COVID-19 in Haiti: Update from Gros Morne

Interactive, updated map of COVID-19 cases in Haiti

Geri Lanham works with our partners based at the Jean Marie Vincent Formation Center in Grepin, Haiti (just outside of Gros Morne). She offers an update below on the current situation in the area, which has not yet had a confirmed case – though cases are getting closer. The community is nevertheless feeling the impact of the pandemic on everything from school schedules to food prices. Included are photos from our emergency seed distribution, ongoing as the rains have begun. Thanks to everyone who has supported these efforts – Tom Ricker

In Gros Morne we do not yet have a confirmed case of covid-19, but people are feeling the impact of the global pandemic. Community organizations created handwashing stations out of buckets and spigots, and placed them along the main streets in town. Local bank branches were some of the earliest adopters of covid prevention measures like washing hands and wearing facemasks, and they are now employing social distancing so that people can continue to utilize their vital services in this cash based society. Since many family members who went abroad now find themselves out of work, remittances are down for families back home in Haiti. Since the president officially closed the borders in a country where imports make up a large portion of the goods in the market, it has been more complicated to supply basic goods via the new guidelines of who and what can enter the territory. 

Many Haitians who entered the Dominican Republic for work in the past few months have made the decision to return to Haiti since the health crisis lockdown has been more severe across the border. Thousands of them have returned via irregular border crossings, which means that very few of them have gone into quarantine. Since there are over 10,000 confirmed cases in the Dominican Republic, this unregulated population of returnees poses a risk to the fragile healthcare system, especially since some of them are returning to the countryside to places like Gros Morne where healthcare resources are ill-equipped to manage an outbreak of covid-19. Thanks to community education campaigns, people here have tentatively begun to wear locally-made reusable cloth face masks, although practicing social distancing is practically impossible in the stressed parameters of the large local market and on public transport.  

As the exchange rate continues to rise north of 100 Haitian gourde to 1 US dollar, everyone is feeling the pressure of decreased purchasing power in the local markets. School teachers who have been out of work since 20 March are struggling to provide basic food for their families. Prices for basic goods like a bag of rice increase weekly, at a time when fewer and fewer families have the economic capacity to buy in bulk for a discounted price. Basic monthly provisions of rice, beans and oil now cost the equivalent of $50 USD. For teachers who were making about $100 USD per month, they now have to spend 50% of their income on basic food. and that does not include any spices or vegetables. 

Many families, especially in the countryside, rely at least partially upon income from their gardens to support their families. As a result of global climate change, the seasonal rains were slow to come this year. That means that the spring planting season was pushed back a few weeks in Gros Morne, which in turn increases the weeks of hunger that families will have to endure between planting and harvest. And this year the rains started and then promptly became irregular to the point that farmers who planted at the first rain lost some of their crop if they were not able to provide an alternate water source for irrigation of their fields. 

Schools have been closed for over 2 months. After the president announced that the schools and churches would remain closed until at least 20 July, the Ministry of Education presented a plan that would see schools opening at the beginning of August or the beginning of September, depending upon how the situation develops or deteriorates in the next few months. Due to a lack of access to regular electricity, it has been a challenge to support distance learning initiatives. Some schools have been able to take advantage of whatsapp, google classroom, and other technology to enable them to continue to provide classroom content for their students, but they are very much in the minority. 

In Gros Morne, we are launching a series of courses on the radio intended for secondary school students. The Ministry of Education maintains that once the students have returned to school, they will take official state exams after about 50 days of classroom instruction. Somehow during that time they are supposed to absorb, process, and comprehend the content that they were supposed to cover over the course of the more than 100 days of instruction they have missed this academic year between the locked country political debacle and now the coronavirus crisis. The math does not seem to add up, but the schools have to do something to salvage this academic year. Due to lack of electricity, it will be impossible to reach 100% of the students, but for those who are able to tune in this will at least provide a starting point as we start to look toward the future that will at some point involve classroom learning again. 

There is a sense of being in a holding pattern that involves suffering no matter what. People are trying to be responsible and take precautions to protect themselves and their families from contracting covid-19. But as they attempt to do this, they do not have much support, if any, from the state or other sources to enable them to provide the basics for their families. Students are suffering as they must sit and home and wait for the education structure to welcome them back to class, and parents are suffering as they must venture out to provide for their families while they know the risk and the lack of medical services if they do get sick. What little they are able to do still equals the current reality of families who are suffering from hunger and lack of resources in the midst of a pandemic.

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Update: While flights continue, Wilson introduces bill to halt deportations to Haiti

Haitian migrants ride on a bus after arriving on a deportation flight from the United States, amidst the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Port-au-Prince, Haiti [Jeanty Junior Augustin/Reuters]

We reported on Friday that Immigration and Customs Enforcement was intending to include several people confirmed positive with COVID-19 on a deportation flight to Haiti. You can read that related background on the flights here.

On Monday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement removed three people from a deportation flight to Haiti once it was made public that the individuals had tested positive for COVID-19 and that ICE intended to deport them anyway. Of course, the other 97 people on the flight were likely exposed to the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 while in detention within the United States, as ICE has failed to take steps necessary to protect people in detention, and has refused to implement judicial orders to release people at risk more quickly. Releases are happening, but very slowly. 

All of those deported were subjected to further testing and possible quarantine upon their return to Haiti. The people being deported also face a growing backlash, one seen in Guatemala and elsewhere, as people fear that those who have been deported from the United States are spreading the disease. Through no fault of their own they have become targets of ostracization and even threats of violence upon return.  

Representative Frederica Wilson introduced legislation yesterday calling for the suspension of all deportation of Haitians until the pandemic is brought under control. The “Haiti Deportation Relief Act” comments on the bill:

“Deporting people to Haiti in the midst of a global pandemic is both inhumane and unsafe. Continuing these flights will likely contribute to the spread of the novel coronavirus in the impoverished nation where many people do not have access to basic health care,” said Congresswoman Wilson. “That is tantamount to a death sentence for Haitians who are living with compromised water and sanitation systems and do not have access to the sanitation measures we’ve undertaken in the United States.”

“ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s) continues to deport people in the midst of a global pandemic and risks contributing to the spread of COVID-19. We simply should not be deporting anyone who has been in an affected facility, nor to countries such as Haiti that may struggle to respond to an outbreak,” said Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, chair of the Committee on Homeland Security. “I applaud Representative Wilson for her advocacy, and I am proud to join my colleagues in calling for deportation flights to be halted.”

“The Trump administration’s decision to continue deporting Haitians during a global pandemic is irresponsible and cruel. Even before the pandemic, Haiti faced a significant political and economic crisis,” said Rep. Eliot L. Engel, chair of the Committee on Foreign Affairs. “These deportations are indefensible and must be halted immediately. I commend Representative Wilson for this crucial legislation.”

Meanwhile, deportation flights continue. Legislation to end all deportations for the duration of this crisis is needed. Though we know such an effort faces an uphill, perhaps impossible, battle in the Senate (and would not be that easy even in the House), it still seems a fight worth pressing for.

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Food Insecurity and Emergency Fund for Gros Morne

Source: World Food Program Global Report 2020, pg. 104

The world is facing a global hunger crisis of “biblical” proportions, at least that was the headline for CNN’s report on the looming impact of coronavirus on food supply chains and health systems around the world. Does biblical mean really bad? Or huge? Or end of times? Not clear. But certainly the point was global hunger was about to spike. Prior to the emergence of COVID-19, the world was facing a crisis of maybe pre-biblical proportions – or more Hebrew Scriptures than Revelations-level stuff. The World Food Program’s report for the coming year initially identified nearly 130 million people facing a crisis level or worse for insecurity around the globe – meaning they either did not have enough food, or could only eat by foregoing other necessities. These pre-COVID numbers were modified upwards as borders began to shut and economies slowed. The World Food Program in essence, doubled its estimate of people facing crisis level food shortages, with the risk of perhaps 36 countries seeing famine for some of their people. Currently there are 10 countries in the world where more than a million people are at crisis levels of food insecurity, and thus on the brink of falling into widespread famine.

Haiti is one of them.

The World Food Program tracks crises across different levels of food insecurity. From Phase 1 (None, or minimal) to Phase 5 (Famine). As the map above shows, almost all of Haiti’s departments are at Phase 3 (Crisis). As noted, this means there is either not enough food, or people can only eat enough if they forego other necessities. Across the country 2.6 million people are at this level. Another 1.1 million people are facing Phase 4, or emergency levels of food insecurity, meaning there are large gaps in meeting daily requirements that are reflected in wide spread malnutrition. In total, then 3.7 million people are at crisis level of higher.

Another 3.2 million people are at Phase 2 – or stressed, meaning households are barely finding enough to eat. The households at Phase 2 are at high risk of sliding into Phase 3 as the economy slows and food prices increase.

All of which means, in Haiti, 35% of households are currently facing crisis levels of food insecurity, or worse and the prospect of that number reaching 65% amidst the economic contraction associated with COVID-19 is very high. This would, of course, also mean that people currently facing more extreme shortages will see their situation worsen. Famine is a very real possibility in parts of the country.

The roots of this crisis run deep. It is widely understood that the current food crisis in Haiti rests on historical factors, from the re-engineering of Haiti’s economy as an agro-export platform under the U.S. occupation 100 years ago, to the dismantling of protections for domestic food production in the late 1990s, to the recent collapse of their currency, the Haitian gourde, and spikes in fuel prices. Another collapse, that of the rural economy in Haiti, contributed to the movement of people to increasingly crowded and under serviced cities, thus magnifying the tragedy of the earthquake in 2010 and other disasters. The point is that these deep structural changes have reshaped Haiti and will not be transformed any time soon. Though, perhaps, as the current crisis unveils the global forces undermining food security, world leaders will take it more seriously in Haiti and elsewhere. Maybe.

Meanwhile, the primary countervailing force has been the organization of people in rural areas seeking to find sustainable pathways out of the crisis. The combined efforts of peasant associations, rural workers, reforestation initiatives and youth organizing are laying the foundation for a different kind of rural ecology. 

Our work with the Jean Marie Vincent Formation Center is one small part of this nationwide effort. You can explore the map below to get a sense of the scope of the program.

In the coming week we are making a special appeal to support an emergency fund that will support the purchase of seeds to disseminate to small farmers in the region. The program already runs a seed bank. Our goal is to boost supplies for the seed bank so that the team can expand efforts to deliver seeds for low or no cost as soon as the spring rains begin. Planting now, means more food in three months. You can join in this effort by making a donation here

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Deportations and #FreeThemALL: Another week of action

Flight tracker showing deportation flight to Haiti, April 23.

Around the world, leaders are closing borders, restricting travel and movement, mandating social distancing, and employing various restrictions on when, how and which business can be open. This includes the United States. 

However, for the business of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, things have been cruising along, pandemic be damned. There are many outrages here, but the most transparently obvious one is that Trump’s team keeps deporting people. On the receiving end, countries are reluctant to open their borders and airports to people who are arriving from the global hub of coronavirus infections, the country formerly known as the United States, especially when they have not been screened for COVID-19. So, Trump has threatened to sanction any country that refuses to accept deportation flights. He has also, thus far, refused to take even the most modest precautions to ensure that people who are COVID-19 positive are not being put on a plane with others, and sent to a country that will struggle to manage the necessary quarantines and protective measures. 

For example, several people who had been deported to Guatemala tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival two weeks ago. So, the government of Guatemala temporarily suspended acceptance of these flights. After Trump threatened sanctions (though not worded in a way to target Guatemala directly) the Guatemalan government agreed to accept more flights, but requested that anyone being put on those flights be thoroughly screened first, and that the flights themselves be limited to 25 people so quarantine on the receiving end could be managed.

When flights resumed to Guatemala at the beginning of last week, ICE sent 182 people in one day, on two different flights. On one of those flights, 44 people tested positive. That represented 25% of the total confirmed cases in Guatemala at the time. Additional testing showed that close to 80 people deported from the U.S. to Guatemala had arrived with COVID-19. 

Of course, in any sane country, the result would be suspending all deportation flights at this point, so that procedures could be evaluated.

We do not live in a sane country.

Deportations have continued. To Brazil and Honduras on Sunday. To Ecuador – which is facing, perhaps, the worst crisis in Latin America. To the Domincian Republic on Tuesday, which also has a very high infection total. As I am writing a deportation flight is literally halfway to Haiti, carrying 120 people. 

There is no evidence that ICE has changed anything  – they simply take temperatures as people board.

ICE deported 61 people to Haiti on April 7. Three of them were confirmed positive upon arrival.

The Quixote Center and many, many, many others have been speaking out – shouting out – about these flights. 164 organizations signed a letter calling for deportation flights to Haiti to end – this was published on Monday this week. Another 60 signed a letter released last week calling for flights more generally to be suspended. Members of Congress, including chairs of the House Foreign Affairs committee and subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, have called for flights to end.

“No comment” from ICE. The administration did send a team from the CDC to evaluate Guatemala’s testing protocols. 

To be clear, the danger with deportation flights is not the people. It is the public health crisis unfolding in detention facilities, and the fact that the process of deportation involves shifting people through multiple detention centers on way to a “staging area” where they will be further detained until flown out of the country. We wrote more detail about this process last week here.

Within detention facilities, as with prisons and jails more generally, infections are spiking. Because ICE is carelessly shifting people from site to site, while within each site, social distancing and other basic precautions are not possible, means the risk of infection and spread within ICE’s network of facilities is huge – and growing.

Accordingly, the call is to end deportations AND end detention. Both of these things must happen. Ending deportations without releasing people from detention risks leaving people in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions. It is quite literally putting people’s lives at risk.

On a positive note…

People all across the country are continuing to mobilize. There have been a variety of creative actions outside detention centers throughout Texas, California and Washington involving people gathering in their cars. Across the country people are still keeping the pressure on to #FreeThemAll! 

In the courts, attorneys are working hard to get people out of detention, and out of prisons. An important ruling this week, could lead to thousands of people being released – though the administration will no doubt resist full implementation.

In the case, Fraihat v ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement was being sued in order to gain the release of people who are at risk for infection due to age or underlying medical condition. In responding to ICE’s defense for failing to provide adequate care or establish guidelines for containment, the judge was not having it. In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal wrote, “As a result of these deficiencies, many of which persist more than a month into the COVID-19 pandemic, the Court concludes Defendants have likely exhibited callous indifference to the safety and wellbeing of the Subclass members [detained immigrants at risk]. The evidence suggests systemwide inaction that goes beyond a mere ‘difference of medical opinion or negligence.’”

The ruling, if implemented fully, will require ICE to release thousands of people, and mandate that the agency adopt protective measures to maximize the safety for those that remain in custody. Of course, ICE will fight the ruling. 

Until everyone is released, we will keep demanding that ICE #FreeThemAll, and we will continue to work for the release of people in jails and prisons around the country as well.

#DefundHate action: Send a video postcard to Congress

Send a video postcard to your member of Congress today, calling on them to reject any additional funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in the fourth COVID-19 stimulus package and let them know what investments you want to see in your community. 

The billions of dollars used to fund ICE and CBP could instead be invested in critical healthcare, education, and housing programs that support our collective wellbeing, while people navigating their immigration cases should be able to do so with their families and communities rather than in detention. Tell your member of Congress what you want to see!

How to Send a Video Postcard in Three Easy Steps

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Haiti COVID-19 Update

Interactive Map tracking Coronavirus in Haiti

Mapping COVID-19 in Haiti

As of today, Haiti’s confirmed cases of COVID-19 are currently 43 with another 485 suspected cases awaiting test results. Three people have died. While actual infections may be much higher, as widespread testing is not yet available, certainly things could be worse. The Dominican Republic has over 4,000 confirmed cases and 200 deaths. Haiti’s health infrastructure has been decimated by decades of structural adjustment policies and demands for reduced budgets. So it is not in a position to manage thousands of cases – another reason to suspend deportation flights!

Deportation flights – more to come?

Last week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported 61 people to Haiti. The move caused a huge stir, leading to outrage among members of Congress and multiple stories in the media. Of course, the U.S. has been deporting people throughout the COVID-19 crisis, the vast majority to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Indeed, 12,000 people have been deported to Guatemala since January. Just this week, ICE deported 182 people in one day on two different flights. On one of those flights, 44 people tested positive. On April 12, Guatemala had 167 cases of COVID-19 confirmed nationwide. WIth one deportation flight, the U.S. government increased infections in Guatemala by 25%. Though there is controversy over where the flight originated, flight tracking indicates clearly it was from Alexandria, LA and ICE’s staging facility there. That facility has the highest ICE staff infection number in the country (currently at 13). It is the same staging facility where the flight to Haiti departed from the previous week.

In the last week, 27 members of the U.S. Congress sent a letter to Nancy Pelosi and other House leadership demanding that any future coronavirus legislation include a ban on deportation flights to Haiti. We agree, and have signed onto a letter being circulated by the Haiti Bridge Alliance calling for a suspension of deportation flights, as well as mass release from ICE detention facilities. If you represent an organization, please consider signing onto this letter until April 21.

That said, ultimately we need to stop all deportation flights, and stop them now. Another flight is likely scheduled this week to the Domincian Republic – some reports indicate it will stop in Haiti first. Further flights are planned to Ecuador and Colombia  Flights to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador continue unabated for now. This cannot continue. 

U.S. blocking exports of medical supplies

Haiti and other countries in the Caribbean will NOT be able to get protective equipment and medical supplies from the United States.  From the Miami Herald:

Caribbean nations struggling to save lives and prevent the deadly spread of the coronavirus in their vulnerable territories should not look to the United States as they seek to acquire scarce but much-needed protective gear to fight the global pandemic

A spokesperson from U.S. Customs and Border Protection confirmed to the Miami Herald that the agency is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to prevent distributors from diverting personal protective equipment, or PPE, such as face masks and gloves, overseas. Ventilators also are on the prohibited list.

The move stems from authorizations under the Defense Production Act which allows the federal government to take more control over procurement of emergency supplies. It also allows the president to ban the export of certain items. Customs and Border Patrol is enforcing this in regards to ventilators, marks and other protective items. 

In Haiti, domestic production of masks and other protective gear was launched two weeks ago to both produce needed materials and keep some factories at work.

Now Haiti’s government seems set to begin reopening garment factories. The prime minister announced this week that starting April 20, some factories would be reopened. In the short term, about 30% of the sector’s capacity would be reactivated – to allow for more space within facilities. Garment production makes up 90% of the value of Haiti’s exports.

Update from Gros Morne

In the section of Haiti where we work, in and around the community of Gros Morne, there are no confirmed cases, but people remain cautious. The agronomy team from the Jean Marie Vincent Formation Center have been delivering seeds to farmers throughout the region. The rains have not yet come, but when they do, we want farmers to have what they need to plant, so there will be more food in the area in 3 months. Hunger has been a constant specter for rural communities over the last several years. A large bag of rice is now selling for 2,000 Haitian gourde at the local market – over $20. 

As the team travels in the region they are also disseminating information about COVID-19 and preventive, sanitary measures for reducing the spread of the disease. Check out the map below to see where we are working.

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ICE detentions are way down this month. That is not all good news.

Busses taking people to deportation flights in Brownsville, TX

According to ICE detention statistics, on March 21 ICE was holding just over 38,000 people. On March 28 the number was down to 35,671; by April 4 the number was 33,863. Which means over the last two weeks the number of people in ICE detentions has fallen by 4,200, or just over 11%. As we, and many other people have been advocating releases, this seems like good news.

However, is ICE actually releasing people on a large scale? It does not seem to be the case. The Global Detention Project estimated that only 200 people had been released in recent weeks by ICE under pressure from advocates for humanitarian parole. Rather, it seems that the decline is the result of a drop in book-ins to ICE facilities, coupled with ICE continuing to deport people at a significant pace. 

The first point to make is that fewer people are being booked into ICE facilities. Those transferred from Customs and Border Patrol to ICE hit its lowest level this year during March. This decline is the result of fewer people trying to get into the United States, and, more to the point, the fact the U.S. is simply sending those people who make it back across the border to Mexico without processing them. This policy was established under an emergency order issued by Trump – and if it lasts long enough to go to court, will almost certainly be overturned. But for now, CBP is holding fewer people, and thus transferring fewer people for longer term detention in ICE facilities. Book-ins from CBP were 9,218 for March, nearly 2,000 less than in February, and the lowest monthly total this fiscal year.

The number of people booked into ICE facilities as the result of internal enforcement operations (CBP detentions are generally the result of enforcement actions at, or near the border) also declined in March, though was still over 10,000. In mid-March, Mark Albence announced that ICE would be reducing its enforcement operations to focus exclusively on removals of people with criminal convictions. Reportedly, Albence was raked over the coals within the White House for this announcement, as it  had not been approved in advance. So we’ll see how long it lasts. The decline in book-ins in March was not great however, and through the first 3 days of April, 886 people were detained as the result of internal removal operations. This represents too few days to make much of a guess at April numbers, but if this early daily average were to hold, the total book ins would be near 9,000 people – lower than recent months to be sure, but still a lot of people. For March the total was 10,100 – lower than February or January, but higher than November or December. An important trend here is that internal removal operations are now higher than CBP transfers as the source for ICE detention for the first time in well over a year, if not longer.

So, one reason the overall numbers are down is a significant decline in those transferred into ICE’s massive detention network. However, this doesn’t explain how people are getting out. If the Global Detention Project’s estimates are correct, and relatively few people are getting released as a result of humanitarian parole (+/- 200), then there must be another source for the 11% fall in detentions over the last two weeks. 

The main source of the decline in detention numbers seems to be deportations. Of the 33,800 people in ICE detention right now, 12,000 are slated for expedited removal. So, many of these people may be gone by the end of April – offsetting any increase from ongoing enforcement actions.

Of great concern is the related fact that Immigration and Customs Enforcement has continued regular deportation flights with only a brief pause to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, and in the last week has also flown people into Haiti, Colombia and Nicaragua. And, of course, ICE has been deporting the largest group of people back across the border into Mexico, as it regularly does. 

Deportation flights have become the source of growing criticism of ICE and the Trump administration’s immigration policies in the time of coronavirus. COVID-19 is now present throughout ICEs facilities, and will only grow in the coming weeks. ICE’s lack of preparation and discernible care for the people in its custody during this pandemic has been documented over and over-  most recently, by Amnesty International in a scathing report released earlier this week. And yet ICE continues to move people around within its detention network, and is still deporting people to countries, almost all of whom have otherwise closed their borders and shuttered international airports. All of these countries are now forced to spend precious resources managing arrivals from the United States – which is now the location of nearly one-third of the globe’s confirmed cases. 

So, ICE practices have become a significant source in the transnational spreading of coronavirus in the Americas. There have been 3 confirmed cases of people deported to Guatemala with COVID-19, and many other people arriving with flu-like symptoms to other countries. The attorney for a Hatian man due to be deported this week noted that his client had been in two different facilities in one week – both of which had confirmed cases of COVID-19 among either staff or people being detained. He was pulled off the deportation flight at the last minute, but none of the other 61 people on the flight to Haiti were tested for COVID-19. 

I would love to celebrate the decline in the number of people being held detention by ICE. And, all things considered, it is certainly better news than an increase in those numbers. But underlying the decline are disturbing practices; practices that in the context of a global pandemic rise to a level of indifference and irresponsibility that is shocking even for this administration’s already low bar on ethical behavior.

ICE must halt deportations AND release people from detention…NOW. 

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Take action: In the middle of global pandemic, ICE deports 61 people to Haiti 

Haiti last month closed its borders after detecting its first two cases of the novel coronavirus [File: Jaime Saldarriaga/Reuters]

“The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not immediately reply to a request for comment,” has become a common line in story after story about the actions of U.S. immigration agencies in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic. This specific quote is from a Reuters report yesterday concerning the decision of the administration to deport 61 people to Haiti, despite there being near universal efforts across the globe to restrict travel. Haiti has closed its international airport, for example. To no avail. Though President Moise reportedly agreed to accept the flight, the foreign minister, Claude Joseph, opposed the flight and lobbied the U.S. government to stop it.

Haiti is particularly vulnerable to an outbreak of COVID-19. Though there are currently only 25 confirmed cases in the country, the reality is that very few people have been tested. Next door in the Dominican Republic confirmed cases are closer to 2,000. As the lack of testing indicates, Haiti’s health infrastructure has been decimated by years of attrition. At the moment, Haiti has very few ICU beds available, has, by some reports, only 64 ventilators in the entire country, and its efforts to quarantine people has not gone well thus far. Social distancing is an enormous challenge. With the bulk of people working in the informal economy, and with food prices escalating daily, some members of nearly every household, by necessity, leave their homes to secure a daily wage to then try and purchase food. Should Haiti face anything like what is happening even just next door in the Dominican Republic, the health system and network of nonprofit agencies that coordinate (more or less) with the Ministry of Health, will struggle to adapt. 

These are all reasons enough to cancel the flight, and were all delivered to the administration and Immigration and Customs Enforcement by members of Congress, attorneys, human rights advocates, and as noted, the foreign minister of Haiti. The Trump administration’s response was to send the plane anyway with “no comment”  by way of explanation.

If one digs a little deeper into this flight, however, one can see a pattern of indifference to the conditions the people trapped in our immigration detention and enforcement machine are facing. As the administration is refusing to halt ICE’s deportation flights across the region, ICE is knowingly contributing to the spread of COVID-19. This is not speculation. It has already begun. 

With only a brief pause in mid-March, as Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras tried to stop these flights from arriving, the United States has continued to deport people throughout Central America, Mexico and Colombia in the midst of this global pandemic. ICE’s only comment has been that “flights will continue.” As a result, ICE has deported at least three people with COVID-19 in the last week, and many others have been hospitalized upon arrival in their home countries with “flu-like symptoms.”

This week we joined with 60 other organizations in a letter demanding that these flights stop. The letter was organized by the Latin America Working Group and concludes with the following recommendations:

We urge the Trump Administration to immediately take the following actions:

    • Halt deportations of women, men, children and families back to their home countries;
    • Release immigrants from detention maximizing use of humanitarian parole, release on recognizance, and where necessary, ​community-based alternatives to detention, following medical screening and in a manner consistent with public health protocols on COVID-19;
    • Process unaccompanied children according to the safeguards that the TVPRA provides and that child welfare standards compel;
    • Apply the same health screening processes currently used by CBP for other individuals crossing the land border to asylum seekers — including referral to health officials for additional testing of any individuals with symptoms of illness and those who have recently traveled to high-prevalence areas — and provide them health information (in their own language) on prevention, isolation and treatment measures;
    • Parole arriving asylum seekers at ports of entry as expeditiously as possible, release other asylum seekers using other community-based alternatives to detention;
    • Coordinate with local groups to ensure housing and transportation upon release, and avoid holding asylum seekers in enclosed or densely populated spaces; Ensure the passage of humanitarian assistance and staff from the United States to reach asylum seekers on the Mexican side of the border;
    • Urge Western Hemisphere governments not to take advantage of the pandemic to unduly restrict human rights, freedom of the press, and civil liberties, including access to information about COVID-19; and
    • Release humanitarian funding that was previously withheld for Central America and provide substantial additional resources to support the work of international and local humanitarian organizations to assist with public health needs, food insecurity, access to sustainable livelihoods and water, and efforts to combat the virus.

Things you can do!

You can help get the word out by sharing the letter (linked here) on Facebook, Twitter, or by email.

You can also sign this petition coordinated by LAWG demanding an end to deportation flights

And also, sign (and share!) this petition, calling for ICE to #FreeThemAll, and release people from detention facilities.

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Haiti and COVID-19

 Photo: AFP / Pierre Michel Jean

As of Thursday, March 26, Haiti had eight confirmed cases of COVID-19. The Ministry of Health is tracking the location of confirmed and suspected cases and providing other updates here. As with everywhere the virus has appeared, the principal advice is social distancing and taking extra steps to ensure that hands remain clean. Handwashing stations have popped up all over – as potable, running water is in short supply in many parts of the country. Schools, churches and most businesses have been directed to close. It is difficult for people working in the informal economy to simply stay home, of course, because this means no income at all. Markets and street vendors are thus still operating, and people everywhere still need to go out for food.

International travel has largely been suspended. The U.S. government was working to get those U.S. citizens who wanted to leave Haiti out – the last scheduled flights were on Friday as I write, but may get extended. The border with the Domincian Republic is closed, sort of. There have been many more cases of COVID-19 confirmed in the Dominican Republic, and thus the lock-down has been more severe and more severely enforced. As a result, many Haitians have been returning to Haiti. There are efforts at health screening – at least taking temperatures – at official points of entry. But as the rest of the world has discovered, although slowing travel might help, it is nearly impossible to stop it. Supply chains for food and medicine, minimally, require people to cross over borders. And many people are just trying to get home. 

Food shortages, already impacting close to one third of the population directly before COVID-19, will be made worse by travel and work restrictions. Prices have already begun to skyrocket – with a can of rice costing 600 gourdes (that is almost $6). The daily minimum wage in Haiti is 420 gourdes for apparel workers – far less for agricultural workers. So, for Haitians with employment, they need to work more than a full day, in some cases two days, to buy a can of rice. Many of these people will be out of work soon. In the United States someone earning the federal minimum wage would work 40 minutes to buy the same can of rice – except that by volume rice is even more expensive in Haiti right now. Just something to keep in mind.  

As I feel compelled to remind people, U.S. policy lies immediately behind this crisis. From The Haitian Times:

 In 1995, at the behest of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, Haiti lowered import tariffs on rice from 50% to 3%, as part of a structural adjustment program. The following year, President Bill Clinton’s Federal Agricultural Improvement and Reform Act directed subsidies to U.S. rice farmers. By 2013, a nation that once grew most of its own food was importing 80% of its rice from the U.S. The policies eventually led to job losses in Haiti’s agriculture sector and swelling of the urban population. 

The same article also examines the impact of these institutions and conditions on the health sector:

In addition to reduced tariffs on imports, the short term impacts of structural adjustment in Haiti included cuts to government expenditures in health and education, according to a 2011 paper published in the journal of the Japan Medical Association. National health care spending has dropped dramatically in recent years, from 16.6% of Haiti’s budget in 2004, to 7% in 2019. 

Dr. Youri Louis, a physician in Haiti and leadership committee coordinator for the nonprofit EqualHealth, which supports medical and nursing education, said both international policy and government inaction are to blame for Haiti’s lack of investment in health services. By 2013, he noted, 64% of Haiti’s national health budget came from international aid, including NGOs. 

Haiti’s health sector has 30 ICU beds. On Twitter this morning Jacqueline Charles from the Miami Herald was trying to confirm that the country had 50 ventilators – as she could only document the location of 24. Facing such grave shortages, one does not need to think very hard to understand the frustration people feel over $2 billion in theft of Petrocaribe funds by members of the current governing party and others. Or, I would hope, the anger against the “legal” blackmail perpetuated by international financial institutions and the U.S. government which has drained Haiti of desperately needed money for domestic investment.

Be clear: foreign aid in no way makes up for this. Capital flows in Haiti are negative – meaning more money leaves the country than comes in. In terms of private investment, $100 million more left the country in repatriated profits than arrived as new investment last year. The only significant in-flow of funds that might help now are remittances – but they will suffer as well, since Haitians working in the U.S. are also facing layoffs or cut hours.

For our program partners in Gros Morne, all of this means that the work must slow down. Training and workshops and other group activities have obviously been suspended. People still need to eat, however, and so the outreach program director is delivering seeds to program partners in the hopes that when the rains begin farmers will have supplies. Planting in the coming weeks means there will be more food in two or three months. Right now that is of critical concern. 

We are launching an interactive map so folks can view different parts of the program. This map was just begun this week and is a work in progress. We will be adding photos and videos in the days and weeks ahead, as well as pinning new project sites.  Check it out now! If you have a connection to the program to share, or a question, let us know in the comments below.

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Haiti’s international crisis


The large scale demonstrations and roadblocks that had shut Haiti down for several months last fall are over — for now. Parliament is no longer in session. Absent elections, there are not enough members for a quorum.  As a result, President Moïse is ruling by decree. He shows no signs of resigning, and continues to hold out a process of dialogue with opposition political leaders as a way out of the crisis. Negotiations have taken place, but continue to be stalled on the question of Moïse’s tenure in office. From the Miami Herald:

During two rounds of negotiations in mid-December 2019 and late January with moderate members of the opposition, Moïse representatives and members of his political PHTK party, [United Nations Representative] La Lime said a consensus emerged on the contours of a political agreement based on four elements: the criteria for forming a government; the contents of a reform agenda; a constitutional reform process; and the establishment of an electoral calendar.

“Despite progress regarding the nature of the reforms to be undertaken, including that of the Constitution, political actors have yet to settle on a formula that would lead to the designation by President Moïse of a consensual Prime Minister and the formation of a new government,” she said. “The lack of agreement on this matter, as well as on the remaining length of President Moïse’s term, threatens to needlessly prolong a situation that has already lasted too long.”

The United States and other members of the international community continue the mantra that somehow new elections for Parliament will solve the impasse. Elections may be necessary for any number of reasons in the short-term, but will not, in and of themselves, solve anything in the long run. Indeed, there is no way to get to elections without a substantive compromise on reform first.

Kelly Craft, the United States representative to the United Nations said, with no sense of historical irony (i.e., absent reference to U.S.-backed coups against democratically-elected governments in Haiti and elsewhere): “The Haitian people must have a voice in selecting its leaders. And further, while constitutional reforms are necessary and welcomed, they must not become a pretext to delay elections.” Craft demonstrates once again, that when in doubt, the strategic deployment of platitudes can always stand in for a U.S. policy. 

Meanwhile, the political stalemate has created a crisis in daily governance in Haiti unlike anything most people can remember. Kidnappings are on the rise, while police protest the lack of pay by burning carnival bleachers. Food insecurity is spiking – nearly one-third of the country faces hunger on a daily basis and is need of immediate assistance, according to the UN’s World Food Program. 

Despite the magnitude of a crisis that is not just imminent, but basically has already arrived, the World Food Program has only been able to raise $15 million of the $72 million it says it needs to address hunger. Meanwhile, government revenue has fallen 25% since 2018 as the economy has contracted. Inflation, tied in part to the collapse in the exchange rate, continues to sap what meager earnings most people can assemble. There is quite literally a lack of cash in the economy, making it difficult to get paid and purchase goods, especially in more rural communities. The cost of borrowing has sky-rocketed. Bond rates are up to 22% from 10% a year ago, meaning that even if the country can find investors, the increase to long-term debt would be unsustainable. The International Monetary Fund recently completed its Article IV Review of Haiti, and while offering plenty of advice on the need for political reform and restructuring of the energy sector, it offers little else.

Explicitly and implicitly, news accounts and policy makers blame all of this on bad governing by Haiti’s leaders. To be sure, Haiti’s leadership, especially since 2011, has not been very responsive to the needs of its people, and has facilitated, and probably profited directly, from corruption. The same could be said of Donald Trump.

So it may be that the real issues with leadership in Haiti are related to a structural collapse in the capacity of the government to do much of anything, good or bad. That is a process that has been facilitated over 30 years by international actors, like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, as well as the governments of the United States, Canada and France. Local allies have done well for themselves, to be sure. But what makes Haiti’s leaders stand out is the backdrop of poverty, not the fact of corruption, which is a universal feature of liberal democracy in a capitalist world system. 

Consider this historical footnote in a Reuters article on the hunger crisis:

It wasn’t always like this. Haiti was largely food self-sufficient until the 1980s, when at the encouragement of the United States the country started loosening restrictions on crop imports and lowered tariffs, then imported surplus U.S. crops, a decision that put Haitian farmers out of business and contributed to investment tailing off.

“Encouragement” is an interesting term. What happened was more like blackmail. The people of Haiti have been the victims of an international Ponzi scheme, as financial institutions like the World Bank issued loans to the Duvaliers, and then demanded repayment even after Baby Doc split with a bunch of the money. Indeed, a significant amount of Haiti’s current debt is tied to those old loans to Duvalier, as well as more recent loans to other unelected governments in 2004-2006. As international institutions have drained Haiti, this has forced Haiti’s governments to request new loans (dependency by design), and with these loans, conditions have set in: Haiti must lower tariffs, float exchange rates, cut subsidies for fuel, cut social services, cut education budgets, cut health budgets, and so on. After thirty years of this, Haiti has cut everything there is to cut.

The lowest tariffs in the Caribbean have translated into the dismantling of local agriculture and dependency on imported food. Cutting social services has left 80% of Haiti’s school children in private schools, and even those in public schools are forced to pay fees that keep many out. Haiti has almost no functioning public health system, and what limited access exists is dependent on support from the non-profit sector in the form of joint programs to survive. So, yes, against this backdrop, people pocketing a few billion dollars in PetroCaribe funds is infuriating. I just wish we were collectively as infuriated with the policies that generated this context. 

History lessons are not much help to the people in the streets going hungry today — and they know the history better than us anyway. But as Haiti’s fate gets debated across mahogany desks and computer terminals in other capitals of the world, we must not forget that the international community shares responsibility for the debacle the people are facing. Any request for further intervention that ignores this history should be tossed. International actors have a role; they can write off Haiti’s international debt, for example. They could offer better terms of trade. Some (U.S., France, Canada) should certainly pay reparations for decades of theft of Haiti’s natural resources. There are ways to help.

But power doesn’t work that way. Discipline is the international language of the day.  

Unfortunately people can’t eat that either.

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Haiti: Ten years and a week after

Aerial view of Port au Prince

Sunday, January 11 marked the ten-year anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, centered near Port-au-Prince, that killed 220,000 or more people, and displaced millions. Being a ten year anniversary, there were a number of retrospective political analyses looking at the current crisis through the lens of events in the ten years since the quake. The weakening of the economy, corruption in the deployment of development assistance, the cholera outbreak brought on by UN carelessness in 2010, and additional disasters in the intervening years like Hurricane Matthew, all punctuated by controversial election processes, serve as a backdrop for discussions of the current economic crisis and protests calling on president Jovenel Moïse to step down. What lessons emerged in a week of commemoration? Let’s see….

One lesson, apparently, is the need for new legislation in the U.S. Congress: The Haiti Development, Accountability and Institutional Transparency Initiative Act. I’m not sure the intent of the title, but it comes close to just being the HAITI Act – which is…clever? This act was introduced specifically to mark the anniversary of the earthquake. The bill requires a number of investigations: Investigations into the massacre at La Saline, how to better protect the freedom of the press, how to better take action against corruption through investigating individual governmental and non-governmental leaders, and assessing delivery of U.S. disaster assistance, including investigation of the Caracol industrial park (the only major U.S.-funded project anyone can really point to in the last ten years, and not usually positively). None of this is particularly controversial. I mean who could argue against investigating human rights violations, corruption and assessing the impact of U.S. aid, right? But as the primary mechanism for these investigations in the bill is the U.S. State Department in “consultation” with the non-governmental sector, I am not holding my breath for a substantive re-evaluation of anything, assuming the bill even gets a vote.

Meanwhile, over the last week the major transition in Haiti was the departure of two-thirds of the Senate, and all of the lower house. In the absence of elections, originally scheduled for last October, all of these Parliamentary terms expired. The ten remaining senators cannot form a quorum. As a result, starting Monday, January 13, President Jovenel Moïse began governing through decree. His first act was a commitment to allocate the money saved by not having to pay salaries to members of Parliament to build 10 new schools. From Jacqueline Charles of the Miami Herald, “The amount, about $16.3 million, would have gone to pay 118 members of the Lower Chamber of Deputies and 19 senators this year. The entire budget of the Parliament is roughly $60 million. Moïse did not say what he plans to do with the rest of the money.” By sending a message that Parliament is unnecessary and/or wasteful, the symbolism of Moïse’s first decree is somewhat alarming – though in the short-term it is likely to play well. Certainly the country needs new schools.

Toward the end of the week Moïse was indicating he would use his decree power to offer a new constitution that would be put to a vote through a popular referendum. Reuters reported, “The president aims to get the new constitution drafted within three months of being started, the source said, and voted on in a referendum by year-end.” Specific proposals are not yet drafted, but the sense is that a new constitution would seek to weaken the authority of the Prime Minister/Parliament in Haiti’s system of dual executive rule. In times past, a presidential, or unitary executive, has been promoted with mixed reception. Hard to say where all of this will go.

With the partisan opposition sidelined (along with parliament), perhaps Moïse will have more space to operate. However, while members of parliament may have been the most vocal opponents, they were hardly the only ones. Certainly among the younger generation of activists represented in some sense by the PetroChallenger movement, most of the political leadership is viewed as corrupt. Which is just to say Moïse may not be the best person to lead constitutional reform, given that the country has periodically erupted into massive protests over the last 18 months in an effort to get rid of him. 

Everybody knows this, of course. It is just worth repeating, as the U.S. government and international organizations continue to act as if the problems in Haiti are institutional design problems, and somehow Moïse’s political survival would be emblematic of successful design. “Moise won his election, after all,” they’ll say, “he should finish his term.” Without a parliament, Moïse can write his own electoral law and offer constitutional reforms. The United States will have Moïse’s back because ultimately the U.S. government only wants enough stability to keep Haiti profitable for those who seek to use it (not the people who live there). The Trump administration made this clear by parading a series of officials through Haiti in December for photo ops in order to demonstrate their commitment to Moïse.

Which brings us back to the elephant in the hemisphere: U.S. policy. One consistent theme over the last ten years -—  really the last 216 years — is the sense of entitlement with which the U.S. government lectures Haitians (really everybody, but I am trying to focus here). It is a bizarre dance whereby the U.S. government intervenes on behalf of a relatively small elite, to keep them in power over the express desire of most Haitians, while keeping the impoverished majority at bay (or at least unrepresented). It was the Obama administration that gifted Martelly and then Moïse to Haiti, after all, in the name of appearances. Then, when things don’t go well, some U.S. policy maker or congressional committee steps up to the mic to critique that same elite for lousy governance. I’m not sure the critique helps so much. What might help? Stepping out of the way so an actual democracy could emerge in Haiti. Then Haitians could hold each other more directly accountable. They would do a much better job I think. They could hardly do worse than the UN/US/Core Group-installed government they’ve been saddled with.

That, at least, is one lesson one might draw from the last ten years.

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