Reports on the current cholera outbreak that has killed 442 people in Haiti tend to follow the same basic narrative: unexpected disaster hits helpless nation while American-financed aid groups come to the rescue.
That's part of the story, certainly, but it leaves out a disturbing example of American political interests trumping humanitarian concerns, according to a 2008 report written by three human rights organizations.
Between 2001 and '04, the U.S. government worked to block a $54 million loan designed to help five cities in Haiti rebuild water systems — the best long-term protection against cholera and the many other waterborne illnesses that afflict the country. And in the aftermath of Hurricane Tomas, which could both spread the disease and leave more uprooted Haitians vulnerable, the question of clean water is urgent.
"In this case, the United States actively impeded the Haitian government's capacity to fulfill Haitians' human right to water,'' said the report, "Woch nan Soley: The Denial of the Right to Water in Haiti," written by the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, Partners in Health and the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University. The title comes from a Creole proverb that says, "The rocks in the water can't know the suffering of the rocks in the sun.''
There's no evidence this interference caused the current outbreak or allowed it to spread. For one thing, when the money was finally released in 2008, the first city to benefit was St. Marc, near the center of the current outbreak.
But the U.S. action has left parts of Haiti more vulnerable to the spread of the disease; future outbreaks are considered more likely now that the disease has reappeared in the country after a absence of more than 50 years.
Beyond these health implications are political ones, the report's authors say. Delaying loan payments from the Inter-American Development Bank is part of a historic pattern of denying Haiti foreign aid — aid that could have been used to build needed infrastructure.
"The IDB loans are indicative of a trend for many years to completely bypass the Haitian state,'' said RFK Center director Monika Kalra Varma,
And few public facilities are more desperately needed than water systems.
The country ranked 147th out of 147 countries in the 2002 Water Poverty Index, a measure of sanitation and water quality. Besides breeding cholera, contaminated water is responsible for one of the country's most feared diseases, typhoid, and severe intestinal infections that are the leading killer of Haitian children less than 5 years old.
Recognizing this, the Development Bank approved the loan to repair and upgrade urban water systems in 1998. Haiti accepted the loans two years later, and in 2001 paid off debts to the bank, making it eligible to receive payments.
But by then, the report said, "the U.S. government suddenly expressed 'significant concerns' " — mostly about the legitimacy of the 2000 legislative elections dominated by candidates backing then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
The report quotes former ambassador Dean Curran saying in 2001 that the release of the loans would be delayed "with the objective of trying to request of the protagonists of the current (political) situation ... to reach a compromise.''
At other times, the U.S. Treasury Department and U.S. representatives on the bank board resorted to stalling tactics, the report said. Early in 2001, the department wrote a letter asking for an explanation of Haiti's long delay in accepting the loan. A lawyer for the U.S. representative to the board referred to this tactic when he wrote to Treasury, "while this is not a 'bullet proof' way to stop the (bank's) disbursements, it certainly will put a few more large rocks in the road."
"It was very nasty,'' Kalra Varma said. "I personally looked through all 4,000 documents and it was an ugly, ugly paper trail.''
But it was done for good reason, said Natalie Wyeth, a Treasury spokeswoman. By that time, the U.S. government had clear evidence of corruption in Aristide's government.
"Given the situation in Haiti at that time, there was serious concern that Treasury couldn't fulfill (its) mandate to Congress or the American taxpayer,'' Wyeth said.
Also, the loan was far from a cure-all for Haiti's water woes, said Peter Bate, a spokesman for the Inter-American bank. Bringing the country's sanitation and water systems up to modest standards recommended by the United Nations would cost an estimated $850 million, he said.
The loan would have done nothing to improve access to clean water in the rural Artibonite valley where most of the 6,742 patients have been infected. It has paid for upgrades in St. Marc — $10 million worth so far — that may have prevented the disease from spreading through the city, said Dominique Bouzerma, a bank official stationed there.
And if the bank slowed the release of funds during Aristide's final term and the tumultuous years after his departure in 2004, it is now fully committed to helping the government.
In 2007, it changed its policy to issue only grants, not loans, to Haiti; this means the country will not have to pay back the $54 million for water improvements, Bate said. The bank expects to grant $2 billion to the country over the next decade, including $115 million, with Spain, for upgrades to the water system in Port-au-Prince and $10 million to improve sanitation in the Artibonite, Bate said.
Still, the authors of the report said, during the Aristide years the bank clearly violated its policy of separating politics from banking decisions, and could again if, for example, it does not like the results of the elections scheduled for later this month.
"We need to keep a careful watch over the IDB because now they have a track record,'' Kalra Varma said.
The delay in water improvement funds means the work in some cities has still not started. And in the decade after the loan was approved, residents in the targeted cities continued to die from preventable diseases such as typhoid and dysentery.
In 2007, the report's authors found that the public water system in one these cities, Port-au-Paix, provided water to residents only once a week during the dry season. This water sometimes went untreated for months. Broken pipes had left some public spigots dry for so long they were used to tether donkeys.
Residents who could afford it often had to pay for trucked-in water. Those who could not drank bacteria-laden water from shallow ditches dug into the trash-strewn bank of the Trois-Rivieres river.
"Although community members refer to these holes as 'sous dlo,' a Creole term meaning groundwater spring,'' the report said, "the water in these holes is nothing more than river water."
Dan DeWitt can be reached at (352) 754-6116 or firstname.lastname@example.org.