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Three Years After the Quake, How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster

StoryJanuary 11, 2013
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Three years after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, we’re joined by Jonathan Katz, author of “The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster.” The earthquake on January 12, 2010, ultimately resulted in the deaths of roughly 300,000 people and left more than 1.5 million homeless in what was already the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. A cholera epidemic, widely blamed on international U.N. troops, killed almost 8,000 people, making more than half a million sick. Today, despite pledges of billions of dollars in international aid, rebuilding has barely begun, and almost 400,000 people are still living in crowded camps. After four years of reporting in Haiti, Katz joins us to discuss where the reconstruction effort went wrong. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Haiti, where, almost three years since a 7.0 earthquake devastated the country, rebuilding has barely begun. Almost 400,000 people are still living in crowded camps. A new report by Amnesty International says the housing situation in Haiti is “nothing short of catastrophic.” The earthquake on January 12th, 2010, killed roughly 300,000 people and left more than 1.5 million homeless in what was already the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. A cholera epidemic, widely blamed on international U.N. troops, spread shortly after the earthquake and killed almost 8,000 people, making more than half a million sick.

AMY GOODMAN: According to reports, only about half the $5.3 billion in promised funding from international donors has been paid out. Critics point out that even of the money that’s been delivered, very little has made it directly to the Haitian people, going instead to international non-governmental organizations, private companies involved in the relief effort.

Well, to talk more about the situation in Haiti, we’re joined now by author and journalist Jonathan Katz, the only full-time American reporter in Haiti when the earthquake struck Port-au-Prince. His new book is called The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster, explains where the massive international relief effort in Haiti went wrong.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!

JONATHAN KATZ: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: You were there that day of the earthquake. Describe the scene and then what happened, how we’ve come to this point three years later where Haiti continues to be such a catastrophe.

JONATHAN KATZ: It was extraordinary. I mean, I say this as a writer, having just tried to write a book about it. It’s almost indescribable. I was in the Associated Press house in Pétionville, which, you know, cracked and fell down around me, but fortunately didn’t pancake on top of me. But the destruction was total. The neighborhood behind my house was just gone. Whole swaths of the city were eviscerated. It was—it was absolutely indescribable.

Certainly, the conditions in the country now are nothing like that day, but, unfortunately, it’s very much like that afternoon before the earthquake struck. The country is as vulnerable now as it was then. And despite a lot of very big promises made in the reconstruction effort, unfortunately, on the whole, the situation really hasn’t improved.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, yet we saw—the world saw all the images of this enormous relief effort then that appeared suddenly in Haiti and with promises. What were you most struck by in terms of the sheer waste of money that occurred?

JONATHAN KATZ: I would say that there were some very expensive Band-Aids purchased. You know, a lot of the money that’s spent in the wake of any natural disaster, but especially in a foreign aid context, kind of goes in circles. You’re looking at a lot of money literally burned off for jet fuel or spent on hotel rooms for aid workers and officials who are on their way down, and even things that, you know, really did ultimately buy things that got into the hands of people in Haiti. You know, if you donated money to an organization that specialized in providing tarps for shelter and bags of rice for people to eat, you know, afterward, people are left with a tarp and an empty bag of rice. And so, what really strikes you when you look at it is that there was a lack of permanence and a lack of durability.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk specifically about the big NGOs, the foundations, the countries that paid and didn’t pay. I remember being in Haiti when President Clinton was there behind the crumbling palace, and there was a ceremony. And he said, “The only two things I care about are my daughter’s wedding” — it was—Chelsea was about to get married — “and Haiti, restoring Haiti.” What happened? The Clinton Foundation was key here. I mean, he was the co-chair with the, what, prime minister—


AMY GOODMAN: —of rebuilding Haiti.

JONATHAN KATZ: Yeah. Well, Clinton wore so many hats that it would take all our time to discuss all of his different individual roles. I mean, I would say that, largely, Bill Clinton probably was doing what he thought was best, in many circumstances. But Clinton had actually become the U.N. special envoy for Haiti in the year before the earthquake. And Clinton’s priorities are very particular. He came down with an aim, for instance, to revitalize the garment sector, which some people call sweatshops, you know, low-wage assembly factories that are producing for export to the United States. And in some ways, those projects were successful in the sense that they accomplished the goal that they had set out, the goal of opening these factories back up. The question is whether or not that actually is a long-term benefit for Haiti, and many people say it’s not. And I think they actually make a quite persuasive argument.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what of the role of the Haitian government, whether it’s from a perspective of sovereignty, running its own country, or in terms of competence in being able to handle the situation? How did you assess the role of the Haitian government?

JONATHAN KATZ: Well, it’s—I mean, it’s another really mixed bag. You’re talking about two governments over the period of the last three years. At the time of the earthquake, it was the government of René Préval, and there was actually an election held just a couple months after the earthquake, of course, and that resulted in the election of Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly as president.

And, you know, the problem has—throughout, has been the problem that, again, affects foreign aid all over the world, in which donor countries avoid local governments, they avoid local institutions, they fund through their own agencies, their own NGOs, their own militaries, and that weakens institutions. And as a result, the institutions were already weak coming into the earthquake, so they had a very, very hard time responding on their own.

The president of—at that time, René Préval, was famously very absent from the public eye, even though he was apparently zipping around town on a motorcycle on his own. Since then, there’s been an election. The election was a bit of a mess. There was a very heavy hand of the international community. President Martelly has an extremely different governing style than President Préval, but the institutions are no stronger than they were before, and that’s really the problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Jonathan Katz, you know well the story of cholera. Last month, the U.N. launched a $2.2 billion campaign to wipe out cholera over the next decade in Haiti, where the epidemic, widely blamed on U.N. troops, has killed thousands of people. This is U.N. humanitarian coordinator Nigel Fisher.

NIGEL FISHER: The latest is, since October of 2010, we’ve had about 620,000 infections and about 7,700 deaths. Obviously, it’s an incredible epidemic. It’s a terrible tragedy for every Haitian family who has lost members. If there’s a point of encouragement to be taken, it’s that this year, in 2012, we have seen a real drop-off in the rate of infections and the rate of—and the mortality rate. For example, this year—remember I said, what, about 620,000 cases—well, this year we’ve had 117,000 cases, which is infectively to say, up 'til the end of last year, we had the equivalent of 25,000 cases a week; this year, it's come down to about 2,500 cases a week—10 percent. And also, the number of deaths is about 12 percent of the total.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s U.N. humanitarian coordinator Nigel Fisher on cholera. Jonathan Katz, the cholera epidemic, how it was caused?

JONATHAN KATZ: Well, you know, once again, with the U.N., this is a situation of “Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?” I mean, you know, there was a lot of very important work done by NGOs and by U.N. agencies after the cholera epidemic to stem its flow and to prevent it from being even worse than it was. But, of course, you know, all evidence shows the United Nations peacekeepers brought the epidemic in the first place. And in some ways even worse than that, or at least more grossly negligent, the U.N. has done a very good job of avoiding accountability over the last two, two-and-a-half years.

The newest initiative that the United Nations has put forward—I mean, eradication is a good, if lofty, goal, but this project doesn’t really seem to be able to do that. It’s mostly reshuffling around existing money, sanitation and water projects that were promised even before the cholera outbreak began in the first place. And the United Nations is itself putting in very little money, especially in light, again, of all of the evidence. And it is really a mountain of uncontradicted evidence that the United Nations is responsible for the worst cholera outbreak in recent history.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about this whole issue of United Nations peacekeepers, this long-term occupation, in essence, of Haiti by the U.N.? What’s been the relationship between the U.N. and the Haitian people?

JONATHAN KATZ: It changes, and it, you know, depends on who you talk to at what time. You know, there have definitely been moments that I was living in Haiti that I talked to people even in areas like Cité Soleil, where people have also suffered quite a bit from the presence of the United Nations troops in terms of collateral damage, you know, children being killed in crossfires by U.N. bullets, who were still even praising them being there because they felt that they were driving down crime. But there’s a lot of resentment to the presence of the peacekeepers. And what we’re really dealing with now is mission creep. They’ve been there for so long, since 2004, the mission now wouldn’t seem to have anything to do with whatever the mission was originally, and it’s really unclear to most Haitians why these foreign troops are on their soil.

AMY GOODMAN: On this third anniversary of the earthquake, let’s end with the words of Edwidge Danticat, the Haitian author.

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: And sometimes they are portrayed as sort of passive receivers and not active enough. They have the will. They have the ability. All they need now is this opportunity by those both inside Haiti and outside of Haiti who control the purse strings of this country, that they have to remember that these men and women here need to be able, and want to and are willing to, rebuild their country, if they’re given the opportunity to do so.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Haitian author Edwidge Danticat. We spoke to her two years ago, on the first anniversary of the Haitian earthquake. And that does it for today’s show. Go to for part two of our conversation with Jonathan Katz. His new book, The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster.

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