Caricom’s false start

By CCN senior journalist Andy Johnson

(Trinidad Express) CCN senior journalist Andy Johnson spent five days last week in Haiti, embedded with a contingent of the members of the Jamaica Defence Force. This is the first part of a series on his journey into Haiti.

Port-au-prince, Veldia V Coleby, is the Second Secretary and Vice Consul at the Bahamas Embassy in Haiti. The Bahamas is one of a few of the Member States of Caricom with diplomatic missions resident in Haiti. Barbados is another one of those few.

At dusk on Friday, Ms Coleby was not clear about what was the Caribbean Community’s effective res-ponse to the latest tragedy in Haiti caused by the earthquake on January 12, which registered 7.0 on the Richter scale.

She was aware, however, that her embassy was supposed to have been used as the base for an official Caricom mission to Haiti, ostensibly to undertake its own assessment of the damage and to decide on a co-ordinated regionwide response.

No meetings had taken place at the embassy thus far. Ms Coleby was aware, though, that executive director of the Barbados-based Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA), Jeremy Collymore, was to arrive in Haiti on Saturday. She also understood that the region had decided to undertake a project in Lougane, a town some considerable distance away from the capital. On what basis that decision had been taken, she was also not clear.

The story of Caricom and its efforts to join in the international relief efforts in the wake of the earthquake disaster has itself been dismal thus far, mired in a deep, dark atmosphere of lack of co-ordination, and an embarrassing absence of independence.

Whereas the Bahamian diplomat confessed to knowing Colin Granderson, she had not seen nor heard from him in the ten days since January 12. A crippling breakdown in most areas of telecommunications inside Haiti had made contact near impossible for most people operating in the middle of the earthquake-induced crisis.

Granderson, a Trinidadian diplomat who is a deputy Secretary General of Caricom, had twice endeavoured to make it into Haiti in the wake of the crisis. The first time he was part of a mission which was frustrated by its inability to land. He had planned to make it in from the Dominican Republic after an emergency meeting there on January 18.

In the wake of the current crisis, the government of Jamaica rushed a 150-member contingent of the Jamaica Defence Force, to establish what has been described as ’the Caricom footprint’ amid the jungle of international military, disciplined forces, aid workers, humanitarian agencies and non-governmental organisations scampering in.

So swift was the action of the Jamaican Government that a portion of those troops was on the ground at Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport when Jamaica’s Prime Minister Bruce Golding and Opposition Leader Portia Simpson-Miller arrived there in a joint mission on January 14. This was less than 48 hours after the devastating earthquake. The JDF barge had been ordered to sail overnight, the night before, leaving behind hundreds of pounds of vital cargo and equipment for the troops.

In the days between January 14 and 22, the Jamaican contingent representing the Caribbean, has had to suffer, silently, the indignity, frustration and the embarrassment arising from its total dependence on a foreign ’partner’.

The Canadian Defence Force has been the agency moving people, supplies and equipment between Kingston and Port-au-Prince.

Those operations have been hampered by the decision of the Canadians to place their own needs and requirements entirely above those of the Caribbean’s.

For three days last week, Major Jamie Ogilvie, the Commanding Officer of the JDF forces in Haiti, waited for definitive word from the Canadians on the availability of an aircraft, to transport personnel and equipment, as well as the tonnes of relief supplies transported to Kingston from other Caricom destinations, for distribution in Haiti.

On Wednesday the aircraft was ’likely to come’. That advisory looked ’more likely’ for Thursday, only to have been called off by mid-morning that day. One of the ’problems’ given was that ’permission to land’ was not forthcoming, because of what was described as an absence of space at the airport tarmac.

Resentment was developing over what was being reported as ’the American takeover’ of the operations at the airport.

Quite possibly as a result of this, the Canadians decided to move the base of their own operations from Port-au-Prince to the town of Jacqmel, on the other side of Haiti.

The Caricom initiative, or what presented itself as such, was suffering considerably.

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