What Now in Haiti? President Preval Talks With Ray Suarez

BY Hari Sreenivasan  July 13, 2010 at 4:28 PM EDT


The temperature has been in the mid-90s, but the humidity makes it feel like it’s over 100. The sun pounds the pavement, heat radiates from the cinder block walls that push pedestrians to a narrow strip of sidewalk in most of Port au Prince. When I was here in the days after the January earthquake, people in the relief and emergency aid business looked with worry at the tent neighborhoods sprouting from every empty space across the city: If people stayed in these makeshift shelters too long, it was said, eventually they wouldn’t be so flimsy. Families that assumed they were going to live in the camps for the long haul would harden their shelters, and the camps would gradually morph into shantytowns. Today in the Haitian capital, that process is well under way. Plywood, corrugated tin, beams, pieces of old iron gates … they’ve been incorporated into the structures along with sheeting and tarps from international charities to make homes with a better chance of making it through the tropical storm season. So what now? I had a chance to conduct a one-on-one interview with Haiti’s President Rene Preval that will be shown on the Newshour broadcast Tuesday night, and available online thereafter. When the final preparations are being made for recording a conversation with a government leader, there’s often an awkward interval filled with small talk and chit-chat, a nervous leader killing time, and a reporter trying not to talk about subjects he or she wants to cover in the interview before the cameras are rolling. Language added another variable into the mix … the president understands English pretty well, and speaks it less so. I understand French pretty well, but speak it less so… and you get the idea. A prickly president had apparently been getting plenty of questions from the international press about where all the money given in the international outpouring of good will after the earthquake had gone. As we waited for the last technical adjustments to be made, the president looked at me and said, “Mr. President, can I ask you a question?” He paused, eyebrows raised, the beginning of a smile at the corners of his mouth. I took my cue. “Oh sure … please.” The President of the Republic of Haiti continued. “Mr. President, can you tell me where all the money is that you received after the earthquake? Where is the money?” I played along. “I’m still counting it,” I said. “There’s so much.” He got a kick out of that answer. But once we started the interview it became clear how much the questions about misappropriation, and about the lack of progress, had gotten under his skin. No matter what I asked President Preval, he returned to a few central themes: a) The Haitian government itself got little of the money given to help the people of his country. b) He wanted to thank the world, and at the same time remind donors that almost all of the promised and donated money was in the hands of NGOs and governments. c) The criticism of his government’s response to the crisis was not fair. What is success? One of the most depressing things I saw in Port-au-Prince back in January was a South American Red Cross outfit trying to give out family food boxes from the back of a shipping container. The camp had about 4,000 residents, and had only gotten sporadic food shipments in the weeks since the quake, and no water at all. The need was great. The supply of boxes was insufficient. The Red Cross staff was too small and the security detail nearly nonexistent. Desperate people stood patiently in a line that stretched from the entrance to the public park turned tent city, way back into the shelters. The situation could not be managed. The people were turned away and the doors to the shipping container were swung closed. That incident would not be repeated today. The systems in place for getting food, water, and medical care to the camps are so well-established that thousands have left their homes in Port-au-Prince to live in the tent cities. Structural engineers have assessed the integrity and reparability of 170,000 houses, marking them with a red, yellow, or green sign to indicate whether they need to be torn down, need some repair work, or can be lived in today. The armies of the unemployed can be seen in hardhats and matching t-shirts, taking down code red buildings in every part of the city. Schools were destroyed along with everything else back on Jan. 12. Kids were frequently hurt playing in the rubble, burned in open fires, or scalded by boiling water. Now 80 percent are back in temporary schools, some as rudimentary as a series of tarps in the courtyard of their old school buildings … but they’re there, learning, and off the capital’s rubble-strewn streets. As you create a ledger for post-quake Haiti, some credit has to be given for the things that did not happen. A number equivalent to the population of a major American city had been chased into public parks, onto highway median strips, and into vacant lots. At the time there were dire but not exaggerated predictions of widespread disease, violent crime, and an eventual uprising in the packed alleyways of improvised homes banged together from plywood and tarps. Instead the Haitian government, with the help of the United Nations, reorganized the police, still reeling from heavy losses in the quake. Medical NGOs and emergency relief organizations marched into the camps and set up clinics, hospitals, counseling services, and vaccination programs. But hey, it’s been six months If you’re sitting on your living room couch in Britain, Germany, or the United States, seeing pictures taken this week in Port-au-Prince, it doesn’t look like anything has changed. Fewer than 20,000 families have been moved to transitional housing from the tents. Only now is the interim commission set up to deal with planning and reconstruction really able to approve plans, complete contracts, and really move ahead with the rebuilding of the city. The residual mistrust of Haitian governmental bodies is hampering the allocation of resources. Realizing that rank and file citizens who texted in $10 or wrote a check would roll their eyes if the end recipient of the money was the Haitian government, governments have appropriated little of the money promised at international donor’s conferences. Haiti’s reputation for corruption, incompetence and cronyism, however richly deserved, is a severe handicap now that there’s so much work to be done and so little money to do it. Having become an “NGO Republic” in the years before the quake, Haiti is little able to call upon its own organizational resources to get the reconstruction started. Former President Bill Clinton, now co-chairman of the interim commission with Prime Minister Jean Max Bellerive, seemed well aware of this as he stepped to the microphone at a program marking six months since the quake, conducted in front of the ruins of the National Palace. He told his audience of Haitian leaders, the diplomatic corps, and the world’s press that the Preval government had taken extraordinary steps toward transparency, accounting for every penny received and spent in ways few governments would. He admonished the world not to forget Haiti, and assured people everywhere that their generous gifts would be well used. Clinton also noted that the city of Banda Aceh, swamped in the Indian Ocean tsunami and in a much richer country with an intact government, was behind where Port-au-Prince is today. In the same vein, President Preval asked me rhetorically whether the thousands who fled Hurricane Katrina had homes they could return to five years after the storm. A country with few land surveys, and little in the way of clear title now has to figure out where people can be moved and where they can’t without resorting to wholesale expropriation. New schools can’t be built until its known where the new homes will be. The health system has to be rebuilt to allow emergency aid agencies and volunteers to pull out and leave the job to Haitians. The president and prime minister have spoken publicly of the transition from the emergency phase to the reconstruction phase. They quietly acknowledge how heavily their country’s tomorrows are burdened by its pre-quake yesterdays. I’ll have more later in the week.