PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Steeped in multiple crises at once, Haiti may not reconstitute a government as soon as previously thought after a powerful earthquake rattled the country’s southern peninsula,
The natural disaster struck a month after President Jovenel Moise was assassinated amid political turmoil and calls for an election to reform a government run by elected representatives. Days before the quake, Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council published a new calendar for elections and a controversial constitutional referendum.
Before Moise’s death, he was ruling by decree because Haiti had failed to hold elections on time. The U.S. had been pressing Haiti to hold elections as soon as technically feasible to renew parliament and local office.
The new calendar calls for the first round of presidential elections on Nov. 7 and runoffs in January. But in an interview with the Miami Herald on Sunday, Prime Minister Ariel Henry dismissed the new date.
“We do not have an election calendar,” Henry said.
He said he is trying to get a political accord among the country’s opposing politicians so that transparent, credible and fair elections can be held. He added that elections are obligatory in a democracy and “we will have elections. We cannot be a democratic state without elections.”
The region hardest hit by the earthquake on the peninsula known as Tiburon is home to 16% of Haiti’s 11.5 million people — a population with a government being run by fewer than a dozen elected officials. The power vacuum underscores the country’s precarious position as it recovers from a quake 11 years after an earthquake devastated Port-au-Prince, the capital city where some survivors still live in encampments.
Meanwhile, heavy rains from Tropical Depression Grace are expected to pass over the nation Monday, creating a risk of mudslides and stymieing relief efforts.
On Sunday, Henry issued an edict mandating all humanitarian aid to flow through the country’s government, a decision that could signal an effort to better coordinate relief that was still met with skepticism by some in the Haitian diaspora because of the government’s instability.
“On the one hand, that’s’ what a functioning government should do,” said Gepsie Metellus, the executive director of the South Florida Haitian-American organization Sant La. “But on the other hand, they have a credibility problems.”
There’s an urgent need for help in the areas hit hard by the quake. Officials said people in Pestel desperately need clean water.
In Saint-Louis-du-Sud, rains began to fall late Sunday on people who had lost homes but did not yet have tents, according to Twitter user named Glaude Vivaldy. Homes were destroyed and roads rendered impassible around Camp-Perrin. The hospital in Les Cayes was overwhelmed, aid workers told the Miami Herald, and some people could not get treatment due to a lack of space, supplies and doctors.
And yet safe passage on land to the earthquake’s impact zone is questionable. Gang warfare has plagued the southbound route out of Port-au-Prince in an area called Martissant. A truce was called to allow humanitarian vehicles to pass, but neither Henry nor aid groups are placing all of their trust on that arrangement.
“We’ve increased the police force, we’ve increased the equipment in Martissant” so that aid can reach the south, Henry said. “We heard that the gangs said they are going to do a truce, but what we are saying is that ... we want Martissant to be a place where everyone can circulate, not just during the earthquake but permanently.”
Sibille Buehlmann, a rehabilitation specialist with non-governmental organization Humanity and Inclusion, told the Miami Herald that uncertainty about the safety of the roads relief groups are coordinating use of a barge to move people and aid to hard-hit areas on the water.
“It’s just difficult to say,” Buehlmann said. “They said they were going to leave the road open for a week. We don’t know if that’s actually going to be a week. That can change any minute.”
The confluence of problems can feel daunting, even for workers who have responded to disasters in the past.
“There are times when you feel so powerless in the face of such a disaster,” he said.
Visiting the earthquake zone
On Sunday, Henry visited the southern region for the second time in two days.
“What I saw on the terrain is a lot of material losses, a lot of houses are destroyed,” he said, adding that he also encountered overwhelming sadness in the city of Les Cayes where people mostly live off the land and particularly the vetiver plant to make ends meet.
But he also saw rays of encouragement, humility and Haitian resilience. A trained neurosurgeon who was among the country’s first responders after the 2010 quake brought the country to its knees, Henry highlighted two visits in particular. One was to the house of a woman whose home had collapsed and turned to rubble.
All she wanted, Henry said, was for the state to help her remove the remnants of the debris of her destroyed home — a tacit recognition that the country’s resources are limited.
“The only thing she asked of the government is to help her remove the remnants of her collapsed house,” he said, sitting on a couch in the diplomatic salon at the airport before heading to the emergency center to address the nation. “I think it’s a good lesson in humility, in wisdom. She knows that the government doesn’t have any money.”
The other encouraging encounter came when he met a woman, older than 70, who was selling wares on the side of her destroyed home. She symbolized a lesson in encouragement amid sadness and desolation, he said.
“It was an encouragement,” he said. “Despite the losses, there are people who continue to live.”