Two years after quake, signs of progress in Haiti

January 11, 2012

Hope here is measured in bags of cement. Progress is a city park without a tent. The future is a bus that takes children to school without charge. Its destination, etched above the driver’s window, reads: “Dignity.”

In Haiti, two years after the worst natural disaster in a generation — made worse by a paralyzing political crisis and an imported cholera epidemic — advances are everywhere, even if they are sometimes hard to see: The neighborhood lit by yellow candles a year ago is now strung with electric lights; the road once blocked by earthquake rubble is now snarled with morning traffic.

Work crews are planting brave little palm trees on the road to the airport. The cellphone carrier is building a Marriott hotel. The South Koreans, lured by generous subsidies and tax breaks, are coming to open a garment factory and employ 20,000 people, the single-largest jobs program in Haiti in 30 years.

“Recovery is here. It is painfully slow, it is agonizing to watch, but it is recovery,” said Paul Farmer, a Harvard physician who has spent three decades in Haiti and whose group, Partners in Health, is opening a modern, 320-bed public teaching hospital an hour north of the Haitian capital.

Progress may be coming to the poorest country in the hemisphere, but it is not coming easily.

A year ago, to get anything done in Haiti, supplicants sat in frustrating meetings with foreign aid bureaucrats at the United Nations’ logistics base. Now they sit in frustrating meetings with the three-month-old Haitian government — led by the irrepressible President Michel Martelly, a political neophyte and former carnival singer once known as “Sweet Micky,” who is learning on the job.

The government is functional after a lost year that included a presidential election plagued by fraud, a chaotic runoff and a months-long brawl with opposition parties in parliament over the approval of a new prime minister.

“The best thing that has happened to Haiti is me being president,” said Martelly, who went on to explain that his government is making good on its promises, providing free schooling, building hundreds of miles of road, moving displaced people out of camps and providing loans to the poor to rebuild homes.

“We have been able to keep hope high and show people that things are changing,” Martelly said in an interview. “You can see where there were camps everywhere, now you can see kids playing in those parks. Life is coming back to normal.”

Almost a million people have moved out of the increasingly dangerous tent cities. Some were pushed. But most were pulled away by programs that offered rent subsidies or home-repair assistance.

But 500,000 people remain under tarps. About 20,000 still live in a squalid camp in downtown Port-au-Prince, their once-crisp tents, stamped USAID, now soiled gray and sagging in the heat in front of the collapsed National Palace.

Some of their kids are at least going to school. Haiti is providing free education for 900,000 children, many of whom have never been in a classroom before. The program is immensely popular, as are the free school buses.

But the government hasn’t figured out how to pay for it.

“Sweet Micky is giving them free school? I am the one who is paying for this school,” said Jean Moreno, owner and principal of the Andre Malraux primary school, who said he accepted 200 students in October and has yet to be paid, despite government promises.

The open-air school was rebuilt on rubble after the earlier structure was destroyed in the quake. There is a tin roof, an ancient blackboard, broken chairs and a latrine donated by a nongovernmental organization.

“No, no books,” Moreno said. “But we are open.”

The government plans to pay for Moreno’s school and others by taxing money transfers and international calls. But the school fund’s balance remains a mystery, and the owner of Haiti’s No. 1 cellphone provider, Digicel, says he wants an audit.

A terrifying epidemic of cholera exploded on the island in late 2010, but it is now under control. The disease was introduced into Haiti by Nepalese troops serving as U.N. peacekeepers, whose sewage ran into a nearby river in the Artibonite Valley. Hundreds of thousands of Haitians were sickened, and 7,000 died.

But after a slow-motion response, crippled by poor coordination among aid groups, the death toll is down to about 1 percent of those infected, which is in line with international standards.

Attorneys for the relatives of the dead and those sickened by the disease are seeking millions of dollars in reparations from the United Nations.

In the first year after the earthquake, Haiti was filled with urban planners who imagined broad avenues and seaside promenades rising from the slums. But those dreams of new office towers here are still just drawings on tables at architecture firms in Miami, which played an outsize role in the planning.

The rebuilding of downtown has barely begun.

But workers are busy renovating the crumbling international airport. The departure lounge is repaired, but the arrival wing remains a mess.

The 7.0-magnitude earthquake that destroyed wide swaths of the city on Jan. 12, 2010, left behind 10 million cubic meters of rubble, enough to fill a line of dump trucks stretching from Key West, Fla., to Bangor, Maine.

Half the rubble remains where it fell, much of it in dense urban neighborhoods where it is difficult to maneuver even a wheelbarrow, let alone an earthmover.

“Debris is, unfortunately, not a very sexy intervention for the donor community,” Prime Minister Garry Conille said in an interview. “Our friends in the international community would prefer to build a hospital or a school.”

The international aid group Oxfam has witnessed some progress in Haiti but declared this week that reconstruction has proceeded “at a snail’s pace.”

There is plenty of blame to spread around. The previous administration was notoriously ineffective, and donors were slow to give money to the government during a year of political chaos.

The mandate of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, led by former U.S. president Bill Clinton, has expired, and the effort left a mixed legacy. Diplomats and donors praise the commission for bringing transparency and order to the vetting process for new projects. But most Haitians — including those in power — complain that Clinton and the commission overpromised and underperformed.

Martelly’s government would like to revive the commission, but the parliament has delayed its decision because lawmakers say Haitians had little say in the commission’s decision making.

“The NGOs and international community have ruled Haiti in the past,” Martelly said. “But I will tell you today we have the right government, we want to take control, we want to identify our priorities, ourselves. We want friends and partners, but we want them to act where we want them to act.”

According to the U.N. special envoy to Haiti, donor nations have dispersed only about 53 percent of the pledged reconstruction funds in 2010 and 2011. Of the $4.5 billion promised, $2.3 billion has been delivered.

The United States is among those slow to cut checks. About $2.2 billion of the $3.1 billion committed by Washington has been dispersed. But U.S. diplomats say they will catch up in 2012.

“I’m pretty optimistic. Haiti is in a pretty good place right now, not unlike where we were before the earthquake,” when Haiti was beginning to attract the attention of investors, U.S Ambassador Kenneth Merten said in an interview.

At the moment, Haitians are so desperate for work that thousands have traveled to Brazil’s Amazon basin. Moved by their plight, Brazil said it would give them temporary work visas instead of kicking them out.

But Haiti boosters hope that the Caracol industrial park in northern Haiti, scheduled to open in March and house the South Korean textile factory, will help change the story line.

“You need job creation. You need to put money in people’s pockets and the government coffers,” Merten said. “Unless you get investment, no matter how much aid you give, it won’t be that effective over the long term.”

William Booth is The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Mexico, Los Angeles and Miami.
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