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Quelle Surprise! Haiti on the Mend

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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

(Page 2)

No one knows exactly how many people live in Haiti. When I was last there the standard estimate was about 6.5 million, but now the World Bank is saying the population is more than 10 million. At any rate, it is visibly more crowded. Rural villages are now towns of twice their previous size. The traffic in Port-au-Prince is unbearable. A word in Creole has newly come into fashion—blokus—to describe a gridlock at major intersections that can hold traffic still for hours. The Haitians wait with little horn honking.

If nothing else moves a blokus, the Haitian police have a special American trained unit called the BIM, a Motorized Intervention Brigade, which steps in. Men with helmets, bulletproof vests and assault rifles clear up traffic jams very quickly. Assault rifles are new. When I was last in Haiti there were M-1 rifles and Uzis. But then again, this visit I sometimes saw a farmer plowing a field with a green John Deere tractor whereas when I was last there, there were only oxen and donkeys doing that work.

But of course these troops were created for more than traffic problems. The armed slum gangs that emerged to support Aristide when he was president outlasted him and have made the streets far more dangerous than they ever were when he was in power. At night, the pop of arms fire can be heard in the city echoing off the mountains. It is a familiar sound, but in past years the violence had been political, not criminal. Given Haitian history, political violence is still a possibility.

Jean-Claude Duvalier, the ousted scion of a despotic 29-year reign that held the nation in terror, has returned from exile, his stolen fortune gone. Ironically, the most legendary kleptocrat in modern Haitian history cannot live as luxuriously as Aristide, who was supposed to end corruption. Young people, who are the great majority of Haitians, do not remember the Duvaliers and talk of how the streets were cleaner and there was no crime when that family prevailed. But older Haitians remember the murderous state. Haiti was a silent country, people were afraid to speak and the corpses of the regime’s victims were dumped by the side of the highway. People are still afraid that Duvalier could come back to power. One family said it was not republishing a book by a deceased relative on Duvalier crimes because it was afraid of him. Given the rapid twists of Haitian politics, it is not inconceivable that Duvalier could someday retake office.

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Haiti is now a democracy and people speak their minds, but they are careful. There is supposedly complete freedom of the press, but when I was last in Haiti there were a dozen newspapers and now there is only Le Nouvelliste, which publishes boosterish articles about the rebuilt Place Boyer or a new school. But in a country where only half the population can read, radio is far more important and there a variety of opposition views are aired.

Meanwhile, there are construction and development programs everywhere. Some are better appreciated than others. The Dominican Republic and Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chavez have earned praise. Bill Clinton’s foundation, for unclear reasons, is completing a huge high-rise business-class hotel, which has generated less enthusiasm. The United Nations has become a huge presence here with several bases. But its many trucks and SUVs contribute to the traffic problem. Although the U.N. came to help and to guarantee stability with troops, some of those troops brought cholera, which has killed 8,000 Haitians and, according to Doctors Without Borders, is still not under control. Some political groups opposing the U.N. have been calling for an end to the “occupation.”

Despite the infrastructure projects, the city destroyed by an earthquake has not been rebuilt. I cannot find my way around the center of a city whose every street I used to know. It is difficult to recognize roads without their buildings. In the center of town, the national palace is gone and the row of 200-year-old government buildings is missing, but to many people’s disappointment, a bizarre steel and concrete monument several stories high that the Haitians have dubbed “the tower of terror” remains standing. The commercial center is rubble, some streets still impassable. The buildings that housed shops are cracked and roofless and many of the businesses are in the street in front of the crumbled shells or piles of rubble. The cathedral looks like a scene from World War II Europe with a few elegant arches and pillars marking the spot where once stood a towering church.

In contrast with all the ruins, Preval redid the Duvalier family beach home into a public space, and for the first time, young Haitians have a place to go to the beach. Nearby, a new coastal resort, extremely modest by Caribbean standards, has opened and has been named Obama Beach Hotel. It’s a different Haiti from the one I knew before, and if there are no more mudslides, hurricanes or coup d’etats—all common occurrences in the country—it could at last be getting a little better.


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