards pushed her away. Still, she places her hopes in the politician because he has at least visited the city, she explained.
“I was happy when he came,” said the street vendor. “I wanted to tell President Martelly that my son is here, that I have nothing left, that our tent has been looted. Now I don’t know what to do. I feel ignored.