LES CAYES, Haiti — Hundreds of Haitian earthquake victims desperately lined up for hot meals delivered to a sweltering makeshift camp this past week, fighting over — and scooping from the muddy ground — rice and chicken that spilled from plastic food containers.
The scarce containers bore a printed message: “Courtesy of Senator Franky Exius.”
The 7.2-magnitude earthquake that rocked southern Haiti on Aug. 14, killing 2,200 people, struck a country already in crisis, with few legitimately elected officials and a paralyzed, unpopular and underfunded caretaker administration.
In the absence of a concerted state relief effort, prominent Haitian politicians have tried to fill the gap, flying out the injured on their private planes, delivering medical supplies and food and even handing out cash.
With general elections on the horizon, their personal initiatives have taken on political overtones, and the epicenter has in effect become a campaign launchpad for some of Haiti’s presidential and congressional hopefuls.
In the capital, Port-au-Prince, the politicians’ efforts have raised difficult questions about the fine line between offering urgently needed aid and cynically exploiting the suffering.
“The disaster zone has become a terrain for political exercise,” said Fritz Jean, a public policy expert in Port-au-Prince. “If you look at the aid they are giving, it’s a repugnant political campaign.”
Politicians here have a record of exploiting natural disasters for personal gain. After Hurricane Matthew’s landfall in Haiti coincided with the presidential campaign in 2016, candidates flooded the area with donated water bottles and boxes of matches plastered with their faces.
Jovenel Moïse, who served as president until he was assassinated in his home last month, cemented his campaign lead by delivering a shipment of rice to hurricane survivors shortly before the vote. The bags of rice bore his party slogans, angering community leaders.
Mr. Moïse’s death plunged Haiti into a power vacuum, leaving it without a president, a functioning Parliament or a Supreme Court. Although general elections are officially scheduled for Nov. 7, the caretaker prime minister, Ariel Henry, says the country first needs to tackle pervasive gang violence and appoint a new electoral board.
Since Mr. Moïse’s killing, members of Haiti’s elite have been jockeying for power, visiting Washington and interviewing and hiring American lobbyists in moves widely seen as explorations of electoral bids.
Political office has traditionally been the main route for personal advancement in Haiti, which has a small and weak economy and deep-rooted corruption, and receives large amounts of international aid. The nation of 11 million people has about 200 political parties.
As they have in the past, politicians dispensing help to disaster victims this summer have framed their relief donations in humanitarian terms.
“People in the camps have to eat, and I wanted to support that possibility,” said Mr. Exius, the former senator, whose name was featured on containers of donated food in Les Cayes.
Mr. Exius said that he had merely donated money to a local restaurant to provide free meals and that he had not known his name would be on the boxes. He said it was later taken off.
Some of the politicians offering aid have longstanding ties to the affected communities, making their offerings seem less opportunistic.
Hervé Fourcand, a former senator who lives in Haiti’s southern peninsula, used his propeller plane to evacuate injured people to the capital. Former Senators Francenet Dénius and Dieupie Chérubin brought sacks of rice and spaghetti to the hard-hit department of Nippes, which they represented in Parliament until last year.
“You could link this to politics,” said Mr. Dénius, a Nippes native who said he would not seek another term. “If you can do something for the people now, they can see that you can meet their demands, and it may help you in elections.”
The aid provided by former elected officials has contrasted with the largely ineffectual relief effort mounted thus far by the Haitian government. Mr. Henry, the prime minister, has visited the affected area twice and sent his ministers to survey the remote communities, but they offered little beyond words of reassurance and talk of reconstruction.
The Assassination of Haiti’s President
The private donations, however, are not without limitations, and at times that has seemed only to fan people’s desperation. Mr. Jean, the public policy expert, said charitable gestures from politicians, some of whom face corruption accusations, are no substitute for an official relief campaign.
On Thursday, hundreds of Haitians mobbed the convoy of former President Michel Martelly as he toured hospitals in Les Cayes, shouting, “Here is our president!” and pleading for help.
Mr. Martelly, one of Haiti’s most powerful politicians, is widely believed to be preparing a new bid for the presidency.
At the end of each hospital visit, Mr. Martelly’s bodyguard handed out a few orange envelopes with cash to the crowd, in one instance setting off a violent scuffle for the bills.
One man desperately clutched an envelope as a dozen others hung on him and tried to rip it from his hands. Another man picked up a large stone and jumped into the fray, frantically plunging his improvised weapon into the crowd as a woman nearby cried, “Kill him, kill him!”
Back in the general hospital in Les Cayes, Vercia Edmond, a street vendor, anxiously stood by the bedside of her 15-year-old son, Robenson Perjuste. His leg was amputated at the thigh after he was struck by debris in their destroyed home.
Ms. Edmond’s older daughter, the family’s main breadwinner, lay in another ward with an injured spine.
Ms. Edmond said that she had tried to tell Mr. Martelly about her predicament but that his bodyguards had pushed her away. She is nonetheless pinning her hopes on him — because he, at least, visited, she said.
“I was so happy when he came,” she said. “I wanted to tell President Martelly that the kid is here, that I don’t have anything, that our stall was looted.”
“Now I don’t know what to do,” Ms. Edmond said. “I feel ignored.”
Harold Isaac and Andre Paultre contributed reporting.