Christian aid groups serving in Haiti have witnessed firsthand the devastation wrought by ongoing demonstrations spurred by allegations of government corruption and the country’s inflation crisis.
Haitians again took to the streets in Port-au-Prince and other cities this month calling for President Jovenel Moïse's resignation over allegations the government misappropriated billions of dollars earmarked for reconstruction following a catastrophic 7.1 magnitude earthquake in 2010 that killed an estimated 300,000 people and left between 1.5 million and 2 million homeless.
During the protests churches were closed, schools were shut down — including tutoring and other programs provided by Christian nonprofit groups — and parents who work as day laborers were unable to earn wages.
Even though opposition parties have called for demonstrations to continue, as they have from time-to-time since last summer, Edouard Lassegue, the regional vice president for Compassion International’s Latin America and Caribbean Regions, told The Christian Post that the situation has calmed down significantly and businesses, churches and schools are opening up again.
Compassion International has been serving in Haiti for 50 years and partners with churches to help educate children and provide for their physical and emotional needs. More than 109,000 are enrolled in its 315 child development centers in that country. Individuals who sponsor a child who participates in its program donate $38 a month to go toward that child’s education and can opt to donate more funds to provide for other necessities for the child and their family.
“The children that are registered in the Compassion program, especially those who attend a church in Port-au-Prince or other cities — that’s where most of the demonstrations took place,” Lassegue said. “Those children had to stop attending their activities at the church. So for about a week, maybe two weeks, depending on where they were located, those children had to miss the activities going on in the projects.”
As children return to church and their education programs and tutoring, it’s incumbent upon Compassion International’s staff, who are native to the region, to observe them and ensure they receive the emotional support they need.
“Part of the response of Compassion is not only making sure that those children attend those activities, but also pay special attention to the emotional and psychological impacts of the last few weeks,” Lassegue added. “Many times, in our countries, what we find is that those needs often go unnoticed. And even though the child saw or witnessed violence or was the subject of actual violence, many times those situations are not addressed.
“Compassion is really trying to make sure those children do have that personal attention from a tutor, from — if the case calls for it — a trained counselor who can help children navigate through those feelings and address them,” he said.
Megan Bordeaux, the founder of Respire Haiti, a nonprofit that educates 500 children a year and employs 100 locals, said she felt called by God to move to the third-world country that’s plagued by poverty and child slavery after only spending 45 minutes in Gressier during a mission trip in 2010.
As she watched the "children carrying heavy jugs of water on their heads" in the hot sun on Bellevue Mountain's winding path, she thought to herself, "someone needs to come here.”
Less than a year later, Boudreaux left the comforts of her home in America to move to Haiti, a short distance away from Bellevue Mountain, a site where voodoo (or vaudou) rituals (the Afro-Haitian religion that blends Roman Catholicism and spirit worship) were performed.
Soon after her arrival, the then 24-year-old (now 32) helped expose the corrupt practices at the Son of God orphanage, and, compelled by the heartbreaking and common practice of children being used as restaveks (household servants), began organizing a nonprofit. Boudreaux documented those experiences in the book, Miracle on Voodoo Mountain: A Young Woman's Remarkable Story of Pushing Back the Darkness for the Children of Haiti.
Through feeding programs, a school, and a medical clinic, Respire Haiti's mission has come to encompass the entire community in Gressier. But during times of unrest, Respire Haiti Christian School and its medical and therapy clinics are closed because it’s unsafe for the children and staff to travel from their homes to the school.
“Unfortunately, Respire Haiti Christian School was closed due to the rioting, as well as Respire's medical and therapy clinics,” Boudreaux told CP. “It was unsafe for our 500-plus students and 100-plus staff to try and get to school and work. Public transportation was not functioning and there were numerous road blocks set up making it impossible for everyone to arrive safely.
“The children we serve get fed twice a day and receive medical care and counseling. And the parents are able to use the clinic and other resources as well,” she said. “When the school and clinic are closed, they aren't able to receive any of these resources."
Last Monday, Respire Haiti’s clinic and school were reopened to “serve food to any students, staff and community members that could safely arrive at our school,” Boudreaux said. Because markets were closed during the riots, the cooks who work at the school weren’t able to buy the food they needed to make meals. So they “scrounged together what they could to provide meals for anyone who was able to get to Respire Haiti Christian School,” she added.
The market's closure in Gressier also posed a challenge for families who were in need of food, gas and water. Unlike in the U.S., most Haitians don't have access to refrigeration to preserve food.
The children served by Respire Haiti receive uniforms, books, computer and library classes, and medical care. Because many of the students have started school at a later age, Boudreaux said the school has two teachers in each classroom during the day and tutoring available after school. As of now, the school only offers classes up to the ninth grade due to funding and classroom space.
Despite not being able to educate students past the ninth grade, Boudreaux said the school has a 100 percent attendance rate among its 560 students.
“We are proud of the way we educate our students,” she said, “instead of corporal punishment like most Haitian schools, we pride ourselves in disciplining in a loving and God honoring way. Our days begin and end with prayer; our teachers love the Lord and teach because they love it. Respire Haiti Christian School and medical clinic are known in the community as the light on the hill,” she added.
Poverty, inflation, disasters and corruption
Haiti is the poorest country of the America’s, according to the World Bank. Among its population of 10.4 million, 6 million (59 percent) live below the national poverty line of $2.41 a day, and over 2.5 million fall below the national extreme poverty line of $1.25 a day.
“Inflation has been rampant over the last year or two,” said Lassegue. “Last year it’s been 15 percent, and the Haitian gourde has been losing its value at a rate that has been unprecedented. All of these situations exert significant pressure on the cost of living and the ability of families to meet the needs of their children and buy food.
“After a two-week period like this, especially if the parents were day workers and could not work and earn money, things were especially difficult because they could not provide for their children. There’s a lot more hardship for those families. That’s why we come alongside those families and try to determine the level of need of those children and how we can help,” Lassegue said of Compassion’s work in the region.
Following the earthquake of 2010, more than $10.4 billion in aid was collected from foreign donors to aid in rebuilding infrastructure and homes that were destroyed. “But less than 1 percent of the emergency aid spent in their names went directly to Haitians,” according to Jake Johnston, an international research associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C., and the leading writer for the center’s Haiti: Relief and Reconstruction Watch website.
“The legitimate government, the private sector and civil society were cast aside in favor of for-profit aid companies in the United States and other foreign experts,” Johnston added in an opinion piece for The New York Times.
Raymond Joseph, former U.S. ambassador to Haiti from 2005 to 2010, noted in an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal that the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that “62.2 percent of contracts from USAID had gone to ‘Beltway-based firms, while just 1.5 percent has gone to Haitian companies.’ The CEPR also reported that ‘of the $6.43 billion disbursed by bilateral and multilateral donors to Haiti from 2010–12, just 9 percent went through the Haitian government.’ Much of the rest, according to CEPR, was spent ‘lining contractors’ pockets.’”
In July 2015, the U.S. Congress, which condemned the lack of accountability for U.S. funds spent in Haiti, passed the Assessing Progress in Haiti Act that required the Secretary of State to provide quarterly reports about U.S.-financed operations in Haiti.
Former President Bill Clinton, the U.S. envoy to Haiti, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were also criticized by Haitians and former government officials because Clinton Foundation donors and friends of the Clintons benefited financially from businesses that were awarded contracts for reconstruction projects in Haiti, ABC News reported.
In its investigation, ABC News found that an industrial park and a Korean garment factory hailed by Hillary Clinton as a great success because it was going to create an initial 20,000 jobs and then 65,000 to 100,000 jobs years later, has only employed between 4,000 to 9,000 Haitians. More than 400 farmers were displaced from their land in Caracol, Northeast Haiti, to make way for that industrial park. The Korean garment company, which was awarded $400 million of global aid, subsequently gave $50,000 to $100,000 to the Clinton Foundation in 2012, “and its owner invested in a startup company owned by Hillary Clinton’s former chief of staff,” the network reported.
American retailers Walmart and Gap, which donated to the Clinton Foundation sums of between $1 million to $5 million, and $100,000 to $250,000, respectively, also benefited from contracts and U.S. tax breaks as buyers for the clothes shipped from Haiti.
Another tragedy struck after the earthquake when 10,000 Haitians died from a cholera outbreak spread by infected U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal who were housed at a base that was leaking waste into the Meille River. The U.N. didn’t apologize or admit its role in the cholera outbreak in Haiti — where the disease was not present until the U.N. peacekeepers arrived — until 2016.
In a U.N. internal report released in 2016, “auditors said a quarter of the sites run by the peacekeepers with the U.N.’s Stabilization Mission in Haiti that they had visited were still discharging their waste into public canals as late as 2014, four years after the epidemic began,” the NY Times reported.
But the primary reason Haitians have been demonstrating in the streets since last summer is to protest government corruption and to find out what happened to missing Petrocaribe funds, the $4.3 billion in Venezuelan oil revenues which Haiti had received over the previous decade. The money was supposed to fund infrastructure projects, such as roads and bridges, sanitation and health, and hospitals and schools. It was also supposed to grow the country's agriculture sector. But virtually nothing was accomplished and Haitians have been left with unfinished construction projects.
“Kot kòb PetroCaribe a?” — “Where’s the PetroCaribe money?” — thousands of demonstrators chanted in the streets as violent riots broke out.
Petrocaribe was an oil agreement between the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Caribbean nations, including Haiti. In 2006, the Haitian government signed an agreement in which they paid Venezuela 60 percent of the cost its oil, and agreed to pay the remaining balance over 25 years at 1 percent interest. The subsidized oil on favorable financing terms was supposed to enable Haiti "to use the savings to finance social and economic projects,” the Miami Herald said.
In 2017, an anti-corruption investigation by the Haitian Senate commission found that “more than a dozen former government officials and heads of private firms embezzled $2 billion in Venezuelan oil loans,” the Herald reported.
“It can be declared that the PETROCARIBE has been the object of embezzlement, embezzlement, embezzlement and prevarication on the part of those indexed in this report,” the commission’s 650-page report concluded.
When President Jovenel Moïse was elected in February 2017, he pledged to crackdown on corruption. His political mentor and presidential predecessor, Michel Martelly — a recording artist who the Obama administration had worked hard to get elected over the incumbent President René Préval — presided over most of the Petrocaribe spending. “Now Mr. Moïse too has been directly implicated, and his government’s repression has picked up,” the NY Times reported.
Last summer during the World Cup, the Haitian government announced that it was going to substantially increase fuel prices — 38 percent on gas, 47 percent on diesel and 51 percent on kerosene, which is used by most Haitians living in the countryside to light their homes.
The increase was part of a deal it made with the IMF to access $96 million in donor funding, “plus millions of dollars more in grants and zero-interest loans over the next two to three years under another IMF program,” The Miami Herald reported. … “Moïse's administration is not the first to face pressure from the IMF over recovering lost revenue on petroleum imports,” it added.
Soon after the broadcast violent protests broke out and Moïse's government suspended the hike.
Despite recent calls for Moïse to step down over Petrocaribe and the country’s inflation crisis, he has refused to do so. “His prime minister, Jean-Henry Ceant, said he has … vowed to investigate alleged misspending tied to a Venezuelan program that provided Haiti with subsidized oil and said he has requested that a court audit all state-owned enterprises. He also said he would increase the minimum wage and lower the prices of basic goods,” The Associated Press reported.
The recent price of a gallon of gas, the AP added, is $6 (500 gourdes). “Other goods in the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation have also doubled in price in recent weeks: A sack of rice now costs $18 and a can of dry beans around $7. In addition, a gallon of cooking oil has gone up to nearly $11 from $7."
Boudreaux told CP that for Respire Haiti, “The gourdes being worth so little has caused a lot of issues for our organization and our ability to purchase what we need to function at an appropriate price (gas, food, school supplies). The cost of simple things have gone up and made it hard for us to provide what we usually can with our budget.
“More importantly though, inflation has affected the families of our students, staff and community,” she added. “When prices for staples such as rice, beans and eggs become nearly double what they normally cost it becomes extremely difficult for families to provide food.”
Fedorah Pierre-Louis, public engagement director for the Christian nonprofit group World Vision International Haiti, told CP that the repetitive socio-economic and political disruptions in the country have created “extremely challenging working conditions,” but staff remain driven to continue their work to help the country’s most vulnerable.
“The economic crisis and inflation perpetuates the poverty cycle while the political unrest disrupts all efforts to alleviate poverty,” said Pierre-Louis. “Although our commitment to improving living conditions of Haitians living in the most vulnerable areas remains focused, a crisis like the one happening in Haiti right now, delays our progress and renders the expected impact even more difficult to reach.
“With roadblocks, access to vulnerable communities becomes more difficult and field activities and program implementation are delayed,” she added. “During times of high fluidity like the February unrest, positions held by key government stakeholders are in constant flux that further restricts availability of basic services in the most vulnerable communities as well as offsets policy change advocacy efforts that have been paved.”
World Vision’s work in Haiti is threefold: community development, emergency relief, and public policy. The child-focused organization works to increase access to clean water, basic health care, and improving hygiene, nutrition, and sanitation practices. It also provides supplies to victims of chronic or rapid onset disasters and crises. And it “works with policymakers and the public at the national, regional and local levels to build awareness around the root causes of poverty and to address the unjust systems that help perpetuate it,” Pierre-Louis said.
Travel to Haiti and evacuations
A group of Canadian missionaries made international headlines this month after they were safely evacuated out of Haiti during the protests and riots. The church group, which was working with Haiti Arise, had been unable to leave their compound due to roads being blocked or damaged. They paid $6,900 to be transported by helicopter to the airport for a flight to Miami, Florida.
Mission Aviation Fellowship, a Christian ministry organization that maintains a permanent base in Port-au-Prince with four airplanes, evacuated 136 stranded missionaries, aid workers, and others from outlying areas to the airport in Port-au-Prince this month, while also providing medical and other flight services.
Family members of Mission Aviation Fellowship pilots and mechanics were also evacuated during the violent protests and are now returning to their homes in Haiti. “The nine family members were evacuated February 14 as violence in the country escalated,” MAF said in a statement shared with CP last Friday.
“We became concerned as the violence continued, and as a precaution we had our MAF expat staff families evacuate the country,” said David Holsten, president of Mission Aviation Fellowship. “Our partners in mission work have also been evacuating their people as local travel had become too precarious. While we believe it is safe for family members to return, we will continue to keep a close watch on the situation in Haiti.”
Since Compassion International hires national staff they did not have to evacuate any employees during the protests and riots. But they did temporarily suspend all trips for child sponsor visits because of the volatility of the situation and those trips have not yet been resumed, Lassegue said.
Similarly, World Vision Haiti’s international staff remained in the country, but its crisis management team decided to evacuate the children of its international employees, Pierre-Louis told CP of its established security and evacuation procedures.
On Feb. 6, a day before the beginning of the unrest, World Vision International Haiti’s staff was dismissed, Pierre-Louis said, “to ensure that they would have enough time to stock up on supplies and reach home safely.”
“That same evening, we activated our crisis management team, meeting virtually to monitor the situation, analyzing external events, activating our contingency plan and our internal phone tree and warden system to ensure that our staff, the children in the communities and beneficiaries of our programs were all safe and sound,” she added.
From Feb. 7 until Feb. 18, staff were advised to “shelter in place” which meant that all field activities were suspended and many of its offices were closed, except in areas where no riots were reported, such as La Gonave. On Feb. 19, World Vision partially resumed its field operations.
Prayer and next steps
The images of rioters burning tires is not what Boudreaux wants people to visualize when they think of Haiti. What isn’t seen, she said, is the country’s beauty and the resilience of its people.
“When rioting and protests occur in Haiti it's so often the images of tires burning and people yelling and waving guns that make the news,” she lamented. “Unfortunately, the parts of Haiti that aren't shown are the police sweeping up the streets, … the joyful faces of the women who were able to sell in the market today, and the prayer that people have been covering the country in.
"Please pray for the people of Haiti,” Boudreaux added. “Please pray for the leadership of Respire Haiti to continue to serve, love and educate the students." There are still 100 students in Respire Haiti’s education program that are in need of a sponsor to continue in the program, she added.
Compassion International's child sponsors received an update last Thursday about the anti-government protests around the country and were told that if their sponsored child was affected they would be notified as soon as possible.
Schools, child development centers and Compassion International's office in Port-au-Prince that were temporarily closed due to the riots and lack of public safety are now reopened.
Lassegue has called on Christians worldwide to “ask the Lord to guide staff, ask for protection for the children, and ask the Lord to provide wisdom and encourage the leaders and tutors who are standing in the gap to minister to those children.”
For those who already sponsor a child, Lassegue said if they are so inclined they could provide a monetary family gift donation. “That would go a long way, especially if the father could not work or the mother had to stay home and could not earn at their day jobs,” he said.
“Another way that could be of help is what we call a project gift. It would help organize a day camp or camp activities for children,” he added. “Especially after they’ve faced times of hardship it’s good for children to come to a place where they can be ministered to, and where they can be followed up on, advised, and taught and counseled. These actually help those children bounce back as they share their experience and receive some practical, biblical teaching to help them face the reality that they faced just recently.”
Follow Melissa Barnhart on Twitter: @MelBarnhart