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Alarm As Haitians Flee Country


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Haiti's president, Michel Martelly, is in Washington this week to meet with President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry as well as other lawmakers. One challenge that is sure to be discussed are the conditions that are still driving many Haitians to flee. And while this has been an ongoing problem, in November the issue got renewed focus when at least 30 people died after a boat crowded with migrants overturned off the coast of the Bahamas. Jacqueline Charles, Caribbean correspondent for the Miami Herald, has been reporting on all of this, and she's with us now. Welcome back to the program. Thanks for joining us once again.

JACQUELINE CHARLES: Thank you for having me again.

MARTIN: So, Jacqueline, people fleeing Haiti is not a new phenomenon. Is something getting worse?

CHARLES: Well, you're right. It's not a new phenomenon. But what we saw after the earthquake when everybody expected for people to flee, they did not. They stayed. But today, what I have heard from people in reporting these stories is that they don't feel things are getting better in terms of economically. There are still no real jobs. Prices have gone up, even while the government is saying the economic growth is increasing. And so what you find is that there's a lot of poverty, if not deeper poverty, in some areas that definitely were not hit by the earthquake.

MARTIN: And you reported on an island that has become a jumping-off point, and there's some really difficult conditions there that you wrote about. Can you talk about that?

CHARLES: Yes, I mean, it's amazing me. This island has almost - it's been forgotten. There are no roads. There are only four police officers for 45,000 people. There weren't even any latrines there. There are no ports, no marinas. And there are no jobs. The people basically survive by helping one another. They're not too far from a city called Port-de-Paix, which is a very large city in the northwest, but even that city in that region is the poorest in Haiti. And it's basically been forgotten by previous governments, including this one, as well as the international community.

MARTIN: And so people have been trying to leave. They've been, like, making these - what - these homemade boats and just kind of cobbling together whatever they can find. Is that the jumping-off point? That tragedy that we talked about in November when so many people died at once, did they leave from this particular launch point?

CHARLES: Yes, they did. When I arrived there, I arrived in a village where there were a number of people who had died in that tragedy. And I also spoke to survivors on that boat. The other thing that people told me when I arrived is that it hadn't rained in a month and a half. So even the people who were surviving by growing bananas or other fruits and vegetables, what they were finding - that their ground was not reaping anything because there was no rain.

MARTIN: You interviewed a number of people who had made the journey or at least who had tried to make the journey. Can you just tell us, like, just one of their stories about why they were willing to risk it?

CHARLES: Well, what everybody told me is that death was an option for them, that you either die trying or you die there. To them, there was no life. There was no hope. And so they would much rather risk their lives at sea on a boat knowing fully well what the risks are in the hopes that they would make it to the Bahamas, to the Turks and Caicos or even Florida. And, you know, as they talked about being unable to feed their children, being unable to sustain themselves, even the water surround this island are overfished. You go out in a boat, you troll a line for hours and it's empty.

MARTIN: So how is that Haitian government addressing this problem? And, of course, I want to ask you what President Martelly hopes to do while he is here meeting with American officials.

CHARLES: Well, immediately after the Miami Herald story ran, the Prime Minister contacted me. And he immediately got on the phone. He reached out to the U.S. ambassador in Haiti, asked whether or not the U.S. Agency for International Development can provide some assistance. He also reached out to government agencies in Haiti and pulled together an emergency task force. They sent a truckload of food, basically enough food for 1,000 people for 10 to 12 days.

The Prime Minister himself will be visiting the island on Friday to follow up. But he's also asked his staff to provide him with some long-term programs to help the fishermen, to help the farmers and hopefully curb these boats that are starting to use this island as a jumping-off point.

MARTIN: Can I just ask you this - forgive me if this is a stupid question - but why does the Haitian government need the Miami Herald to tell them about conditions in their own - in their country?

CHARLES: I don't know why they would need the Miami Herald, but one of the things that the Prime Minister of Haiti has said - I sat down with him in January for an interview, and one of the things that he continued to stress is that the needs in the country are so great, are so huge, and they have such limited resources. So you're constantly trying to put out fires. As I mentioned, this island is located in the northwest region. It is the poorest region in Haiti. It suffers from continuous droughts. Meanwhile, when you're getting hit by hurricanes in the South, you have an earthquake, you know, you're trying to recover from in the capital.

You know, you're - everything is an emergency in Haiti. That's not to make excuses for them, but you're right. I mean, this is probably something you would have to ask the Haitian government in terms of what did they know, how aware were they of the problems and if they were aware, why did they not act sooner to try and address it.

MARTIN: So as we mentioned, the president of Haiti, Michel Martelly, is in Washington this week. He's got a very busy schedule. He's meeting with members of Congress. He's meeting with the president, the secretary of state. What is the agenda for this visit, and what about the timing of this visit? Why now?

CHARLES: Well, for President Michel Martelly, this is a huge get. You know, there's been a lot of whispers in Haiti about the fact that he had not yet met officially with President Obama. So his camp is playing this as, you know, huge, historical, even though previous Haitian presidents have done so. But I think for the part of congressional lawmakers who I spoke to, what they said - they've been trying to get the president of Haiti up to Washington for a while because they want to talk to him about what's going on, about the progress and the lack of progress. They are concerned about the lack of investments that are coming into the country. They're concerned about the lack of laws that have been passed in Parliament to boost investor confidence. And at the same time, they want to know what the president is doing in terms of the elections.

The elections are more than two years delayed. I think what the President Michel Martelly is going to hear from the White House as well as from congressional lawmakers is that we recognize that there has been some progress in Haiti since the January 12, 2010 earthquake, but you need to step up. You need to show some leadership. You need to be more of a compromising figure. You need to work better with Parliament. We need to shore up the stability that's in Haiti, that's very, very fragile right now that you see by the ongoing protests that have been going on since last year and even actually since he came into office. There's been political gridlock, and there have been anti-government protests.

MARTIN: Jacqueline Charles is Caribbean correspondent for the Miami Herald. She joined us from member station WLRN in Miami. Jacqueline, thanks so much for keeping us up to date.

CHARLES: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.