Thursday 14 November 2019

The short walk that is a descent into desolation

Crossing into Haiti from the Dominican Republic, you enter a land condemned to penury a long time ago, says George Hook

George Hook

IN 1991 I was in Rhode Island coaching the Brown University rugby team. The Ivy League school was the home of the smart, the privileged and the wealthy of the United States. My open-side flanker was a young man who seemed destined to follow the family tradition of a successful career on Wall Street. Patrick chose a different path, and qualified as a schoolteacher. Last November, when I went to Haiti, I spoke to him on the telephone in Port-au-Prince, where he had established a school for children disadvantaged even by the standards of the poorest country in the western hemisphere. He lived in the capital with his wife and two children.

Since Tuesday, I have been unable to contact Patrick.

Haiti is one of two countries on the island of Hispaniola. Many Irish tourists will have visited the Dominican Republic for sun, sand and golf. Few, if any, will have made the border crossing to neighbouring Haiti. The 200-metre walk under the arch and across the bridge to the immigration hut on the other side is a descent into Dante's Inferno. Nothing prepares one for the disparity in economic conditions between the two nations.

Huge amounts of relief aid are stacked up in the Dominican Republic because the road journey to Port-au-Prince, once a tedious 10 hours, now takes double that time. In November, in the best of times, 4x4 vehicles were a necessity to travel the roads of Haiti. This is a country without power, transport or infrastructure. The pictures on TV and in the papers have concentrated on the capital, Port-au-Prince, yet the epicentre of the quake was in rural Haiti, where so far there has been no information or detail forthcoming from what must be devastated areas.

How has this come to pass?

Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King were feted as heroes of their peoples. Yet in January 1804, a mere 17 years after the American Declaration of Independence, the black slaves of Haiti revolted and declared the world's first black republic. For 150 years, they were free men while the blacks of Africa and America doffed their caps to their white masters.

France recognised the independence of the country in exchange for a payment of 150m francs, an indemnity for profits lost from the slave trade. The French abolitionist Victor Schoelcher wrote: "Imposing an indemnity on the victorious slaves was equivalent to making them pay with money that which they had already paid with their blood."

It was not until 1862 that the US acknowledged Haiti's independence. The country had become a dangerous symbol of redemption for African peoples, of racial equality and -- most unforgivable -- of anti-colonialism. Therein lay the rub. The wealthy nations were afraid that the black people of the world would get ideas above their station and pose a threat to the great colonial empires. It condemned the new nation to penury.

More then three million tourists a year visit the Dominican Republic. Tourism has created a viable economy. Haiti does not see 1 per cent of that number. I watched an embryonic tourism effort at the Citadel Milo. When I went there, I was given an ecstatic welcome by the guides who man the brightly decorated horses that are the only way to climb the steep mountainous track for the finest view of the island.

I despair of their chances of seeing a visitor in the coming months, if not years. It takes a die-hard optimist to see the bright side amid such despair.

Another Patrick -- Delatour, the tourism minister -- has endured the unthinkable in the past few days: the death of his parents, the hospitalisation of three grandchildren and the virtual destruction of the home where he lives.

Understandably there has been looting as the relief effort stalls. Port-au-Prince has never been a very safe place, and every foreign businessman was accompanied by a gun-toting security man. Kidnapping has always been a fact of life in Haiti.

"Papa Doc" Duvalier ruled as a dictator from 1957 to 1971 and instilled fear in the population, often hanging the dead bodies of his supposed enemies at the airport.

Yet like post-Communist Russia, many still mourn the loss of a strong man and there are plots to restore to power his son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, from his exile in Paris.

Amid all the despair there may be hope. I interviewed Richard Morse, leader of the band RAM, when he entertained volunteers in November. Morse, educated at Princeton, is a US citizen and comes from a wealthy family. Yet he has returned to the land of his mother to try and make a difference.

Morse and his band are famous in Haiti for their political songs and performances critical of the military junta from 1991 to 1994. In more recent years, Morse has also criticised the ruling elite through his music. In 1992, playing or singing his song Fey was banned and Morse was subjected to death threats from the regime.

In Haiti there is the tradition of dechoukaj -- the settling of scores and violence that follows the overthrow of a president. In Haitian Creole, dechoukaj means to pull a tree out of the ground, roots and all, so that it will never grow again. From this destruction there may be a hope of real change.

Meanwhile, I will keep hoping and praying that Patrick will answer his telephone.

Sunday Independent

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