Haiti relief effort 'pathetic'

2010-01-25 07:46

Rome - Italy's top disaster official has called the Haiti quake-relief effort a "pathetic" failure, criticising the militarised approach of the US as ineffective and out of touch for the emergency at hand.

Guido Bertolaso, Italy's well-respected civil protection chief, said on Sunday that what was needed was a single international civilian co-ordinator to take charge, and for individual countries and aid agencies to stop flying their flags and posing for TV cameras and get to work.

"Unfortunately there's this need to make a 'bella figura' before the TV cameras rather than focus on what's under the debris," said Bertolaso, who won praise for his handling of Italy's 2009 quake in Abruzzo.

In particular, he criticised what he called the well-meaning but ineffective US-run military operation. The US military has more than 2 000 troops on the ground, helping to deliver humanitarian aid.

US officials have defended their presence and dismissed such criticism, which has most vocally been levelled by leftist Latin American leaders.

The American presence and willingness to send in a floating hospital, cargo planes, troops and aid was "commendable" and absolutely necessary, Bertolaso told Italy's RAI state television from Port-au-Prince. "Unfortunately it's a massive presence, but it's not been used in the best way," he said, criticising the fact that American military officers were running a civilian relief operation.

Citing the botched US response to Hurricane Katrina, he said the Americans "tend to confuse military with what should be an emergency intervention that cannot be given over solely to the armed forces. We're missing a leader, a co-ordination capacity that goes beyond military discipline".

"It's a truly powerful show of force, but it's completely out of touch with reality," Bertolaso said. "They don't have close rapport with the territory, they certainly don't have a rapport with the international organizations and aid groups," leading everyone do their own thing without any coordination.

International procedures

Bertolaso's criticism was unusual coming from Italy, which is a close European ally of the United States. While Bertolaso isn't an elected official, he is a Cabinet undersecretary and enjoys a close relationship with Premier Silvio Berlusconi. He stressed, however, that he wasn't speaking in that official capacity in his comments to RAI.

While many have lamented the slow pace of the relief effort, Bertolaso joined several allied leftist Latin American presidents - Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Bolivia's Evo Morales and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega - in voicing such criticism of the US military effort

Former Cuban President Fidel Castro also wrote an op-ed piece saying the US military presence was hindering international co-operation and accusing Washington of sending troops "to occupy Haitian territory".

John Caulfield, a US diplomat in Caracas, Venezuela, pointedly dismissed those claims on Thursday, saying: "What's important for us is to provide aid to the Haitian people and not be distracted by those political criticisms."

Speaking to RAI, Bertolaso said the United Nations and powerful countries need to craft international procedures to follow when such catastrophes occur.

"I think it has truly been a pathetic situation," Bertolaso said. "It could have been run a lot better, and instead of being the first time that the world came together to do something good, it's instead been the latest time that the world has done it this way."

He said there was widespread consensus on the ground among relief officials that the effort to date had shown the "failure" of the international community that also was evident in the South Asian tsunami emergency.

"No one came here with the idea of running the emergency," he said. "They came here thinking this was just a humanitarian catastrophe ... so they came with the idea of bringing them a bit to eat, some water, and the problem is resolved.

"This is the great contradiction," he said.