Haiti, My First Look

One of the great bonuses of managing this current project in visiting the countries with which we my team is working. This week I expanded my Caribbean experience with an initial visit to Haiti, only hours from places I’ve visited in the Dominican Republic but a world away when considering the various hardships and setbacks the country has endured throughout history.

Tent cities still house internally displaced persons in various corners of Port Au Prince.
A tent neighborhood in Port-au-Prince, errected in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake.

The Caribbean Community Secretariat sponsors an annual Energy Week. Most countries participate and I was in Haiti to share how Worldwatch’s work dovetails with the country’s energy initiatives. Our work here is similar to what we’re doing in Jamaica and the Dominican Republic: crafting long-term plans showing how these countries can reduce their fossil fuel reliance and utilize larger amounts of renewable energy, particularly in the electricity sector.

The presidential palace is still in rough shape.

Haiti obviously faces a more difficult path forward than most. As if having been plundered and exploited by the few for over a century weren't enough, the country continues its Sisyphean efforts to rebuild after 2010’s devastating earthquake. Our driver continually wove among streets and shortcuts because some parts of major roads are still not fixed. Structures that survived the earthquake have a red “X” spray painted on them to indicate they should be razed, and a green “X” to indicate it is safe to inhabit. More than a few internal displacement camps (aka tent camps) remain as housing, rebuilding, and resettlement continue at a glacial pace.

A part of Petionville, just beyond Port au Prince.

To find poverty here is no surprise. Even before arriving, you understand it is pervasive. But its degree stings you when you see it up close for the first time. During the second day of our visit I I participated in an event in a nice park with a well-kept pavilion for such events. As I was preparing, a group of boys began pointing at me and speaking in Haitian Creole. At first I thought they wanted money, but they actually wanted the bottle of water in my hands because clean drinking water is such a scarce commodity. As I handed it to one of the boy, one of the other two began to reach in to grab it, and suddenly all three were wrestling for it. One of them emerged with it and ran off, leaving the other two behind.

This struck me as odd. It was a bottle of water. Why the instinct to simply take and run, leaving one's friends behind. At least that's what it looked like to me. But that's an easy position to take when you can simply walk ten feet and get another bottle of water. Were I in an equally desperate situation, wouldn't I default to a similar mode of basic survival? What other concepts would I toss if it meant survival? Sharing? Abundance? Generosity? This line of thinking and questioning stayed with me the remainder of the visit.

Local businesses still hustling in a difficult time.

And then, there is the other side. The more affluent side. Working professionals have their little enclaves and places to which they can escape, and we were no different. At times we ate lunch or dinner at a restaurants that not only survived the earthquake, but have thrived despite the landscape of economic difficulty surrounding them. The food of course is wonderful, and drinks flow freely at night. Haitian rum easily takes the edge off a long day. For a moment, you get a glimpse of what the city and country might be like had it not been hamstrung by an outrageous indemnity for its independence from France, a bill it only finally settled 122 years later in 1947.

The remainder of my week in Haiti was standard from a work point of view. Our hotel as overbooked, so our driver suggested staying at his friends’ bed and breakfast, which was little more than his house turned into a business to make money in lean times. But it fit the bill nicely. It had rooms for us all, a covered patio-turned-dining-room, a strained internet connection, and plenty of bottled water.

The road to our hotel. A well-worn path, but best traveled in a sturdy vehicle.

Meetings and events all had their respective glitches. My time in the region has taught me to expect them, but they are, by nature, more pronounced here. Still, the local resilience and can-do attitude is impressive. It's much better than mine. Every visit to the region reminds me just how far I have to go in developing that innate sense of perseverance.

Unfortunately, I saw little past the capital. This was not a trip for going too far afield. I suspect the beaches look the same as those on the other side of the island. (Haiti shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic.) However, I can see that deforestation has had a detrimental impact. Haitians use the wood for cooking, but they've worn the resource down to the point where only two percent of the country's forest canopy remains. Hence, strong storms usually produce tremendous landslides. Situations come in two types here: bad, and worse.

Still, we have to try and follow the advice of Saint Francis and start by doing what needs to be done. With any luck, we'll get to that part about doing what's possible.