Beyond Relief: How the World Failed Haiti

Page 9 of 9

Martelly was inaugurated as Haiti's 56th president on May 14th, in a ceremony in front of the still-shattered National Palace. In his inaugural speech, he made a point of saying that Haiti, as he put it, was now "open for business." A few days later, he nominated his friend Daniel Rouzier, the top executive of the private energy company E-Power, to serve as his prime minister. A graduate of Georgetown and Dartmouth, Rouzier is a member of Haiti's new cosmopolitan elite, one interested less in politics than in fully integrating Haiti into the global economy.

Shortly after being nominated, Rouzier announced that Haiti would disband the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, which he dismissed as "dysfunctional." His assessment concurred with the findings of the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which noted in a report released in May that the IHRC was "not fully operational" more than a year after its creation. Nor will it likely ever be, the GAO suggested, as the commission's charter was set to expire this October. "I don't mean to crucify the people who came up with the concept," Rouzier said, "but sometimes when something doesn't work, you have to fix it."

Hours after Rouzier blasted the IHRC, however, Martelly's office rushed to walk back the criticism, maintaining that the Haitian government remains "very open and willing to begin discussions" to make the IHRC "more efficient." In July, when Martelly agreed to a year's extension for the relief commission, the message was clear: The U.S. government and private-sector interests like Digicel had found a friendly ally in the new Haitian president.

Rouzier's nomination was ultimately blocked by the Haitian Parliament, which is controlled by rival parties, and Haiti remains without a prime minister — a political vacuum that has only increased the sway of the private sector and the IHRC. In June, Martelly kicked off a project called Building Back Better Communities, funded in part by the Clinton Foundation, which seeks to construct 400 new homes in 100 days, using designs and structural engineering provided almost solely by foreign firms. The following month, he unveiled a plan, conceived by Miami architect Andrés Duany and sponsored by Britain's Prince Charles, to rebuild downtown Port-au-Prince as a series of "urban villages," each with its own separate condominiums and neighborhood-watch committees. The Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, which raised $50 million earmarked specifically for emergency-relief efforts, meanwhile, raised eyebrows by investing $2 million to finish the construction of a luxury hotel in Pétionville. The 130-room Oasis "symbolizes Haiti 'building back better' and sends a message to the world that Haiti is open for business," declared Paul Altidor, vice president of the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund. "For Haiti's recovery to be sustainable," he added, "it must attract investors, businesses and donors, all of whom will need a business-class, seismically safe hotel."

Haitians, however, know from bitter experience that the business-friendly model of development currently being touted as their salvation has repeatedly failed them in the past. In the 1970s and 1980s, during Haiti's industrial heyday, tens of thousands of rural residents flocked to Port-au-Prince in search of jobs. Many settled in Cité Soleil, an isolated shantytown on the edge of the city that had been created to house workers for the type of factories located in the so-called "export processing zone," much like the one that was promised to the thousands of Haitians who flocked to Corail. But the factories soon closed in the midst of Haiti's political upheaval, and today Cité Soleil is the capital's largest and most notorious slum, one of the poorest and most desperate places in the Western Hemisphere. There are few Digicel banners here, and the ghetto is considered a "red zone," too dangerous for most relief agencies to enter. A few workers from Doctors Without Borders have struggled to contain the flow of cholera into Cité Soleil's lone hospital.

To veteran Haiti watchers, Cité Soleil offers a stark lesson in the danger of relying on grandiose notions about the largesse and staying power of the private sector. "If you want to see what Haiti will look like in 20 years, all you have to do is go down to Cité Soleil," says Schwartz, the anthropologist. "In the past 50 years, very little has changed in Haiti. There is absolutely no reason to believe that the projects the international community is building today are any different. Maybe even worse." Recently, Schwartz was out looking at the new T-shelters being built in Corail — essentially tiny plywood boxes with tin roofs. "They look like rows and rows of garden sheds," he says. "What do you think this is going to look like in 10 years? You don't need a degree in urban planning to anticipate a new Cité Soleil. If you want to understand the future, just look at the past."

During the past decade, Cité Soleil has been the site of Haiti's worst gang warfare, and the young men who live here remain stigmatized by the violence. "When you say you come from Cité Soleil, people think you are a gangster or a kidnapper," says a 32-year-old Haitian rapper named Tche-Ke, whose brother, in fact, was a notorious gangster. Tche-Ke eschews violence and spends whatever money he makes from his music and other odd jobs on neighborhood kids, 10 of whom he is putting through school. Despite being spared in the earthquake, much of the slum is paved with crumbling asphalt, and some areas remain submerged under several feet of mud. Green slime coats the puddles, and strewn across an open field, a cornucopia of garbage and broken glass goes unnoticed by the Haitian children who use one part of it as a soccer field, another part as a toilet. "Do you smell it?" asks Tche-Ke. The stench is overpowering.

At the end of one muddy path is a tiny makeshift shack, where a young mother named Denise lives with her two toddlers and 10,000 flies. Like many Haitians I meet, Denise says she has faith: Jesus will soon give her a new home. Then she points to a somewhat larger shack next to hers — a roofless hut fashioned from a USAID tarp draped over some plywood. With no money to finish it and no job, she struggles to scrape together the $10 a month in rent she pays for the privilege of living in her shack.

This, then, is the legacy that decades of foreign investment have bestowed on Haiti: a brutal and intractable poverty, borne of a disastrous mix of well-intentioned aid and profit-driven development. Every decade or so, it seems, the world comes up with a bold new plan for saving Haiti — and each ultimately proves as ineffective and fleeting as the last.

As Denise talks, a pig snuffles in the dirt next to her infant son, who is gravely malnourished. A large white UNICEF vehicle, a rare sight in the neighborhood, drives slowly past. A woman from the relief agency peers out of the window, her expression one part revulsion and another part fear.

Then she moves on.

This story is from the August 18, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.

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