The Presidential Palace in downtown Port-au-Prince serves as a daily reminder of the earthquake’s destruction to anyone who walks by. One year later, guarded by armed men, surrounded by green lawns and barbed wire fencing, its chalk-white central dome just lists to the side. It’s a large, hulking, crippling sight. Outside the fence, Haitians crowd the sidewalks and honking cars clog the streets. A tent city across the road remains. About one million Haitians continue to live in tents a year after the earthquake. One of them is a ten-year-old budding rapper named Sperlief who is lucky enough to go to school. His mother sells vegetables, his father is one of the hundreds of thousands of unemployed. Sperlief has a charming smile, appears healthy and is well dressed, despite his tent city life.
But life in the tents may not be as bad as in the slums of Cite Soleil where Sperlief was born. Here, shacks are constructed from plywood, cinderblocks and tin. The alleyways are wide enough for one person to walk down, and they are teeming with children who skip over open sewers. A hole with a tire placed on top serves as a latrine. The lingering smoke of burnt trash sometimes competes with the smell of human waste.
The Mayor of Cite Soleil outlines his plan for transforming the slums. He says non-governmental organizations fund projects, but he has not gotten any direct funds for earthquake relief. Today, the mayor is talking to Regine Theodat, a human rights lawyer who works for Lamp of Haiti, one of the few NGOs working in Cite Soleil. Louis tells Theodat that he has built new homes for the slum dwellers. We travel about a mile down the road to an area where brightly painted brand new houses, stand next to a new school buzzing with uniformed children and run by an NGO. Each brightly painted two-bedroom house looks like a tiny suburban tract home with electricity, and a rooftop water supply. There’s no rubble here.
But except for an Israeli aid worker helping out at the school, the houses stand empty. She says they were designed by Cubans, and funded by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Not far from the empty tract homes, stood another neighborhood with homes built by the government of former Haitian President Jean-Bertrande Aristide. Residents of that area said their houses withstood the earthquake well. When asked whether the poor of Cite Soleil would soon become their neighbors, they shook their heads. These houses are expensive, they said. They couldn’t afford them.
Then they pointed to several other nearby housing developments — “the Germans built that one, the Brazilians, over there.”
One wonders what would happen to Haiti if suddenly, the thousands of NGO’s working here were to pull out. But one thing is clear, locals say one year after the earthquake, there’s more aid workers, and missionaries then there ever were.
It’s a country of Balkanized NGOs accountable to no one but their western donors. A nation born on a slave rebellion, reduced to standing in line for hand-outs of clean water and food.
Tomorrow, we’ll take a trip to the countryside where one group has developed a program to address the mental healthcare issues in post-earthquake Haiti.