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Haiti Looks to Rebuild Shattered Government

February 4, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Haiti's leaders are turning toward rebuilding its shattered government as earthquake recovery continues. Ray Suarez reports.

JIM LEHRER: And to Haiti, where 10 American missionaries were charged with child kidnapping today. They were arrested last week as they tried to cross into the Dominican Republic with 33 children. Exactly how the prosecution will proceed isn’t clear.

But one thing is: Haiti’s judicial system, and its government, remain in ruins.

That’s the focus of Ray Suarez’s report tonight.

RAY SUAREZ: The collapsed cupola of Haiti’s presidential palace stands as a symbol of the magnitude of damage wrought on this country and its government.

PATRICK DELATOUR, minister of tourism, Haiti: Come on in.

RAY SUAREZ: Before the earthquake, Haiti’s tourism minister, Patrick Delatour, spent his days worrying about bringing cruise ships and foreign investment to his island nation. But, like millions of other Haitians, January 12 changed his life, too.

PATRICK DELATOUR: The earthquake got me five minutes from my home. As I’m pulling into my yard, I saw my house totally destroyed. And I asked, where are my grandkids? Then they were pulling them out of the rubble. Where’s my mother-in-law? I had to get into the rubble to get her out, organize for them to be safe and send to hospitals.

Then I move up to the president’s residence to start talking about rebuilding and reconstruction and what are we going to do. And that’s when he announced to me that my mother’s house was destroyed and my parents were dead.

RAY SUAREZ: With little time to mourn, Delatour, an architect by training, is now charged with planning reconstruction of Port-au-Prince and other areas leveled by the quake.

PATRICK DELATOUR: All of those activities must happen finally one with the other.

RAY SUAREZ: Among the structures reduced to rubble, 13 government ministries. This building used to house the ministries of finance and public works. Just down the street, workers sift through documents sticking out of the ruins of the tax agency, which also issued national I.D. cards, auto registration, business licenses. It’s all gone.

PATRICK DELATOUR: One of the major problems that the government faces is that every single buildings of the ministries were destroyed.

So, we had to make a decision on temporary buildings. And I can tell you, we are right now negotiating with the United Nations, with nongovernmental organizations, and friendly countries to have those tents, so that I can rebuild government institutions.

RAY SUAREZ: Already, some government agencies have set up shop under tents. The national equipment office, which manages all earth-moving vehicles, has been in full gear since the day after the quake, first removing corpses from the streets, and now hauling away debris.

Every day, hundreds pack the small flight of stairs, leading to the entrance of the office of immigration and emigration. They want passports or to replace documents lost in the earthquake.

Now an American citizen, Web Paul had been trying to get to the front of this crowd for days when we spoke with him.

WEB PAUL: I have been here since Sunday. I have been sleeping in the streets. It’s just — tired. I’m tired. I’m tired.

RAY SUAREZ: He came from his home in Pennsylvania to retrieve his 10-year-old daughter, who had been living with her mother in Port-au-Prince. When their house fell in the quake, everyone inside died, except his daughter.

WEB PAUL: Now, I can go back home if I want to, because I have got a U.S. passport, but I cannot leave her over here with two broken legs, with no family members.

RAY SUAREZ: The quake destroyed government buildings, government records, and much more. There’s still no official count of how many civil servants and police were killed.

Other government workers either fled the capital or live on the streets among the one million left homeless by the quake. The task of rebuilding Haiti’s bureaucracy is monumental.

Ken Merten is the United States ambassador to Haiti.

KENNETH MERTEN, U.S. Ambassador to Haiti: We have to remember, this is earthquake — earthquake struck at the end of a workday. So, they have a lot of people who were lost.

But the kernel of the government is still there. And, correctly, they feel that they should have the first say in how their country, A, recovers and then, B, rebuilds. The reason we’re here is to help them reassume their responsibilities as elected leaders and then to take charge.

RAY SUAREZ: The ambassador told us the Haitian government was in charge and functioning in the hours after the earthquake. The first thing the United States was asked to do was get the airport back up and running.

KENNETH MERTEN: I found the Haitians very — very businesslike in their approach to their requests with us. They were clear in what they wanted. And there was no — there were certain things that we needed in return. We need — you know, we needed to sign an agreement, for example, over where our authority is limited in — you know, at the airport.

No questions about — there was no dickering over it. It was very straightforward, done.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, more than ever, Haiti needs a functioning government to coordinate the flow of international assistance and to ensure a rebuilding effort, which has been priced at $10 billion. Haiti has a history of corruption, which President Rene Preval began to tackle before the quake. Even he admits it’s still a potential impediment to reconstruction.

RENE PREVAL, president, Haiti (through translator): We have to get out of the instability circle. If you put water into a bucket with holes, nothing will be in it. And those holes are the instability. You can put as much money as you want into Haiti, but if Haiti doesn’t have the ability to efficiently manage that money, then it will get lost.

RAY SUAREZ: Since the day after the quake, Preval hasn’t been seen much in public. He and his ministers are running the government from a shabby police station down the road from the airport.

There’s little history of trust between Haitians and their leaders. Now, for once, Delatour notes, the leaders are sharing their people’s suffering.

PATRICK DELATOUR: And the Haitian recognize that the president is in the same situation as they are. He doesn’t have a place to stay, doesn’t have a place to lead. I don’t have a place to stay. The majority of the government have not maybe their house or ministry. And they are totally aware that we’re trying to do our best. Our best might not be the solution, but, unfortunately, this is what it is.

RAY SUAREZ: That might not be enough for an increasingly frustrated Haitian people. They have begun to demonstrate against the government at food distribution points. Preval’s term is set to expire next February, and he insists the country will move forward with an election to choose his successor.

But millions of people are displaced by the quake. Most voter registrations were destroyed, making it even more challenging to pull off a free and fair election one year from now.

JIM LEHRER: And Ray Suarez is with me now.

First, welcome home, Ray.

RAY SUAREZ: Thanks, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Terrific reporting. Just that piece is another example of your great reporting. Congratulations on that.

RAY SUAREZ: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: Did you leave there with any sense of optimism that this country can, in fact, be put together again?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, I have to say, I felt worse about the prospects sort of in the middle of the reporting trip than I did toward the end. So, that’s positive movement, right?

JIM LEHRER: It is positive movement.

RAY SUAREZ: Because the enormity of what these people are dealing with is so staggering, so all-encompassing that the idea that, in two years, three years, five years, they could actually lift the country back up is — it just doesn’t seem plausible.

Yet, the tremendous strength, forbearance, patience, and ability to withstand suffering of these people just bowls you over. You couldn’t imagine it happening in other places in the world.

JIM LEHRER: Was that one of the most sustaining memories that you — that you came away from this tragedy with?

RAY SUAREZ: A good three-hour drive from Port-au-Prince, I sat with an amputee in a hospital as he described to me being loaded on the back of a flatbed truck and being driven over gravel rural roads for all those hours, his legs bashed up, his arms bashed up, bouncing around in the back of a truck.

It was as if he was describing for me a walk to the store. He lived through it. He could already see past it, and was thanking God that he was alive. I will never forget that guy.


What about some — the — some images that you come back with? When you close your eyes now and you think back on this, what do you see?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, on the grounds of the General Hospital, there were tents set up as wards for juvenile intensive care. There were young amputees…

JIM LEHRER: Juvenile intensive care?

RAY SUAREZ: Juvenile intensive care.

There were young amputees in these tents. It had to be between 95 and 100 degrees in the early evening. And I said to the medical director, when do you think you will be able to get these people out of tents and into buildings? He said, there’s room for them in buildings today. We can do that right now, but the aftershocks have scared them and their families so much that they have asked to stay out here.

It’s a remarkable thing. But, at the same time, you have got to get off that dime at some point. The inspectors have been over those buildings, have found them worthy and able to withstand further tremors. Normal has to start at some point, too.

JIM LEHRER: Just in your terms, your personal terms, what was the worst experience you had?

RAY SUAREZ: It was — it was walking through the tent settlements with people who had done a lot for themselves, but had sort of already come to the conclusion that they weren’t going to get very much help from the government.

These people were in really desperate straits.

RAY SUAREZ: They had gotten water. They had — but no food.

JIM LEHRER: No food.

RAY SUAREZ: They had to forage outside of the camps out in the rest of the city.

Here, they were, with very little security, in a situation where, if things started to go badly, the strong would start to take advantage of the weak. That hadn’t really happened so badly yet at that point, but I — knowing what they were up against, and knowing the sheer volume of work that had to be done, I can’t get those people out of my mind, because there’s a very, very bad road ahead for them, even if a lot of things work in the next couple of weeks, in the next couple of months.

JIM LEHRER: What do they look — what do they look forward to?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, there’s something called the wetting season, where, in the subtropics, there will be a few hours of rain every afternoon. If you have gone on an off-season trip to Miami or Orlando, you may be familiar with that.

It’s sunny, then torrential rains for a little while. Then it clears up. But, in those camps, where people are living right on top of each other, in homes made out of bedsheets and tarps, anything they could find in stores, there’s no sanitation facilities. There’s no running water.

The medical people we spoke with have a real fear of serious disease starting to move through those camps if people have to live in them very much longer.

JIM LEHRER: All right.

Well, again, thanks for all the great work you did. And good luck with your — with your memories

RAY SUAREZ: It was a privilege to do it, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Yes. Thank you.