SAN FRANCISCO – Rep. Ron Dellums (D-Calif.) came to San Francisco last week to share his perspective on the situation in Haiti and Washington D.C., and lead a dialog on what can be done nationally and in the Bay Area to get sanctions against Haiti lifted and free millions in needed aid. Termed “Let Haiti Live,” the campaign began with a meeting at the headquarters of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which Dellums’ father helped to integrate years ago.

In a conference room full of concerned activists, Dellums was joined by leaders Walter Johnson, secretary-treasurer of the San Francisco Labor Council (AFL-CIO), Pierre Labaossiere, of the Haiti Action Committee, and Sister Maureen Duignan, of the Sanctuary Covenant. Dellums called for a change in U.S. policy toward Haiti, saying, “We must challenge this foreign policy that pursues a cold war mentality. It holds eight million impoverished Haitians hostage.”

Since the landslide election of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2000 the U.S. has led an international financial aid blockade of Haiti. Over $500 million in funds allocated for the government of Haiti are being withheld by the U.S., European Union, International Monetary Fund, World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank. President Aristide had recently asked Dellums to help Haiti by leading a campaign to release the much-needed funds.

Those grants and loans, intended for health care, education and public works (such as providing potable drinking water), are currently being blocked. Secretary of State Colin Powell recently reasserted that the U.S. will continue to embargo all multilateral humanitarian assistance in order to “leverage” a political outcome in Haiti.

In Haiti, the poorest country in the hemisphere, most people live in poverty. Less than 40 percent have access to potable water. Some 85 percent are illiterate. There is only one doctor for every 10,000 patients and the infant mortality rate, a key indicator of impending humanitarian disaster, is 74 out of every 1,000 live births. Life expectancy is only 53 years and there is practically no dental care.

The HIV/AIDS rate is 4 percent, or 300,000 persons, resulting in 163,000 children orphaned and 30,000 new cases a year. This is the most grave AIDS crisis in the hemisphere. A national AIDS plan presented by the government of Haiti at the United Nations over a year ago was praised by health experts as sound, but it remains unfunded.

Dellums called it “shocking, immoral, insensitive, inappropriate and unethical” that the funds are being withheld by the U.S. to influence the political life of the country while people are going hungry. The loans were agreed to long ago and Haiti is paying interest on them to retain the contract, without ever having received the money.

In calling for grassroots action, he said, “The question for Americans … is whether we will engage Mr. Bush to do the right thing in Haiti, or simply stand by and watch the misery right in our own neighborhood.” Labor and religious activists signed up at the meeting to help further the campaign and promised to take it to their communities.

Legislation is being prepared by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) that should help advance the drive to open a new chapter in U.S. policy toward Haiti. In a letter to President Bush last November, the Congressional Black Caucus unanimously denounced the unjust U.S. policy of sanctions, and requested a meeting to discuss aid to Haiti. There has been no response to date.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org

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