Journalist Jonathan M. Katz

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Katz shares tales from his first-hand account on post-earthquake Haiti, The Big Truck That Went By, and gives an update on the bungled recovery efforts.

For seven years, Jonathan Katz wrote and edited for the Associated Press from several countries and territories, including Mexico City, China, Jerusalem and across the Caribbean. In January 2010, he was in his house in Haiti when the Western Caribbean island was struck by a deadly earthquake. In fact, he was the only full-time American reporter in Port-au-Prince at the time of the disaster and chronicles his experience, the country’s recovery process and issues with foreign aid in his book, The Big Truck That Went By. Katz began working as a reporter while in graduate school, where his assignments included covering the Pentagon at the start of the Iraq War.


Tavis: Four years after the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti it’s clear that all the good intentions of international aid organizations have backfired. The country is actually in worse shape now, one could argue, than it was before the quake, including an outbreak of cholera triggered inadvertently by U.N. troops, who poured raw sewage into a river that’s used for drinking water.

Award-winning journalist Jonathan M. Katz was in Haiti when the earthquake hit, and continues to follow the bungled recovery. His book, “The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster,” is now out on paperback.

He’s just won the Overseas Press Club award for the year’s best nonfiction book on international affairs. Jonathan, congratulations on that and we’re delighted to have you on this program.

Jonathan M. Katz: Thank you, I’m really glad to be here.

Tavis: I wonder whether or not what I just read, even though I read it, is actually correct to your mind, which is that Haiti – because that’s a damning indictment when I said a moment ago that Haiti is in worse shape now than it was before the quake. Is that accurate?

Katz: There’s some things that are inarguably worse – the cholera epidemic is a really good example of one of them. There are some things that have improved, certainly at least since the afternoon of the earthquake itself four years ago.

I think the real problem in Haiti is that what the legacy of international assistance after the earthquake has been is that it’s left the country in just as vulnerable a state as it was when the earthquake struck in the first place.

If you go back to the promises that Bill Clinton made, that Hillary Clinton made, that President Obama made, that the United Nations made, that the international community made, that’s not what they set out to do.

Tavis: I just had an official, a former World Bank official on this program not long ago making the same kind of argument about what the World Bank intends to do in Africa and other places around the world.

Particularly in Africa, which is what he was talking about; how the intentions just don’t actually measure up to what happens in actuality. Broadly speaking, how is it that these international bodies can again, be so well-intentioned, and things go so awry?

Katz: Well individuals’ intentions are one thing, but then you have the structures that are in place, and it’s very hard, even for well-intentioned individuals, to fight against those larger structures.

Basically the systems have been set up in a way, sometimes intentionally, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes as a result of other things, to create these disparities that cause these problems in the first place.

Those systems are still in existence even when a disaster like the earthquake, or even like the cholera epidemic strikes. So it’s not really that surprising that individuals have such a hard time changing the situation.

Tavis: So is there redress for the Haitians who have suffered as a result of this inadvertent effort by the U.N.?

Katz: Well it’s a really good example of a system and a structure that is just rigged against people. The problem is that with the cholera epidemic, for instance, there’s so much evidence to date.

I’ve dug up a lot of it; a lot of other people have dug it up. The scientists’ reports, there’s just a preponderance of evidence that the United Nations is singularly responsible for introducing cholera, a disease that had never existed before in Haiti, to the country, and in most situations like that you would expect there to be something that could be done to hold people accountable.

If a corporation or a foreign army for that matter were to dump something in a river in the United States, there are things you can do. You can bring people to court, you can sue them, you can force them to pay for cleanup.

But the United Nations doesn’t want to, and the United States has now gone on record just recently in the last couple of weeks of not wanting them to be held accountable.

There was a lawsuit filed in U.S. federal court, and that case was pending for a little while. Then the Justice Department finally weighed in on the side of the United Nations, saying that the United Nations should have absolute immunity from prosecution in these cases.

There are a lot of reasons why they said that. There’s a lot of self-interest. But basically it’s because these powerful organizations further themselves, they’re allied with one another, and there really isn’t anybody with the kind of power to really change things who is really worried about the effects on individual people in places like Haiti.

Tavis: I know a preacher, a Black preacher who, when he believes he has said something profound that the audience might have missed, he will look into the crowd and say, “I think I just said something.”

I think you’ve just said something that went over their heads, or that we didn’t process, so I want to back up and go back and get what I thought I heard you say a moment ago.

Katz: All right.

Tavis: All right. So Bill Clinton, a former U.S. president, was the guy we put out front to lead this effort on my behalf for what we were going to do to help the country of Haiti.

So this is at the level of a former U.S. president. I thought I heard you say that the U.S. government – Clinton is no longer president, obviously; Obama is – but I thought I just heard you say that his Justice Department or the government under his watch just went on record not wanting the U.N. to be held accountable.

Katz: Yeah.

Tavis: For poisoning the water in Haiti.

Katz: Yeah.

Tavis: Is that what you just said?

Katz: That is (unintelligible).

Tavis: (Overlapping) That our government is now on the record saying that?

Katz: Yeah, they –

Tavis: (Overlapping) How is that possible?

Katz: There were a number of reasons why it’s, there are a number of probable reasons why they made that statement. Among other things, we’re talking about a peacekeeping mission in Haiti that’s responsible for this epidemic.

It’s a peacekeeping mission that had been there six years before the earthquake, so 10 years now, since 2004. Now the United States has a lot of peacekeeping missions around the world.

Some of them are our own, like the NATO peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan, but the United States also foots about a quarter of the bill for United Nations’ peacekeeping missions.

So if a peacekeeping mission were able to be held accountable for having done something awful, through negligence, but resulting in the deaths of now more than 9,000 people across the region, almost all of those in Haiti, then that would leave other peacekeeping missions open to possible redress as well.

That could get very costly. Also, if the United Nations were forced to pay a reparation or if they were forced to foot a significant part of the bill that needs to be paid to build effective water and sanitation infrastructure, which is all that’s needed, but that’s a big “all that’s needed” in order to stop the cholera epidemic and keep it from recurring again at the strength that we saw in 2010, 2011, then the United States would be left holding about a quarter of that bill.

To be frank, the proof is in the pudding, so to speak, that where the United States has put their interests and where they’ve put their statement is directly –

Tavis: (Overlapping) But no fellow citizen in this country would ever be told that he or she cannot sue because it might be too costly. (Laughter) That’s the purpose of suing.

Katz: Right.

Tavis: To get recompense, to make the other person offer some recompense for the damage they have done. That is why you sue. We’re not just suing for the sake of suing.

Katz: Right.

Tavis: But the fact that we could be on the side of even the U.N. supporting a position that these Haitians have no right to seek redress because it might be too costly, because it might set a bad precedent – so they contract cholera, they die from this, and there’s nothing that can be done about it.

Katz: Immunity’s a funny word to use, because the whole problem in the first place is that the people of Haiti didn’t have any immunity to cholera because there had never been a diagnosed case of any kind of cholera before in the country in the laboratory, and certainly of the kind of cholera that’s been circulating around the world since the early 1960s in the current pandemic.

They had no biological immunity, but the people who all the evidence shows brought the disease seem to enjoy absolute legal immunity.

Tavis: When the American people hear something like they’ve just heard tonight, what do we do about that? What do we do when we hear that we have just sided with an organization that we know caused the death of people just off our borders, essentially.

We just let that go in one ear and out the other? So the Haitians obviously have no recourse at this point, but what do those of us who care about their plight, what do we, what agency do we have?

Katz: I think a lot of Americans look at Haiti, they look at the situation with the cholera epidemic and they think, well, this is a place that’s so poor and it always has diseases, and so what else is new.

So the U.N. brought this disease, but why should I care about this? I think that one of the things that can change is as people get better educated, as people understand what the actual background was and then what has happened since, and you actually are able to put statements that the U.N. makes on one day up against statements that the U.N. makes on another.

This is the situation right now, where the U.N. is out in front when they’re trying to raise money, telling people that they aren’t getting, that the donors aren’t coming forward with money, that this infrastructure isn’t being built, that the country remains vulnerable and the cholera could recur.

You can go back, Pedro Medrano Rojas, who’s the new point man at the U.N. on the cholera issue in Haiti has made a number of direct statements about that. Then once they get criticized, as they were the other day in an editorial in “The New York Times,” then as if by magic, another report will come out.

A press release or a story from the U.N. news center saying cholera is under control, we’ve done all this great work. I think that as Americans, as people around the world, if people actually take time to look at that, they look at the contradictions and they look at the situation and they look at the effects that it’s had on real people’s lives.

Then they bring their influence to bear however they want to – calling their congressman or just getting better educated on the issue, I think you could see things change.

Tavis: One can understand legally why Eric Holder, the Justice Department, whoever, might have taken this position with the U.N. I don’t get it from a moral standpoint.

Legally I understand they’re trying to cover their behind, essentially, for what might happen in the future. I get that. I don’t accept it, but I understand what their argument is.

But what have we done is the question I want to ask. So you want to protect yourself from this potentially in the future, but these people are still suffering from cholera. People have still died as a result of this.

The U.N., we know, still did it. So what have we done, if we’re going to take their side that we don’t want to open themselves up or ourselves up to a legal case in the future, what have we done? What are we doing?

Katz: Well this is the real issue. Cholera is a very simple disease to stop. All you have to do is make sure that water is filtered, that waste doesn’t mix with water and food that people are consuming.

You need sanitation infrastructure. In this country that takes the form of sewers, flush toilets, water treatment plants. There are other ways to do it. One of the issues is that a lot of the people who are responding to this in the U.S. government and at the U.N. say, well, look at all of the work that we’ve done.

But they haven’t, they’re not willing to make the serious investments that are necessary in order to build the infrastructure that’s necessary to stop this epidemic and keep it from recurring.

The Haitian government has come forward, along with the government of the neighboring Dominican Republic, with a plan that’s about $2.27 billion to fund the kind of infrastructure, medical treatment, vaccination programs that are needed to wipe out the epidemic.

That money is not coming forward. The donors are not paying it. So the question is without accountability, is it possible that these steps that have to be taken will be taken?

At the moment, the answer has been no, but I can’t predict the future. It’s possible that things will change.

Tavis: The book, now out in paperback, is called “The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster,” written by Jonathan M. Katz. Jonathan, good to have you on the program.

Katz: Great to be here.

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Last modified: May 14, 2014 at 3:12 pm