The Haitian political activist Marie Antoinette Duclair appears to have been unaware that two men on a motorbike were following her car through the badly lit streets of Port-au-Prince.
Her passenger on the night of 29 June was a journalist, Diego Charles. They had been attending a meeting, and she was now, at 11 o’clock at night, dropping him at his home in the Christ-Roi area of Haiti’s capital.
As Charles walked to his door the gunmen on the motorbike opened fire, killing him first before murdering Duclair as she sat in her car.
Just over a week later another assassination drowned out interest in that bloody night of violence: that of Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse, who was gunned down in his home in the hills above Port-au-Prince by mercenaries in an apparent coup attempt.
If there is a link between the two events it is that they are both brutally representative of the situation in Haiti, the western hemisphere’s most impoverished nation, a country that since 2018 has been convulsed by protests and violence, where guns – and those prepared to use them – are the currency in an escalating crisis.
In those days, a few weeks before the advent of the global coronavirus pandemic, Haiti’s long-running political crisis had brought demonstrations and violence to the streets, even if few then had any sense where it would lead.
“We’re fighting against a system where we can’t eat and we don’t get paid. That’s why we’ve taken to the streets,” Drelien explained then. “The president [Moïse] isn’t working for us. He’s no friend of the people – only of the bourgeoisie and businessmen, while we live in poverty.”
Now Moïse is dead, assassinated in his private residence in the Pelerin 5 district of Pétion-Ville, the wealthy enclave where Haiti’s political and business elite live in the hills above the capital. And Haiti’s long-running crisis has reached full throttle.
It has become routine to see one of the world’s most corrupt and ill-governed states lurch from catastrophe to catastrophe, amid coups, failed governments and natural disasters. But this current crisis brings a particular question to the fore – how, despite being the recipient of $13bn (£9.5bn) in international aid since the devastating 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 220,000 people, has the situation for Haitians, by most indicators, continued to worsen?
The very modest gains in poverty reduction in Haiti, according to the World Bank, has gone into reverse, with 60% of the country living in poverty and the richest 20% of the population holding more than 64% of its income.
Haiti is unusual among failed and fragile nations. It is not only an “aid state”, hugely dependent on external development assistance and remittances from Haitians living abroad, but one where aid and foreign intervention, far from helping, has helped undermine an almost nonexistent administration.
Few who have not visited Haiti can fully comprehend the absence of services and institutions, planning or state direction.
Even as the current crisis was beginning, in an interview three years ago, Joël Boutrue, then deputy special representative for the UN stabilisation mission in Haiti, was blunt. “Haiti would be better off without aid,” he said. “Or at least, without the bad kind of aid that allows the administration and the elites to continue without changing.
“It would be better to create the conditions in which change could happen,” he added. “If we get involved, we should do so in an intelligent way, even if that is less visible in terms of the value it brings.”
And while it is only a part of the picture, it is a significant one. The world’s first black republic and the first country to be founded by former slaves, Haiti declared independence from France in 1804. The new nation faced blockades, isolation and protracted interference over two centuries from white-majority powers, including France, which imposed a century of impoverishing reparations for the loss of its slaves, only paid off in 1947, in exchange for recognition.
While some of the toxic consequences of intervention have been obvious, others have been more subtle. As US historian Robert Taber wrote in the Washington Post last week, some have been well documented, “including the Clinton administration cratering the Haitian rice market in the mid-1990s and a UN peacekeeping force reintroducing cholera in the mid-2000s.”
“The notion of Haiti as an aid state is a corrective to the idea of failed state,” says Jake Johnston, a researcher at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, who coined the term and returned from Haiti a few days before Moïse’s assassination. “It’s not just about aid itself but about foreign interference and intervention.
“And when you talk about the ‘aid state’, it is a country [in which] current institutions have been shaped more by outside actors than internal ones. That has manifested itself in different ways, not least by the fact that since the years of the [Baby Doc] Duvalier dictatorship (which ended in 1986), aid has bypassed government, which has had a deeply corrosive effect.
“Rather than strengthening institutions, the mechanisms by which it has been delivered inherently undermine those same institutions, especially in more recent decades, which has seen the outsourcing of the state,” said Johnston.
“Economic policies have been imposed by multilateral banks, like the IMF, which has seen agricultural subsidies slashed. The education and health systems have been turned over to private actors like NGOs. All of which has created a separation between the people and a government that is not governing.”
If that has hollowed out Haiti’s institutions, foreign interventions including aid policy have had, in Johnston’s telling, a more insidious effect.
“Aid to Haiti has been used for political purposes going back years. It is transactional. It has gone up under certain leaders and it has gone down when someone isn’t liked, or it goes to an organisation that shares the interest of the donor country,” he said.
This profound disconnect between a barely governing ruling class, drawn from a wealthy elite, and the barely governed, leaves little incentive for those notionally in charge to combat Haiti’s many problems – from the violent criminality represented by its gangs to its lack of services, rampant poverty and devastating environmental despoliation.
In a Haiti where politicians and criminals alike enjoy impunity, politics historically has relied on the armed gangs – operating like paramilitaries – rather than electoral accountability to remain in office, from Papa Doc Duvalier’s Tontons Macoutes to the Chimères [or ghosts] of the Jean-Bertrand Aristide era, and the gangs used by both sides under Jovenel Moïse.
“The thing is that I don’t think a lot people realise how aid has been used intentionally to weaken the Haitian state. There’s a long, if little-known, paper trail, going back to the end of the Duvalier dictatorship, particularly involving the US,” he said.
“There are documents that very specifically talk about using private, voluntary organisations – now known as NGOs – to funnel money away from the Haitian government to recreate its functions elsewhere.
“It happened again explicitly during the period of the Aristide government [the leftwing president who fell victim to a coup and was reinstated by a US military intervention] and there are public documents from USAid and other government agencies saying we were withholding money and giving it to private organisations to weaken the policies of Aristide.”
The consequence, as critics have pointed out in recent years, has been to deepen the long-running democratic crisis in Haiti, with electoral participation plummeting since Aristide became Haiti’s first democratically elected leader in the 1990s to the first post-quake elections, which saw less than 25% of the population vote.
Recent governments have been largely divorced from Haitians’ lives of poverty, nominated from within the same tight circle of politically connected oligarchs with the blessing of foreign powers, not least Washington, which have pursued short-term stability over long-term sustainability.
All of which came to a head in the PetroCaribe scandal that began during the presidency of Michel Martelly and in which Moïse became embroiled when he succeeded Martelly.
The $3.2bn PetroCaribe scheme – from which about $2bn is alleged to have been stolen – was an alternative model to improve the Haitian situation, in which funds freed up by a deferred payment credit scheme for Venezuelan energy were then to be dispensed by Haiti’s government for large-scale development projects.
Where the PetroCaribe scandal was different – if not in the corruption – was the ability of ordinary Haitians and Haitian institutions to ask what had happened to the missing billions.
“The thing about PetroCaribe,” says Katz, “was that it was supposed to be the thing that the post-earthquake reconstruction was not. Venezuela in its munificence was going free up all this money for Haiti to spend on itself.
“If there had been a better leader, more accountable to the people, rather than Martelly, it might have done some good.”
Jean Marc Brissau, a young Haitian who studied as lawyer in Port-au-Prince before leaving for the US, identifies another critical issue that has contributed to Haiti’s problems: the exodus of the country’s well-educated people, who have been put off becoming involved in the problematic politics.
“The gangs control the country, so educated people like myself can’t find a place in Haiti,” he said. “We don’t feel welcome. You don’t feel like you would want to be involved in politics and be labelled as corrupt or killed or kidnapped.
“So you say to yourself I can better change things from abroad. It’s not the way it should be, but this is the way it is.”
Through the dim forest, a slow procession of hundreds of people largely dressed in white, some in a trance, others singing fervently, heads towards the Osun River. As they have every August for 700 years, Yoruba people gather here at the Osun-Osogbo sacred grove, a Unesco world heritage site in south-west Nigeria, for an ancient festival celebrating their traditional spirituality.
Yoruba religious practitioners, adorned with cowrie shells, some with crosses or Islamic beads, pray for protection and offer sacrifices. In a region where Christianity and Islam are dominant, Yoruba traditions have often been cast as demonic – a legacy of colonial violence against Indigenous faiths – but are practised by a devout minority and hold a wide significance for people of varying faiths.
Recent years have seen a growing appreciation of Yoruba spirituality among the younger generation, with more young people becoming practitioners and Ifá priests.
The two-week Osun festival attracts visitors from across the Yoruba-dominated south-west, along with diasporas from South America and the Caribbean, as well as tourists. Osun, the goddess of the river, is said to have appeared to an ancient warrior, instructing him to bring Yoruba people out of famine, into safety in Osogbo city. In return, they would offer a yearly festival.
Osunnike Ogundele, 53, wears a shimmering green and gold lace dress, her hair braided with cowrie shells. “I’ve been here all my life,” she says, explaining her mother’s influence, and her own guidance for her children.
“My fondest memories of the grove are our mothers before us who passed on the knowledge we have now. There was so much to learn from just observing them and we are trying our best to pass this on to our daughters too,” she says. “Osun answers all prayers, no one cries to her without leaving with a smile.”
Osunniti Sikiru, 32, a Muslim and Osun priestess, is one of a number of custodians of the grove. She describes how, for Yoruba people, cultural heritage should be understood as predating the advent of Abrahamic religion in the region.
“Most of our forefathers weren’t Christians or Muslims,” she says. “There’s a big misconception that as a Muslim one can’t combine it with Osun worship. Water is very symbolic in Islam and Osun worship, both emphasise purity. I am still a practising Muslim, I still pray five times a day, my son is named Ibrahim, but Osun worship precedes most religions in Yoruba land.”
Princess Adeola Iya Osun, 47, another priestess, chimes in. “One of my daughters is a pastor and my son actively goes to the church, but what I try to preach is a symbiotic relationship between faiths.”
There have been concerns that the Osun River, seen as having healing powers, has been contaminated, sparking fears for the health of the worshippers who wash and drink here. Local media investigations allegedly found dangerous levels of lead, lithium, aluminium and iron, caused by the activities of artisanal miners and large companies.
Last year, pictures of the polluted river caused uproar and demands for government action. A warning by the state authorities not to drink from the river came on the penultimate day of this year’s festival, sparking further anger. Some chose to drink anyway, knowing the river was contaminated, believing they would be protected from ill-health.
Pollution is a serious worry for those attempting to maintain the integrity of the grove and its surroundings.
A committee of custodians leads these efforts, clearing the litter, while preserving the architecture and stone carvings.
On the final day of the festival, visitors crowd the banks of the river to meet priests and priestesses for consultation and prayers. Baskets are laid out full of kola nuts, fruits and vegetables.
In a trance, a priestess bellows praises to the goddess, then shares messages and warnings. As devotees arrive for prayers, testimonies are shared by people who have attended for several years.
Iya Osun’s parents had challenges having children, she says. “My mother came to pray to Osun for a child. I’m a result of that answered prayer.”
As the festival ends, the crowds leave the grove and the dense forest, their prayers made, hoping to return next year with testimonies of their own.
Earlier, the head of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), Denis Pushilin, said the republic is negotiating with Pyongyang on the arrival of builders from North Korea. In July, North Korea recognized the independence of the DPR and Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR).He said Russia will not force Donbas and North Korea to avoid cooperation.
MOSCOW (Sputnik) – The UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea do not apply to the Donbas republics, Director of the Department of International Organizations at the Russian Foreign Ministry Pyotr Ilyichev said in an interview with Sputnik.
Earlier, the head of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), Denis Pushilin, said the republic is negotiating with Pyongyang on the arrival of builders from North Korea. In July, North Korea recognized the independence of the DPR and Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR).
“The recruitment of labor from North Korea is subject to international restrictions established by UN Security Council resolutions. However, it must be taken into account that they apply to the member states of the world organization, which the people’s republics of Donbas are not,” Ilyichev said.
He said Russia will not force Donbas and North Korea to avoid cooperation.
The poliovirus is circulating again in the West. A virus that was on the way to global eradication has been detected in recent months in the wastewater of New York and London. This is not unusual, since it can appear in the fecal remains of vaccinated people with the attenuated pathogen. What’s different now is that the poliovirus – which causes the infectious disease polio – has been recorded in an adult in the United States, something that has not happened for a decade, and that samples from the United Kingdom suggest there is local transmission of the disease.
How did the virus get there? To answer this question, it is first necessary to understand the two types of vaccines that are used against polio. In countries where transmission is eradicated, an intramuscular vaccine is used. This contains the inactive virus, which is enough to prevent it from spreading in an environment where the pathogen is no longer circulating in the wild and most of the population is vaccinated. The second type of vaccine is made up of oral drops with a live attenuated virus, which is used in countries where polio continues to circulate. It produces antibodies in the blood, as well as the oral and intestinal mucosa. “With this vaccine, the immunized person would not develop the disease nor would they be able to infect others if they become infected with the wild virus,” explain researchers José Jiménez and Ana María Ortega-Prieto, from King’s College London, in an article in The Conversation.
The only two countries where polio remains endemic are Pakistan and Afghanistan, with 12 cases and one so far this year, respectively. Normally, when polio is detected in fecal remains in the wastewater, it comes from the excretion of people from these countries, which is not a major problem. What has happened now is that the virus is not just being detected in wastewater, it’s infecting people.
It’s still not fully confirmed that there is local circulation in London, but the European Center for Disease Control (ECDC) has warned: “The poliovirus levels and the genetic diversity among the isolates suggests some level of virus transmission both in the areas where positive samples were found and in adjacent ones.”
Local circulation has been confirmed in New York, where one adult has been paralyzed due to the virus. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this case, is just “the tip of the iceberg.” “There are a number of individuals in the community that have been infected with poliovirus,” Dr. José Romero, from the CDC, told news network CNN. “The spread is always a possibility because the spread is going to be silent.”
As was seen during the Covid-19 pandemic, when a case is detected and its origin is unknown, it is normally a sign of uncontrolled transmission. “For every one case of paralytic polio identified, hundreds more may be undetected,” said State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett in a statement. This is partly due to the fact that most people who contract the poliovirus are asymptomatic. Only in about 1% of cases does the virus cause problems: if it enters the central nervous system, it can cause paralysis and muscle atrophy.
What are the consequences of these outbreaks? In both London and New York, vaccination rates are lower than in the rest of their respective countries, meaning there is an elevated risk for children, who mainly affected by this disease. In London, authorities have already launched a vaccination campaign to offer booster doses to one million children between the ages of one and nine.
The road to polio eradication
The spread of polio is limited, at least in countries with high vaccination coverage. But these recent cases show that the virus still presents a risk and completely eradicating it is a complicated task, even if it seemed within reach.
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) was launched in 1988 with the aim of eradicating polio just as smallpox has been eradicated. In general terms, the program has been a success: the number of polio cases worldwide have dropped 99% since its creation.
Only Pakistan and Afghanistan, where Islamic fundamentalism makes vaccination campaigns difficult, report a few cases each year. And Nigeria, the other country where there is wild poliovirus (i.e. not the virus is transmitted by the attenuated vaccines), has not reported a single case since 2016.
The secret to this achievement is mass vaccination: first with the oral vaccine and then, when the country is already free of the disease, with the vaccine given by injection. Keeping vaccination levels high is key to curbing the virus.
According to UNICEF data, global vaccination levels dropped between 2019 and 2021 by 5%. In other words, 25 million children stopped receiving their doses. Vaccination rates are the lowest they have been in the last 30 years: 81% for diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough, which are considered a good indicator for other conditions. This means it is likely that polio coverage is at similarly low levels.