Haiti protests escalate over source of cholera

With more than 1,000 deaths from cholera, Haitians are directing anger at UN peacekeeping forces whom many suspect of having introduced the disease. The protests are undermining treatment efforts.

Emilio Morenatti/AP
UN peacekeepers from Brazil patrol in the Cite Soleil slum in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Nov. 15.

Protests throughout Haiti, directed at United Nations workers suspected of introducing cholera here, are undermining treatment efforts by aid workers and threatening to delay the looming national election.

The death toll from cholera has surpassed 1,000, the government said Tuesday, and a suspicion – not proven – that the disease could have come from Nepalese workers for the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) has fanned long-held resentment of the presence of the 12,000-person peacekeeping force in the country, there since 2004.

President René Préval on Tuesday delivered a national address that appealed for calm in the northern city of Cap Haitien, where at least two people have been killed in gunfire amid street protests against the UN “occupation.”

"Gunshots, throwing bottles, barricades of burning tires will not help us eradicate cholera bacteria. On the contrary, it will prevent the sick from receiving care and to deliver medicine where it is needed," Mr. Préval said.

Protests in various cities have forced many aid organizations to temporarily stop providing help to those suffering from the symptoms of cholera. “We have staff over the weekend who started our emergency cholera response program in Cap Haitien, but Monday the airport closed, no staff have come and gone from Cap Haitien, and we’ve had to temporarily cease our program,” says Julie Schindall of Oxfam.

UN suspects political motivations

A police officer told Agence France-Presse on Tuesday that the government was sending delegations to the north to bring order to towns, and that they are monitoring the situation elsewhere to prevent protests from erupting in other cities, particularly the capital Port-au-Prince.

MINUSTAH said the protests appear to be an attempt to derail the Nov. 28 national election. "The way events unfolded suggests that these incidents were politically motivated, aimed at creating a climate of insecurity on the eve of elections. MINUSTAH calls on the people to remain vigilant and not be manipulated by enemies of stability and democracy in the country," the mission said in a statement.

The violence could in fact threaten the polls. Joseph Junior, a local journalist at Radio Tele Paradis in Cap Haitien, says that residents are demanding the immediate departure of MINUSTAH and want elections to be delayed.

“No one wants elections because people are falling in the street and there is no medication,” he says in a telephone interview. “It’s impossible to have elections. It’s totally, totally impossible in this climate to force people to go vote when they can’t even get to a hospital for treatment.”

Cholera cases skyrocket

But the most immediate concern is the treatment of thousands who have fallen ill since cholera emerged in late October. More than 15,000 have been hospitalized across the country, including in Port-au-Prince, where some 1.3 million people remain in tent camps after being displaced by the Jan. 12 earthquake. The first case was also confirmed Tuesday in neighboring Dominican Republic.

Doctors Without Borders says that since Oct. 22, they have treated 16,500 people for suspected cholera, with the highest number treated in the Artibonite region, where the first cases originated.

Cases continue to increase in the northern cities of Cap Haitien, Port de Paix, and Gros Morne, and also in the capital of Port-au-Prince, where the number of cases rose from 350 per week (ending Nov. 7) to 2,250 cases per week (ending Nov. 14).

"Simply put, other actors need to get more involved because the needs are far too great to be covered solely by the organizations currently working to prevent and treat cholera,” Stefano Zannini, the Doctors Without Borders Haiti Head of Mission, said in a statement. “Both the short-term and long-term forecasts indicate that this situation will get worse, possibly far worse, before it gets better.”

[Editor's note: This article originally misspelled the name of Oxfam press officer Julie Schindall.]

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