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February 2010

Heartbreak in Haiti

One country's battle for survival, against all the odds.

By David Adams | PODER Magazine
New York Times

After decades of violent political upheaval, long-suffering Haiti appeared to be enjoying a period of relative stability and economic growth. Then, without warning, at 4.53pm on January 12, all the optimistic talk of progress came to a sudden, crashing, tectonic halt.

As if Haiti hasn’t suffered enough! Its history is marked by one heartbreak after another, beginning with its bloody emergence from colonial-era slavery, through decades of cruel dictatorship, and every kind of natural and man-made disaster. Now this—the worst earthquake in more than 200 years. As one commentator observed, “What’s next? A plague of locusts?”

After 21 years of covering Haiti as a foreign correspondent, I thought I had seen it all: coups, invasions, hurricanes, starving children with distended bellies from intestinal parasites, an HIV-AIDS epidemic. How much more could a country take? About 78 percent of its 9 million people were already living on less than $2 a day, and 56 percent on less than $1, according to the World Bank.

It’s all the more tragic because of the recent signs of progress in Haiti. Watching the images on TV and hearing stories of those who lost their houses and loved ones, both rich and poor, it’s clear this is worse than anything the country has experienced, perhaps since the bloody fight that led up to its independence from France in 1804.

The landscape of the city that I have gotten to know so well over the years has perhaps changed forever. The majestic white-domed presidential palace, modeled on the U.S. Capitol and built in 1918 during the U.S. occupation of Haiti, now lies in a heap of rubble. A symbol of the enormous challenge now facing the entire country, who knows if it will ever rise again? Also destroyed was the Cathedral, where archbishop Msgr. Joseph Serge Miot died in his office. Many government ministries, most hospitals, and the United Nations complex were also flattened, only minutes before staff were due to clock out and head home.

It would appear almost all buildings over three stories failed to withstand the earthquake, which measured 7.0 on the Richter Scale and was followed by dozens of severe after-shocks.

“I’m trying to find a positive point of view, and all I can come up with is: a lot of people didn’t die,” wrote Richard Morse, manager of the famous gingerbread Oloffson Hotel, in a twitter post. Made famous by Graham Greene as the setting for his novel The Comedians, the Oloffson thankfully survived.

It’s still too early to gauge how Haiti will handle this latest chapter in its tragic history. Haiti right now is like a boxer on his knees, clinging to the ropes in a semi-conscious state. How many times can a country be knocked down, and manage to get back up? When I first visited Haiti in 1987 the Duvalier dictatorship had just ended, ushering in a topsy-turvy period of military rule. In 1990 a radical slum priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was elected in what was virtually the country’s first free election.

The rare joy I saw on the streets that day didn’t last long. His ouster 10 months later brought another even darker period of thuggish military rule, which lasted almost three years before President Clinton sent in the Marines to restore democracy. Aristide returned to power in 2000, but his second term descended into chaos as his government was corrupted by drug money and a reliance on notorious street gangs.When he was deposed again by an armed rebellion in 2004, two years of near-anarchy ensued, marked by kidnappings and death-squad style beheadings.

Eventually a United Nations “Stabilization” mission with 9,000 troops and police restored a semblance or order. They’re still there, and clearly will be needed for some time to come, now bolstered by 16,000 newly arrived U.S. troops.

Haiti simply isn’t equipped to deal with a disaster of this magnitude—at least on paper. Few Haitians have any kind of insurance, and those who do may not get much back on their claims. Local insurers are hopelessly undercovered on the reinsurance market, which is almost entirely unregulated.

But Haitians are used to living without the basic services we take for granted, including electricity and running water.

There’s a Haitian saying Edwidge Danticat, the prize-winning Haitian-American author, reminded me of the other day. It sums up Haitian survival skills:
‘fè bè ak dlo (make butter out of water)
fè pafen ak lè’ (make perfume out of the air)


Even before the earthquake, Haiti’s public services and government institutions were minimal. Even wealthy districts of the capital received only four or five hours of electricity a day. Government buildings, hotels, banks, stores, all rely on diesel generators to keep operating.

In the slums—home to more than half the 2 million residents of the capital—fetid water and rotting garbage line dirt streets. One recent study of densely populated neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince by researchers at the University of Michigan found that most families used water kiosks in the street as the household’s main source of drinking water. Few have piped water into their homes. Most used shared pit latrines for toilets. Only 55.6 percent have access to city electricity when it is available, while 91.5 percent used charcoal for cooking. The other 8.5 percent had access to gas.

Another household survey found the average mean household income was only $1,543 per year. Only 23.2 percent of adults had graduated from secondary school.

Some development experts have questioned what, realistically, can be done to help a country as poor and devastated as Haiti. Previous disasters have already strained the resources of international relief agencies, and what has been dubbed “donor fatigue” had begun to set in.

Now that the world’s attention is fully re-engaged, there is, of course, an opportunity to get it right this time. But, after the latest destruction that task just got even tougher.

In the short-term, there are enormous logistical hurdles. Vital infrastructure was destroyed. The main port was heavily damaged, container cranes toppled into the sea, along with the wharfs.

Commercial shipments by sea will be impossible for a while, according to Jay Brickman, vice president of government services for Crowley Maritime Services, which ships twice weekly from Fort Lauderdale’s Port Everglades to Haiti. Haiti itself produces very little, and most items have to be imported, making restoring shipping services a vital component of relief efforts.

One piece of good news: Royal Caribbean Cruises says its private beach cove at Labadie, on Haiti’s north coast, was undamaged. At least some money will come in that way. (Royal Caribbean plans to provide at least $1 million in aid to Haiti, working with nonprofit groups. Passengers can also make onboard donations to Haitian relief efforts by credit card.)

But who is going to foot the bill for Haiti’s reconstruction is a big question. Some talk of the need for a Haitian Marshall Plan, referring to Europe’s reconstruction after World War ll. Besides the cost, there are issues of how to spend resources in the most effective way. “Clearly you need a decent building code there. It doesn’t exist,” said former U.S. Ambassador, Timothy Carney. “How do you enforce a sensible combination of building code and zoning on a place as free-wheeling, free spirited and unenforceable as Haiti?”

Echoing many analysts, Carney says helping Haiti isn’t easy, and history is littered with failed attempts. “The fact is we haven’t known what approach to take in the past,” he says. “On the one hand, you have this incredibly vibrant culture that is reflected in the painting, and the music, all of the arts. On the other hand you have the most dismal imaginable record of misgovernment, one worthless dictator after another, preying upon the people to line their pockets and to luxuriate in power. How do you break that in order to create a new mold?”

But things may have already begun to change. During three trips to Haiti in the last six months, I saw positive signs, the green shoots of a political and economic comeback. I was feeling so good about the future that I took my wife and 12-year-old son to Haiti at Thanksgiving. I’d always wanted to show them the country, but never really dared before. My confidence stemmed in large part from the knowledge that Haiti has perhaps the best, most competent and honest government in its history. To be sure, President René Préval has his flaws, and is often seen as too timid and invisible. But he is a good man who likes to surround himself with capable people. Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, meanwhile, is a skilled technocrat who is trusted by the international community. He previously served as Planning Minister where he coordinated programs with the major international agencies.

Last year Haiti’s private sector leaders were proudly declaring that the country was once again “open for business.” That was the message Bellerive took to the 33rd Annual Miami Conference on the Caribbean, held in December. “I am optimistic because there is a special moment right now where you feel that everybody wants to help Haiti,” he told PODER in a December interview.

At the conference, industry leaders described how improvements had been made at the port terminal in Port-au-Prince to speed up handling of commerce—since washed away. They also noted how the number of days needed to open a new business—a long-held complaint of investors—had been cut from 250 to only 75.

Employment in the garment industry had more than doubled in the last three years, up from 12,000 in 2006 to 26,000, with Brazilian, Korean and U.S. companies looking to invest in new factories. Vietnamese investors were also looking into the state-run telephone company.

Haiti’s new pro-business attitude had also won the backing of major international supporters, led by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who was named last year as the U.N. special envoy to the country.

Businessman Gregory Mevs, whose family owns one of the port terminals, was especially upbeat at the time. “There is a new sense of belief in ourselves, that we can and we have to do things better,” he told me over dinner. “It’s not just one or two of us, it’s a collective realization that we have a social responsibility to lift up our country.”

The WIN Group, owned by the Mevs family, is developing a $45 million industrial park with the backing of the Soros Economic Development Fund, headed by George Soros, the financier and philanthropist.

But an earthquake and 30 aftershocks later, is that spirit now broken by Mother Nature?

I asked Mevs a few days after the quake how much his optimism had been dented. His family’s port terminal was badly damaged, though he expected to get it operating quickly. “I am on the ground and staying here to fight for my people,” he wrote in a text message from his BlackBerry. “It is quite a setback, for the country was taking off,” he added.

“But we will rebuild. We have to.” He was encouraged by the response from the rest of the world. “That will lead to a new beginning,” he wrote. He also expressed faith in his own countrymen. “The people of Haiti have incredible resilience. They are fighters and survivors. How do they do it? I do not know. They just do.”

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