2011 - %3, January

Clinton, Ninjas, and Protests: Snapshots Of Haiti

| Wed Jan. 12, 2011 4:21 PM EST

Today's the one-year anniversary of the Haitian earthquake. Here are some scenes from my first few days back in the country reporting on its post-quake progress—and lack of it. (For more pix as they happen, follow me on Twitter.)

Photos by Mac McClelland

Big Bill Clinton fans at a Port-au-Prince demonstration today.

 

Protesters just spray painted the shit out of this Red Cross car.

 

Nobody knows how many thousands of bodies were dumped in these mass graves, but these dusty gravel lots are massive. They've set up crosses here so officials can hang wreaths on them.

 

And hello, former president Clinton!

 

There's a lot of people remembering the dead outside the busted cathedral. They're praying. The chant is, "I have no job. I can't pay the rent. I need some money."

 

There's a porn theater in this Port-au-Prince tent city. The 20-year old who runs it charges 25 cents per person to watch movies on a wooden bench in the tent.

 

Actually, they also sometimes show movies about ninjas.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Rebuilding Haiti for the Rich

| Tue Jan. 11, 2011 7:00 AM EST

"My buddy who's in town with Fox wants to know why Haiti looks exactly the same as after the quake," my Haitian friend texted me the other day. My driver, Sam, has expressed a similar assessment about the lack of progress. But driving around Port-au-Prince today, there was all sorts of rebuilding under way.

Take, for example, Fort National, an area that's a little ways up a hill and is covered with destroyed structures: crumbling cement-block frames, exposed rebar. The government announced on TV the other day that they're launching a giant rebuilding project, lots of apartments you can move into and rent to own. The pictures of what it will all look like when it's done are very impressive. But they haven't started yet.

Okay. A better example is the First National City Bank, a giant ruined structure that used to take up a corner of a busy intersection but is now an almost entirely cleared lot. A Caterpillar bulldozer breaks up the remaining large pieces, with about half a dozen construction workers and 10 scrappers to every one of them. The workers destroy another chunk; the scrappers swarm quickly with saws and little sledgehammers to pull out sellable bits in a chaos of dust and sharp edges. Makelo, a 29-year-old with an armful of rebar, says he makes way more money—several hundred dollars a week—than he did before the quake, when he sold charcoal.

Our conversation halts when a fight breaks out among some scrappers, who are pushing and shoving over a newly smashed, potentially lucrative block of building, and the workers start pushing and shoving them away from the lot. "We shoo them away because this equipment is dangerous and sometimes people get hurt or killed," says Etienne, the 28-year-old site manager. "They shoo them away because they want to keep the good scraps to themselves," Sam says. There is fresh blood on the ground near my left foot.

Nearby, workers are filling in the concrete frame of a big building their boss says will be done later this month. Three apartments on top, several storefronts on the bottom. What stood here before has been completely demolished, and they've been working on this for a couple of months. It's supposed to be done at the end of the month, at a total cost of about $70,000. A little further up some winding roads beyond the heaviest bustle of the city, in Vivy Mitchell, there are crews everywhere, too. Fixing stone walls around recently fixed houses, building a house where a broken house was just torn down.

"People have started reconstructing themselves lately," Sam allows once when I keep commenting that many are definitely hard at work on rebuilding, though usually he responds, "There are many more to be rebuilt," or "This is only a few." "Everyone was waiting for the government to do something, and now it's been so long they know the government isn't going to help them, so they are doing it themselves," he says, although he adds, "Only people who have the money."

The prevalence of rich people's development versus the total lack of it for the poor is pointed out to me again later. In response to my description of what I saw, even a wealthy person at my hotel gives me the kind of look that one might level at a particularly disappointing child. "That's all private-sector rebuilding," he says. "That's to be expected." And you cannot, and would not ever, deny that the work needs to be bigger and harder and faster. There are still a million people in tent camps.

"Still, it looks better than it did in September," I say.

"Of course it's better!" Sam says. "There's hope. Every day, the more time that passes after the earthquake, the people have a little bit more hope."

In Search of Progress in Haiti

| Mon Jan. 10, 2011 7:00 AM EST

This week (or Wednesday, to be specific) is the one-year anniversary of the Haitian earthquake. As it turns out, there's less media in Port-au-Prince than everyone had been expecting. There were indeed CNN cameramen on our flight, and there's more press than on maybe any given Sunday, but it's not exactly a circus. Our popular hotel seems half-deserted. As in, my photographer (MoJo photo editor Mark Murrmann) and I met with our new driver today, and he said many of the fixers are looking for work, calling each other, saying, Where are the reporters? Where's the work at? Does anyone know any reporters who need drivers?

And there's all sorts of events for us, like a soccer match played between two teams of amputees tomorrow, and the launching, finally, of some government housing projects, and junkets coordinated by what the long-embedded press agrees is a veritable army of PR consultants hired for the anniversary. 

So what am I doing in Haiti? We'll see, but possibly some follow-up on whatever happened to the aid dollars Americans pledged last year. (A lot of those dollars went to organizations spearheaded by Bill Clinton, who is also the cochair of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission. But he was appointed under outgoing President René Preval, and there's a new election soon, and Clinton isn't a Haitian, so Haitians could see to his forced uninvolvement if they see fit. "We could fuck him so good..." says a wealthy Haitian drinking at the hotel bar.) Possibly some check-in with the underresourced rape survivors mightily battling the stupendous prevalence of sexual violence, which has actually gotten worse since the quake, but has long been a staple of Haitian society. (We had not even left the airport when I ran into a shady guy who threatened me last time I was here. And had only just been delivered our dinner at the hotel restaurant when a patron sat down with us to explain to my photographer that if you lost your erection while trying to rape a woman, you'd have to resort to violating her with a bottle, or a piece of wood, or maybe even a penwhich he helpfully pulled out of his pocket for demonstrative purposesat which point Mark promptly slid his tumbler full of white rum under my face, which had surely gone tight with horror.) Probably we'll spend a little time with some construction crews picking up the pieces of the destruction that are still everywhere. And definitely we'll be on top of the results of the election commission, which is supposed to announce its investigation into fraud during November's race, which may result in widespread riots

Bottom line is, we'll be looking into some of the aspects of progress over the last year. Though as we found out today, the usage of that noun is, incidentally, completely hilarious in post-quake Haiti. As in:

Photographer [to Haitian-born driver who wants to know why we're here]: You know, we're looking at various kinds of progress since the earthquake

Driver: Progress! Ha ha ha ha ha ha...

Photographer and I: Ha ha ha ha ha ha. Sorry. Well, you know...

Yeah. 

A (Too) Small Victory for Gay Ugandans

| Fri Jan. 7, 2011 12:10 PM EST

Oh, man, I am so glad I didn't wake up this morning to find my face on the cover of a newspaper under a headline that I should be lynched.

Hopefully gay Ugandans will soon enjoy that same relief. Earlier this week, a court in Kampala ruled that the Ugandan newspaper Rolling Stone (no relation to, you know, Rolling Stone) can no longer publish the photos, names, and addresses of "Top Homos" under the banner "HANG THEM" after three such alleged homos filed suit for pain and mental anguish. (The identity "leaks" also caused several physical attacks last year.) Rolling Stone's editor has promised to appeal the ruling. And regardless of whether it stands, gay Ugandans are still subject to serving up to 14 years in prison for trying to steal innocent straight children from schools, or whatever it is gay people do. The Anti-Homosexuality Bill that caused such a stir last year for proposing that homosexuality be punishable by death has been watered down (to life imprisonment) and tabled for the moment. But rumor has it that it'll be back on the parliament's agenda after elections in February.

So, one victory but still "a long way to go," as one Ugandan activist points out: "It is still impossible for LGBT people in Uganda to freely be who they are and develop meaningful lives. The fear for life continues."

Sexual Harassment and Other Occupational Hazards

| Wed Jan. 5, 2011 1:00 PM EST

In my article about Haiti in the current issue, I mention how I was sexually threatened by a man whose job was to drive me around. Though that was the worst/most egregious instance, it wasn't the first time something like that happened in my five months on assignment last year, nor was it the last time on that trip to Haiti. Two nights before I left, an argument outside my hotel about my refusal to sleep with another man who was in my employ turned ugly enough that I ultimately begged protection from a passing patron carrying a gun. And as Judith Matloff explains in this excellent 2007 article from the Columbia Journalism Review, this kind of stuff happens to lady-reporters all the time.

Which is obviously horrible. But additionally horrible, and less obvious, is that however common it is for correspondents to be sexually harassed, threatened, or assaulted, it's hardly ever talked about. Reporters themselves often fail to bring it up: You don't want to make it sound like you can't handle your assignment, or, worse, your job in general, especially given the difficulty of avoiding perpetrators, who are often men you are paying to assist or protect you and the only people you know in a foreign country—translators, drivers, guards.

And the journalism institution isn't helping to facilitate the dialogue. There are, as Matloff points out, some unforgivable industry oversights, like "no sections on sexual harassment and assault in the leading handbooks on journalistic safety, by the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists."

Read the article.

No Haiti, No Louisiana Purchase

| Mon Jan. 3, 2011 7:00 AM EST

When I was in Haiti this fall, a leader of PAPDA, the grassroots Haitian Platform to Advocate Alternative Development, got a little pissed at me. During an interview across a stately wooden table in PAPDA's quiet, clean office, Ricot Jean-Pierre raged against the thousands of NGOs that are  ostensibly helping Haitians but, in his opinion, more often helping themselves. Haitians need to get control of the recovery process, he explained, get fired up, take back their country from the Americans and the UN and all the other self-serving interfering foreign powers.

This is where our rift occurred. The 12,000 troops running Haiti's streets are from the UN; the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission is co-chaired by Bill Clinton—whom, as Jean-Pierre himself had just reminded me, locals often call the governor or president of Haiti. So I asked Jean-Pierre, gently but a little skeptically, if he thought his foreigner-ousting goal was realistic.

He was instantly agitated. And he reminded me, not so gently, that Haitians OVERTHREW THE FRENCH.

The rebellion of Saint-Domingue, as the French colony was called back then, started on an August night in 1791 when slaves set fires and massacred ruling whites. It took 12 years, but after the defeat of plantation owners, and local French troops, then an army of Spaniards, a British invasion, and ultimately Napoleon's army in 1803, the Republic of Haiti was born. It was the most successful slave revolt in history. It created the first independent state in Latin America, and the first black-led nation in the world. As a footnote, it also helped ensure the survival of another fledgling republic: the United States.

How? Well for starters there may not have even been a United States to save by 1803 had Haiti not been such a fabulously profitable colony. French aid to America's revolutionaries was delivered not only because they wanted to stick it to the British, but also to protect Saint-Domingue, which provided 40 percent of the world's sugar. The treaty of alliance between America's Continental Congress and France explicitly stated that the US would help them do so. Haiti was also a critical way station for French naval assistance and weapons smuggled to US rebels, including dozens of French ships and thousands of French troops that helped take Savannah.

However when, in 1802, the United States found out Spain secretly ceeded the Lousiana Territory to France, an alarmed Thomas Jefferson wrote of our erstwhile allies: "There is on the globe, one spot the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy. It is New Orleans, through which the produce of three-eighths of our territory must pass to market. The day that France takes possession of New Orleans...we must marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation."

Napoleon, meanwhile, needed to quell the Haitian rebellion to keep sugar profits flowing and maintain a foothold in the New World. He wanted to invade England. He even had an eye on invading the American mainland to assert control over the Louisiana Territory. But without Haiti as a base, that was going to be tough. And who needed the port of New Orleans if France didn't have to supply or defend a Caribbean colony? By the spring of 1803, French victory in Haiti was looking less likely. Napoleon didn't need the Gulf Coast, and didn't have the troops to spare on it, either; the war for Haiti had taken out more than 40,000 French soldiers. What he did need was money to fund his war against England. And so the historic deal was struck. We got 828,800 square acres and control of the Mississippi for $219 million in today's dollars. Not bad.


There's of course a lot of sociogeographipolitical context surrounding the fall of France's New World empire. The above version is oversimplified. But, with apologies to Ricot Jean-Pierre, let me never imply again that Haitians don't have a history of radically altering history despite the interference of the world's superpowers. As one historian wrote, "Napoleon's decision to divest himself of his North American ambitions was not due to one or two factors, but was rather part of a complex calculus. Timing, shifting circumstances, and his own ambitions had as much to do with his decision to sell the Louisiana Territory as did Haiti's victory over France. However, it is undoubtedly true that rebel army's stubborn resistance combined with [the French commander in Haiti's] losses in men and materiel would force the First Consul's hand, and this fact would forever alter America's destiny."

Read my feature on Haiti's reconstruction hell and a photo essay on its tent cities.