In Haiti, aid comes with an agenda

U.S., Venezuela and Cuba all wave the flag while delivering assistance

By Paul Waldie
The Globe and Mail

PORT-AU-PRINCE — The international rush to help Haiti has produced some strange bedfellows and left some Haitians confused about who is running their country.

Bitter rivals everywhere else, the United States, Venezuela and Cuba have found themselves working side by side in Haiti.

Cuba's rescue effort in Haiti

By Murray Fromson

While the focus of the enormous rescue and assistance effort in Haiti has been on the part played by the United States, dozens of other countries and non-government agencies have made major contributions to a massive humanitarian gesture to relieve the suffering of the island's population. Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela are participating in the relief effort. Brazil reportedly lost at least 14 officers attached to the UN Mission. Cuba has sent ten tons of medications. Since 1998, Cuba's health cooperation with Haiti has made it possible for 6,000 doctors, paramedics and health technicians to work there. Besides, 450 young Haitians have graduated as doctors from Cuban colleges, free of charge, in the past 12 years.

Ever since I met Martin Hacthoun in New York 25 years ago, he was a Cuban journalist, covering the United Nations. But we have maintained our friendship ever since then, either in Havana or when he was based in Vietnam and India, working for Prensa Latina, Cuba's national news agency. Martin returned home last year and I emailed him to determine the extent of help the Cubans were providing their nearest stricken neighbors that has not been reported in the United States. Here was his reply:

More than 400 Cuban specialists, 344 of them doctors and paramedics, have been a part of a recent humanitarian program in Haiti, jointly sponsored by the United Nations and the Cuban government. But in the wake of last Tuesday's disaster, the largest earthquake ever to hit the Caribbean Basin, Cuba dispatched another team of 60 doctors, health technicians and medications to join the doctors on the ground in Haiti, 50 miles away. The specialists are experts in coping with natural disasters. The team then joined the Cuban doctors already on the ground to help the victims. Three of the Cubans, who were in Haiti at the time of the violent tremor were injured, one seriously. A Cuban television correspondent and a reporter of the National Information Agency (AIN) flew together with the doctors to cover the tragedy. We beefed up our coverage by moving our man in the Dominican Republic, to Port au Prince. There's extensive coverage, including a detailed Cuban TV report scheduled for tonight.

The quake was felt in Cuba's most eastern provinces, particularly the old city of Baracoa. There was no damage, but miraculously in just one hour, 50,000 people were evacuated to high land for fear of a tsunami. Fortunately it did not materialize. Nonetheless, it was a remarkable feat of logistics. But once the Cuban Seismology Institute and Civil Defense determined there was no danger, the evacuees were returned home to resume their daily lives. — 17 January 2010

Dozens of American soldiers are camped just outside the Venezuelan embassy, which is located close to Port-au-Prince's port. The port itself is under American control, along with the airport, and several large U.S. ships can be seen from the shore.

American soldiers have also started patrolling a few neighbourhoods, particularly near the city's main hospital.

In another part of town, the Hopital de la Paz is full of Cuban doctors decked out in T-shirts depicting Che Guevara. A giant Cuban flag waves outside along with flags from Venezuela and Spain, which have also sent doctors and nurses to the facility.

The hospital is one of 11 medical programs in Haiti run by some 400 Cuban doctors.

"We need help from everyone," said Marie-Lawrence Jocelyn Lassegue, Haiti's Minister of Culture and Communications. She shrugged off concerns the rival nations might try to exert their influence over the country once the rebuilding effort gains steam.

Haitian President René Préval strengthened the country's ties to Venezuela and Cuba shortly after coming to office in 2006.

Immediately after the election, he signed an energy agreement with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, allowing Haiti to receive up to 14,000 barrels of oil per day at a discount.

That deal was followed by other infrastructure and health agreements with Venezuela and Cuba. Mr. Chavez has also visited Haiti. Mr. Préval was careful to stay friendly with the Americans, and visited Washington shortly after his inauguration.

Venezuela's largess can be seen in several parts of Port-au-Prince. The South American country helped build the city's largest outdoor market, which opened in 2008.

The entrance to the sprawling jumble of vendors features a giant sign with Mr. Chavez's name in bold, commemorating solidarity between the Haitian and Venezuelan people. "Venezuela" is also written across the roof of one building in the market.

The Chavez name also figures prominently on a new electricity plant that Venezuelans helped build.

The Cubans have wasted little time getting their message out since the quake. Last week, a small newspaper began to appear in parts of Port-au-Prince.

The paper, called Light and Courage, was printed by the Cuban government and contained two long messages from Fidel Castro commenting on the plight of the Haitian people.

On the streets these competing forces have prompted plenty of rumours.

"Are the Americans taking over?" asked Jean-Marc Cherestal as he stood waiting at a money transfer office. "That's what I heard. I hope so, that's a rich country."

28 January 2010 — Return to cover.