In a February 17 article “Venezuela’s Renegade Aid” published in the Huffington Post, freelance journalist Patrick Adams implies that there is something untoward and problematic about the Venezuelan aid effort in earthquake ravaged Haiti.
Venezuela’s main crime appears to be its non-participation in the UN coordinated “cluster system” which Adams argues “has worked fairly well” – never mind that the UN has been an occupying force in Haiti since the United States engineered overthrow of democratically elected President Jean Bertrand Aristide in 2004 and never mind that John Holmes, the head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, himself heavily criticised the implementation of the “cluster strategy” in a confidential email leaked on February 16.
“One month into the response, only a few clusters have fully dedicated cluster coordinators, information management focal points and technical support capacity, all of which are basic requirements for the efficient management of a large scale emergency operation,” Holmes said.
Despite the clearly logistical nightmare of organising such a large scale relief operation Adams argues that it is “one group -- such as the National Armed Fores [sic] of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela” that is creating “problems for everyone else.”
Adams’ main source for the supposedly problematic behaviour of the Venezuelans is Dr. Tiffany Keenan, “founder and president of Haiti Village Health, which oversees the supply and distribution of private aid from its offices in the airport,” in the port city of Jacmel. As it turns out Adams is “embedded” in Keenan’s guesthouse in Jacmel (though he doesn’t mention that in the article).
“The Venezuelans haven't showed up at a single meeting," complained Dr. Tiffany Keenan,” Adams writes.
"We were all sitting there the other day and someone said, 'Did you hear they just put a bunch of tents in Pinchinat?' Nobody had had any idea they were there. We still don't know how many doctors they have or how long they'll be there." Keenan continues.
However, as Adams later admits, the Venezuelans are coordinating their work directly with the Haitian government (which is ultimately responsible for deciding “how aid is coordinated and who manages its distribution among populations in need”) and in the case of the Pinchinat camp in Jacmel, the Venezuelans were brought there directly by the local mayor’s office, so it’s pretty clear that some people had an idea they were there.
As one perceptive commentator on Adams’ article wrote, “So they chose to work through the local government instead of the North-American run “cluster” system. I guess that makes them renegades.”
It later also emerges that the whole story seems to be concocted around a communication problem as the cluster system meetings are conducted only in French and English, whereas the Venezuelans speak Spanish.
In fact, Adam’s article is one big whine about the Venezuelan aid effort, implying that it is uncooperative, inept and inefficient.
However, occasionally facts on the ground force Adams to take a reality check: “When the Venezuelans first arrived, Pinchinat was a sea of makeshift huts assembled with sticks, bed sheets and scraps of plastic -- whatever could be salvaged from the collapsed homes that many of its residents had fled. Within days, some fifty Venezuelan soldiers in forest green fatigues had erected more than a hundred 40-foot, green canvas tents with "U.S." stamped on the side.”
But again Adams finds something to complain about; he mocks Maximo Tampoa, a 25-year-old engineer in the Venezuelan Civil Defense and another Venezuelan Capt. Chapparo for spray painting the red, yellow and blue colours of the Venezuelan flag on the tents provided by Venezuela and chides them for not knowing that more than two centuries ago “on March 12, 1806, the "Generalísimo" Francisco de Miranda, predecessor of the revolutionary leader Simon Bolivar, whose vision of a unified South America has become Chavez's own, raised the original Venezuelan tricolor on the ship Leander, anchored at the time in Jacmel Bay.”
Then he goes on to list a string of complaints: the tents are hot, and there are no floors. That’s it! That’s the problem with the Venezuelan aid effort!
The Venezuelans haven’t occupied the country militarily, blocked aid supplies from arriving at the airport, tried to impose unfair conditions on reconstruction loans or attempted to kidnap 33 Haitian children a la Laura Silsby and the Central Valley Baptists, BUT…. their tents are hot!
So what are the Venezuelans really doing in Haiti?
Venezuela has certainly differentiated its approach to what Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicholas Maduro described as “the hegemonic, abusive form in which U.S. military has sought to address the issue of Haiti.”
After the disaster struck on January 12, Venezuela was the first country to send aid, with an advance team of doctors, search and rescue experts as well as food, water, medical supplies, and rescue equipment arriving in Port-au-Prince on the morning of January 13.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez also announced the cancellation of Haiti’s US$ 295 million debt to Venezuela on January 25, (a fact which Adams does not mention). In addition to thousands of tonnes of food aid Venezuela has also sent 225,000 barrels of diesel fuel and gasoline and Chavez has pledged “all the free fuel that Haiti needs.”
The Venezuelan government has donated 30,000 tents and sent more than 10,000 tonnes of food to Haiti and has pledged to continue shipments of food aid and supplies. Collection points have been set up all around the country for donations to ship to Haiti and Chavez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela has organised dozens of concerts and fundraising events to help out with the Haiti reconstruction effort.
As part of a broader effort in collaboration with the member countries of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas (ALBA), which also includes Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Dominica, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Antigua and Barbuda, Venezuela and the ALBA countries also pledged $120 million to help reconstruction efforts, and together with the Union of South American Nations (UNSAUR) Venezuela has also agreed to contribute to a $300 million fund, with each country donating according to their GDP.
Venezuela has also set up three “community camps”, that together house 3,900 Haitians whose homes were destroyed by the earthquake - the Simón Bolívar and Alexander Petión camps in Leogane, which each house 1,200 people, and the Francisco de Miranda camp in Jacmel, which houses 1,500 people.
The camps provide medical attention, trauma counselling, food, access to sanitation, adult literacy programs as well as sports, education, and music classes and other recreational activities for children. Venezuela’s ambassador to Haití, Pedro Canino, said Venezuela’s 520 aid personnel are also working directly with 219 grassroots social organisations in Haiti to distribute food aid and other supplies to the local communities. The Venezuelans are also helping with reconstruction efforts, digging latrines, clearing rubble, building houses and schools.
Rather than living in hotels or guesthouses like many other aid workers, the Venezuelans are living and working side by side with the Haitian people. Jean H. Charles MSW, JD Executive Director of AINDOH Inc, wrote of the Simón Bolívar camp in Leogane in Caribbean Net News on February 17, “The Bolivarian tent city, is well organized, its a transitional model that should be replicated; the Venezuelan soldiers living with the refugees are social workers, teachers, cooks and community organizers.”
The Venezuelan plan is to work with local communities to multiply the camps to extend access to thousands more people in need. The Jacmel camp is scheduled to be handed over to a team of Cuban doctors, while the Venezuelans will go back to Port-au-Prince, to work on constructing additional camps. The approach of the Venezuelan aid effort is not to impose conditions or win lucrative reconstruction contracts, but rather to help provide Haitians with tools with which they can organise and empower their communities for their own sovereign development.
Of course, efforts can always be improved, and unlimited solidarity with the people of Haiti is urgently necessary right now, but Venezuela, a small underdeveloped country has attempted, in a spirit of internationalism to step up to the challenge to the best of its ability and resources. As Chavez said, “Venezuela’s aid is modest but it is done with a big heart.”
So, rather than attacking the efforts of poor countries engaged in genuine solidarity to alleviate the suffering of the Haitian people perhaps Adams could better spend his time questioning the imperialist intentions of his own country that has sent more than 15,000 soldiers to occupy Haiti, which, incidentally, is thought to have potentially massive untapped reserves of oil and gas. He could also investigate where the billions of dollars in international aid is actually going, what conditions the IMF is imposing on Haiti’s reconstruction loans or what Christian missionaries – who, as with all colonising projects are an essential part of the “hearts and minds” strategy to maintain subordination to Western imperialist and capitalist interests - are really getting up to?
Maybe he could even start with the Christian relief and missions organisation, ORA International, of which Keenan’s NGO, Haiti Village Health, is an affiliate. According to the website Ministrywatch.com, whose stated aim is “educating and empowering donors to support Christian Ministries,” ORA International’s “transparency grade” is “F” and the website posts a “Donor Alert” on the ORA International profile with a warning “Non-Transparent Ministries: Are they Faithful in the Small Things?”