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Relief Effort Improves in Haiti While Security Concerns Linger

January 18, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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In an interview with Jeffrey Brown, U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Kenneth Merten discusses the pace of the relief effort in earthquake-ravaged Haiti, security concerns in the capital, and complaints about U.S. management at the Port-au-Prince airport.

JEFFREY BROWN: And now the situation as seen by Kenneth Merten, U.S. ambassador to Haiti. This is his third tour of duty there.

I talked with him a short time ago at the Port-au-Prince Airport.

Ambassador Merten, thanks for joining us.

What’s your assessment of the progress in getting food, water and other material to those most in need?

KENNETH MERTEN, U.S. Ambassador to Haiti: I think the progress is reasonably good.

I think people have to appreciate the logistical and other physical challenges we’re dealing with here. Port-au-Prince particularly is destroyed. I mean, there are certain blocks that are vaporized. There’s nothing there but dust and debris.

Getting down there is very, very difficult. It’s been a complicating factor. Also, there’s been, the first few days, zero communications. You have had to communicate with people by going some place where you think you can actually meet face to face with them. Those things are gradually getting better.

The relief effort is getting better. Saturday, we were able to get out 130,000 meals to people, to families. We were able to get out 140,000 hygiene kits, which allow people to help clean themselves up a little bit. Sunday was better than that. I don’t have the exact figures. And I’m sure today was significantly better even than that. So, we’re getting there.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, as you know, there have been some concerns and some complaints from other countries and nongovernmental organizations about the situation at the airport, whether U.S. military planes were getting priority over aid planes.

What’s the situation now? What’s your response to that?

KENNETH MERTEN: Again, I think people have to realize the tremendous challenges we’re dealing with here.

This is a one-runway airport with a relatively small apron. It’s not a big place, doesn’t work, has not worked or been particularly busy at the best of times. The U.S. military has come in here, assured 24-hour operations. I have never seen the kind of traffic at this airport ever before. And I have served here three times.

Is it an ideal place to launch a humanitarian operation? No, it definitely is not. I mean, we would — we could use a lot more runway space, more ramp space, but we have to work with what we have.

The U.S. military is most definitely not putting the priority only on their flights. They are — they have set up a system whereby people have to declare the priority, where that is run through other people. And we make a determination as to which flights come in.

We try to make sure the U.S. military flights come in at night to allow the daytime for other countries and other organizations’ flights to come in. So, I’m afraid I have to disagree with those who really complain about this not being a very good operation.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about — let’s turn to the security situation. There have been some reports of sporadic violence and looting. How serious is the situation?

KENNETH MERTEN: So far, I think the looting is — appears to be very, very limited. I got out quite a bit today.

And I will tell you everything I saw. I wasn’t right in the center part of Port-au-Prince, but I covered a lot of other territory.

And I saw people patiently waiting in line, patiently getting food. I saw people on the streets beginning to go about their business. Of course, you have to remember 90 percent of people are still sleeping on the streets. They’re homeless. They’re just starting to go back to work. They’re distraught.

But I think, while we are very concerned about the potential for violence and disorder, I don’t think people need to be overly focused on that. I think it’s something we will pay very, very close attention to. Obviously, we want to protect our people who are delivering the humanitarian aid. But I think people should be aware that the vast majority of Haitians here are behaving in a calm and peaceful manner.

JEFFREY BROWN: And who is in charge of the security and the overall aid situation? You have the Haitian government and police. You have the U.N. forces. You have a growing military group there. Who is overseeing it all? How is that working?

KENNETH MERTEN: Well, in terms of security, number one, it’s the Haitian police that are in charge.

Now, they’re in a position where their capacity to field a full complement of officers has been severely degraded. They have had many losses, as have all elements of Haitian society. But they are here. They’re on the job. They’re on the streets.

Next in line, you have MINUSTAH, who has been working very closely here with the Haitian police for several years. They too have had their own losses, unfortunately, but they are providing security. They’re on the street. They’re present. They are doing the job.

We have forces available here, U.S. troops, to provide security in cases where the Haitian police and MINUSTAH, the U.N. force, are unable to provide it. There’s been one or two cases like that so far, but it’s far from being the majority.

MINUSTAH has, thus far, been very able and capable of doing what they’re here to do. So, that’s where we are on that score. On the humanitarian aid, there, too, we’re seeking obviously to coordinate with the Haitians to take into account what their priorities are, where they see the needs are greatest.

But there, too, we are establishing a coordination unit with MINUSTAH that — where we are bringing in other key donors. And that’s how the humanitarian relief effort will proceed in terms of coordination. It’s still a work in progress, that’s for sure, but I think it’s working reasonably well thus far.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, there have been concerns, of course, about a bureaucratic bottleneck in coordination. And there have certainly been some concerns raised about — as you said, about the ability of the Haitian government to function well at a time like this.

But you see — you think it’s getting better?

KENNETH MERTEN: I believe so. Certainly, the humanitarian aid distribution is getting better.

And I think something that’s important to keep in mind is, a lot of the assistance we’re providing here is to provide a platform for the Haitian government to take control and to provide the services they’re here to provide.

But, again, I think people need to — need to remember, you have a situation where many ministries have simply collapsed. So, they are in a position of getting there, getting themselves together, but they’re doing the job.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, finally, I know you have had a lot of experience in this country dating back many years.

What is your — I know it must be hard to look ahead right now, but what is your sense about the prospects for the country rebuilding itself, getting on its feet again, from what you know of the government, of the people, of the culture there?

KENNETH MERTEN: Well, I think, as Secretary Clinton said the other day, Haiti had really turned the corner. And we were beginning to see investors come.

Last time I was here was 10 years ago. When I came back in August, I noticed a whole range of positive changes, from infrastructure, to the service this government was providing, to the number of companies on the ground here.

This has been a major setback, no question about it. We will be dealing with the reconstruction efforts from there earthquake for at least several months for the foreseeable future. But I think the Haitian people have had a taste of what it’s like to see progress and stability. And I feel pretty confident that they won’t forget what that tastes like. And I think they will be ready to move forward to positive — in a positive direction again soon after this reconstruction process is over.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Ambassador Kenneth Merten, thanks so much for talking to us. And good luck.

KENNETH MERTEN: My pleasure. Thanks very much.