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17148: Linda, Visit to Haiti (fwd)

From: Linda Wood Ballard <xxdna@viawest.net>

Hello everyone.  In August I traveled to Haiti and upon returning wrote a
short article hoping to publish in a local Utah paper, but I have no takers.
So I will "publish" here.  As a long-time subscriber to the Corbett List I
know I will have some frank critiques of my naive outsider views, but as
with my trip, I am here to learn.  I hope you will at least give me credit
for not using "The Phrase."  (If anyone thinks they know someone who might
publish this, I have some great tap-tap photos and several more anecdotes.)

Haiti Prepares to Celebrate 200 Years of Independence:  Six Realities

I had admired Haitian art and read its fascinating history for years, but
never dared to travel to this small Caribbean country because of the
political turmoil and the fact that I spoke neither French nor Creole.  When
I learned that a friend was going to visit family there, I grabbed the
opportunity to see firsthand the realities of the country.

As we traveled from the Port Au Prince airport to my friend's house, her
four-wheel drive SUV stayed in 2nd gear, lurching up steep inclines and
going off the road to avoid deep potholes.  Hurricane Claudette had passed
to the south a few days earlier and it had rained heavily.  The usual ruts
in the unpaved roads had turned into gullies and residents had gathered
debris from the storm into huge piles on the corners.  We stopped in front
of her security gate.  With her cell phone in one hand, my friend neatly
backed her bulky vehicle up an incline, through the narrow gate and into a
tiny courtyard just big enough to allow us to open our doors.  Reality #1:
Haitians are amazing drivers.  Imagine the Moab Jeep Safari with two-way

Haiti will celebrate 200 years of independence in 2004.  Discovered by
Columbus on his second voyage and a French sugar-producing colony since
1659, Haiti's pride is that it is the only country in the world born of a
slave revolution.  The French learned that for a dictatorship, education is
a very dangerous thing.  When Haitian slaves were denied "liberte, egalite,
fraternite," they followed the example of French patriots and took it for
themselves in the bloody revolt of 1804.  Since then the country has
suffered under monarchies, foreign occupations, dictatorships and most
recently, the democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

The island Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic is exquisitely
beautiful.  The Caribbean sun is bright and warm while a constant sea breeze
moderates the heat.  This sort of tropical paradise should draw hordes of
tourists to sit on its beaches and drink its Barbancourt Rum.  But Haiti is
in no condition to welcome tourists.  On the verge of its bicentennial, the
national anthem, "Haiti Cherie," is sung wistfully and sadly.  The political
and economic situation makes life very hard.

The cable TV in my hotel room speckles off and on frequently.  Finally, the
TV and air conditioning go off altogether.  A minute later I hear the hotel
generator kick in and the TV screen again lights up my room.  A big problem
in Haiti is lack of consistent utility service.  Electricity is erratic.
Water comes two or three times a week and may or may not be chlorinated.  To
carry them through the outages, middle and upper class people have
generators and cisterns with their own water purification systems.  Each
home is its own island of independence.  Poor people haul questionably clean
water in 5 gallon buckets from a central well.

The next morning my friend is late picking me up from the hotel.  Both she
and her husband had flat tires that morning.  Having seen the roads the day
before, I am not surprised.  Well, this should be no problem-I see that if
you go three blocks in any direction you are likely to find a tire repair
shop.  We turn in to one of them and show them the tire.  "Five minutes.  We
can fix it in five minutes," the young man says quoting an attractively low
price.  Are you sure?  "Absolutely.  Five minutes."  We hand over the tire.
He says, "As soon as the electricity comes back on, we will fix it in five
minutes."  Right.  We have a choice of leaving it there and getting the good
price or finding a place with a generator where we will pay at least ten
times more.  Reality #2:  Despite Haiti's low wages, it's not cheap to live
here.  My generator-equipped hotel cost as much as my Miami hotel.

No matter how bad the utilities are, transportation is thriving.  The city
is served not by public busses, but by hundreds of independently owned and
highly competitive "tap taps"-vans or modified small trucks.  Inside they
have been fitted with as many seats as possible and outside every inch has
been painted imaginatively in bright reds, yellows and blues.  "Thank you,
mother," "My way prospers because I follow Jesus," "The return of the
butterfly" read the mottos on the front.  The sides sport soccer balls and
American flags.  The back window is covered with the portrait of a
girlfriend or child.  Bumpers have been replaced by no nonsense welded steel
"cowcatchers."  These fantastic conveyances set their routes to compete for
customers and cost about 20 cents to ride.

My friend absolutely will not hear of us riding in a tap tap.  "Too
dangerous.  People don't respect anyone."  Liberation theology, advocating
an active support of economic justice, has degenerated into the idea that if
you are hungry and you ask someone for money, they must give it to you or
you have the right to take it from them by any means.  All the middle class
families are in constant fear of violent robberies.  I think of the armed
guards at my hotel with their loaded sawed-off shotguns.  Reality #3:
Although there are definite "bad" areas in Haiti, there are no safe areas.

My friend's father lives in a typical neighborhood.  His small store is on
the corner of his block with his home and a rental home above it.  He has
two Mack trucks parked on the narrow street beside his house, forcing
traffic to swerve around them and into the oncoming lane.  When the
Americans came in and restored President Aristide to power in 1998, a surge
of public works projects allowed him to purchase these trucks.  For a couple
of years he had a great business hauling bricks and cement.  But now there
are no more projects and he can't sell the trucks.  He says the government
has not paid him for his last job.  My friend says you can get thrown in
jail if you try to collect a debt from the government. Her father knows
people this has happened to.

Everywhere you go, the main streets are vibrant with vendors set up elbow to
elbow in makeshift markets.  People tack string along exterior walls to
display clothing or art.  Small tables use up any remaining bits of what was
once a narrow sidewalk.  We see others walking up and down the streets with
baskets of charcoal, huge cabbages, or cuts of cloth balanced on their
heads.  In the center of town, boys wave long poles strung with sunglasses.
Huge numbers of desperately poor people have moved to Port Au Prince from
the countryside to find work, but there are no jobs for them here
either--unemployment runs over 80%.  People find, grow or borrow any little
thing and must find a buyer for it or they are hungry that night.  Haitians
understand business, but business does not look particularly good.  Reality
#4:  One of Haiti's master artists, Wilson Bigaud, paints his market women
with hollow eyes and grim faces.  Now I know why.

Humanitarian groups in matching T-shirts regularly converge on Haiti
bringing money and labor for hospitals and orphanages.  My conspicuously
blond hair marked me as a foreigner and caused people to ask what "group" I
was with.  It apparently was quite a curiosity that I was there just to
visit friends.  Religious charities and NGO's from the US address Haiti's
serious problems--along with the crumbling infrastructure there is poor
health care, a food crisis, poor sanitation, education and illiteracy,
unemployment, government corruption, and an appalling deforestation
resulting in agricultural catastrophes.  It is a small country.  Somehow
these things should be fixable.  In the meantime, many Haitians rely for
their day-to-day needs on money sent by relatives who have managed to
emigrate to the US or Canada.

One evening, sitting at the poolside bar, we chat with a Haitian architect
who lives in Boston and is down here on business.  He says the only way to
make money in Haiti is to look for the quick profit.  You can't afford to
invest for the long term because things change fast and you can easily lose
everything.  "Take your profit and go."  He has some land in the upscale
neighborhood of Petionville.  He is going to build, sell, and go back to

Despite the economic cynicism of some, many Haitians are investing for the
future.  My friend's husband has a growing business selling and servicing
generators.  His showroom and front office are spare and clean, obviously
decorated by a man.  His warehouse is well stocked.  New "cybercafes"
featuring 12" screens and 32K processors are springing up on all the main
roads.  Cell phones are also big business competing with the government's
inefficient and unreliable Teleco.  Reality #5:  Although many middle class
families have left, there are signs that some are staying and looking

This evening we have come to see one of the best-known faces of Haitian
pride, Richard Morse, the leader of the rock group RAM and owner of the
venerable Hotel Oloffson, made famous in Graham Greene's novel The
Comedians.  Legend says Morse bought the hotel for $30 US in the turmoil of
the mid-1980's.  As you come up the hotel's long circular drive, a vision of
white Victorian elegance emerges from the overgrown trees.  The veranda is
filled with people eating dinner at small tables.  Inside, the place is
packed.  The amplifiers impale you with RAM's blend of punk rock melded to
traditional Haitian music.  The first number is blessed by a lanky Vodou
priestess with a bottle of clairin.  If there are any tourists in Haiti,
they are here tonight.

The current president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, is a former Salesian priest
who translated the Bible into Creole.  With fiery rhetoric he captured the
hearts and imagination of the impoverished Creole-speaking populace who
comprise the overwhelming majority of voters.  In 1990 they elected him by a
large majority with a voter turnout estimated by some at a whopping 97%.  In
1995, after a coup and his restoration to power by American marines,
Haitians elected Aristide's hand-picked successor, Rene Preval.  In 2000
Aristide was re-elected in a disputed election.  Despite graduate degrees in
divinity and psychology, he has turned out to be a poor administrator and is
now popular only with his uneducated constituency.

In Haiti, education is a huge gulf dividing the poor from the middle and
upper classes.  The uneducated speak Creole and live hand to mouth.  The
educated speak French and have jobs.  Educated middle class Haitians, who
are a small minority, are frustrated and angry.  They pay 30% income taxes
but see no resulting benefits.  Among this minority are capable leaders with
vision and experience, but open political criticism invites retaliation by
street gangs fiercely loyal to the president and suspicious of the motives
of those viewed as "wealthy."

Despite this critical internal division, Haiti has one major reality that
will not go away:  The dictatorships of the past are gone and the people who
understood "liberte, egalite, fraternite," now understand and will insist on
democracy.  Reality #6:  For better or for worse, Haiti will never again
have a government without the consent of the majority.  And in the words of
one astute observer, "If you do not like a bunch of uneducated people
deciding Haiti's leadership, EDUCATE THEM."