LES CAYES, Haiti – Hundreds of Haitian earthquake victims desperately lined up for hot meals delivered to a smothering makeshift camp last week, arguing – and scooping up muddy soil – over rice and chicken as it broke. are prevalent in plastic food containers.
The few containers carried a printed message: “Courtesy of Senator Franky Exius.” “
The magnitude 7.2 earthquake that rocked southern Haiti on August 14, killing 2,200 people, struck a country already in crisis, with few legitimate elected officials and a crippled, unpopular and underfunded interim administration.
In the absence of a concerted state relief effort, prominent Haitian politicians attempted to fill the void, transporting the injured in their private planes, delivering medical supplies and food, and even distributing money.
With the general elections on the horizon, their personal initiatives have taken on political overtones, and the epicenter has in fact become a campaign launching pad for some of Haiti’s presidential and congressional candidates.
In the capital, Port-au-Prince, the efforts of politicians have raised difficult questions about the fine line between offering urgent aid and cynically exploiting suffering.
“The disaster area has become a political exercise ground,” said Fritz Jean, a public policy expert in Port-au-Prince. “If you look at the aid they are giving, it is a disgusting political campaign.
Politicians here are used to exploiting natural disasters for personal gain. After Hurricane Matthew hit Haiti coincided with the 2016 presidential campaign, candidates flooded the area with water bottles and donated matchboxes.
Jovenel Moïse, who served as president until he was assassinated at his home last month, bolstered his campaign lead by delivering a shipment of rice to hurricane survivors shortly before the vote. The bags of rice carried his party’s slogans, angering community leaders.
The death of Mr. Moïse plunged Haiti into a power vacuum, leaving it without a president, a functioning parliament or a Supreme Court. Although a general election is officially scheduled for November 7, Acting Prime Minister Ariel Henry said the country must first tackle pervasive gang violence and appoint a new electoral council.
Since Mr. Moïse’s murder, members of the Haitian elite have fought for power, traveling to Washington and interviewing and hiring American lobbyists in moves widely seen as scouting for election candidates.
Political office has traditionally been the primary avenue for personal advancement in Haiti, which has a small and weak economy and deep-rooted corruption, and receives large amounts of international aid. The nation of 11 million people has around 200 political parties.
As they have done in the past, the politicians who provided disaster relief this summer framed their relief donations in humanitarian terms.
“People in the camps have to eat, and I wanted to support that possibility,” said Mr. Exius, the former senator, whose name appeared on containers of food given to Les Cayes.
Mr Exius said he simply donated money to a local restaurant to provide free meals and was unaware his name would appear on the boxes. He said he was withdrawn later.
Some of the politicians offering aid have long-standing ties to affected communities, making their offers appear less opportunistic.
Hervé Fourcand, a former senator 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 brought bags of rice and spaghetti to the hard-hit department of Nippes, which they represented in Parliament until last year.
“You could tie that to politics,” said Dénius, a native of Nippes who said he would not run for another term. “If you can do something for the people now, they can see that you can meet their demands, and that can help you in an election. “
The aid provided by former elected officials contrasted with the largely ineffective relief effort mounted so far by the Haitian government. Mr Henry, the prime minister, twice visited the affected area and sent his ministers to investigate remote communities, but they offered little more than words of comfort and talks about reconstruction.
The assassination of the Haitian president
Private giving, however, is not without its limits, and at times it has only seemed to fuel people’s despair. Mr Jean, the public policy expert, said charity actions by politicians, some of whom face corruption charges, are no substitute for an official relief campaign.
Thursday, hundreds of Haitians invaded the convoy of former President Michel Martelly while he was visiting hospitals in Cayes, shouting: “Here is our president!” and ask for help.
Mr. Martelly, one of Haiti’s most powerful politicians, had brought medical supplies on a small chartered plane and is widely believed to be preparing a new presidential bid.
At the end of each hospital visit, Mr. Martelly’s bodyguard handed the crowd a few orange envelopes containing cash, in one case triggering a brawl over the bills.
A man gripped an envelope desperately as a dozen others clung to him and tried to tear it from his hands. Another man picked up a large rock and jumped into the fray, frantically plunging his improvised weapon into the crowd as a nearby woman shouted, “Kill him, kill him!”
Back at Les Cayes General Hospital, Vercia Edmond, a street vendor, stood anxiously by the bedside of her 15-year-old son, Robenson Perjuste. His leg was amputated in the thigh after being struck by debris in their destroyed home.
Ms Edmond’s eldest daughter, the main breadwinner, lay in another room with an injured spine.
Ms Edmond said she tried to talk to Mr Martelly about her predicament but her bodyguards pushed her away. She puts her hopes on him nonetheless – because he has, at least, visited, she said.
“I was so happy when he came,” she said. “I wanted to tell President Martelly that the kid is there, that I have nothing, that our stand has been looted.
“Now I don’t know what to do,” Ms. Edmond said. “I feel ignored.”
Harold Isaac and André Paultre contributed reporting.