Haiti's Cholera Riots: A Plot to Stop the Elections?

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Emilio Morenatti / AP Photo

A woman covers her face from the smoke of burning tires set up by demonstrators in Port-au-Prince on Monday, Nov. 15, 2010. Students in the capital burned tires and threw stones at police, following demonstrations that began in the northern city of Cap Haitien, where protesters attacked with stones a U.N. base of Nepalese peacekeepers, whom they hold responsible for the outbreak of cholera that has killed around 1,000 people in three weeks

Epidemics bring out irrational fears anywhere — but especially in Haiti, where people feel especially vulnerable after the massive earthquake that ravaged their country in January. In just a few recent weeks, a cholera outbreak has produced almost 17,000 confirmed cases in Haiti and left more than 1,000 people dead. So it was expected that Haitians would eventually lash out at whomever they suspected of introducing and spreading the disease in Haiti, which despite its relative lack of safe drinking water hadn't seen cholera in half a century.

This week Haitian protesters are targeting the group they feel is most responsible: the U.N. security and stabilization mission known by its French acronym Minustah, whose 12,000 peacekeepers have been a ubiquitous presence in the country since 2004. On Monday, Nov. 15, demonstrators took to the streets in the northern port of Cap Haitien, Haiti's second largest city, burning tires, closing the airport and exchanging gunfire with U.N. soldiers at a Minustah base in nearby Quartier Morin. Six peacekeepers were injured, and one armed Haitian protester was shot dead. (Minustah officials insist that peacekeepers shot the protester in self-defense.) Late Monday, protesters continued threatening to set the base on fire. In the northern city of Pont Neuf, demonstrators did set fire to a police station. "It's chaos here," a Cap Haitien businessman told Reuters.

Because health officials, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), say the cholera bacteria now raging through Haiti match strains commonly found in South Asia, Haitian anger is focused mostly on Minustah peacekeepers from Nepal. Though the source of the outbreak has yet to be determined — most clues point to recent flooding of the central Artibonite River — rumors have spread for weeks that latrine discharges at a Nepalese peacekeeper camp are to blame, even though the U.N. says the soldiers there have shown no symptoms of cholera, which is most often transmitted via infected feces in water. On Monday, protesters threw stones at Nepalese peacekeepers in the northern city of Hinche, shouting anti-U.N. slogans and demanding that the Nepalese leave.

With a presidential election set for Nov. 28, the U.N. sees more than just health concerns involved. Minustah spokesman Vincenzo Pugliese says the protests were not spontaneous because they all began at around 6 a.m. on Monday, suggesting to him a level of politically motivated coordination by Haitians who oppose the election. "This was a clear message to boycott the election," says Pugliese. "We ensure security, [so] if they weaken Minustah, the election will not happen." Whether or not that's true, demonstrators, including Haitian groups like the anti-U.N. journal Bri Kouri Nouvèl Gaye (The Sound of News in All Directions) say they're planning a mass march on the National Palace in Port-au-Prince on Thursday, Nov. 18, to demand the withdrawal of Minustah forces.

Cholera, which is easily treatable but can produce fatal dehydration from vomiting and diarrhea if not remedied promptly, is rarely transmitted by person-to-person contact. But that fear is palpable on the streets of overcrowded Port-au-Prince, where people now hesitate to shake hands and instead bump elbows to greet one other. In the squalid tent city of Champs de Mars, outside the collapsed Presidential Palace, police on Saturday found a man dead, presumably from cholera, in a portable toilet. And in vulnerable capital slums like Cité Soleil, the number of cases began growing exponentially last week, and medical NGOs like Médecins San Frontières (MSF, a.k.a. Doctors Without Borders) are struggling to find beds.

Last Monday, MSF put up a makeshift tent clinic in the Sarthe neighborhood, near the airport, to absorb overflow from Cité Soleil's Choscal Hospital — where TIME saw patients being carried in like the walking wounded — but its capacity was only 60. "The cases we're receiving seem to be doubling every day," says Virginie Cauderlier, a Belgian MSF nurse who worked amid Zimbabwe's massive cholera epidemic last year. "This could turn into a big disaster like that."

As Cauderlier tended to an infected Haitian boy who had fallen out of his cot and was falling asleep on the floor in his own diarrhea, and as an emaciated man nearby vomited the water he'd just tried to drink, Cité Soleil mother Mirade Pierre, 23, watched her 18-month-old son Bouchon nap next to her, too weak to sit up. Both are infected, she said with IV tubes rising from her and her boy's wrists, and three neighbors have already died from cholera. "It's really hit us so hard," says Mirade, whose husband died in the earthquake. "To go through something like this now, we won't have enough strength to live tomorrow."

But while the clinic may have been a godsend for patients like Mirade and Bouchon, it's a threatening intrusion to Sarthe locals like Saidette René, 39, a mother of four who last week led a raucous protest march on the street outside. Two cholera cases have been confirmed in Sarthe, and René and her neighbors are certain it's because of the clinic. "We don't want these people here!" says René, wearing a surgical mask on her hat. "No one consulted us!" People around her loudly agree.

That crowd, however, was likely to grow angrier once it heard that Haitian health officials are building another clinic in Sarthe to house 260 more patients. Despite the protests, says an MSF spokesman, Haiti has no choice but to find areas away from crowded slums to accommodate the exploding toll of cholera victims. "It keeps expanding and expanding — at some point we won't be able to [keep up]," he says. "There's a real feeling of urgency."