Diálogo / May 12, 2011
By Larry Luxner
In December 1972, Edmond Mulet, a cub reporter for the weekly Guatemalan newspaper Alerta, arrived in Managua the day after a 7.5-magnitude earthquake devastated Nicaragua’s capital city.
Thirty-eight years later, Mulet landed in Port-au-Prince the day after a massive quake leveled the Haitian capital.
Mulet was assigned by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to take the place of Tunisia’s Hédi Annabi, head of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti and one of the estimated 300,000 or more lives claimed by the earthquake.
“These were very difficult, very sad moments,” he recalled. “When I arrived, we were still looking for our colleagues, searching with dogs and rescue teams and thinking they might still be alive. The UN lost 102 staffers; in the political section, only one of 10 survived. All our houses had been destroyed. The only one left intact was our logistics warehouse near the airport, so this is where we moved to. We had three showers for 400 people.”
On June 1, Mulet will return to his old job in New York as the UN’s assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping operations — 15 months after an incredibly difficult assignment in Haiti, and only two weeks after the May 14 inauguration of Haiti’s recently elected president, Michel Martelly, who has vowed to reconstitute the Haitian Army during his first 100 days in office.
“MINUSTAH has been on the ground here for seven years, so we would now like to downsize,” Mulet said. “Our role has changed dramatically, from guaranteeing safety and security to humanitarian assistance, then the delivery of food and water, then the cholera outbreak. And during the election, we played a very important role with logistical support. Now we need to work with the new government.”
As chief of MINUSTAH, Mulet oversees an annual budget of $793 million — up from $570 million before the earthquake — and 15,000 peacekeepers, police officers and administrative staff. About 70 percent of MINUSTAH’s peacekeeping troops are from Latin America, with the largest contingents coming from Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Peru.
“Ideally, it would take about five years for Haiti to take over most of our security and stabilization responsibilities,” he said. “For now, I want to keep the additional engineering units we received from South Korea, Japan, Indonesia and Paraguay since the earthquake. We’ve also reinforced the Ecuadorean-Chilean unit and the Brazilian unit. In the downsizing, I think it would be good if we could send back some infantry troops and keep these engineering assets in order to help the government remove rubble.”
Mulet said roughly 22.5 percent of the estimated 15 million to 20 million cubic meters of debris left by the magnitude-7.0 earthquake — the worst natural disaster in Haitian history — has been cleared. In addition to the massive death toll, the quake left some 1.5 million people homeless and caused damages that actually exceeded the country’s meager GDP by at least $1 billion.
While the National Palace remains in ruins, MINUSTAH last month completed a prefabricated structure for Haiti’s legislature to meet, exactly on the same site where the old parliament building used to be.
“It’s really amazing. You don’t see any rubble in the main arteries anymore,” Mulet said. “All schools have been cleared of rubble and UNICEF has been able to set up temporary structures. More people are cleaning up their own pieces of land, though it’s mainly been a private-sector effort.”
Mulet has experience solving problems in Haiti.
“I was head of MINUSTAH in 2006-07, just after [President René] Préval’s inauguration,” he recalled. “The problems then were different than the problems of today. We were facing gangs and insecurity, so my main task at that time was to get rid of all the gang leaders in Port-au-Prince. We arrested more than 850 of them and liberated many neighborhoods that were terrorized by these gangs. But all of them who were in jail escaped the day of the earthquake.”
Haiti was already the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere when the earthquake hit, with per-capita income hovering around $300 a year. In the quake’s aftermath, just about every major government building was destroyed.
Yet Mulet says he’s been encouraged by the outpouring of support from throughout Latin America, but particularly from the neighboring Dominican Republic.
“We’ve never seen this level of solidarity,” he said. “The Dominicans are building a whole new university in Cap-Haitien, in the north. Since the earthquake, they’ve been providing food, water, shelter and other assistance. The key question now is how can we make this sustainable so that Haiti can develop these things on its own.”
He added: “Somebody has to pay for the Haitian army. It’s not going to come from peacekeeping funds, so we have to create the conditions for economic development. That’s why MINUSTAH will be very much engaged in the rule of law. We’ll be working in support of that — not only police, corrections and justice, but also in civil and land registry, helping the state collect taxes and creating guarantees for foreign investment.”
MINUSTAH’s mission became even more difficult after a cholera outbreak last October, which occurred after a 100-year absence of that disease in Haiti.
Nearly 3,000 Haitians are still hospitalized with cholera after the outbreak infected around 300,000 people. The death toll has already reached 5,000, and a study published in the British medical journal Lancet suggests there might be 779,000 cases of cholera between March and November of this year alone — nearly twice the number predicted by the United Nations.
Mulet said, “the response from the government itself has been really incredible. The Ministry of Health brought the death rate down to 1.2 percent. The problem is that cholera will remain endemic in Haiti, and with the rainy season upon us, we will see a surge in new cases.”
Whoever takes over the leadership of MINUSTAH come June won’t have an easy time of it — but Mulet said he has no option but to be optimistic.
“The main problem in Haiti is not the weakness or fragility of the state; it’s the complete absence of state,” he said. “However, this new government can be a real turning point for Haiti, if we do things right.”