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Date: Sun, 19 Mar 1995 17:42:37 -0800 (PST)
From: Bob Corbett <bcorbett@crl.com>
Subject: Recent trip to Haiti
Message-Id: <Pine.SUN.3.91.950319171909.5618C-100000@crl8.crl.com>

Report on my March 1995 trip to Haiti

By Bob Corbett <bcorbett@crl.com>

(Discussion and disagreements welcomed!)

My March, 1995 trip to Haiti was my first visit since the embargo. The strongest image I have of the end of the long embargo are the bright shinny red apples that were available in every market in the early morning sunshine. Perhaps the parallel symbol of the state of the economy was that nearly all those apples were still present in the early dusk, now dingy, dust covered and unsold.

This was also my first visit to occupied Haiti. There is no question of the strongest image I have of the occupation -- the ever present humvees, wide-bodied U.S. army vehicles that rode up and down Delmas and Ave. John Brown all day and night. In each humvee would be a standing soldier at his machine gun, a driver and several passenger soldiers, all in full battle array.

Perhaps the strongest image of public opinion were the thousands of wall slogans proclaiming, Jimmy Carter Go Home, Jimmy Cater out of Haiti, and many stronger more vulgar expressions of the same sentiment.

I've been going regularly to Haiti for the past 12 years, and have made more than 30 trips. With the rare exception of mid-1986 until November 1987, and the exception of the period of Aristide's pre-coup presidency, things always seem worse on each visit. The economy has always seemed to be in decline, the spirit of the people less hopeful, the realistic potential for positive change, less likely. This trip was no exception, and what I saw and heard was the most pitiful, sad and hopeless Haiti I'd ever seen.

Further, it is a virtually lawless Haiti. There are almost no police or Haitian military to keep any semblance of order. In the past the role of police and army was quite mixed, they being both the source of political terror and basic civil order at one and the same time. Now they are gone, with the exception of a handful who appear during the morning and evening rush hours at places like Martin Luther King and Airport Road, and Martin Luther King and Lalu, directing traffic. Petty crime is on the increase. We even heard reports of highway men shooting up busses coming from Cape Haitien to Port-au-Prince, killing people and robbing all on board.

On my last evening in Haiti a group of university students who were staying at the same guest house as me, wanted to go to the Hotel Oloffson to hear RAM perform it's wonderful music. They asked me to go since I knew the ropes of riding public transport, spoke Creole and was the sole male in the group.

We set off late, nearly 11 PM. This was not my concept of a good idea, but they hadn't been to the Oloffson nor heard RAM, and they really did want that experience. We were living off Delmas 91, and walked out to Delmas. What a shock. It was absolutely deserted. Not a human, not a vehicle in sight. We could look down Delmas all the way to the port and see nothing except a few lights of downtown Port-au-Prince. We just stood there for a few minutes, and a couple of private cars came along, but no camionettes.

This scene clearly sent a message. There was a reason that the Haitians were not out. 11 PM is certainly late, but I've been to Haiti many times when there still were quite a few people on the streets at that hour, even merchants with their candles selling various goods, especially food and drink. This experience underlined for me the sense of lawlessness and the people's response to it.

After a brief discussion, in which I didn't raise my concerns about the deserted streets, the group forged ahead despite the misgivings of a few. We started walking up Delmas toward the Petionville Square, thinking we might find a camionette, or at least a couple of cabs. There were about 8 of us. The sheer number of us did lend some sense of safety.

The 20 minute walk up was quiet. We did pass a few younger fellows on the street and a few more cars came along. U.N. observers passed us on their regular patrols and even circled back a couple of times to eye us up, probably wondering what in the hell these 8 foreigners were doing walking up Delmas at this hour.

The Petionville Square was nearly deserted, though there were a few people hanging about, but no public transportation. While we were there a trio of humvees came along, the soldiers gaping at this collection of Americans. The students discussed trying to find a discotheque in Petionville. However, several of them were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the stillness of the evening. I certainly did not want to go to any bar or discotheque, and was happy when the concerned students won out and we headed back down to our house.

Another sense I gathered on this trip was the economic desperation of the people. I will be doing a much longer piece on the development projects which PEOPLE TO PEOPLE, INC. sponsor and my meetings with the leaders. However, I want to note here that a regular report was how terribly difficult it is to make a living in Haiti these days, even though the embargo is over. Several of our groups who had always done well in the past have seen their projects fall into grave difficulties. Others, while surviving and even advancing a bit, reported to me that these projects alone kept them alive and eating during the hardships of the embargo.

Things didn't appear too much different in downtown Port-au-Prince. I had read a great deal in the newspapers about how the people were cleaning up for Aristide's return. That spirit must be totally dead at this point. The streets are heaped with trash and garbage, and crumbling into dirt roads rather than remaining as paved streets. One sight never seems to change since my first days in Haiti. On the streets of downtown Port-au-Prince there seem to be thousands of people SELLING and very few buying.

I had expected that the presence of so many U.S. military would provide a boon in the tourist sorts of goods and trade. But, it seems there is a rather strict policy of keeping the U.S. military folks away from the Haitians when they are not on duty. I did see one small group having a few drinks at a hotel, but virtually no other off-duty U.S. soldiers were anywhere to be seen.

Another aspect of the lawlessness of the times are the myriad unliscense public vehicles. In the past the chauffeurs and police seemed to keep a rather tight lid on the nature of vehicles plying Delmas and Ave. John Brown. Now there are dozens of sorts of vehicles, open backed pick-up trucks, huge school busses and smaller cars which are running as public transportation. Even so, there is a much greater demand for places than the sum of all the vehicles can provide. The current rates are:

taptaps: 1.25 goud
camionettes: 2.50 goud
local cabs: 4.00 goud

The American dollar was bringing 1.85% on the streets. But, one MAJOR change was that the money changers are being attacked much more often now. I had one report that the day before I went to an INDOOR source to change money (for a lesser rate) that two money changers and one passer-by had been shot on Rue Pavee in the day time. Despite the attractive rates of exchange, I elected for the safer, but less lucrative method of changing money with a merchant in the relative safety of his store.

Not everything is bleak. The daytime streets still bustle with the vibrant life that so many of us love in Haiti. The sidewalk cafes along Champs-de-Mars are booming, and I ate a few delicious chicken creole lunches there, including the full joys of fried plantains, lettuce and tomato salad and diri ak pwa. The students are in school, uniforms dominating the mid-day rush hour. Merchants hawk every imaginable good, and the traffic is simply astonishing, often taking me two hours to go from downtown (near the palace) back up to Delmas 91 in the evening hours. The waits to find a place on a taptap or camionette try one's patience.

Overall, I get the strong sense of a great lack of hope. It's as though the nation is simply sitting, waiting. Waiting until the U.S. and then U.N. leave Haiti in order to see what will happen. There is a general sense that the forces of repression have hidden a great portion of their weapons and mainly gone underground to wait out the occupation, and then the genuine struggle for Haiti will begin again after the foreigners leave.

I can't imagine that the foreigners could really do much to put so-called democratic institutions in place. The primary reason is that the U.S. has no WILL to do so, but even were they to have such will, it doesn't seem to me that it could possibly be done. It wasn't achieved in the first occupation, won't be in this one or any that follows.

The Haitian tragedy -- and it is a genuine tragedy of human suffering, injustice, torture, misery and plain inhumanity of humans against humans -- must be solved by Haitians. It seems to me that the progressive forces in Haiti, with Aristide as their figurehead and the ti legliz movement of the past 20 years as the motor, have made significant gains.

However, I for one do not believe from my experience in Haiti that the final victory of the progressive pro-democracy groups can be achieved without the force of arms. The progressive forces seem to reject the use of arms, both as a violation of their principles as well as deeming it impractical.

Such a rejection by the progressives of armed revolution may well be a beautiful and attractive principle, and certainly in the short term, seems the right practical decision. But I cannot see the long-term achievement of justice, personal security and economic stability coming to Haiti without the forces of arms enforcing them.

So is it safe for foreigners to visit Haiti today? I would think that depends on what one does. Were one to visit the capital and not spend much time out after about 8 PM in the evening, then I think it's relatively safe, not as safe as it was before the occupation, but still, not an undue risk. However, if one is planning to travel out of the capital and take road trips to OKap or Jeremie, especially if one is traveling on public transportation, (which was where the rumored attacks occurred) then I would think it is less safe.

I was off each day in the morning and didn't get back to the house until after dark most days. I had no trouble at all, and didn't personally witness any violence of any sort whatsoever. I was riding on public transportation and walking.

There probably is a special safety factor for foreigners at this time. The forces of violence and crime in Haiti are not anxious to tweak the foreign military forces in Haiti, and those forces seem most concerned that foreigners, and especially their own members, not be harmed. That attitude does lend a bit of a safety factor for foreign visitors, a factor that is not shared by Haitian citizens.