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Quelle Surprise! Haiti on the Mend

Posted on Jun 19, 2013
AP/Dieu Nalio Chery

A man sweeps an exposed tiled area of the earthquake-damaged Santa Ana Catholic church, where he now lives, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

By Mark Kurlansky

In Haiti there is nothing more unexpected than good news. After an absence of a dozen years, I returned to a country from which I had reported regularly for more than a decade to visit old friends and get reacquainted. In the 1980s and early 1990s, I was one of the leading journalists in Haiti covering almost every event, election, coup, riot and anything else that happened for the Chicago Tribune. Since I left, there had been a military coup d’etat reversed by a U.S. military invasion; the emergence of gang warfare, street crimes and kidnappings; and a devastating earthquake. What could be left of poor suffering Haiti?

The first thing I noticed was a new modern airport. The Haitian government had also rebuilt some of the shaky bridges over dry ravines that become wild roiling rivers when the afternoon rains come. Schools were being built. This was something new for Haiti, a government supporting real development projects that actually improved things.

When I was last in Haiti I knew the man who is now president, a rocker then who wore trendy clothes, a shaved head and spoke in a hip way with American slang in his Creole. He had right-wing politics, ties to the brutal military and had adopted the nickname Sweet Mickey from a feared army colonel Michel “Mickey” François.

Sweet Mickey Martelly, who sang in a sweet voice songs with biting, sometimes off-color lyrics, has for the past two years been President Michel Martelly and wears conservative business suits. He opposed his predecessor Rene Preval and his predecessor Jean-Bertrand Aristide who was overthrown in a 2004 coup d’etat that Martelly supported. But this makes Martelly, however dubious his credentials, the first president in Haitian history to peacefully take power in an election from a predecessor of an opposing party. Martelly’s critics point out that he inherited most of his development projects from Preval rather than originating his own plans, but a president who continues rather than discards the programs of the opposition is something that is also very new for Haiti.

There are roads being built and Haiti will soon have a better street system than it has ever known. The Ecuadoreans have built roads in the Artibonite, the farm belt in the center of the country where there had never been roads before. Private companies from the neighboring Dominican Republic, a country with which Haitians share an island but so few relations that at times you could not even cross from one nation to the other, have been building streets, including one to Jeremie, an isolated community in the far south that has never before had such a connection.


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The opposition claims that President Martelly took kickbacks for granting the Dominicans no-bid contracts. The opposition also faces corruption charges it hasn’t answered. How is it that Aristide, who was a penniless parish priest when I left, now lives in a huge mansion that he built for himself? How enormous is hard to say since the walls around it are rebuilt ever higher.

Three years ago, on Jan. 12, 2010, an estimated 300,000 people were killed and about 2 million lost their homes when an earthquake struck crowded Port-au-Prince. International relief organizations placed 1.5 million homeless people in 1,555 tent cities throughout the capital in public squares or anywhere else that space could be found. Today, there are about 300,000 still in tents, mostly on the outskirts of the city. Parks and fields have been reclaimed. Place Boyer, a run-down plaza turned tent city, is now restored with decorative Haitian tiles and stunning tropical gardening.

Getting 1.2 million people out of camps that were sometimes disease and crime ridden seems a major accomplishment. But there are at least two sides to everything in Haiti. Human rights group Amnesty International claims that 65,000 people were forced to leave, which would still represent a small number of the people who exited.

But there are other problems. Most of the displaced people were not returned to the sites of their original homes. It was easier to build new neighborhoods than to clear the rubble and ruins of the old ones. But where in the increasingly crowded capital was the space for all these new houses? The only available areas were on mountain slopes seemingly too steep for construction. However, new communities of hundreds of cinder block houses have been built on 60-degree mountain inclines. There are no roads there, so people in the higher-up houses have to climb the steep peaks on foot to get home. And the houses were constructed with Haitian made cinder blocks that have never been stress tested; no one knows whether in time they will crumble.

Worse, many of these communities have been built with houses jammed next to one another and no trees. The lack of greenery on the mountains is a serious problem throughout Haiti. The trees have been chopped down to sell as charcoal or for construction; without trees there are mudslides and erosion. The scars of such events can be seen on many mountainsides. Afternoon rains in Port-au- Prince turn into floods. The day after I left, the streets were transformed into muddy rushing rivers several feet deep, paralyzing the city. It seems certain that eventually some of these new communities will be lost in landslides, but there are so many tragedies waiting to happen that Haitians expect them with a stoic fatalism.

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