Three days after a 7.0 earthquake devastated the Caribbean country of Haiti, the leaders of two other nations of Caricom, the regional amalgamation of small, mainly English-speaking countries of which Haiti is a member, flew to the former French colony to get a first-hand look at the damage. But their plane was forced to turn back because the airport was congested with aircraft from all over the world bringing relief supplies and personnel.
The day after the quake, Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Patrick Manning, on behalf of his government pledged $1 million in financial assistance to the ravaged nation – a figure that was derided by political opponents, media commentators and members of the public.
“Shameful,” wrote one Facebook commentator.
“Supermodel Giselle Bundchen (gave) 1.5 mil,” griped another.
“Sandra Bullock too,” another responded, referring to the American actress.
Manning announced on Monday that the oil-rich Trinidad and Tobago would make further contributions towards a proposed “development fund” for Haiti and a field hospital to be set up amidst the chaos by members of Caricom, as he and other regional leaders strain to match the response demanded and given by their respective citizens.
Proximity, a shared history and the awareness that the tragedy could have easily happened to any one of their countries have heightened the concern of Caribbean residents for Haiti, the most impoverished state in the region.
But so far the efforts of Caribbean governments have been overshadowed by those of other countries, particularly the US, and delayed by seeming confusion about how to respond to the disaster.
“On the regional level, I don’t think we’ve done very well,” said Trinidad and Tobago diplomat Reginald Kofi Annan’s special adviser on Haiti. He’s written a book on the experience, “An Encounter with Haiti – Notes of a Special Adviser,” part proceeds of which will go into a fund set up even before the current crisis to receive donations for Haiti., who had been UN Secretary General
Pointing out that Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding visited Haiti two days after the earthquake last Tuesday and that Jamaica had sent military and medical personnel to the aid of its neighbour, Dumas nevertheless added: “But I would have expected, quite frankly, that an urgent meeting of the Caricom heads would have been called, and I would have expected such meeting to have been held not later than last Thursday.”
Several Caricom leaders did eventually gather on Monday with representatives of the European Union in a meeting called by Spain, which holds the EU presidency, and convened in the Dominican Republic, the Spanish-speaking nation with which Haiti shares land mass. Representatives from the US, Canada, Brazil, Chile and Mexico were also part of the convention, which agreed that about $2 billion a year would be needed to help Haiti over the next several years as the country recovers from widespread death and destruction. The US, EU, Brazil and Mexico made multimillion-dollar commitments to the reconstruction of Haiti. Caricom has yet to agree on the size of its contribution.
Dumas said he was disappointed by the meeting.
“It disappoints me because I’m not sure that it sends the correct image ... especially when one of the members of Caricom is directly involved,” he said. “I find it unpleasant that Caricom has not been able to meet on this matter. They may be speaking to one another - some of them on the phone - but it’s much better to have a face-to-face meeting and take a decision.”
In contrast to his opinion of the governmental response, Dumas called the response of Caribbean individuals and organisations “absolutely tremendous.”
The Trinidad and Tobago Red Cross announced on Tuesday that they had raised TT$1 million since the quake. And organisations from across the social spectrum – from schools to community groups, many of whom had never done so before - have been collecting financial and other donations directly or through social events, said a representative of the Trinidad and Tobago Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management.
The ODPM has been coordinating relief efforts in Trinidad and Tobago on behalf of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency. All donations have to be handed over to them, it was announced on Saturday. The decision has been met with resistance from some aid groups, revealing a level of distrust with how government has been handling the crisis. Some insisted on keeping matters in their own hands.
After days of buzzing with thousands of volunteers and donors, the Port-of-Spain headquarters of the charity Is There Not A Cause was crammed with goods but relatively calm on Wednesday, after the organization had dispatched almost a hundred volunteers to Haiti, including medical personnel.
Donna Chang, one of the few members left, said the organization, which operates throughout the region and had visited Haiti more that 20 times previously, had enough links and experience in the country to act on its own. Members who had arrived in Port authat morning were already distributing supplies, she said. The government of Trinidad and Tobago is yet to directly make a similar commitment of personnel.
St. Lucian academic and former politician Prof. Vaughan Lewis defended the response of regional governments.
The quake “caught people off guard,” said Lewis.
“The dimensions of this crisis were obviously not something that Caricom could easily handle,” he said. The region had a more speedy response, for instance, after Hurricane Ivan ravaged Grenada in 2004, he said.
In the current situation, the Caribbean had to work in concert with the US and Europe, who also have an obligation towards Haiti.
“We in Caricom, mindful of our historical and kinship relationships with the Haitians, have to take into account also the historic responsibilities of others,” he said. “The European Union is doing in effect what many people wanted the European Union to do years ago in relation to Haiti, in terms of fundamental assistance for its economic reorganization and its subsequent economic development.”
But he conceded that the initial response of Caribbean leaders could have been better. He called the aborted trip to Haiti of the leaders of Dominica and Barbados “somewhat of an embarrassment.” Dominican Prime Ministerchairs Caricom and the CDEMA is headquartered in Barbados. The head of the agency was also on the plane.
Lewis echoed in part Dumas’s criticism.
“One would have wanted to see a regional, but wider than Caricom, consultation in dealing with the matter,” he said.