Saturday, April 26, 2008

Death Zone

The New York Times recently ran an article regarding Haiti’s food crisis. As the author walked through Cite Soleil he noted people making mud patties to eat. He noted that most of the “poorest of the poor suffer silently, too weak for activism or too busy raising the next generation of hungry”. The Times article ended with a young mother from Soleil offered one of her five children to the author and said, “Take one. You pick. Just feed them.”

After working in Haiti since 1981, being offered a child is almost an everyday experience. When I tell people at home that Haitian women frequently attempt to give their babies away, it is hard to believe. The quality of the Haitian mother can be questioned by people that have not been in Cite Soleil, but her offer of her child is a real act of love. She is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. She wants the child to live and is willing to give her child to someone she doesn't know while realizing that she will never see her child again.

Who can blame her?

Haitians have been hungry and malnourished for along time. With the recent press of Haitians eating mud patties and the food riots last week, the world has focused on Haiti and many other countries suffering similar circumstances—high food prices and not enough money.

The United States started selling Haiti rice in the mid 1980’s at prices much less than the Haitian farmer could sell his rice. So the Haitian farmer went out of business as irrigation systems became dysfunctional, fertilization of land became problematic, and the once rich Haitian countryside was allowed to deteriorate. It became necessary for Haiti to import 80% of its rice.

Farmers in the United States are making a huge surplus of rice today. But the price of rice has gone up for all of us, including Haitians, because of energy reasons. It costs more to get the rice from the U.S. to the hungry mouths waiting for it in Haiti. And Haitians can’t afford much.

To work in Haiti is truly an embarrassment for me. The vast majority of diseases that I see are brought on by poverty. And when people are poor, their water and food supply is inadequate. Parents have very little to give to their children. And their children become malnourished and enter the downward spiral…

With this latest crisis in Haiti, hundreds of people are fleeing Haiti’s shores for the United States. According to the Washington Post, the U.S. State Department warns Americans who are visiting Haiti about the “chronic danger of violent crime,” all the while repatriating Haitians to a “death zone”. President Preval of Haiti recently requested Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Haitians who are unlawfully in the United States. TPS designations have been given to Somalia, Burundi, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Sudan. The last time Haiti applied for TPS was in 2004 and was denied for undisclosed reasons.

Obviously Haiti has to begin to produce enough of its own food again. President Rene Preval has lowered the price of “Miami” rice. The Haitian farmer needs a good price for fertilizer. Poor Haitians in the province need to be put to work repairing the irrigation systems. This would improve the fields, rice and other foods would grow, and Haitian women wouldn't be offering their starving babies to strangers.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Pope Benedict Challenges Catholics (and Catholic Bishops Too)

Pope Benedict came to the United States last week as a quiet but forceful critic of "an increasingly secular and materialistic culture". Almost any American who paid attention had to be uncomfortable because all of us are shaped by the very forces he was criticizing.

Benedict directly challenged an assumption that so many Americans make about religion: that it is a matter of private devotion with few public implications.

Not true, said the pope. "Any tendency to treat religion as a private matter must be resisted," he told the country's Catholic bishops. "Only when their faith permeates every aspect of their lives do Christians become truly open to the transforming power of the Gospel."

Was Bishop Jenky listening when Benedict asked a pointed question: "Is it consistent for practicing Catholics to ignore or exploit the poor and the marginalized, to promote sexual behavior contrary to Catholic moral teaching, or to adopt positions that contadict the right to life of every human being from conception to natural death?"

A few years ago Bishop Jenky did ignore poor Haitians with heart problems and allowed OSF and the Catholic Diocese of Peoria to dismiss Haitian Hearts. My brother asked Bishop Jenky (with Sister Judith Ann present at the meeting) if I could go to Haiti and bring back a few kids for cardiac surgery. He replied no, Sister Judith Ann made no response, and then at a different meeting, Bishop Jenky told me that I would be responsible for the deaths of Haitian children if I petitioned for a Tribunal (Canon Law) Court against OSF regarding their medical negligence in several areas. Bishop Jenky simply concluded that he would not "judge against OSF" in a Tribunal Court.

I think that Bishop Jenky feared the "secular and materialistic culture" in Peoria and what they would do to the Catholic Diocese of Peoria if he challenged OSF in any way. I believe Bishop Jenky disagrees with much of what OSF does, but fears them greatly. So he decided that Haitian kids would take the heat and hardly any one up here would really know or care.

Since that time, a number of Haitian kids with heart defects have died, many are suffering and slowly dying now, and Haitians en masse are starving and drowning at sea when they attempt to escape Haiti's misery.

I doubt Benedict would be pleased with Bishop Jenky or our large opulent Catholic medical center in Peoria and our "Catholic culture" regarding Haiti's poor.

(From E.J.Dionne's editorial with my interposed comments. Picture of Jackson Jean-Baptiste in cardiogenic shock. Jackson had heart surgery at OSF, returned to Haiti, became ill in Haiti, and was refused further care by OSF. Jackson died seven weeks after photo at the age of 21.)

Monday, April 21, 2008

We Starve 'Em and Then We Drown 'Em

20 Bodies Found in Sea Near Bahamas
Filed at 12:31 p.m. ET

NASSAU, Bahamas (AP) -- The bodies of 20 Haitians have been recovered from the sea near the Bahamas after their boat capsized, the U.S. Coast Guard said Monday as it searched for survivors.

Three survivors -- two Haitians and one Honduran -- have been found, said Barry Bena, a Coast Guard spokesman in Miami. Coast Guard Petty Officer Jennifer Johnson said all 20 whose bodies were recovered were Haitian, correcting an initial report that one was Honduran.

The survivors said their boat was carrying 24 people when it capsized around 10 p.m. Saturday, according to another Coast Guard spokesman, Luis Diaz.
The search-and-rescue mission began Sunday after fishermen heard people screaming in the water before dawn.

The accident happened about 15 miles (25 kilometers) northwest of Nassau, Bahamas, according to the Coast Guard. A cutter, helicopter and a jet from the Coast Guard and two Bahamas military vessels continued searching the area Monday.
Diaz said the Bahamian government was holding the survivors.

Every year, thousands of Haitians try to leave the Western Hemisphere's poorest country aboard rickety, overloaded boats for other islands or the United States.
Soaring food prices have pushed many into abject poverty and triggered riots earlier this month in Haiti, but this has not translated so far into a spike in the number of migrants.

Last year a migrant boat capsized near the Turks and Caicos islands, pitching Haitians into shark-infested waters. At least 61 people died.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Peaceful Revolution

"Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable."

John F. Kennedy

The Riverside Speech

"We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The "tide in the affairs of men" does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: "Too late." There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. "The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on..." We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation."

Martin Luther King
April, 1968

Saturday, April 19, 2008


The Haitian people in the previous 25 posts live in the "front yard" of the United States.

Should they be slowly starving to death?

Father Jean-Juste doesn't think so. Neither does Human Rights lawyer Bill Quigley.

See Bill's article below:

USA Role in Haiti Hunger Riots

Riots in Haiti over explosive rises in food costs have claimed the lives of six people. There have also been food riots world-wide in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivorie, Egypt, Guinea, Mauritania, Mexico, Morocco, Senegal, Uzbekistan and Yemen.

The Economist, which calls the current crisis the silent tsunami, reports that last year wheat prices rose 77% and rice 16%, but since January rice prices have risen 141%. The reasons include rising fuel costs, weather problems, increased demand in China and India, as well as the push to create biofuels from cereal crops.

Hermite Joseph, a mother working in the markets of Port au Prince, told journalist Nick Whalen that her two kids are “like toothpicks – they’re not getting enough nourishment. Before, if you had a dollar twenty-five cents, you could buy vegetables, some rice, 10 cents of charcoal and a little cooking oil. Right now, a little can of rice alone costs 65 cents, and is not good rice at all. Oil is 25 cents. Charcoal is 25 cents. With a dollar twenty-five, you can’t even make a plate of rice for one child.”

The St. Claire’s Church Food program, in the Tiplas Kazo neighborhood of Port au Prince, serves 1000 free meals a day, almost all to hungry children – five times a week in partnership with the What If Foundation. Children from Cite Soleil have been known to walk the five miles to the church for a meal. The cost of rice, beans, vegetables, a little meat, spices, cooking oil, propane for the stoves, have gone up dramatically. Because of the rise in the cost of food, the portions are now smaller. But hunger is on the rise and more and more children come for the free meal. Hungry adults used to be allowed to eat the leftovers once all the children were fed, but now there are few leftovers.

The New York Times lectured Haiti on April 18 that “Haiti, its agriculture industry in shambles, needs to better feed itself.” Unfortunately, the article did not talk at all about one of the main causes of the shortages – the fact that the U.S. and other international financial bodies destroyed Haitian rice farmers to create a major market for the heavily subsidized rice from U.S. farmers. This is not the only cause of hunger in Haiti and other poor countries, but it is a major force.

Thirty years ago, Haiti raised nearly all the rice it needed. What happened?

In 1986, after the expulsion of Haitian dictator Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier the International Monetary Fund (IMF) loaned Haiti $24.6 million in desperately needed funds (Baby Doc had raided the treasury on the way out). But, in order to get the IMF loan, Haiti was required to reduce tariff protections for their Haitian rice and other agricultural products and some industries to open up the country’s markets to competition from outside countries. The U.S. has by far the largest voice in decisions of the IMF.

Doctor Paul Farmer was in Haiti then and saw what happened. “Within less than two years, it became impossible for Haitian farmers to compete with what they called ‘Miami rice.’ The whole local rice market in Haiti fell apart as cheap, U.S. subsidized rice, some of it in the form of ‘food aid,’ flooded the market. There was violence, ‘rice wars,’ and lives were lost.”

“American rice invaded the country,” recalled Charles Suffrard, a leading rice grower in Haiti in an interview with the Washington Post in 2000. By 1987 and 1988, there was so much rice coming into the country that many stopped working the land.

Fr. Gerard Jean-Juste, a Haitian priest who has been the pastor at St. Claire and an outspoken human rights advocate, agrees. “In the 1980s, imported rice poured into Haiti, below the cost of what our farmers could produce it. Farmers lost their businesses. People from the countryside started losing their jobs and moving to the cities. After a few years of cheap imported rice, local production went way down.”

Still the international business community was not satisfied. In 1994, as a condition for U.S. assistance in returning to Haiti to resume his elected Presidency, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was forced by the U.S., the IMF, and the World Bank to open up the markets in Haiti even more.

But, Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, what reason could the U.S. have in destroying the rice market of this tiny country?

Haiti is definitely poor. The U.S. Agency for International Development reports the annual per capita income is less than $400. The United Nations reports life expectancy in Haiti is 59, while in the US it is 78. Over 78% of Haitians live on less than $2 a day, more than half live on less than $1 a day.

Yet Haiti has become one of the very top importers of rice from the U.S. The U.S. Department of Agriculture 2008 numbers show Haiti is the third largest importer of US rice - at over 240,000 metric tons of rice. (One metric ton is 2200 pounds).

Rice is a heavily subsidized business in the U.S. Rice subsidies in the U.S. totaled $11 billion from 1995 to 2006. One producer alone, Riceland Foods Inc of Stuttgart Arkansas, received over $500 million dollars in rice subsidies between 1995 and 2006.

The Cato Institute recently reported that rice is one of the most heavily supported commodities in the U.S. – with three different subsidies together averaging over $1 billion a year since 1998 and projected to average over $700 million a year through 2015. The result? “Tens of millions of rice farmers in poor countries find it hard to lift their families out of poverty because of the lower, more volatile prices caused by the interventionist policies of other countries.”

In addition to three different subsidies for rice farmers in the U.S., there are also direct tariff barriers of 3 to 24 percent, reports Daniel Griswold of the Cato Institute – the exact same type of protections, though much higher, that the U.S. and the IMF required Haiti to eliminate in the 1980s and 1990s.

U.S. protection for rice farmers goes even further. A 2006 story in the Washington Post found that the federal government has paid at least $1.3 billion in subsidies for rice and other crops since 2000 to individuals who do no farming at all; including $490,000 to a Houston surgeon who owned land near Houston that once grew rice.

And it is not only the Haitian rice farmers who have been hurt.

Paul Farmer saw it happen to the sugar growers as well. “Haiti, once the world's largest exporter of sugar and other tropical produce to Europe, began importing even sugar-- from U.S. controlled sugar production in the Dominican Republic and Florida. It was terrible to see Haitian farmers put out of work. All this sped up the downward spiral that led to this month's food riots.”

After the riots and protests, President Rene Preval of Haiti agreed to reduce the price of rice, which was selling for $51 for a 110 pound bag, to $43 dollars for the next month. No one thinks a one month fix will do anything but delay the severe hunger pains a few weeks.

Haiti is far from alone in this crisis. The Economist reports a billion people worldwide live on $1 a day. The US-backed Voice of America reports about 850 million people were suffering from hunger worldwide before the latest round of price increases.

Thirty three countries are at risk of social upheaval because of rising food prices, World Bank President Robert Zoellick told the Wall Street Journal. When countries have many people who spend half to three-quarters of their daily income on food, “there is no margin of survival.”

In the U.S., people are feeling the world-wide problems at the gas pump and in the grocery. Middle class people may cut back on extra trips or on high price cuts of meat. The number of people on food stamps in the US is at an all-time high. But in poor countries, where malnutrition and hunger were widespread before the rise in prices, there is nothing to cut back on except eating. That leads to hunger riots.

In the short term, the world community is sending bags of rice to Haiti. Venezuela sent 350 tons of food. The US just pledged $200 million extra for worldwide hunger relief. The UN is committed to distributing more food.

What can be done in the medium term? The US provides much of the world’s food aid, but does it in such a way that only half of the dollars spent actually reach hungry people. US law requires that food aid be purchased from US farmers, processed and bagged in the US and shipped on US vessels – which cost 50% of the money allocated. A simple change in US law to allow some local purchase of commodities would feed many more people and support local farm markets.

In the long run, what is to be done? The President of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who visited Haiti last week, said “Rich countries need to reduce farms subsidies and trade barriers to allow poor countries to generate income with food exports. Either the world solves the unfair trade system, or every time there's unrest like in Haiti, we adopt emergency measures and send a little bit of food to temporarily ease hunger."

Citizens of the USA know very little about the role of their government in helping create the hunger problems in Haiti or other countries. But there is much that individuals can do. People can donate to help feed individual hungry people and participate with advocacy organizations like Bread for the World or Oxfam to help change the U.S. and global rules which favor the rich countries. This advocacy can help countries have a better chance to feed themselves.

Meanwhile, Merisma Jean-Claudel, a young high school graduate in Port-au-Prince told journalist Wadner Pierre "...people can’t buy food. Gasoline prices are going up. It is very hard for us over here. The cost of living is the biggest worry for us, no peace in stomach means no peace in the mind…I wonder if others will be able to survive the days ahead because things are very, very hard."

“On the ground, people are very hungry,” reported Fr. Jean-Juste. “Our country must immediately open emergency canteens to feed the hungry until we can get them jobs. For the long run, we need to invest in irrigation, transportation, and other assistance for our farmers and workers.”

In Port au Prince, some rice arrived in the last few days. A school in Fr. Jean-Juste’s parish received several bags of rice. They had raw rice for 1000 children, but the principal still had to come to Father Jean-Juste asking for help. There was no money for charcoal, or oil.

Jervais Rodman, an unemployed carpenter with three children, stood in a long line Saturday in Port au Prince to get UN donated rice and beans. When Rodman got the small bags, he told Ben Fox of the Associated Press, “The beans might last four days. The rice will be gone as soon as I get home.”

Bill Quigley is a human rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola University New Orleans. He can be reached at People interested in donating to feed children in Haiti should go to People who want to help change U.S. policy on agriculture to help combat world-wide hunger should go to: or

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