Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Haiti Viewpoint

So far the best thing about being in Haiti for the past few days has been the absence of any predictions of serious tropical storms despite this being the time of year for them. This is not to say that it doesn’t rain here. It does. And it happens every day at about 7 P.M. except for when the rain came pouring down in truly hard tropical style at 3 P.M. As in the U.S., it always seems to happen when people are leaving to enjoy the weekend.

I’ve begun to see even Port-au-Prince in the few days I’ve been here as we’ve driven through the city numerous times on the way to appointments, and have seen the endless Third World sights of people setting up small stands to sell anything on the street, rows of small stores, crowds of people—from tattered homeless to starched uniformed school children, and plenty of just plain squalor.

Here there are differences. Many tiny homes are made of cinder blocks rather than corrugated metal and planted almost or actually on top of each other on steep hillsides with some small degree of terracing. The gaily painted taptaps that carry most of the public around resemble the Philippine jeepneys and similar wildly colored vehicles in South Asia. As in Africa, you see many people carrying large burdens on their heads—from crocks to large containers. There are masses of people everywhere and driving is consequently wild, much like it is in large Asian cities.

I’m here on a project that is trying to improve both the caseflow management in the courts and the capacity of the system to include pretrial release of eligible defendants as a means to reduce the prison population drastically. Yesterday we visited the national penitentiary in Port-au-Prince which is everything you would expect: wildly overcrowded, without adequate sanitary fixtures, steamily hot, and totally squalid. We met the previous day with a deputy minister who seemed interested in working with us to get together a reliable database that would permit ready determination of who should be released if only because they already had been locked up for longer than the prison sentence they might eventually receive.

There is a flat plain of the city directly in the centre of the V-shaped bay that points into the heart of Port-au-Prince. North and south of the plain, the city is totally hilly with the hills seeming to achieve mountainous dimensions quickly. The elite neighborhood still above us on the hills is the suburb of Pétionville. As you drive up the hills, there are more walls along the rocky streets until it seems that all the streets are enclosed by walls. Many of the walls protect properties from view or trespass—their construction reflects the many civil uprisings over the years in Haiti. Some of the walls also resemble the urban conurbations of France, Paris especially, when homes focused on closed courtyards behind high walls.

Both the office used by the project and the apartment for scholars I’m using that the owner of both, who is a professor, lets to the project are some ways up the hills. We also are treated to traditional Haitian cuisine—this usually includes rice and beans, served separately, with the beans in some kind of sauce, plaintains, and some kind of meat, be it chicken or beef, in limited quantities. Last night we had a soup that was somewhat sweet and may have been made from cassava. You’re as likely to get spaghetti coated with a light sauce for breakfast as you are pancakes—I’ve already had both, as well all kinds of soups that are hard to identify but generally tasty. Fruit juices are common at home and on menus. My old favorite from Asia—watermelon juice—appeared yesterday. Lambi, or conch, is a local specialty commonly found on menus and not just in fancy places. And the local beer, Prestige, is excellent, as is Barbancourt, the best-known Haitian rum, especially in a rum punch.

Roads in general are poorly paved and turn to dirt and stone when you least expect it. There are craters aplenty waiting to snag your tires. We drove out of the city to visit an orphanage run by a regular interpreter for the project and passed some of the worst parts of Port-au-Prince such as Cité Soleil. The main difference is the garbage on the streets and in vacant lots and alleyways. The children seemed bright-eyed and eager to learn—the same interpreter is running a school nearby.

Many old elaborate houses and buildings remain in the city, and are often referred to as “gingerbread” for their extensive ornamentation. We lunched—very simply—near our office in the Pacot section on the veranda of the Hotel Oloffson, in its faded glory probably the finest example of this early 20th century architectural style, and which was the model for the hotel in Graham Greene’s The Comedians. My rarely-employed French has started to come back in terms of reading the relatively (compared to most American newspapers) literate dailies here, although my speaking ability remains limited and anyway, most of the population speaks Creole, which is an offshoot of French with African and native tribal influences. My capability to grasp menu French remains superb.

Pétionville is the fancy area, although many of the streets look far from luxurious. We met a local official who has been helpful in providing us with insights on the justice system at a moderately priced restaurant there and the atmosphere was French—the cuisine was a combo of French, Spanish and Italian—including the delightful outdoor dining terrace, from which others, who unlike us were not under a canopy, fled indoors when the storm hit.

As with the Philippines, the tourist business here has been knocked out by bad publicity. I won’t get to any of the old resort locales on the coasts but it seems there are as many potential hazards in many of the other still-vibrant Caribbean tourist spots. Attitudes towards Americans are mixed, based on desire to go to the U.S. and presence of relatives there, as well as the long history of American interventionism in Haiti, though few around now are likely to recall the Marine occupation of 1915 to 1934.

You see kids kicking soccer balls—the game is supreme here despite the popularity of cricket and baseball in most of the rest of the Caribbean. And even if I were still running, the hills are truly major league here.

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