Monday July 23 marks the 3-week anniversary of my arrival in Haiti to work as associate to the lab director of HUM (Hospital Universitaire Mirebalais) as part of the 10-year anniversary cohort of PULSE – GSK’s skill-based volunteering program.
A starting period that was in multiple ways dominated by protests, roadblocks and unrests starting in Port-Au-Prince which then also spread to other parts of the country following the government’s 6 July announcement of an increase of petrol and petroleum prices by around 50% to meet conditions of a foreign aid deal with the International Monetary Fund.
A description of these protests in Port-Au-Prince by Jake Johnson (“Own Goal: Fuel Price Increase Generates Crisis” published on “Haiti: Relief and Reconstruction Watch”)
“Roadblocks and burning tires went up in smoke throughout the capital, and soon demonstrations had broken out across the country. By Saturday morning the situation had worsened. International airlines cancelled flights in and out of Haiti. Parking lots at many private businesses were turned into car cemeteries. Digicel, the leading cell provider in Haiti, said its fibre optic cables were destroyed, blocking international phone calls, internet usage and other services. Helicopters could be seen evacuating individuals from their rooftops. At least three people were killed.”
To put these price increases into context (published in the same source):
“According to World Bank research, 90 percent of the benefits from the subsidy go toward the wealthiest segments of the population. But, in a country with 60 percent youth unemployment, most citizens living on less than $2.40 a day, and stubborn double-digit inflation, any increase in the cost of living can be catastrophic. And to make matters worse, kerosene, the fuel that the poor most rely on, was to see the greatest increase.”
The fuel price increase was already retracted 24 hours after the protests had started, yet opposition elements called for a 48-hour nationwide strike from 9th July. Roadblocks, protests and occasional gunfire also occurred on my first weekend in Mirebalais – a regional town in the mountainous central plateau of Haiti 60km north of Port-Au-Prince. Expatriates working for Zamni Lasante and their sister organisation Partners in Health were asked for their security and to not endanger fellow Haitian colleagues to shelter in place during these protests. Tension has now gone done and protests have diminished after Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant resigned on 14th July just before a parliamentary hearing deciding over his political future. Yet, a new government will have to be found which creates a level of uncertainty.
I have not felt very unsafe or extremely endangered during the period where protests occurred in Mirebalais; there was just a nagging feeling of unease, uncertainty and anxiety about dysfunctional communication tools to gain information and updates on the status quo, also the question occurred if we would all be taken out of the country to guarantee our immediate security. And then, concern and for me personally disbelief about the violent protests in the capital; for why would the population attack and destroy their own countries infrastructure such as fibre optic cables to be heard and seen, damages that will set further development at least one step back. But this thought process it just occurred to me might be solely due to the relative stability and predictability of every day live and politics of a person raised in a European country.
I want to conclude this first blog with not as previously planned content by highlighting what deserves media attention with ensuing air time and what not. The severe unrests in Haiti’s capital were reported on national level in the US, on Al Jazeera, some articles also made it to the UK via BBC. In the country where I was born – Germany – only one article on Deutsche Welle – a radio station providing news for Germans away from home. In contrast, the 14 youngsters being trapped in a Thai cave made repeatedly and excessively headlines both in German and international news during the same period. I do of course acknowledge this event as tragic especially without the happy ending of now. Yet, one wonders about priorities, proportions and scope of what is deemed news or headline-worthy by journalists, editors and publishers. One also wonders what other developments are missed within our everyday “news bubble” and how well informed, educated and empowered to form an unbiased decision one really is at the end of the day.