Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Day 4 in Port-au-Prince: On the Veranda

By David L. Wilson
August 3, 2010

[I wrote this shortly after returning to New York from Port-au-Prince on January 18, but I didn’t get a chance to edit it until July. For earlier reports, see “Singing and Praying at Night in Port-au-Prince," “Day 2 in Port-au-Prince: ‘Young Men with Crowbars,'" and “Day Three in Port-au-Prince: ‘A difficult situation.’”]

By Friday, January 15, it was clear that most of the U.S. citizens in the Hotel Oloffson had no business staying in Haiti. It was now the fourth day since the great earthquake had leveled much of Port-au-Prince, and while independent journalists like Tequila Minsky and Daniel Morel had work to do, the rest of us found that all our plans had evaporated and our cash was running out, along with access to electricity and the internet. The two days of interviews I’d arranged were impossible in the general breakdown of communications; it wasn’t until I got back to New York that I knew for sure my Haitian contacts were still alive.

We heard that U.S. citizens were supposed to go to the embassy—off in Tabarre, a suburb northeast of the city—to get evacuated.

Something about that made me uncomfortable. It’s true that the plan sounded logical: the U.S. government was flying big transport planes into the Toussaint Louverture International Airport, presumably with emergency supplies; once they were unloaded, the planes would be flying back to Miami empty, so why not use them to evacuate some of the estimated 45,000 U.S. citizens in Haiti? But I remembered the smugness that always seems to creep into our media’s coverage of natural disasters. The United States has succeeded in evacuating its citizens, we’re told; unspoken but implied is the contrast with all the other countries of the world, which clearly lack our American know-how and our can-do spirit.

I also knew that in the image-world of U.S. corporate media the evacuation of U.S. citizens would somehow become the evacuation of “real” U.S. citizens—middle-class white people like me, not the dark-skinned Haitian Americans who undoubtedly made up the vast majority of the 45,000.

And I thought the U.S. government would probably try to play the other side as well, for the benefit of African Americans and most of the rest of the world. The image of Haitian Americans being rescued by the first black U.S. president might help the world forget how American know-how had turned out for the black population of New Orleans back in 2005.

We all had Katrina on our minds. A Haitian business owner had brought the hurricane up the day before, by the ruins of the Transport Ministry. The man, neatly dressed amidst the devastation in a polo shirt and pressed trousers, approached New York Times reporter Simón Romero as Tequila and I walked with him and the guide Jean Lundy through the downtown area. We had to remind people in the States about Katrina, the man told us in English. Haiti had sent aid, if only a little, to New Orleans after Katrina; we had to remember that.

I wondered if anyone in the U.S. media would pick up on the Katrina angle.

Still, the politics of evacuation mattered less to me than a practical consideration: I figured it would be much easier to get out of Haiti by taking one of the regular bus runs to Santo Domingo. People said there were no problems with the buses, at least for those of us with cash and U.S. passports.

“Reporters of Fortune
The phrase “corporate media” was no longer an abstraction for me. Reporters and photographers were very physically present everywhere I looked in the Hotel Oloffson: eating on the veranda, camped out in the various annexes, crowded around laptops on the grounds, sleeping in deck chairs by the driveway.

The Oloffson started off in the late nineteenth century as a private mansion for the then-powerful Sam family. With its gingerbread architecture, its white gothic flourishes and occasional Vodou symbols, its circular driveway and the towering palms in its grounds, the place looked like the setting for an old movie or a novel of international intrigue—and in fact it was the model for the fictional hotel in Graham Greene’s The Comedians.

The earthquake had hardly touched the Oloffson, so dozens of corporate journalists ended up there as they poured into the city for disaster coverage; many of the newer luxury hotels had collapsed. But it also became a meeting place for many other people: NGO employees, Haitian Americans who’d rushed to the country to find relatives, Haitian professionals looking for internet access.

For Daniel Morel, a Haitian American photographer who’d been covering the country for decades, the newcomers were “reporters of fortune.” A lot were in fact rude and brash, young men who tried hard to give themselves an adventurous, swashbuckling look—as far as it’s possible to look swashbuckling when you’re carrying cameras, computers, and satellite phones. At one point I heard a bunch of them discussing the esthetics of body shots. But a lot of the journalists were quite smart and professional. Some, like Marc Lacey from the Times and Mary Beth Sheridan from the Washington Post, were positively likeable.

That Friday a group of Times people were eating and conferring at the table next to me on the veranda. They weren’t being secretive, so I listened in as they considered story ideas.

I was struck by how similar their reactions were to my own and those of the various left-leaning people I’d come to Haiti with. For one thing, they seemed as dismissive as we were of the U.S. media’s obsession with looting--there must have been some, but none of us had seen it.

Marc Lacey, who seemed to be in charge of the meeting, was listening to story proposals while a photographer was showing him that morning’s pictures on her laptop. I was impressed by his decisions, which favored stories about the disaster’s impact on real Haitians, not the generic victims and imagined looters of most media.

“Look at this!” he said suddenly.

I couldn’t see the photo he was pointing to, but apparently it was an aerial view of one of the big assembly plants near the airport. Lacey told the others that the earthquake had left a huge crack in the roof. “This is perfect!” he said.

The assembly plants—sweatshops, maquiladoras in Spanish, where low-paid workers stitch clothes for the U.S. market—were what I’d intended to investigate while I was in Port-au-Prince. They’d been promoted under Baby Doc in the 1970s and 1980s as a motor for Haiti’s economic development. The industry collapsed in the 1990s, but for the last year Bill Clinton, the UN and the U.S. apparel industry had been promoting the plants again, as if the past had never happened.

“This sums it all up,” Lacey said, shaking his head. “This plant was Haiti’s future—and now look at it….”

I suddenly understood something about reporters. They can write what they write because at least sometimes they actually believe their own hype.

“Take Lake Péligre”
A different view of Haiti was on display at a nearby table.

“Take Lake Péligre,” another “fellow American” was telling a Latin American reporter, who frantically scribbled notes as a Haitian American doctor looked on.

Lac de Péligre is a huge artificial lake created in the 1950s when U.S. engineers and contractors built the Péligre Dam, the source of Port-au-Prince’s electricity. I’d seen Lac de Péligre on Tuesday, hours before the earthquake, as our group returned from a visit to the Mouvman Peyizan Papay (MPP), a peasant cooperative movement in the Central Plateau.

The runoff from the dam was wasted, according to the speaker, a man about my age whose homemade business card identified him as an “environmental response” specialist. The lake could easily have provided potable water to the capital, he said. Instead, the people of Port-au-Prince had to buy their water in plastic bags and bottles from trucks. No one had been interested in the people, he added.

This man was a character. He was bald on top, with long white hair on the sides, making him look, as an old acquaintance of his told me, like Bozo the Clown. He talked in quick bursts of sound bites, like the people who sell things on late-night TV—except that he was talking about Haiti’s environmental problems and he actually seemed to know what he was talking about.

Why had so many new cement buildings collapsed while others suffered no damage? he asked rhetorically. Corruption, of course, and cutting corners on the cement and the rebar. This was especially true of the schools, he noted, where thousands of students and teachers had died.

Argile,” the man said, and paused dramatically. “Clay.” Haiti is filled with different varieties of excellent clay, he said, explaining ways to construct earthquake-resistant buildings from bricks made out of the local clay.

I was fascinated. Long before the earthquake, the peasant movement in the Central Plateau had been encouraging people to use locally produced clay bricks instead of cement.

Still, like Marc Lacey, this man couldn’t shake off a certain faith in American know-how, a sense that the world’s problems could be solved with a little tinkering by people from the North, by the folks who brought you Katrina. Another of his projects was having the U.S. Navy put President Préval’s government on a ship in the harbor. “You want transparency?” he asked in his late-night commercial tone. “Put Préval and company right there where everyone can see them. And if the Haitians really get fed up with them, they can just weigh anchor and go somewhere else.”

The reporter scribbled faster.

And what about rebuilding, what about planning an environmentally sound capital that would never again collapse on its people? Tequila and I had been talking about the need for building inspectors and proper building codes, and a way to bring back the many Haitian architects and engineers who’d been brain-drained to the States. The environmental expert’s response was to cut Haitian contractors out of the rebuilding completely. “Everything needs to be built by people from outside,” he announced.

Right, I thought. We need to replace the corrupt Haitian contractors with corrupt contractors from Miami.

The Unnamable
Jean Lundy, our guide from the day before, dropped by the veranda around suppertime, still wearing a green shirt and a blue baseball cap. A thin man with a slight stoop, he always had a sad look—something about the lines on his face suggested that he’d had the look even before the disaster—but that evening he also had a look of accomplishment.

He’d told us on Thursday he would take Friday off to search for his brother’s body. Had he found it? we asked. Yes, he said. He and some others had dug it out of the rubble and had arranged for a proper burial.

That was the sort of thing that counted as a success on Day 4 of the earthquake—making sure your brother’s body wasn’t carted off in a truck and dumped in a mass grave somewhere outside the city.

At dinner on Thursday I had asked Serge, a retired Haitian American musician, the Creole for “earthquake.” He nodded. “I was wondering that too,” he said. Was it something from the French séisme? asked a Swiss woman who works with an NGO. “No, I think it’s tranblemanntè,” Serge answered. “But you’re right,” he added, looking at me and guessing my unspoken thought. “I haven’t heard anyone say the word.”

When I got back to New York, I was told that people were calling the event bagay la, “the thing,” or else just 12 janvye, “January 12.” But in those first few days the people of Port-au-Prince seemed not to call the earthquake anything at all. For visitors like me at least there was a narrative: we’d been in one of the worst catastrophes of human history, with tens of thousands killed, maybe hundreds of thousands. But what was it for the people whose whole lives were there? It was something so vast, so all-encompassing that it was nameless, and almost unnamable.

But of course life goes on. A worker at the Oloffson was keeping her two daughters with her at the hotel. She’d noticed I could speak some French, and she ordered the younger one, who seemed to be around eight, to sit with me on the veranda and practice.

I felt my French probably wasn’t a good model for an eight-year-old, but I went ahead and asked the girl the questions adults always ask children. She was bright and inquisitive; you’d never guess she’d survived a world-historic cataclysm just three days before.

Eventually I asked where she went to school.

Her face fell, and I knew at once what an idiot I’d been. “Mon école a été écrasée,” she said sadly, carefully enunciating her words. And of course her school had been destroyed; hadn’t they all?

They’d build a new school, I told her, maybe a better one. Peut-être une meilleure. She cheered up and said, in her clear, formal French, that then she would go back to school.

I felt guilty. I felt I was just another Yankee huckster selling a second-hand optimism I couldn’t really believe in.

[David L. Wilson is co-author, with Jane Guskin, of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers (Monthly Review Press, 2007), and co-editor of Weekly News Update on the Americas.]

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