What’s the matter with Haiti?
We first visited the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, via a cruise ship back in the 80’s when Baby Doc was in power. Tourism was booming in Port-au-Prince with scores of cruise ships and airlines pouring many thousands of tourists each month through the street of Port-au-Prince. We experienced excellent and enjoyable tours of the major rum factory, the art centers and heard music wafting through the streets with happy faces everywhere we looked. Little did we know about the behind-the-scenes horrors conducted by the street thugs and government-sponsored enforcers to keep the inhabitants in line and Baby Doc in power through a pattern of systematic acts of heavy repression. That pattern has continued ever since.
On our return trip, about 25 years later, we visited Port au Prince to survey the hotel situation after the very devastating earthquake that destroyed a large swath of Port au Prince and surrounding areas. Most of the streets were like the aftermath of a war where homes and businesses were nothing but empty shells. Small business like hairdressers were conducted in the roads since few wanted to venture back into homes and businesses that were still crumbling from weaknesses in the cement walls caused by the earthquake.
Currently, there are over 35 NGO’s (a number of our NGO clients included) working on more than 130 projects in Haiti attempting to put Haiti on its own feet. However, few are optimistic that positive change is occurring. 6 million of its 10.4 million people can’t afford the minimum daily calories, according to the U.N. World Food Program. Of those, 1.5 million are in urgent need of assistance, meaning they’re getting significantly less nutrition than what they need and are so underfed they become weak. That category of “severely food insecure” people has doubled in Haiti over the last six months, the agency said.
Almost every “Haitian expert” has a personal theory on why Haiti has basically fallen off the developmental and social welfare maps. These theories range from “its largely the fault of outsiders like the French who made Haiti pay onerous debts”, “the US for dictating political powers and controlling the business purses”, “the drug lords for wreaking havoc”, while other “experts” blame the harsh environment (currently the El Nino-induced drought), the UN contingent for causing the massive cholera outbreak while everyone blames the Haitian lack of effective political leadership.
We have our own theories, too. We believe that for Haiti to thrive in the later 21st Century, it first needs to find its own identity and strengths. Tourism was and, in our opinion, may be, once again, the key to Haiti’s future as a thriving Caribbean nation. Getting there is the hard part. How are the drug lords driven out? Will the Haitian talented diaspora return to Haiti to rebuild their country? How can NGO’s working in Haiti stimulate local initiatives versus creating a society of “victims” in need of, or, demanding aid? To be continued…….
Written by Bob Utne, Chairman of EWA Travel