the quake
“We have a government, but it's like an army with only generals. You don't have soldiers; you don't have captains; you don't have colonels. And you have to do everything.”
jean-max bellerive

He is Haiti's prime minister. This interview was conducted on Jan. 27, 2010.

Haiti is a very poor country and a nation that's prone to natural disasters. What plan was in place on Haiti's part to deal with a natural catastrophe like this?

A natural catastrophe like the one this month, there is no plan that we could tackle that kind of catastrophe. Generally in our region, we are prepared for cyclones, inundations, and we are more or less prepared [for] a geographical response.

What happened this month was that the center was hit very badly. Port-au-Prince was not a zone where we had in the last century had such extensive damage. And what happened is that, in 30 seconds, all the capacity of response was destroyed at the same time. So we basically were not prepared. ...

Were you aware that geologists and seismologists had predicted this was going to be a big one coming here soon?

No. They never said that it will be soon. They said that it will be between two years and 100 years. [That was the most] precise assessment that we received. We had several meetings with them, and they said, "OK, it's something that is going to happen."

We knew that there was a great risk that something would hit Haiti, but they said it could be next week; it could be in 100 years. But it was going to happen. So what do you do when you have a country with so many problems to solve at the same time? The proper response would have been to destroy a lot of houses, rebuild a lot of houses, and before that, to make an assessment and do an evaluation and to relocate most of the population of Port-au-Prince. It was not something that we could clearly consider at that time.

Minister [of Culture and Communications Marie-Laurence Jocelyn-Lassègue] mentioned that you should have had water and food supplies in warehouses, ready to go in the case of a disaster. Certainly that would be the case in a hurricane.

Yes. But the problem is that most of our storage capacity was also destroyed in the capital. ... We had some capacity of response in different zones, but they didn't foresee that we will have to give water and food to more than 1 million people every day.

How much of this has to do with building code?

A lot. A lot. It's basic.

So couldn't you build a warehouse of food and water that was built to code to withstand an earthquake?

That could have been something that we should have done.

Was that ever discussed?

It was discussed. Again, we didn't have those facilities. When you have to choose between preparing [for] something that could happen in 50 years and sending children to school tomorrow or giving them food, or building some roads to improve the national production [that would] permit a large portion of the population to produce and to export or to transport what they are doing to the capital or to other places, it's a very hard decision where you are talking about something that could happen and something that is actually happening.

So perhaps we could have done [more]. Surely now we are thinking about, "We should have done a better assumption of the risk." But the risk, basically, in Haiti is a daily risk of hunger, a daily risk of people sleeping outside. Now everybody sees it, but the situation in Haiti and the people living in the slums, between sleeping where they are sleeping now and sleeping outside, this is pretty much the same. Everybody's out on the streets.

You have a class that were never hit, the middle class. The middle class is on the streets. And it's very shocking for a lot of people. But for most of the people living in the slums, where they're living with 30, 40 people in a small house, ... it was their daily life before and after the shock of Jan. 12.

Now, investment in that could have been a good investment, perhaps. But who would believe at the time that we would have to rebuild the national palace? Who would believe at the time that we would have to rebuild the Parliament? Who would believe at the time that we would have to rebuild the Palace of Justice? Who would believe at that time that we would have to rebuild all those supermarkets? Who would believe that most of the big residences in Pétionville would have to be rebuilt? I believe not a lot of people.

There's a lot of anger on the streets from ordinary Haitians about the performance of the government. Can the government survive this crisis?

I'm pretty amazed that the anger is not greater. I believe that the people are supporting with a lot of calm, a lot of serenity, the situation they are in. ... My preoccupation now is not to survive but to see if during the period we are here, if we can do the most for the population. It never will be to the extent of their expectation. As I told you, right now we are giving food and water to around 200,000, 250,000 people. We have 1 million people waiting. So, so far, the gap is great. So I believe that we just have to do what we should do. We can do it trying to coordinate better with our partners, trying to coordinate better with the local authorities, the mayors in particular. We have to coordinate better with the civil society that is here, the national civil society, working, trying to help the people.

We cannot have a political agenda now. We're just in the situation where we have to respond, and we are giving the response that we can give right now. After that, I hope that pretty soon the situation can stabilize. The people will decide who they want as a leader or people taking charge of their destiny. But now it's not my preoccupation, personally, and I'm sure that is not a preoccupation of the president's.

What has surprised me is that the anger is directed not at the international community, at the U.N., at the United States, but at the Haitian government.

It's a good thing. And it's why, when the people say, "Is there a government?," that's one of their responses. The people know that we are here. The people know that we are supposed to give a better answer to what they are suffering. So in that strange way, they recognize that we are the one that should give an answer, and not the USA and not the [Inter-American] Development Bank. They are waiting an answer from their government.

Why hasn't the government and the president, particularly, as well as yourself, spent more time on the streets with people? You've said yourself that, "We didn't do a good enough job of communicating with people, of being among the people."

Yeah. It's a choice. There is so much to do. There is so much to organize. There are so few people to help you to do the job, because you are a prime minister, but you are also the technician; you are the secretary. We are rebuilding the administration. As I say, there is a government, but there is no administration, and the weapon of the government is administration. So we have a government, but it's like an army with only generals. You don't have soldiers; you don't have captains; you don't have colonels. And you have to do everything.

So, between making what seems to us like politics -- going to the camps, talking to the people and trying to coordinate better -- we should [have been] trying to coordinate better with our partners, because at that time we just realized that we didn't have enough capacity to give a proper answer. So we used a lot of time trying to meet our partners, to organize the response, and to work also with the private sector and the civil society to normalize the life here.

The banks are reopening. The gas stations are reopening. The commerce is slowly reopening. It doesn't happen like that. It was a lot of meetings. It was a lot of support from the government. It was a lot of financial and technical support from the government, trying to ease everything. And it meant a lot of work. Few hours were left to talk to the people, giving more information, trying to go to different places. We did it -- not sufficiently -- but time also is a very rare commodity for a government right now.

There's been a lot of criticism about the aid being uncoordinated. You've said yourself, as the planes were coming in, you didn't know what was on them. What criticism do you think is legitimate?

"Criticism" is not the word that we should use. We just have to pinpoint where are the problems, and the criticism could start in the second phase. If we identify a problem, we would like the people responsible to take some steps to resolve those problems. For example, the fact that we didn't know what was coming into Haiti: After three or four days, that should have changed, ... [because] it's very difficult for us to take care of what is coming into Haiti if we don't know what is going to arrive and when.

I believe that they should have some communication with their country and say: "Well, we know that you want to be there fast, some of them first, but it will be more effective if you give us the list of what you are going to bring. We will let you know what is our priority and if we want that plane to land now, because perhaps what you're bringing is not a priority for us now. It will be next week, for example. So just wait next week."

But there is all the communication, media, publicity involved with humanitarian people who want to be here when the cameras are here. They want to be here to have the photos also. So we understand that, because it's part of the humanitarian response. But it's giving problem to the humanitarian response.

Has the crisis given you a new appreciation for the importance of public relations in a situation like this? You've criticized the failure of the government getting out. When Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton came and stood before the cameras with yourself and with the president, there was clearly a sense at that time that the government had not done enough to present itself publicly.

Perhaps it was your perception. What Haiti needs now and what Haiti will need for the long time being is not a public perception of the humanitarian response that we are giving when we are with Secretary of State Clinton, with the president and the cameras. The cameras, generally they are there for the humanitarian response only.

Did she give any message to you about public relations, about getting out and speaking to the people and the importance of that?

Yes. But my concern now is not that.

What did she say to you?

We discussed mainly about two things. We would be there, and we know that the humanitarian response is going to last. We won't solve the problem of 1 million people on the streets in two days. It will be months and months and months.

And the second thing, we will be there also for the long term, meaning for the reconstruction and rebuilding of Haiti. And that was basically the message that I wanted to hear. I have a guarantee for the short term, but a short term that will overlap with the long term.

Whose idea was it to go speak to the press before the cameras?

It was convened before, and it was not specifically with Mrs. Clinton. Every high-ranking political visitor that we have in Haiti, when they leave, we always have a small time with the press. It happens that when it's Mrs. Clinton, you have more press. ... Always it gets to CNN and the American media because it's Mrs. Clinton. But you always do it. And we do it every day. We have press conference here. Perhaps everybody's not interested, but we are doing it. And people, perhaps they prefer when they have those press conference giving the position of the government, giving information on what we are doing, they prefer to go on the streets to interview the population about their feelings. But we have this press conference here two times a day.

Where were you when the earthquake struck?

In a meeting.

And what happened?

The meeting stopped really rapidly because we were, like, 14 in a room. Personally I didn't realize that was happening. We had a meeting around the Global Fund for fighting against HIV, and we were with a lot of people of the civil society and doctors, and we were discussing about how to rearrange that fund that had some problem intermittently. And during that meeting they elected me president of the fund.

And just after that, we had those tremors, and we realized that it was something serious. We got out of the house, and we were outside. At that time, I didn't realize that it was the earthquake because the house where I was didn't fall. Parts came down, but it didn't fall. So I didn't realize until I was trying to get back to my office. It's, like, a 10-minute drive, and I took almost three hours to get to my office because all the walls coming down on the streets, dead people in the streets. At that time I realized that it was a serious business.

And who was the first person you talked to outside the country?

Outside of the country? Let me remember. I believe it was [Deputy Special Envoy to Haiti and co-founder of Partners in Health Dr.] Paul Farmer, by coincidence, because I was next to somebody of his team, and she was calling him. ... It happens that the next day I was supposed to go to New York to have a meeting with the President Clinton, Paul Farmer and others about response to Haiti investment and all that. So at that time when I was out, I realized that it was something strange. So I just said: "I don't believe that I will be able to fly tomorrow, ... so please call President Clinton or somebody of his team to tell them that we have to cancel or do it without me, because surely they would need me here for help," or something like that. So we called them, and I explained that there was something happening in Haiti that we already know.

And did you speak with President Obama?

No. I don't know if the president talked to him. I spoke with Secretary of State Clinton.

And you spoke with President Clinton?

Yes, on several occasions. And we met also when he came here. We had a long conversation. And I had several messages from people of the staff of President Obama.

This presents a very difficult situation. Haiti was poor and desperate before the earthquake occurred, and now we face a situation where aid is coming to Haiti to rescue it from the disaster, but the world is confused about how far to assist Haiti into the future. How do you address that?

What we are trying to do is to have only one program. We have to help the people but at the same time continue on the same path of rebuilding Haiti in a better way. And that better way will improve the life of the people now on the streets and in the camps, creating jobs here in Haiti for those people, creating jobs outside of Haiti.

We have to take advantage of the humanitarian aid to create jobs in order for the people to -- in the fastest way possible -- provide to their own needs. At the same time, a lot of what we are negotiating with the international community won't stop anything that was in the pipeline. We have to provide jobs outside of Port-au-Prince. Now we are basically [having] to find jobs to create more facilities outside of Port-au-Prince [and] at the same time rebuild in a better way.

What do you see as the three top industries that need to be developed to produce a sustainable economy for Haiti?

First, clearly for me, agriculture.

For export.

First, to sustain the needs of the Haitian people to bring food to their table. Once we achieve that, transportation. And some of the production will be directly for exportation. I'm thinking about mangos or coffee. So we can think of exportation right away.

But vegetables and other nutrients that are produced in Haiti have to be produced first for the Haitian population. It won't be a solution in the long term to import food for Haitians. We have to produce that here and not changing, also, the alimentary habits of Haiti. We already live on that.

And after agriculture I believe that light industries could be a good way to give work and transportation, clearly also. And third, we are still hoping that tourism could be a way to attract people in some zone of Haiti. ...

Last question has to do with corruption in Haiti. In the past, the policy of the United States has been to directly assist NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and to bypass the government of Haiti. Now the policy is what?

I don't know what is the policy. I know what I will like., and I know what I'm discussing with them. And I know what they are feeling, because we have regular discussion with the State Department, with USAID [United States Agency for International Development] and other partners. There was a policy where the government was not the recipient of the aid directly at least, and it's changing too slowly for what we believe, but it's changing.

Now, the main reason that it's changing, not so much because the government is asking to give the aid directly through the government, but it is because they realize that the way they were doing it wasn't effective. Basically, after all those millions, life of Haitians was not changing.

So I believe that now they are convinced, not because we want to fight for our sovereignty and all that, but the best way to help Haiti is helping the government of Haiti and helping the local government of Haiti. So there is a shift. And not only the Americans, I believe the Canadians also [will] get to that, the Europeans [will] get to that.

Some of the countries that never did particularly support us are starting to do it, and it has to do also with the image of the government since President [René] Préval is there. We made a lot of progress in fighting corruption. We are making a lot of progress in transparency of what we are doing. And even if in the World Report about corruption, Haiti is still high among the most corrupt countries, it's not directly pinpointing the government, because, for example, more than 80 percent of the aid coming from United States to Haiti is not going to the government. It's going to NGOs; it's going to private enterprise. But when they are criticizing the corruption in Haiti, they assume it's the government. In fact, we don't receive any money from them.

But you agree that corruption is still a huge problem in Haiti.

Clearly. Clearly. But we want also for people to understand that corruption is not specifically corruption inside the government structure. It's inside NGO[s], and basically one of our biggest problems [is] in the justice system. But the corruption inside the government, I don't believe it's as big an issue that it was, like, let's say, 15 years ago.

People say that there's no such thing as a purely natural disaster, that natural disasters are in part manmade. Had Haiti been on its feet with building code[s], prepared, the disaster would have been far less lethal.

I'm not in that business. My business is to take care of the situation. And we have to plan, and we have to evaluate what we can do. And we can rewrite the story: What could we have done that would have been changing, basically, the situation?

Education surely could have saved a lot of life. Even if we cannot change the structure, change all the buildings, if we had a program educating people, letting them know that earthquakes could happen -- "Here is what you have to do in that case" -- perhaps we will have saved a lot more lives. But other than that, I don't see big improvement that we could have done in two years, because we were informed two years ago. In the lapse of time, changing the infrastructure, changing the slums was not really possible. ...

Did you lose family or friends?

Personally, thank God, no. Friends? Yes. A lot of friends. Very good friends, collaborators, employees. Direct family -- my wife, my children, my parents -- are all safe. But I lose very dear friends and very dear collaborators, yes.

It must be a very hard time for you.

Yes. As I told you, working is the best medicine to that, because every day you have something that reminds you of somebody. And I don't believe that right now there is one Haitian that [did] not lose somebody.

posted march 30, 2010

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