Friday, August 6, 2010

Days 5 and 6 in Port-au-Prince: Escape From Katrina

By David L. Wilson
August 6, 2010

[This is the second of two reports I wrote after returning to New York from Port-au-Prince on January 18; I didn’t get a chance to edit them until July. For the other report, see "Day 4 in Port-au-Prince: On the Veranda." ]

Founded in 1994 by the Liberation Theology priest Joseph Philippe and a number of local organizations, Fonkoze is Haiti’s main microcredit bank, making small, short-term loans to tens of thousands of ti machann—the street vendors, mostly women, who provide much of the activity in the country’s informal economy.

Like everything else in Port-au-Prince, Fonkoze was devastated by the January 12 earthquake. Many branch offices were destroyed, and structural damage had made the main office unsafe to use. No one died there, but an administrator had to be evacuated to the United States for medical care. The director, Anne Hastings, was calling for volunteers to come by on Saturday morning, January 16, to help retrieve important records from the building.

By Saturday, three of us—New Yorkers who’d come to Haiti the week before to visit a peasant movement in the Central Plateau—had decided that the best way to get back home was to take the Santo Domingo bus from a terminal in the northeastern suburb of Tabarre. This sounded easier and more reliable than the evacuation flights the U.S. government was promoting. We were told the terminal was right by the embassy: if we couldn’t get a bus, we could still throw ourselves on the mercies of the Colossus of the North.

So we made arrangements with Milfort Bruno, the proprietor of an art shop across the street from the Hotel Oloffson, where we were staying. He promised to get us a vehicle and a driver for just $40—a major accomplishment in a city where the corporate reporters seemed to have hired every car that still ran—and to pick us up early on Sunday.

This left us free on Saturday to make ourselves at least a little bit useful at Fonkoze.

Rue La Mort
We started late. We’d had some last-minute clarifications to make with Milfort, and I also think a certain lethargy was setting in now, in the fifth day since the quake.

The Fonkoze office was on Avenue Christophe, which comes right up to the Oloffson, but several people told us the best way to get there was to take Rue Capois north to the downtown area and then go east on Avenue John Brown, which intersects Christophe.

So we started off down the hill toward the National Palace. There were four of us now; another guest at the hotel had joined us.

We saw some signs of improvement in the residential areas. Neighborhood people had cleared most of the rubble out of the streets and had fashioned it into barricades so that cars wouldn’t run into the little street encampments—everyone was still sleeping outdoors because of the continuing aftershocks, and those without yards had nowhere to go but the street. The dead bodies were gone; apparently the authorities had gotten organized enough to hire people and trucks to remove the corpses. But this was the only evidence I ever saw of government action, just as the Belgian rescue mission we’d run into on Thursday was the only evidence I’d seen of international assistance. We knew the big U.S. transport planes were regularly lumbering into the airport, but what were they bringing? No aid had come down here to Carrefour Feuilles.

The scene grew grimmer as we moved downtown. Shopkeepers were trying to clean up and get back in business, but there was only so much they could do for the ruined stores without help from outside. Here too the bodies had been removed, but new ones had sprung up in their place. It seemed that people were bringing corpses to the main streets, where the government workers were more likely to see them and haul them off to the mass graves outside the city.

There seemed to be less respect for the dead now; instead of covering the bodies with sheets, as they had done in the first days, people were satisfied with throwing a rag or piece of plastic over the face.

It was around 11 am, and the sun had gotten bright and hot. I understood something I’d read about: the special look of horrors in the tropics. The bright sunlight brings out every detail, infuses everything with gorgeous, exaggerated colors, like the colors in the idealized country scenes of Haitian folk art. The sharp visual reality of a corpse lying in the street becomes too great; you don’t quite believe it.

Like the rest of us, the dead people were in their fifth day since the earthquake. Most Haitians were wearing scarves over their faces as they walked down the street; if they didn’t have scarves, they’d put a line of toothpaste under their noses to offset the smell.

The bright colors of the tropics extended to the clothes. A remarkable number of the people we passed wore clothes that were as bright and colorful as the day itself, and the clothes and the people were clean. How had they done it, living in yards or the street or encampments in places like the Champ de Mars across from the National Palace? I’d given up any idea of washing my clothes, and for days now my personal hygiene had been limited to sponge baths using a big plastic bucket of stale, chlorinated water from the Oloffson’s swimming pool.

We continued down Rue Capois, named for a revolutionary general so fearless that he was nicknamed “Lanmò”—Death. We turned right on Avenue John Brown, named for a man whose body lies a-moldering in the grave, and then right again on Avenue Christophe, named for a megalomaniac king. By now we knew our directions had been wrong; we’d made a long detour through downtown, and we were going to be very late.

I started to sense that like the smell, the mood in the streets had gotten worse. People remained polite, but I noticed how often they told us not to photograph them. I understood of course why you wouldn’t want to have your suffering end up in a tourist’s slideshow—but we weren’t carrying cameras or waving cell phones around; there was no reason to think we wanted to take pictures. I suspected they’d come to think of blan yo, the foreigners, as people who took pictures and never helped. The Haitians had to resent this; I certainly did.

As we were walking up Avenue Christophe, I noticed something about our own deteriorating morale. Two of us were talking as we approached a corpse on the sidewalk. With a slight nod to each other, we broke off our conversation and separated to walk around the body, giving it a wide berth. Then we came together again and resumed our conversation where we’d left off. I realized we’d done similar things several times during our journey.

We’d gotten used to dead people.

Haitian Know-How
The volunteers had already finished when we finally got to Fonkoze. Along with the rest of the international community, our little group from the Oloffson had turned out to be completely useless.

The Fonkoze offices were set back from the street in a large yard; this seemed to be a residential neighborhood. You could see at least one large crack in the building. It must have been hard work, not to say dangerous work, to go in there in the heat to pull out financial records. The volunteers were resting and drinking water under a sheet they’d strung up between trees as a sort of canopy. Most seemed to be Fonkoze staff, and like so many of the people on the street, they’d somehow contrived to be clean and neatly dressed.

Even while resting they stayed busy, sorting files and asking the director questions. Anne Hastings had been a management consultant in Washington, DC before she was recruited to head Fonkoze, and her answers were brief and businesslike. She spoke fluent Creole, but with a wonderfully all-American accent, like Jean Seberg’s French in "Breathless."

The one little bit of encouragement I got that day was watching Anne and the Fonkoze staff working together—the bank’s full name is Fondasyon Kole Zepòl, “Shoulder-to-Shoulder Foundation.” I’d been thinking the day before about how the myth of “American know-how” had been shown up by our government’s incompetence during Katrina. Now I realized that we can be competent after all, especially when we recognize and respect the competence of other people.

On the way back to the Oloffson I noticed a little white cloth bundle on the sidewalk beside Avenue Christophe. It was wrapped tight, like a tiny Egyptian mummy. I took a deep breath, but I didn’t point the bundle out to the others. As always, I felt the cosmic injustice in a grey-haired stranger like me coming out of the disaster without a scratch while this small Haitian was lying in the street waiting to be taken to the mass burial pits outside the city. There are some dead people you can’t get used to.

“The Ghosts of Beauty”
I didn’t sleep well my last night in Port-au-Prince, and I spent a lot of time wandering around beneath the tall palms of the Oloffson’s grounds.

It was a little spooky to walk there, thinking of the hundreds of people who had died in the blocks around the hotel. The first few nights I’d been cheered up by people singing hymns in the intersection in front, but now there were only a few singers, and they sounded like diehard evangelicals moved more by doctrine than by community spirit. They were loud, and one was flagrantly out of tune. The photographer Daniel Morel told me that people had been leaving to stay with relatives in the country, reversing the historic tendency for too many people to crowd together in the capital. That might be, but it was lonely without the hundreds of singers I heard the first nights.

The power was still out and the city was dark. You could see the winter stars in the sky, and that, at least, was lovely. I even caught a glimpse of a shooting star through the trees.

I began to think of all the people who had wandered in these grounds in the past or in fiction—Malcolm Lowry, John Barrymore, and, for comic relief, Charles Addams. Here was the swimming pool where the social welfare minister killed himself in the Graham Greene book. And I thought back to the earlier times before electricity, the 1890s, when the neighborhood had belonged to well-to-do mixed-race families with elegant manners and flawless Parisian accents.

A line from Pope came to mind:

Still round and round the Ghosts of Beauty glide….

Lack of sleep and maybe the stress of the past few days made me a little giddy, and I began fantasizing about the spirits of the old Haitian elite. How did they feel when they found the place crowded with so many fresh, plebeian ghosts—the schoolgirl crushed when the retaining wall fell on her in front of the hotel, the families buried under the houses in the block below the intersection, the sixty students lost in the St. Gérard school up the hill?

At around four in the morning I heard what had to be automatic weapons, three brief bursts off in the distance. This was the first time I’d heard gunfire in Port-au-Prince, despite rumors of escaped prisoners, of looters, and of the U.S.-trained police executing supposed looters.

I climbed up some cement steps to a point where I could look out over the darkened city. I’d thought the sound came from around the Delmas area, to my right, and as I stood at the top of the stairs, there was a fourth round of shots. This wasn’t a fantasy about old ghosts; it was real and it was happening right now. My God, I thought, weren’t there already enough dead people?

Our Fellow Americans?
Milfort came for us around 6:30 am with his driver and what may once have been a pickup truck. The way to the bus terminal went north toward the airport and then east to Tabarre. We bumped through downtown, past the crumpled National Palace, and then through impoverished Bel Air, where people were still trying to sleep and looked at us resentfully from inside the barricaded encampments. As we approached the airport, I noticed a big new sign. Someone had painted a large white square on a wall, and then, in large, professionally formed letters: “WE NEED HELP.” The plea was placed so that no one coming in from the airport could miss it.

The bus terminal turned out to be a small building in what seemed to be the U.S. embassy’s parking lot. Two U.S. soldiers in camouflage greeted us cheerfully as we got our bags out of the truck. “You’re not taking the evacuation?” one asked in a southern drawl. No, we thought going through Santo Domingo would be easier. “Well, you might just be right about that,” he said.

The bus company employees directed us to “standby,” a row of wooden benches in the shade in front of the little building. The waiting passengers were mostly middle-class Haitians and Haitian Americans, with a few Dominicans mixed in. Conversation was a mélange of Creole, English, French, and Spanish; the English was frequently in New York and Florida accents. It was a typically Haitian scene—an apparent chaos in which everything still got sorted out. Three hours later our turn came, and we boarded a large, air-conditioned bus.

As we started on our long but embarrassingly comfortable ride to the Dominican Republic, the bus passed in front of the embassy. A sympathetic murmur came from the other passengers. “Gade, gade!” the woman across the aisle told her companion. “Look!”

There was a long line by the street outside the embassy. It was close to 11 am now, and a hot sun was beating down on the people as they waited in all the different postures of weariness and dejection. Who were they? Were they our “fellow Americans” waiting to get approval to take the evacuation flights? Or were they Haitian citizens who still believed blan yo would somehow help them? I couldn’t pick out a single white face in the long, wilting line. I wondered if everybody else thought what I was thinking: Katrina.

[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.]

NYC, Aug. 8: "La Casa Rosa," immigration play

From Mexico: the performance the State Department didn't want you to see...

"La Casa Rosa" and Families Without Borders Break Barriers, Reunite Families

Sunday, August 8, 2010
8 pm (doors open 7 pm)

Wings Theater
154 Christopher Street, Lower Level
New York City
(at Washington Street; PATH to Christopher Street, 1 to Christopher Street-Sheridan Square)

More information:

Woman's Theater Project comes to the United States After Battle with State Dept

New Haven, CT / New York, NY (July 27, 2010) After a protracted battle with the U.S. State Department, visas have finally been issued for the members of Soame Citlalime, an all-female theater group from Mexico that has developed "La Casa Rosa" ("The Pink House"), an immigration play. The United States premier performance will take place at Wings Theater on Sunday, August 8th, at 7pm (154 Christopher Street, New York, NY).

"La Casa Rosa" is a collaboration between The Institute for Social and Cultural Practice and Research (IIPSOCULTA), The Migrant Family Support Center (CAFAMI), and Carlton Industries. It arrives in the United States this summer as part of the "Families Without Borders" tour, a multi-state program of workshops and presentations. The productions' goal is to break cultural borders by assembling audiences from all backgrounds to discuss the realities of a globalized world, and to literally reunite the cast of "La Casa Rosa" with their family members working in the United States, many of whom they haven't seen in over 10 years.

How do we protect what's important? How do we advance in a system designed to limit our options? How do we find common ground when the world is intent on keeping us apart?

"La Casa Rosa" is the lesser-told side of the immigration story - that of those left behind. Set against a backdrop of the mysterious disappearance of a local youth and a popular struggle in a rural community, "La Casa Rosa" follows the story of two sisters vying for the control of their ancestral land. In it, two very different visions are realized and the answers to vital ethical questions are approached. Subtitled "Fighting for a Future in a Free Trade World," the play's U.S. tour was stopped by the State Department due to objections regarding the group's mission and the play's content. Visas were finally granted on July 1st after support was offered from New Haven Mayor John Destefano and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro.

Read more:

Watch an excerpt from the play:

Read about the play in La Jornada del Oriente (in Spanish):

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.]