Requiem for Port-au-Prince

Port-au-Prince before the earthquake, as described by Haitian writers and visitors to the island nation. 

Port-au-Prince bustled. The garden-filled capital city of 3 million was flocked with hills, covered in chalk-white buildings, home to palaces and slums. Tap Taps, the colorful shared taxis, ported citizens through the city, the onomatopoetic name referring to the custom of tapping coins on the side of the cab to stop it. Tourists walked through the Champ de Mars. Tiny fishing vessels filled the bay, cruise ships looming further out. For the first time in decades, Haiti was peaceful and growing, President Réné Préval well-liked internationally and at home, the economy expanding while nearly every other in the Caribbean contracted.

The day before yesterday, a high-magnitude earthquake leveled much of Port-au-Prince. Here is a remembrance of the city -- founded 260 years ago -- in the words of famed residents and visitors, including Langston Hughes, Edwidge Danticat, and former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

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From National Geographic, 1920

When one first approaches the capital of Haiti -- Port au Prince -- by sea it has a comely aspect in the daytime, with its new cathedral, with the twin cupolas, and its great mass of pink and white houses (interspersed with handsome trees) strewn over the foothills of the southern mountain range.

The city, with a population of 120,000, is at the head of a great gulf between the northern and southern arms of Haiti, which Nature had intended to be the imperial naval station of the whole world -- a region of sheltered seas, healthy climate, and shores supplied with all that man could desire in the way of wood and water and fertile soil.

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Langston Hughes, from Autobiography: I Wonder as I Wander, 1956

Haiti, land of blue sea and green hills, white fishing boats on the sea, and the hidden huts of peasants in the tall mountains. People strong, midnight black. Proud women whose arms bear burdens, whose backs are very straight. Children naked as nature. Nights full of stars, throbbing with Congo drums. At the capital lovely ladies ambergold, mulatto politicians, warehouses full of champagne, banks full of money. A surge of black peasants who live on the land, and the foam of the cultured elite in Port-au-Prince who live on the peasants.

Port-au-Prince, city of squalid huts, unattractive sheds and shops near the water front, but charming villas on the slopes that rise behind the port. A presidential palace gleaming white among palm trees with the green hills for a backdrop. A park where bands play at night. An enormous open-air market.

"Ba moi cinq cob," children beg of tourists in the street. Cinq cob means a nickel. They speak a patois French. The upper classes, educated abroad, speak the language of Paris. But I met none of the upper-class Haitians.

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Jean-Baptiste Aristide, a former Roman-Catholic priest and president of Haiti, from In the Parish of the Poor, 1990

I live in Haiti.

The other day in the midst of Port-au-Prince, the great degraded capital city that is my home, I saw a car, an old battered car, a jalopy, falter and sputter and come to a slow halt. It was out of gas; this happens often in my destitute country, where everyone and everything is so poor that the donkeys and horses are starving and even the cars must try to get by on nothing. The man who was driving the car got out and looked at it, stuck there in the middle of traffic, helpless. Then I saw another face, the passenger. A woman. She looked out of the back window with tears in her eyes, and the driver looked around the street at the unemployed loungers who are always there, and said to them, "She is going to have a baby right here." He told them that he had taken the woman from her home because the midwife was unable to help her. The pregnancy was difficult, and the woman needed to go to the hospital to have her baby. Now the tears were coming down the woman's cheeks. "If we do not get to the hospital, she will die," the man told the loungers. "Her baby will die, too."

The loungers -- hungry young men who had never had a job and who will never have a job if my country goes on as it has done for the last half century -- looked at the car and heard the man's voice and saw the woman's tears. Their backs straightened, their cigarettes fell to the ground, their eyes cleared. They approached the car, eight of them, leaned over, and put their shoulders to the chore. The driver steered. The woman lay back. Down one long dusty road, a left turn, and down another, through the green and white gates of the State Hospital, and she had arrived.

That was the force of solidarity at work, a recognition that we are all striving toward the same goal, and that goal is to go forward, to advance, to bring into this world another way of being. Even if the motor has died, even if the engine is out of gas, that new way of being can be brought into this world through solidarity.

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Lilas Desquiron, from Reflections of Loko Miwa, trans. Robin Orr Bodkin, 1990

Oh! Port-au-Prince is a monster all right -- you'll never get to know the whole story. She'll offer you her sumptuous gardens and extravagant villas. But for those of us tossed back into her seediest neighborhoods by misery, she has both the gentleness and the rage of a whore. A female city, Port-au-Prince sometimes cradles you with an extraordinary tenderness and sometimes spits in your face without your knowing why.

Tonight, as is often the case these days, the streets are deserted. Besides the streetwalkers, only some impenitent revelers dare to be out and about. The macadam resonates with the sound of heavy boots as the armed makout patrol the city. Some of them seem so feeble you have to wonder how they're able to carry around those heavy machine guns. But of all of Duvalier's henchmen they're certainly the most dangerous, however, because they've betrayed us by spreading misery beyond measure and their shame has driven them insane.

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Edwidge Danticat, from Breath, Eyes, Memory, 1994

The sun crawled across our faces as the car sped into Port-au-Prince. I had never been to the city before. Colorful boutiques with neon signs lined the street. Vans covered with pictures of flowers and horses with wings scurried up and down and made sudden stops in the middle of the boulevards.

Tante Atie gasped each time we went by a large department store or a towering hotel. She shouted the names of places that she had visited in years past.

When they were teenagers, she and my mother would save their pennies all year long so they could come to the city on Christmas Eve. They would tell my grandmother that they were traveling with one of the old peddlers, but that was never their plan. They would take a tap tap van in the afternoon so as to arrive in Port-au-Prince just as the sun was setting, and the Christmas lights were beginning to glow.

They stood outside the stores in their Sunday dresses to listen to the sounds of the toy police cars and talking dolls chattering over the festive music. They went to the Mass at the Gothic cathedral, then spent the rest of the night sitting by the fountains and gazing at the Nativity scenes on the Champs-de-Mars. They bought ice cream cones and fireworks, while young tourists offered them cigarettes for the privilege of taking their pictures. They pretended to be students at one of the gentry's universities and even went so far as describing the plush homes they lived in. The white tourists flirted with them and held their hands. They laughed at silly jokes, letting their voices rise and fall like city girls. Later they made rendezvous for the next night, which of course they never kept. Then before dawn, they took a van back home and slipped into bed before my grandmother woke up.

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Georges Anglade, Rire Haitïen (Haitian Laughter), trans. Anne Pease McConnell, 2006

Georges Anglade, a Haitian-Canadian, was a founder of the Université du Québec à Montréal and the minister of public works in the first government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. He and his wife died yesterday when their home in a suburb of Port-au-Prince collapsed.

The deforestation brigade, specially created in the engineering section of the Armed Forces and trained to use the woodcutter's mechanical saw, spread throughout the country in search of all the wooded areas that would incite an armed rebellion. This delirium of rebel invasion had reached its height at the eastern boundaries of the country, where a strip of cleared land two kilometers wide ran along the three hundred kilometers of common border with the Dominican Republic, destroying an ancient forest of millions of majestic trees. If at least these trees were falling to become love-letter paper, newspaper pages, tickets out of prison, schoolbook chapters, pages for leisurely reading, bookmarks for collections of short stories to savor one by one (between a glass of rum and a cigar)! But no, these trees were falling just to fall, in the short-sighted view of an all-powerful myopic bumping into the tree that hides the forest.

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The Ghosts of Port-au-Prince

Why is Haiti so haunted? 

Given the torrent of maladies that Haiti has suffered in recent years, it is tempting to conclude that the country lies beyond the edge of hope. Even before a massive earthquake transformed much of the capital city of Port-au-Prince into rubble, Haitians were already bound together by the shared trauma of collective memory. Ever since Haiti gained independence in 1804, the country has excelled in producing millions of refugees and at least 34 coup d'états, but it has failed to achieve even the most basic levels of economic and social development. Although much of the blame can be laid at the feet of generations of selfish Haitian leaders who cared for their power more than their people, Western countries played a crucial supporting role through battering Haiti with military interventions, unfair trade arrangements, and political isolation. During the Cold War, U.S. support for the staunchly anti-communist Duvalier regime provided succor for a noxious dictatorship.

Following Haiti's first democratic election in 1990, the country became subject to the fickle battle between the humanitarian and punitive instincts in U.S. foreign policy, as Haitian leaders were alternately cajoled and scolded, celebrated and denounced, according to Washington's whims. No single figure has so represented the bristling contradictions of modern Haiti as former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was twice ousted from power in 1991 and 2004. Aristide remains beloved and reviled, and his rule seared and perhaps betrayed the Haitian body politic like no other. Still, it remains true that his 1990 election and 1994 restoration by U.S. forces (after a 1991 coup forced him into exile for three years) remain the only two moments of national jubilation that Haiti has experienced in the past two decades. More recently, President René Préval, elected in 2006, has gradually moved the country forward, and Haiti's endemic poverty, nonexistent social safety net, and vulnerability to hurricanes and tropical storms have bent but not broken the Haitian spirit. Now faced with a disaster that appears almost apocalyptic in its magnitude, one wonders exactly how much suffering the Haitian people can reasonably be asked to bear.

Few would dispute that Haiti is one of the most troubled countries in the world, but the precise causes of its seemingly never-ending political and economic turmoil defy easy classification. Haiti is not at war with its neighbors, nor does it face a violent insurgency from within. The Haitian military, once among the most noxious armed forces in the Western Hemisphere, has been disbanded and replaced by a police force that is corrupt and incompetent, but hardly a major force for state repression. The country is frequently described as a "failed state," but it shows no signs of breaking apart into separate territories and is arguably one of the most culturally cohesive nations in the Americas. All Haitians speak the common language of Haitian Creole, and the vast majority of Haitians are of African descent. Haiti's occasional paroxysms of dramatic political violence have created the widespread impression that Haiti is an unrelentingly violent country, but, on a per capita basis, Haiti's murder rate is actually quite a bit lower than many other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Given Haiti's weak state, deeply entrenched poverty, absent social safety nets, and the prevalence of weapons flowing through the country, it is striking to note that Haiti has thus far avoided the kind of major conflagrations and mass violence that have occurred in many African countries. Haiti, for all its problems, is not the Congo, Somalia, Sudan, or Zimbabwe. The country may conjure up images of burning tires, strident protests, and political malfeasance, but there are few if any child soldiers, rogue pirates, or killing fields.

At least until Jan. 12, when the 7.0-magnitude earthquake unleashed by the callous hand of nature transformed sprawling Port-au-Prince into a city of ghosts, strewn with collapsed buildings shrouded in an eerie grey dust. In an instant, buildings turned to rubble and houses into graves. Even the confident structures that provided a veneer of authority and order to the chaos of Haitian life lay in ruins. The Hotel Christopher, which served as the command center for the 9,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force, was destroyed, adding much of its leadership to the list of possible victims. Haiti's National Palace, an absurdly beautiful and ethereal building amid the squalor of downtown Port-au-Prince, was crumpled and flattened. When President Préval was asked by CNN where he would now sleep, he stared blankly and said, "I don't know" -- experiencing, for a moment at least, the displacement and uncertainty that thousands of Haitians will face for months to come. The number of affected people might reach 3 million, nearly one-third of Haiti's population. Meanwhile, in the absence of any way of knowing, fatality estimates ricocheted across Port-au-Prince and around the globe. How many dead? The number of confirmed deaths was in the hundreds, but estimates quickly raced into the tens and then hundreds of thousands. Haitian Senator Youri Latortue ventured that half a million might have died, and in the fever dream of the moment, anything seemed possible.

Faced with such a monumental catastrophe, public officials in Haiti and abroad generally struck the right balance between words and action. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon released $10 million dollars in emergency funds. U.S. President Barack Obama mourned what he called an "especially cruel and incomprehensible" tragedy and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared, "[I]t is biblical, the tragedy that continues to daunt Haiti and the Haitian people," as the U.S. government readied urban rescue units, medical ships, and military forces to assist the country in its time of crisis. The World Bank announced $100 million in emergency grant funding, and the Inter-American Development Bank plans to redirect $90 million in funds toward Haiti. Meanwhile, ordinary Americans reached into their own pockets to donate millions more through international aid organizations.

This humanitarian impulse is laudable, and every effort should go toward saving lives that can be saved and helping Haitians through their shock, grief, and loss and toward some kind of recovery. Still, even at this early and critical stage, one can glimpse some hard questions that will linger long after this latest effort to help Haiti recover from catastrophe has vanished from the headlines. How can the international community rebuild a country that had been broken long before the earthquake arrived? And what happens when we discover that, despite our best efforts, finding a solution to the challenge of Haiti remains as elusive as ever?