The Uses of Paul Farmer: The Doctor and the Haitian Machine

Published by CounterPunch:

Photo credit: Reuters
Photo credit: Reuters

In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.
– Martin Luther King Jr.

PORT-AU-PRINCE – Dr. Paul Farmer stood alone in a corner of Hotel Karibe conference room, watching the spectacle.

Reporters buzzed around Bill Clinton, jostling with one another and yelling out questions. The former president was the newly-minted United Nations Special Envoy to Haiti.

It was September 2009, just a few months before the earthquake.

Farmer had been appointed as the Deputy Envoy. But it seemed perverse that the reporters would ignore him.

“Dokte Paul,” as his patients here call him, has been a true friend to Haiti.

A Harvard-educated doctor and public health expert, Farmer co-founded Partners In Health. As a tiny clinic in rural Haiti has grown into a medical complex and now a hospital, he’s innovated and delivered top-class healthcare to the poorest Haitians for three decades.

His accomplishments are profiled in Tracy Kidder’s book Mountains Beyond Mountains, which is taught in classrooms across the country. I was reading it at the time.

As a recent college graduate and a newcomer to Haiti, I wasn’t going to miss this chance to interview a personal hero of mine. So I ran over.

We talked about Haiti’s challenges. He folded his arms and leaned in, peering through round wire-rimmed glasses. His answers were thoughtful. Farmer had always been a sharp critic of the international community’s treatment of Haiti.

Eventually I asked him a blunt question: “Do you think the administration here was under pressure from international forces to fight the increase in the minimum wage?”

I’d seen graffiti calling for bump in wages in Port-au-Prince earlier that day. In the preceding months, as the government stalled on enacting the wage hike from $3 to a mere $5 per day, protests had engulfed the downtown area.

Farmer stammered a little bit, said he didn’t know, and subtly changed the subject.

One reader left an ominous comment on the interview. “No disrespect to Dr. Farmer, as I believe he is sincere,” he wrote, “but he is now a part of the ‘machine’ that essentially drives Haiti.” Continue reading “The Uses of Paul Farmer: The Doctor and the Haitian Machine”

Bill Clinton Admits the UN Introduced Cholera to Haiti

Bill Clinton
UN Special Envoy to Haiti Bill Clinton speaks to hospital staff in Mirebalais.

From my blog entry for the Pulitzer Center in March:

In early March, Bill Clinton showed he is learning the lessons of Haiti’s man-made disasters. Far from natural byproducts of the nation itself, the widespread poverty, misery and deaths among Haitians have an awful lot to do with mistakes made by influential foreigners.

After the January 2010 earthquake, Clinton acknowledged that he was wrong to champion agricultural trade policies during his presidency that benefitted “some of my farmers in Arkansas,” but damaged the livelihoods of Haitian peasant farmers.

Those policies helped drive Haitians out of the countryside into overcrowded, shoddily-built urban slums in Port-au-Prince, where many of them perished in the quake. Earthquakes of that magnitude don’t kill tens of thousands of people in industrialized countries.

“I had to live everyday with the consequences of the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did; nobody else,” Clinton said in testimony before the U.S. Senate.

On March 7, Clinton candidly admitted to having learned another lesson from another man-made tragedy in Haiti—the October 2010 cholera outbreak which has killed more than 7,000 and made sick at least 500,000 Haitians.

At a press conference at a new hospital in Mirebalais, with United Nations troops standing guard outside, I asked him whether he agreed with recent comments by the American ambassador to the UN that those responsible for the cholera’s introduction to Haiti should be “held accountable.”

Cholera was alien to Haiti and the Caribbean prior to the outbreak. Multiple scientific studies have pinpointed UN peacekeeping troops as the definitive or most likely source of imported cholera bacteria from Nepal to central Haiti.

Clinton sidestepped the question, at one point calling that decision “above his pay grade.” He receives a symbolic $1 per year salary from the UN as its special envoy to Haiti.

But he also became the first UN representative to acknowledge the truth that’s long been in plain sight, ever since reporters captured shocking images of waste from the Mirebalais UN peacekeeping base flowing into Haiti’s waterways.

“I don’t know that the person who introduced cholera to Haiti, the UN peacekeeping soldier from South Asia, was aware that he was carrying the virus,” Clinton said. (It is a bacterium, not a virus.) Continue reading “Bill Clinton Admits the UN Introduced Cholera to Haiti”