Monday, September 20, 2010

Haitians Cry in Letters: ‘Please — Do Something!’

September 19, 2010

Haitians Cry in Letters: ‘Please — Do Something!’


The New York Times

(Read the original article here)

CORAIL-CESSELESSE, Haiti — It was after midnight in a remote annex of this isolated tent camp on a windswept gravel plain. Marjorie Saint Hilaire’s three boys were fast asleep, but her mind was racing.

The camp leader had proposed writing letters to the nongovernment authorities, and she had so much to say. She lighted a candle and summoned a gracious sentiment with which to begin.

“To all the members of concerned organizations, I thank you first for feeling our pain,” she wrote slowly in pencil on what became an eraser-smudged page. “I note that you have taken on almost all our problems and some of our greatest needs.”

Ms. Saint Hilaire, 33, then succinctly explained that she had lost her husband and her livelihood to the Jan. 12 earthquake and now found herself hungry, stressed and stranded in a camp annex without a school, a health clinic, a marketplace or any activity at all.

“Please — do something!” she wrote from Tent J2, Block 7, Sector 3, her new address. “We don’t want to die of hunger and also we want to send our children to school. I give glory to God that I am still alive — but I would like to stay that way!”

In the last couple of weeks, thousands of displaced Haitians have similarly vented their concerns, depositing impassioned pleas for help in new suggestion boxes at a hundred camps throughout the disaster zone. Taken together, the letters form a collective cri de coeur from a population that has felt increasingly impotent and ignored.

With 1.3 million displaced people in 1,300 camps, homelessness is the new normal here. Two recent protest marches have sought to make the homeless a central issue in the coming presidential campaign. But the tent camp residents, miserable, weary and in many cases fighting eviction, do not seem to have the energy to become a vocal force.

When the International Organization for Migration added suggestion boxes to its information kiosks in scores of camps, it did not expect to tap directly into a well of pent-up emotions. “I anticipated maybe a few cranky letters,” said Leonard Doyle, who handles communications for the organization in Haiti. “But to my absolute, blow-me-down surprise, we got 700 letters in three days from our first boxes — real individualized expressions of suffering that give a human face to this ongoing tragedy.”

In some cases, the letters contain a breathless litany of miseries, a chain of woes strung together by commas: “I feel discouraged, I don’t sleep comfortably, I gave birth six months ago, the baby died, I have six other children, they don’t have a father, I don’t have work, my tarp is torn, the rain panics me, my house was crushed, I don’t have money to feed my family, I would really love it if you would help me,” wrote Marie Jean Jean.

In others, despair is expressed formally, with remarkable restraint: “Living under a tent is not favorable neither to me nor to my children” or “We would appreciate your assistance in obtaining a future as one does not appear to be on our horizon.”

Several writers sent terse wish lists on self-designed forms: “Name: Paul Wilbert. Camp: Boulos. Need: House. Demand: $1,250. Project: Build house. Thank you.”

And some tweaked the truth. Ketteline Lebon, who lives in a camp in the slum area called Cité Soleil, cannot read or write. She dictated a letter to her cousin, who decided to alter Ms. Lebon’s story to say that her husband had died in the earthquake whereas he had really died in a car accident. “What does it matter?” Ms. Lebon said, shrugging. “I’m still a widow in a tent with four kids I cannot afford to send to school.”

At this camp’s annex, Corail 3, Sandra Felicien, a regal woman whose black-and-white sundress looks as crisp as if it hangs in a closet, has become the epistolary queen. An earthquake widow whose husband was crushed to death in the school where he taught adult education courses, Ms. Felicien said she wrote letters almost daily because doing so made her feel as if she were taking action. “We are so powerless,” she said. “It is like we are bobbing along on the waves of the ocean, waiting to be saved.”

Like the hundreds of families around her in Corail 3, Ms. Felicien and her small son lived first in Camp Fleuriot, a mosquito-infested, flood-prone marsh where many were feverish with malaria or racked by diarrhea. In July, they were bused here to the outskirts of this planned settlement, which is supposed to become a new town someday.

Transitional shelters are being built in this remote spot, and a hundred or so are completed and stand empty. For the moment, though, the one-room houses, like the tents beside them, exist in a sun-scorched vacuum beneath deforested hills. They are surrounded only by latrines, showers and the information kiosk, with its blackboard, bulletin board and suggestion box.

One afternoon last week, Ms. Felicien settled onto the tarp-covered rocks in front of her tent — “my porch” — and used a covered bucket for a writing desk. She was feeling robust, she said, because a neighbor had just treated her to what amounted to brunch — a pack of cookies that she had shared with her son.

She started to recopy the rough draft of a letter that she had written that morning. She was writing in Creole, although her French is impeccable, because “only a Haitian could really understand,” she said.

While she wrote, with a reporter by her side and a photographer taking her picture, a boisterous crowd from the camp gathered, concerned that she was getting special attention from foreigners. Their complaints grew so deafening that she rose to address them, explaining that, in fact, the particular letter she was writing was not personal but on behalf of all her neighbors.

Raising her voice to be heard, she read aloud the letter: “Sept. 14. Today we feel fed up with the bad treatment in Block 7. Have you forgotten about us out here in the desert?” The crowd quieted. She continued reading: “You don’t understand us. You don’t know that an empty bag can’t stand. A hungry dog can’t play.” Other tent camps have health clinics or schools or at least something to do, she read. “Why don’t we have such things? Aren’t we people, too?”

Heads nodded. The tension dissipated. The crowd dispersed. Ms. Felicien walked her letter to the kiosk to post it. “I don’t know why I keep writing,” she said. “To this point they have not responded. It’s like screaming into the wind.”

Mr. Doyle said that all the letters are read, some aloud on Radio Guinen, which broadcasts daily from tent camps as part of an International Organization for Migration communication program. But the $400,000 program was intended to give voice to the voiceless and not food to the hungry or money to the destitute. So unless the writers express a need for protection, as from rape or abuse by camp leaders, their individual requests are not likely to be answered.

Told this, Ms. Felicien said, “Ay yi yi” and shook her head. And then she posted her letter all the same.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Lingering Problem for IDT — CEO admits company official met with Aristide on contract

A Lingering Problem for IDT — CEO admits company official met with Aristide on contract

Former employee alleges bribe payment to Haiti’s Aristide; company denies allegation.

By Lucy Komisar

Barron’s Magazine, Sept 20, 2010

(Read the original article here)

INVESTORS HAVE BEEN FEELING better about IDT, the quirky company founded by telecom maverick Howard Jonas.

After disappointing many high hopes (“Finally Ready to Roll,” May 29, 2006) the shares (tickers: IDT and IDT-C) have tripled this year to a recent 15.76. The Newark, N.J.-based company may have staunched years of losses by downsizing and discontinuing some of Jonas’ varied ventures. It has about $10 a share in cash and a shale oil prospect in Israel.

But a nagging problem remains: the whistle-blowing suit of an ex-employee who claims he was fired for objecting to bribes that he alleges IDT arranged for Haiti’s former president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. A trial is set for Nov. 9 at the U.S. District Court for New Jersey. The Justice Department and the SEC, meanwhile, are investigating whether the company violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. They haven’t filed charges against the company. A money-laundering trial is scheduled for the end of November in Miami’s federal district court against the Haitian official who signed the IDT contract. He denies he laundered bribes from unnamed phone outfits. IDT denies all wrongdoing and says that investigations by expert outside counsel found no improper payments.

In a recent conversation with a reporter, CEO Jonas acknowledged for the first time that Aristide had met with an IDT official. “We thought that was highly unusual,” Jonas said. “In most cases, you’re just talking to the head of the telecom. It was unusual that the president himself would be involved with it.”

The whistle-blowing plaintiff, D. Michael Jewett, says he was fired in 2003 after voicing concerns over a deal in which he says Aristide was to skim IDT’s payments to Haiti’s government phone company via Mont Salem, a shell company run by a Turks and Caicos law firm. That firm has denied the shell company was a front for Aristide.

Jonas told Barron’s, “I have no reason to believe that they were not a legitimate agent.” IDT got a court order that barred Jewett from discovering Mont Salem’s ownership.

Jewett alleges that IDT’s head of international business, Jack Lerer, referred to Mont Salem as “Aristide’s bank account.” Lerer denies that and says he never offered to pay—or caused money to be paid to—Aristide or Haitian officials. The Haitian government filed a civil racketeering suit against Aristide in 2005, alleging that Mont Salem had been his front for receiving kickbacks from several North American telecoms, including three cents a minute from IDT. Haiti dropped the suit for lack of funds.

Jonas told Barron’s that payments to Mont Salem were legal because the law firm McDermott Will & Emery had given IDT a clearance letter after conducting its own due diligence on the matter. The letter isn’t in public court filings, but IDT says it will provide it to Barron’s.

In a deposition, McDermott partner David Levine recalled talking in October 2003 to an IDT lawyer who sought advice on a “hypothetical” deal she considered “fishy” and not “something that IDT ever does.” In a memo written right after his IDT consultation, Levine said he advised IDT to conduct “due diligence” on the payment arrangement. The very next day, IDT’s legal department approved the Haitian deal. McDermott said it doesn’t discuss client matters.

Jonas told Barron’s that the corruption accusations were made as a rationale for overthrowing Aristide. “They had to say: ‘He’s a crook. He took three cents from the telephone company,’” said Jonas. “That justified invading the country and overthrowing him.”