In Port-au-Prince, closed shops and quiet streets

By Dennis Sadowski

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The first day of a general strike designed to keep pressure on the government of President Michel Martelly to lower gasoline prices and schedule long overdue elections kept the streets of the Haitian capital eerily quiet.

Across the capital, schools did not open and most businesses were shuttered Feb. 9. A long line formed at the Eagle Supermarket on Delmas Road, just around the corner from the closed offices of Catholic Relief Services. People expressed frustration that they did not know about the closure and could not buy necessities for their families.

Boys play soccer in a traffic-free street in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, as the capital experienced a general strike aimed at lowering gas prices and urging elections. (CNS/Bob Roller)

Boys play soccer in a traffic-free street in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, as the capital experienced a general strike aimed at lowering gas prices and urging elections. (CNS/Bob Roller)

At mid-day Catholic News Service photographer Bob Roller and I ventured out with our driver and translator, Jean-Daniel Lafontant. Encountering one group of student protesters near the site of the earthquake-destroyed National Palace, we were told we were not “following the rule” to keep motor vehicles off the streets. One suggested that because we were driving around we might find a rock being thrown through the windshield of our vehicle. It mattered little that we were journalists surveying the silence on the streets.

Few vehicles were out and about, but the daily traffic congestion the capital experiences was gone. In many neighborhoods young boys played soccer on the traffic-free streets.

The National Police kept a watchful eye on the tense environment. Most officers were in groups of at least four. They held shotguns at the ready.

The two-day strike was the latest challenge to Haitian President Michel Martelly, who is being pressured on a variety of fronts. Since December opposition forces have mounted a series of demonstrations calling for Martelly to schedule parliamentary and presidential elections as planned. Some protesters have called for Martelly to step down.

A small group of senators blocked efforts by Martelly in December to schedule the elections, saying the conditions the president proposed favored his government. The impasse extended past Jan. 12, the fifth anniversary of the country’s devastating earthquake. Under Haiti’s constitution, because there was no election scheduled, the Parliament dissolved that same day, meaning that Martelly could rule by decree.

Haitians who voted for Martelly in 2011 have since become disenchanted with the former carnival singer’s governing ability. They are discouraged by his arrogant comments and by his inability to deliver on campaign promises he made to help the country recover from the earthquake.

Baby Doc: Will he show up in Haitian court?

Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, shown in 2011 waving from a hotel balcony, has been ordered to court for a hearing on whether he will face charges for human rights abuses during his brutal 15-year dictatorship. (CNS photo/Retuers)

Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, shown in 2011 waving from a hotel balcony, has been ordered to court for a hearing on whether he will face charges for human rights abuses during his brutal 15-year dictatorship. (CNS photo/Retuers)

It’s still uncertain whether former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier will appear in a Haitian court tomorrow as ordered.

A judge issued the order Feb. 21 after the 61-year-old ex-dictator failed to show up in court again. Tomorrow’s hearing will determine if he should face charges for human rights abuses during his 15-year regime.

The order has fueled hope among human rights advocates and victims of brutality during Duvalier’s tenure, 1971-1986. They say it’s time that Duvalier faces justice.

The Inter Press Service news agency offers a summary of the case here.

Among average Haitians, the case has garnered scant attention. The country’s lagging recovery from the 2010 earthquake, a cholera epidemic and tropical storms that destroyed much of last year’s harvest are bigger concerns.

Duvalier became Haiti’s leader after his father, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, died in 1971, 14 years after seizing power and instituting restrictions on people’s movements while strengthening the country’s military force to enforce his edicts.

The U.S. supported the Duvaliers throughout their reign except for a short period. Last year, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Duvalier’s fate is in the hands of “the government and people” of Haiti.

UPDATED: Reuters and other news agencies reported that Duvalier appeared in court. He told Appeal Court Judge Jean-Joseph Lebrun that individual government officials “had their own authority” to act. Several people who claimed to be victims of brutality under Duvalier’s rule were satisfied that he had finally appeared in court. As the hearing continued hundreds of Duvalier supporters wearing black and red, symbolizing the old regime, shouted “Long live Duvalier.”

After two years and 7,500 dead, cholera still plagues Haiti

A demonstrator carries a sign during a protest in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Oct. 19 calling for United Nations peacekeepers to leave the country. The protest marked the second year anniversary when cholera strain was introduced into the country by Nepalese peacekeepers. The sign reads, “Justice for 7,000 dead, 500,000 others that lie down in hospital with disease outbreak.” (CNS/Swoan Parker, Reuters)

Hundreds of Haitian demonstrators took to the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, Oct. 20, calling for the United Nations to withdraw all of its troops from the country.

The vocal demonstration came days before the second anniversary of the outbreak of cholera in the Caribbean nation.

The U.N. force, known as the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti, or MINUSTAH, is widely believed to be the source of the disease.

A U.N. investigation into how the water-borne disease was introduced was inconclusive. However, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study in 2011 said U.N. soldiers from Nepal stationed in Artibonite department were the most likely source.

Established in 2004 to help the poorly equipped Haitian National Police maintain security, the size of the MINUSTAH force was increased following the January 2010 earthquake.

As of Oct. 11, Haiti’s Ministry of Public Health and Population reported 600,885 cholera cases and 7,568 deaths across the country. Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe told Reuters last month that the epidemic has been brought under control.

The U.N. Security Council Oct. 12 voted to maintain the MINUSTAH force but to reduce its number by 15 percent immediately. Full withdrawal is expected by June.

Haiti continues to struggle since the massive earthquake claimed more than 300,000 lives. The U.N. estimates that 390,000 people remain in tent camps scattered across the earthquake zone.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former President Bill Clinton visited northern Haiti Oct. 22 to help open an industrial park in Caracol, near Cap Haitien. The project represents part of the aid the United States has pledged to help the country recover from the earthquake and includes a power plant that will provide electricity to the new garment factories.

Haiti’s Parliament gets new quarters

Hundreds of thousands of Haitians who lost their homes in the 2010 earthquake continue to live in squalid tent camps. (CNS/Bob Roller)

Officials inaugurated a new building for Haiti’s Parliament yesterday, more than 15 months after an earthquake destroyed the national assembly’s headquarters.

The $700,000 prefabricated structure, built on the site of the destroyed assembly building, gives the 129 newly elected representatives a place to conduct business. Until yesterday the reps were using makeshift facilities as they coped with rebuilding the 20 percent of the country devastated in the January 2010 disaster.

During our recent visit to Haiti, photographer Bob Roller and I saw a team of construction workers hurrying to finish the building so that the new leaders would have a place to work. Reconstruction elsewhere lagged, however. Large mounds of debris and collapsed buildings were common throughout the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, and surrounding areas.

Hundreds of thousands of people remained in tent camps in parks, public land and vacant lots. People we talked with held out little hope of moving from the ragged settlements. Many rolled their eyes and smiled when asked about their choice of candidates in the election.

This morning pop singer Michel “Sweet Mickey” Martelly was confirmed as the winner of the March 20 presidential vote. He outpolled former first lady Mirlande Manigat by more than two-to-one as Haitians turned to his populist message out of frustration over the lack of progress in the rebuilding effort under outgoing President Rene Preval.

Martelly will be inaugurated May 14.

The Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, co-chaired by Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive and former U.S. President Bill Clinton, said that $1.7 billion in contributions from countries around the world has been disbursed since March 31, 2010. The money represents 37 percent of the $4.6 billion pledged during a meeting at the U.N.

The commission reports that another $1.6 billion has been committed.

Those funds are in addition to the estimated $1 billion collected for humanitarian efforts by dozens of nongovernmental organizations since the quake.

The disaster claimed more than 300,000 lives.

Haiti’s vote for president: It’s a civic duty no matter the candidates

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — When Haitians return to the polls for the final runoff for president Sunday, they will be choosing between two candidates they say don’t excite them very much.

A woman walks past a poster reminding people to vote. (CNS/Bob Roller)

It is the first election since the January 2010 earthquake devastated about 20 percent of the country, causing more than 300,000 deaths and another 300,000 injuries while leaving 1.5 million people homeless and catastrophic destruction that has barely begun to be cleared.

The candidates include former first lady Mirlande Manigat and festival singer Michel “Sweet Mickey” Martelly. They were deemed the top two finishers in the first round of voting Nov. 28 that was followed by a controversial period over who would be in the runoff. The issue led to riots and a two-month delay in the runoff.

Still, almost to a person, Haitians told Catholic News Service they will vote no matter whose names are on the ballot.

“Even when you’re skeptical you need to do your civic duty,” Carrefour businessman Laguerre Fitzgerald, 42, said before allowing himself the opportunity to criticize outgoing President Rene Preval for his lack of concrete action during his five-year term.

“I am Haitian, I will be voting,” said Lerisse Rezami, 59, as he prepared to sift crushed rubble from the quake for use in cement in Carrefour. “I am looking forward to a better future for this country. That’s why I’m voting.”

In Terrain Toto, 12 miles east of the congested capital, Auguste Marie-Sonie, 26, laughed when asked about the election, then became serious.

“The problem is most candidates, you pick them and once they get into power they forget their pledges,” she said. “I have some hope that whoever is elected will do something for the country.”

With his shaved head, Martelly calls himself “Tet Kale” (“The Bald”) on thousands of pink fliers posted everywhere in the country. He has consistently led in polls and is regarded as the favorite among working class and unemployed Haitians largely because he uses populist language to which they can relate. Critics say he has offered few specifics, however.

On the other hand, Manigat’s connections to Haiti’s business and professional communities and her role as first lady seem to place her in a position to move quickly to implement government reforms and to jump-start the reconstruction effort, supporters say. Her critics contend she is part of Haiti’s autocratic past and a part of the political system that has produced little for anyone but those at the top.

Complicating the picture is former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was whisked from office in a 2004 coup. Some believe the former populist leader, who left the Catholic priesthood to pursue political office, was forced out by Western governments who wanted someone more to their liking. He was succeeded by Preval.

Aristide may return from exile in South Africa to vote in Sunday’s election, said one source who claimed a close friendship with him.

There’s no word from the Aristide camp about his intentions other than that he wants to return to his homeland.

Despite what the candidates say, most Haitians wonder how much either candidate can do when faced with the enormous task of rebuilding what was lost in the earthquake, let alone move the country forward.

Matthew Accene, another earthquake victim from Port-au-Prince who recently was relocated to a transitional shelter in Terrain Toto, summed up the choice this way: “It’s like seeing two oranges in the market and both of them are rotten. You buy them anyway and hope one of them will be good.”

Hustle and bustle of Port-au-Prince brings sense of normalcy to Haitian capital

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Despite huge mounds of rubble where buildings once stood and an estimated 800,000 people living in overcrowded and squalid tent settlements in the most devastated parts of the city, a sense of normalcy has returned to Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital.

A woman buys produce at a market in Port-au-Prince March 11. (CNS/Bob Roller)

The evidence?

Traffic galore, streets crowded with pedestrians going about their business and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of merchants who have set up curbside shops in an effort to eke out a living.

In the weeks after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake, the congestion on the streets was seen as a good sign. It meant petroleum products were starting to get through and people were at least getting back to their routines. But one thing that was missing was the merchants.

Only a few had set up their stands selling clothing, street food, fresh fruit and vegetables, drinks, cosmetics and toiletries within a month of the magnitude 7 quake. These days, merchants seem to have taken over the every major thoroughfare as well as many side streets — some with approval of the city government and some not.

With the capacity of the Port-au-Prince government diminished by the earthquake because offices were destroyed and workers killed, there is limited ability to make sure that anyone who goes into business at least gets a cursory review. Nowadays if someone wants to make a few Haitian gourds, they simply set up a street-side shop and hope enough customers stop by to pick up their daily necessities.

To a certain extent it means the entrepreneurial spirit is strong. It means people have overcome the shock that washed over this overwhelmingly poor nation 14 months ago.

At the same time, with so many merchants trying to scratch out even a meager living, one wonders if the local economy can support so many businesses. There was only so much money in the Haitian economy before the quake. With unemployment still languishing perhaps as high as 80 percent, there’s hardly enough money percolating through the economy for all the merchants to survive.

But such is the Haitian way. It’s a society built on hope that a better day is ahead and that Haitians are willing to try anything to bring it closer.

Earthquake-damaged community in Haiti wants its own neighborhood parish

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — For a quiet neighborhood in the sprawling Delmas community of the Haitian capital, building a Catholic parish has become a top priority.

People pray during Mass on Ash Wednesday at a chapel adjacent to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption in Port-au-Prince. (CNS/Bob Roller)

Born out of last year’s earthquake, the idea is slowly gaining ground in the neighborhood known as Delmas 33. About 150 worshipers joined Msgr. Pierre Andrew Pierre for Mass yesterday and enthusiastically prayed and sang during the two-hour liturgy.

Calling their faith community St. Francis of Delmas, the members say the nearest parishes are so far away that walking takes too long. Now they gather weekly outside of a private home under a tarp to worship. The altar is under a tent. Both are put up and removed by members each week.

Rene Syriacque, one of the parish organizers, said the group began gathering for Mass five days after the quake and have been together ever since. Of course, it helps that Msgr. Pierre, who is president of the University of Notre Dame of Haiti, now lives in the neighborhood.

Msgr. Pierre, 57, lives with his parents in Delmas 33. He took up residence with them after his home in the rectory of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption was destroyed in the quake. He was just steps away from Archbishop Serge Miot when the earthquake hit. The archbishop was violently pitched over a railing and died.

“I came here as a refugee,” Msgr. Pierre said, recalling how he was pulled aside by a friend who wanted to wish him new year’s greetings seconds before the rumbling started. Otherwise he would have been on the porch as well.

It took Msgr. Pierre 45 minutes to free himself from the rubble. He brought several injured people to the neighborhood, knowing they could be treated at Matthew 25 House, a house of hospitality opened by the Parish Twinning Program of the Americas based in Nashville, Tenn.

Msgr. Pierre agreed to celebrate Mass for the area’s residents. He said was pleased to see they are working to establish their own parish.

Meanwhile, Syriacque is leading the fundraising effort for a church. She was busy selling raffle tickets after Mass yesterday. A second collection is also taken at the Masses for the church. The collection was started in November, but Syriacque was unsure how much had been collected through yesterday.

She said a committee has identified four sites on which to build the church. Now they just have to come up with enough money. But at least Mass is now close to home.