The curious case of Paul Waggoner, who ferried medical supplies, highlights an uneasiness between foreigners and locals in post-quake, cholera-infected Haiti.
BY TRENTON DANIEL
PORT-AU-PRINCE — Gaunt and unshaven, Paul Waggoner stepped out of his closet-sized cell at the Haitian National Penitentiary in downtown Port-au-Prince this past Monday for five minutes of casual banter, tight hugs and handwritten fan letters.
It had been more than a week since Haitian police jailed the 32-year-old Florida native on kidnapping charges, and he still couldn’t believe he was locked up. After all, he came to Haiti to help.
“Frustrating,” said Waggoner, a native of DeFuniak Springs in Florida.
Waggoner is accused of kidnapping a 15-month-old boy after the father brought the baby to a hospital for urgent medical care. Waggoner, a former carpenter who ferried medical supplies for relief groups, and others say the baby died of several illnesses, and the father failed to claim the body before it was cremated.
Waggoner’s story highlights how international relief workers with good intentions have clashed with Haitians after the January earthquake pummeled Port-au-Prince and other major cities.
When the 7.0-magnitude quake wiped out almost all local institutions, a parallel one popped up with full force: a thousands-strong community of foreign do-gooders. While no one denies that international relief organizations saved countless lives by bringing much-needed water, food and medical care, many Haitians believe their presence in post-quake Haiti has fomented tension between foreigners and locals.
Foreign aid workers have been accused of dressing inappropriately, driving up the cost of living, and breaking rules to get things done.
Just weeks after the Jan. 12 quake, police arrested a group of Idaho missionaries on kidnapping charges after they tried to bus 33 Haitian children to an orphanage in the neighboring Dominican Republic.
“We have to think hard about our actions when we leave our countries to go somewhere to help,” said Julie Schindall, a spokeswoman at Oxfam International, a relief group handling sanitation.
Before the earthquake, the number of nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, in Haiti was as high as 10,000, giving the country one of the highest number of private, nonprofit aid agencies per capita in the world. Today, the number is believed to be much higher because not all NGOs register with the Haitian government. They vary in size and scope from the United Nations peacekeeping force to mom-and-pop operations, similar to the one run by Waggoner.
The influx of foreigners is evident throughout the country.
Large white SUVs marked with NGO logos contribute to the knot of traffic in Port-au-Prince, a city with too few streets for three million people.
The arrival of so many foreigners has proved to be a mixed blessing: Relief workers have employed cadres of drivers, interpreters and security guards, boosting business for rental car companies and restaurants. But some perceive aid workers to project an air of entitlement and superiority, less than mindful of cultural norms.
“People in Haiti are very concerned about relief workers and how they act and how they dress,” said Karl Jean-Louis, executive director of the Haiti Aid Watchdog, a nonprofit monitoring the flow of humanitarian aid into the nation.
Jean-Louis said some aid workers offend their hosts by frequently showing up to government meetings in T-shirts, shorts and even flip-flops, paying little attention to dress codes in a country where officials often wear suits.
“It’s very inappropriate,” said Jean-Louis, who is organizing a Jan. 4 conference in Port-au-Prince to discuss the impact of international aid. “People should know better.”
The friction between foreigners and Haitians has become violent. In November, reports surfaced that a United Nations peacekeeping mission had failed to maintain its septic tanks and could have been responsible for bringing cholera into the country, which has killed more than 2,500 people. Protesters called for the peacekeeping mission’s departure as they lobbed rocks at U.N. troops and bases in cities in the northern and western parts of the country.
Two weeks ago, after officials released disputed elections results that unleashed two days of unrest in Port-au-Prince, volunteers hiking in the hills south of Port-au-Prince encountered a group of locals who pointed their fingers at them and yelled, “cholera.” Volunteers in the back of a pickup truck traveling to the quake-battered town of Leogane met the same response.
“They were a little unnerving, but that’s all it was,” said Aaron Mason, a spokesman for All Hands Volunteers, a nonprofit building schools and compost toilets in Leogane.
The Waggoner case also serves as a poignant reminder that Haiti has had a long and complicated relationship with the outside world since a slave revolt against the French secured the country’s independence in 1804. In the world’s first black republic, the foreigner is viewed at once as a savior and a saboteur.
Experts note that post-disaster tension between aid workers and survivors is almost inevitable, from Haiti to the Gulf after Hurricane Katrina.
“When there’s a prolonged crisis such as a natural catastrophe or war, there’s a tremendous amount of psychological trauma,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, a professor at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health and director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness. “Relief agencies naturally make expectations around security, material goods and recovery. But when those expectations are unmet, resentment develops.”
Josiane Hudicourt-Barnes, an educator whose mother opened the Haitian Community Hospital as an outpatient clinic in 1984, remembers how foreigners from the United States, Sweden and U.S. Virgin Islands stepped in to perform operations at the hospital when the shocked staff failed to show up immediately after the quake. In one incident that irked local staff members, American volunteers broke the door to a blood bank.
“In an American view: `I’m trying to save a life and I’m going to get that blood,’ ” said Hudicourt-Barnes, who served as a liaison between foreign medical workers and hospital administrators.
Waggoner’s problems at the Haitian Community Hospital, she said, came after hospital staff returned and declined to take responsibility for the baby that had died. Hospital staff refused to sign the death certificate, she said.
The medical director could not be reached for comment.
Waggoner and his supporters — they’ve set up a legal defense fund on the group’s website — believe the charges are bogus and that the father is trying to extort the defendant. The father could not be reached for comment.
When he’s released, Waggoner hopes to continue relief work in Haiti.
“Maybe this was the most fulfilling work he’s had,” Hudicourt-Barnes said. “This whole situation gave him a higher purpose than being a carpenter.”